Monday, June 21, 2010

Geography-Impaired Tourists

For decades we have marveled at the unmitigated gall of tourism promoters who seek to sacrifice public education to their lust for profits. This often takes the form of urgings to shorten the school year so more time will be left for tourist vacations -- and spending money.

"This is the single biggest issue since I've been in the business," a Virginia resort owner was quoted recently as saying.

Often, chamber of commerce types cynically dress their greed in a "family values" argument. 'Less school time for children means more family time,' they claim.

What a hoot. Lesson learned: it's not only hypocritical politicians who use the magic phrase "family values" to turn off our brains and stop us from thinking. As one geography professor who has been waging war against geographical ignorance for a long time wrote three years ago:
Myriad polls and surveys leave no doubt that Americans are among the most geographically illiterate of all developed societies. The ranks of Americans who have ever taken a geography class in high school or university are small. Indeed, an entire generation of business executives, politicians, policy makers, captains of industry, and movers and shakers has grown up with nary a hint of geographic literacy on their résumés.
In another of his articles on the same subject, Prof. David J. Keeling of Western Kentucky University added that as a people we are ignorant even about the subject of "geography" itself. "Global literacy is more about understanding and explaining geographic or spatial interrelationships than it is about basic location or collections of isolated facts."

The BP oil spill could be bringing all of those dumb chickens home to roost. Many tourists have no real understanding about "geographic or spatial interrelationships." Tourism officials in Florida are chafing under that reality, now.

To someone, say from Peoria or Wichita Falls, all of Florida seems pretty much a singular point on the map. Headlines like 'Oil despoils Florida beaches' and 'Pensacola Beach is in Florida' is all they know. Consequently, many are making plans to vacation almost anywhere other than a beach this summer.

Before you feel too sorry for Florida's official tourism promoters, contemplate this: they may be just as geographically stupid as your average American. It's becoming clear that the state-sponsored (and, now, partially BP subsidized) tourist promotion response in Florida is to emphasize the absence of oil on South Florida beaches even as they claim in virtually the same breath that "five inch-sized tar balls continue to be found in Northwest Florida."

The irony here is that state officials seem to be as ignorant about Northwest Florida geography as the average American is of broader state geography. To date, in fact, little of the oil has visibly befouled the shores along Pensacola Beach itself. While we have personally seen a "five inch-sized tarball" west of Ft. Pickens at the end of the island, the impression left by the current "Visit Florida" web site is that they are everywhere in Northwest Florida. That simply is untrue.

The public beach at the commercial core of Pensacola Beach, locally known as "Casino Beach," has been almost completely free of visible oil for more than two months. Yet few outside the immediate area realize this.

It's true that condition could change at any time, and almost assuredly will at some point. Potential visitors need to do their homework before finalizing plans to go anywhere. But the worst way to do that is via the idiot box.

This was brought home to us yesterday morning when we happened to strike up a conversation with a grandfatherly man from Maine (left) who was just emerging from the surf. We ran into each another at the Pavilion on Casino Beach and struck up a friendly conversation.

Still dripping wet from the water, our new friend gushed in that distinctive 'Down East' lilt mixed with the Boston accent of his birth state, "Gosh, it's beautiful down here!"

"I came down to see my grandson who's enrolled in the University this summer," he explained. "I assumed it would be terrible. All we see back home on TV are huge ugly sheets of black oil washing back and forth on the beaches. But it's not like that at all!"

Further discussion confirmed that the images he was seeing at home almost certainly were from Louisiana marshlands, more than 200 miles west of Pensacola. Television, and particularly commercial television, is deeply invested in displaying dramatic visual images for your eyeballs and not necessarily the whole truth -- the better to sell you anti-depressants, dog food, gas-guzzling cars and erectile dysfunction pills.

We mention this small incident not to beat the drums of tourism, but to illustrate a larger point. The other day Carl Wernicke wrote despairingly, "we have lost our way." We have become "estranged from nature," he said.
It's reality. We are a people who were given the greatest gift of existence, a blue-green earth where life expresses itself with both the greatest complexity and the starkest simplicity. In our carelessness we have taken this magnificent, self-sustaining balance for granted, elevating ourselves above it. We started trashing it the moment we emerged from the cave and began to covet the power to rule over land and sea.
* * *
I don't argue that we should return to the cave, but why is it that we are so willing to soil our world in the pursuit of cheaper gas or a few more trinkets? We are a part of the natural world, but we have upset the natural harmony of it — and that upset is coming back on us.
Part of the answer surely is the runaway greed that has infected modern American society. The obverse of greed is what once was an admirable distinction of American culture: the high value we Americans used to place on individual "civic virtue."

We wrote about this in a historical context a month or so before BP's Deepwater Horizon well blew up:
The first generation Americans who inaugurated the great Western migration understandably felt impelled by a sense of gratitude and admiration to emulate the Founding Fathers' achievements to the maximum extent of their ability. Accordingly, they invented public financing of the first "internal improvements" -- such as canals, roadways, and postal delivery.

They ushered in the Industrial Revolution, formed volunteer militias on the frontier for community protection, agitated for the abolition of slavery, passed laws in many states (including frontier Illinois) requiring that each local community establish homes for the poor and disabled and provide poor residents with publicly-paid for medical care. They invented, then spread across the land, the uniquely American idea of free public education for all, regardless of wealth.
The ideal of the civic man of virtue did not expire with the first generation of Americans. With perhaps the exception of the Gilded Age, we see it again and again in the nation's history, from the first state law in 1836 prohibiting the exploitation of child labor and the creation of the first national park in 1871 to the enfranchisement of women in 1920 and the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

In present-day America, it seems to us, most citizens no longer honor in deed (as opposed to ceremonial words) the inheritance we received from those who have gone before. Nor do we, as a people, manifest in our public acts a sense of obligation to future generations, as our forefathers did for us.

We were given, as Carl says, "a blue-green earth where life expresses itself with both the greatest complexity and the starkest simplicity." We also inherited from Horace Mann and others who went before the best and most universal educational system ever devised by the mind of man (geography aside), the most accessible and democratically available sources of information ever known, and the most enlightened state of scientific knowledge about Earth, its oceans, sea life, and, indeed, life itself.

Thanks to those who preceded us we have the knowledge and the ability -- right now -- to preserve from environmental degradation all that we have been given and to leave it for later generations well on the mend to a better condition. But will we do so?

If the desire to so is not awakened by the BP oil spill, which threatens to poison the entire Gulf of Mexico, then we have not only "lost our way," as Carl Wernicke observes, but we've even lost the will to find it again. In that case, we will be responsible for poisoning far more than the Gulf of Mexico.
minor edit 6-21 pm

1 comment:

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