River deep, mountain high
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The vastness of the United States is explored in a new series, reports Angus Willson.
There can be little doubt that the majority of secondary school geography departments are already poised to use this series, as it takes on one of the world's most important nations, the United States, using the formula of last year's award-winning Japan 2000.
The four programmes explore locations which, collectively and individually, convey the diversity of the landscape and the people of the United States, with the chosen settings allowing extensive matching to geographical themes and cross-references between episodes.
The finest geographical benefit of this series is the aerial photography, which television can provide like no other learning resource. It is easier for sound to fill a classroom, but these images will flood the imagination. The visuals will stimulate many questions and provide the mental hooks for retaining geographical knowledge and understanding.
The first programme, "City on the Edge", is a study of Los Angeles, a city which counter-balances the threats of earthquake, dry-season or riot with the ever-powerful magnet of perceived opportunity. The title also refers to the phenomena of business and commercial centres developing on the periphery, which is suggested as a solution to traffic congestion and commuting time.
But the programme does not penetrate the issues behind the Los Angeles riots, and its emphasis on the flight from the riots, both as a temporary measure at the time and as a family relocation to Nashville, serves as a further injustice to the social geography of inner-city life.
In a country where bottled water can cost more than petrol, "Life Blood of the West", about the Colorado River, tells the politically-charged story of water supplies. The programme looks at a scheme in which irrigated farmland is to be taken out of agricultural production, as the water needed is four to five times more valuable if redirected towards the domestic requirements of areas of urban growth. This episode also show the heavy industrialisation of cultivation, packing and distribution.
America's car addiction is considered in "Wheel Spin in Motor City", which focuses on the United States' car capital, Detroit. The city lost a third of its inner-city population and gained swathes of dereliction in the wake of the car industry's decline in the late Seventies.
There is a cross-reference here to Japan 2000 (repeated in the second half of this term) and the expansion of the Japanese car industry, which led to this slump in the fortunes of America's major manufacturers.
Now American companies have learned from Japanese manufacturing methods and work practices, and the industry's dramatic recovery is demonstrated with a glimpse of how rival United States companies are working together on plans for the car of the future.
The final episode, "Safe Havens?", takes us away from inner-city crime, violence and pollution to the natural, but still threatened, landscape of Maine.
There are scenes showing where "clear-cutting" has turned forest to wasteland. And a mind-boggling machine is shown cutting and handling trees in "an ecological and economic way", or so we are told by the man who describes forestry as 90 per cent politics and 10 per cent wood. The programme ends on a rather unconvincing up-beat note, with a neighbourhood eco-team, set up in response to the Earth Summit, discussing the sharing of cars.
This series of programmes rightly avoids the over-simplification of viewing the United States as a single entity and looks across the significant variety in agriculture, industry and lifestyle.
The level of the commentary is unlikely to exclude the less able within the 11 to 16 age group, however, its authoritative tone may lead to a tendency to accept what is said unchallenged. There is a complex amalgam of geographical similarities and differences that need to be addressed here, encouraging teachers and pupils to have good discussions afterwards exploring these for themselves.