Continuing each week another excerpt from my 2001 book Hoover’s Vision, which is available in a slightly expanded version at www.scribd.com — just look for The Art of Enterprise by Gary Hoover!
Physical Geography and Human Geography
Human geography is rooted in physical geography—mountains, deserts, lakes, forests, climate, minerals, and all the other elements that make up the geography you studied in school. This first level of geography is critically important and we must not forget it. My home city of Austin, Texas, has been enjoying an economic boom for many years. People usually explain that boom in terms of the University of Texas and the high-tech industries it spawned. Too often they forget the sunny hills that were here long before mankind; they forget the chain of lakes deliberately constructed here by politicians like Sam Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson. Without the picturesque hills and the opportunities for water sports provided by the lakes, Austin would not have attracted so many migrants. The modern Austin, high-tech capital, has been built upon an advantageous physical base.
At the same time, Austin would have never made it without a critical technological innovation – not the computer chip, but air-conditioning. It’s no coincidence that the American Sunbelt was an economically underdeveloped region until well into the twentieth century, and that it has blossomed as a home to industry, technology, and academia only since the arrival of “refrigerated air.”
But while not ignoring physical geography, most of the geography that leaders of enterprises need to be aware of is the geography of people – human geography. Where did the blues come from? What sports are played where? What products are made where? Where do people talk fast and walk fast? Why do people, industries, and enterprises reside where they do, where are they moving from and moving to? Where are the customers? What languages are spoken there, and how is all of this changing over time?
Americans Weak on Geography
Although geography is a more important subject than it ever has been, our knowledge of geography has gotten worse—especially here in the US. Our ignorance of geography puts Americans at a competitive disadvantage. Go into a US bookstore and try to find a geography section. Other than a few books about oceans and volcanoes, you’ll probably come up empty. Compare this to the bookstores of Canada and Britain, where (perhaps as a vestige of their once-proud empire) they still care about geography.
Most Americans know very little about faraway places. Take China as an example. In 1830, China represented an estimated 30% of the world’s economy. Under Mao, that fell to only 5%. Today the figure is closer to 10%. Yet it’s clear that, in the new century, nothing will stop the rise of China to become the world’s largest economy. Even their government can only accelerate or retard the process. If you are starting a company today which has a long growth curve, your best years may be ten to twenty years in the future. Within that time frame, the importance of China will rise dramatically. It will change the lives of many of us. It will certainly change our travel patterns. And yet we know so little about this giant nation.
The largest state in the US is California, with a population of 33.9 million people (based on the 2000 Census). But if California were a province in China, it would rank nineteenth in population. Do you know the names of the eighteen larger provinces? I certainly don’t. And yet millions of Chinese know the names of our states; they’ve heard of New York, California, and Texas. They even know one of our zip codes – 90210. This one-directional understanding isn’t sufficient, and it will not survive. Trade connects us with the rest of the world, and awareness and understanding must rise in parallel.
As Americans, we have to work harder than others around the world in order to achieve good geographical understanding. There are many reasons. We’re isolated from much of the world by two lovely oceans that serve as buffers. We have our own huge country that is wonderful for traveling, with the result that fewer than 10% of Americans have a passport to see the rest of the world. Our newspapers and broadcast news sources overflow with domestic news; we cover the rest of the world only when there is an earth-shattering event or a dramatic catastrophe. Anything less than 3,000 people killed in a flood in India is considered unimportant compared to one child stuck in a well in our own state.
A good place to begin a better understanding is by looking at our two closest neighbors. In 2000, Mexico held a presidential election that may well have been the most important North American election in fifty years. Yet few in the US paid much attention. The night before the voting, Larry King Live, our nation’s most important political interview TV program, featured yet another discussion of the Jon Benet Ramsay murder case. Most Americans think of Mexico as a beach resort. That may be adequate—unless you are leading an enterprise in the twenty-first century, looking for new ideas, new employees, new customers.
Americans tend to think of Canada as our economic “little brother,” rather than as one of the world’s most advanced urban cultures with a remarkably high level of successful cultural diversity and integration. Canada is one of the world’s largest and most powerful economies, and Mexico has the chance to become another. Few things would be better for the United States.
Many times, our lack of geographic understanding includes our own country. We all know New Yorkers who have never been to the Statue of Liberty, Californians who have never seen the redwoods, Texans who have never been to the Big Bend.