Physical Environment


Dozens of issues populate the Global Issues Matrix. There are myriad interrelationships among them. The issues have been grouped into seven major headings. Below are global issues under the general heading of Physical Environment, with comments on their characteristics and relationships. Natural phenomena have local presence, but frequently also have international implications.


Industrialization in Western countries brought great wealth, but also serious pollution. Air, land, and water have been fouled by emissions from factories and run-off from farmland. The West has grown concerned about unsafe air and water and unproductive land, and now promotes “green” practices to slow further pollution and ultimately reverse some of the damage. The West seeks to impose environmental rules on developed and developing countries alike. Developing countries accuse the West of hypocrisy for denying them the means to provide their populations with the jobs and products that will improve their standard of living. It is unfair, they say, to demand that they limit their growth in order to solve problems that developed countries caused.


Climate Variability – A recent story told of several countries displaying their military power to establish a presence in the Arctic. Climate change in the Arctic is making it possible to drill for oil and gas in previously inaccessible areas. The USGS estimates that 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil, and 30 percent of its untapped natural gas, are in the Arctic. With new sources of energy on every country’s wish list, a new source will impact energy prices, as well as environmental protection issues, employment, balance of payments in international trade, infrastructure, transportation, and all the issues related to these.


A more common problem blamed on climate variability is crop failure. Long-term drought ultimately impacts populations dependent on food they grow for consumption or sale. Eventually these people are forced to migrate to more hospitable climates. They are sometimes referred to as “climate refugees,” and their numbers are increasing.


Geography – The variation of physical characteristics on the Earth’s surface go a long way toward explaining cultural and economic differences among the Earth’s peoples. Variability in elevation and topography, climate and weather, waterways and drainage, vegetation, natural resources, and coastline, or lack thereof, determine the range of possibilities that human activity can accomplish. How regions relate spatially to one another either enables or hinders the movement of people and goods among them.


Lower transportation costs for coastal locations favor trading. Land-locked areas, such as much of Africa, inhibit economic development. Additional geographical features working against African populations are limited agricultural productivity of land, low rainfall, drought, hot climate, and disease.


Much about the successful development of the United States can be attributed to geographical advantages. Its security was enhanced by having oceans on two sides. Thousands of miles of navigable waterways facilitated transportation and communication, both internally and internationally. Natural resources and agricultural productivity supplied not only a growing population but also supported international trade.


Infrastructure – Economic development depends on roads, rail, ports, water supply, and electricity, as well as an educated work force. The quality of these elements of infrastructure will determine how well a country can compete in international trade. Infrastructure impacts, and can change, the course of international trade, as illustrated by Panama’s doubling the capacity of the Panama Canal. The increased capacity will facilitate the passage of larger, more efficient cargo ships from Asia to the gulf and east coast ports of the United States, drawing traffic away from west coast ports that require trans-shipment of imports by road or rail to population centers in the eastern half of the U.S.


Lack of transportation infrastructure is an impediment to economic development of coastal and interior portions of Africa. Marketable natural resources cannot reach potential customers. Farm produce cannot readily reach a hungry population. And the development of competitive industries in international trade requires both physical and social/cultural infrastructure improvements. The Program for Infrastructure Development in Africa (PIDA) estimates that the needed development of highways, railways, port capacities, power generating capacity, and power lines will require funding of $360 billion by 2040.


Natural Disasters – There is no question that many natural disasters, though localized, reverberate globally. The earthquake and tsunami that struck northeastern Japan in March 2011, along with bringing into question the safety of nuclear energy, disrupted production of automobiles and auto parts. With auto manufacturing involving assembly of parts from multiple countries, final assembly of Japanese brands in plants in the U.S. and elsewhere slowed or halted, idling widely dispersed workers.


A volcanic eruption in Iceland in April 2010 spewed smoke and ash in a seven mile high plume, which drifted over Europe. Air traffic across the continent came to a near standstill and 102,000 flights were cancelled over a week’s time. Aside from inconveniencing travelers, world trade in small, high-value goods and perishables was disrupted. Fresh flowers from Kenya, fish from the Middle East, and diamond shipments to India were impacted. Drought and fires destroyed much of Russia’s grain crops in July 2012, causing Russia to ban exporting of grain. Worldwide wheat prices soared and prices of other crops rose sharply.


Natural Resources –   Natural resources are unevenly distributed throughout the earth. Their existence partially explains why some areas were colonized. Ease of access, underdevelopment, and weak indigenous populations provided opportunities for colonial powers to expand their empires.


Historically, development occurred where resources were accessible. Rivers provided both water supplies and transportation corridors. Where rivers could be manipulated, falling water provided the power to turn mill wheels and, later, hydroelectric power generators. Geography determined the ability to grow crops, and imposed natural limits on the size of the population that could be served.


Many African countries have experienced the so-called “Resource Curse.” Despotic governments have kept the large income from selling resources for the benefit of the elite, leaving most of the population living in poverty in the midst of abundant natural resources. “Blood diamonds” are an example of this corruption. Oil-rich countries of the Middle East and Africa have more often than not been ruled by one man or family for decades. When a single natural resource, such as diamonds, dominates an economy, other sectors of the national economy cannot compete and wither, leaving the country subject to the volatility of the market for the one resource.


Transportation – Globalization involves the free flow of goods and people. Transportation is essential to participation in this exchange. And the cost of participation is quite high. Roads, rail lines, seaports, and airports cost millions of dollars, money that is not available to many developing countries. So poor, rural populations, are effectively denied the opportunity to join the international labor force. Non-participation also prohibits the population from improving their productivity and quality of life that would come with the goods and services available through international trade.


Farming and fishing are common sources of income for rural poor. Small-scale producers have limited markets for their products due to high transportation costs. Improved roads and transportation systems not only expand the range of accessible markets, but also increase opportunities for rural populations to diversify the products they have to sell.


Water Supply – Water has always been a key element in the establishment of human settlement. First for human consumption, waterways also served as early transportation corridors. Falling water provided energy for milling, and ultimately industry became a major consumer of water. Not surprisingly, existence of water is considered the single determinant in assessing whether distant planets may have supported life.


It is no coincidence that shortages of clean, reliable drinking water occur in countries with the least developed government structures. Afghanistan, Somalia, and Ethiopia, for examples, lack the high level of government organization necessary to locate, tap, clean, and transport water for human consumption as well as industrial uses. Conversely, reliable water supplies are taken for granted in developed countries.


Even in developed countries, water supplies at times become overused and incapable of satisfying demand. Human consumption, farming and livestock, and industry use increase over time until demand outstrips supply. The U.S. Southwest faces such challenges, causing governments to regulate water usage as various jurisdictions compete for limited supplies. Pollution, as well as depletion, threatens water supplies, as chemical and oil spills, pesticides and herbicides foul water supplies.

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