Regional Geography of North America
*Review differences between states, nations, and countries.
*What do the students think of Joel Garreau’s “Nine Nations of North America?”
*The Breadbasket is also known as the Grain Belt, and the Canadian part in
particularly is often called the Prairie Provinces. According to
Garreau, the main fear of the Breadbasket is that family farms will be
swallowed by big farming businesses—agribusiness. The class
textbook says only about 5% of all farms are owned by big businesses,
however, those are some of the largest farms in America, with the most
production, and their control of American agriculture is growing, in
part because even those farms that are not owned by agribusinesses
often work under contract to them. For example, in 1980, about 5%
of hogs sold in America were sold under a commercial farming contract;
in 1997, about 60% were. In many ways, this is still the
heartland of America; it is no accident that the ‘American accent’ we
hear on TV from most of our newscasters and actors is really a
*Ecotopia still exists, although it has seen other fringe movements,
too. Grunge and Nirvana and Starbucks all came from Ecotopia’s
Seattle, and Southern California still wants all their water.
Although nuclear power plants might help California’s energy crisis,
the hippies of Berkeley and San Francisco still oppose building more of
them, and California has been pushing for fuel-efficient cars longer
than any other part of the country. It also still makes our
aircraft, and it economically and culturally vital to America.
*The Foundry, also called the Rust Belt (which includes the Ontario
Peninsula of Canada), is still failing, in part because more and more
jobs go south to Mexico thanks to NAFTA, but the area was declining due
to cheap labour in the third world and better automotive production in
Japan long before NAFTA was passed. This part of the country saw
the first factories and industrialisation, and saw a vast influx of
black workers from the South between the 1910s and 1960s, as they
sought work in cities where they would not face as much
discrimination. Today the region is declining, especially the big
old auto and steel cities like Detroit and Pittsburgh. This is
one of the few areas of the country to see declining population, or, at
best, population growth much below the national average. Still,
the region has been improved in some ways, partly because with the
decline of industry, pollution has decreased. This is the source
of most of the acid rain in North America, and it was the region where
the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio actually caught fire multiple
times due to the amount of chemicals in the water (most recently in
*The Empty Quarter was America’s last frontier, and could be again—the
population density in many parts of it is lower today than in was in
1890 when the Census Department declared the frontier was closed.
Today the only places in the US or Canada profiting from rising oil
prices are here, as several of these states (and provinces) produce
sizable quantities of oil. Unfortunately, this area, like parts
of MexAmerica and even the Breadbasket, need more water than they can
produce, and they are starting to deplete to Ogallala Aquifer.
The states in these regions even draw up agreements about how much
water can be drawn from the local rivers, but this does not always
work. The Colorado river was divided up in a year when it was
more full than usual, and now so much water is drawn from it that it
barely trickles into the ocean in California, and Californians and
Mexicans do not get to draw as much water from it as they should.
*Miami is the heart of the 6th largest metropolitan area in America,
and it remains the central city for many US companies’ operations in
Latin America. Half (or more) of the politics of Miami, and thus
of Florida, remain the politics of Cuban refugees who still resent
Castro dispossessing them a generation ago. It remains an
important city in the drug trade, and it is also one of the busiest
ports in all of America.
*MexAmerica is spreading. Today about 13% of Americans are
Hispanic (or possibly more). One of the major economic facts in
this region is the maquiladora system, in which factories (often owned
largely or completely by US companies) operate on the Mexican side of
the border where there is cheap labour, but all their goods are
exported to the US. This creates a number of twin cities along
the border, with large factory town in Mexico and transportation hubs
on the US side. The oil wealth that Garreau predicted for Mexico
has not entirely come true, yet. Along with much of Dixie, this
is the area that is often known as the Sun Belt, which is the fastest
growing part of the United States.
*New England, for Garreau, includes more than the US New England:
it also includes the Maritime Provinces of Canada, which are the
poorest part of that country. This is a region that used to
depend on fishing and small farms, and can’t any more. On the
other hand, it is still a place where democracy exists—town meetings
are still real, and New Hampshire’s legislators still earn just $100 a
year (plus gas mileage). This area also has Boston, a major port
city with a growing computer technology industry, and, as Garreau
notes, it is America’s first post-industrial nation, prefiguring much
of what has happened in the rest of America. Certainly the region
retains a reputation for having the best colleges in America—almost all
of the Ivy League is there.
*Dixie more or less corresponds to the area known as the Bible Belt,
one of the most overtly religions parts of the United States (although
many parts of the Foundry (and even New England) are deeply
religious—there is a much closer culturally connection between Dixie
and part of the Foundry and Breadbasket than many people
realise). Atlanta is the hub of Dixie even today, although
Charlotte and Raleigh are growing fast; indeed, the whole region is
growing, and even the Great Migration is being reversed, as Blacks move
back to the South that they or their parents or grandparents left years
ago. As Garreau predicted, Dixie has picked up industry where
other parts of the country have lost it, as Europeans and Japanese
build factories in places where unions are weak and wages are low by
American and European standards.
*Quebec is the only one of Garreau’s nations to more or less coincide
with existing boundaries, although French speakers are actually
spreading beyond its borders. Since Garreau wrote his article,
Quebec has twice had referenda on secession from Canada (in 1980 and
1995). Both have failed, but it was very close in 1995.
Still, this is better than the 1960s, when the Front de
libération du Québec (FLQ) launched a decade of bombings,
robberies and attacks on government offices and at least two murders by
FLQ gunfire and three violent deaths by bombings. Canada has a
lower GDP/capita than Canada as a whole, but still has a higher GDP per
capita than Spain, Singapore, or New Zealand, and has a slight trade
surplus, so it could survive on its own as an independent nation.
*Later, Joel Garreau wrote a book entitled The Nine Nations of North
America, and in it (and afterwards) he identified a few aberrations, as
he described them. These included Manhattan (but not the rest of
New York City), Washington, D.C. (and the Beltway), Alaska (which he
argues is separate because it thinks it is, although really it shares
aspects of both Ecotopia and the Empty Quarter), Hawaii (as much a part
of Asia as it is North America), and West Virginia (part of both Dixie
and the Foundry).
*There are other ways to define the regions of North America.
People often speak of the Rust Belt, the Sun Belt, and the Bible Belt,
and less often of the Grain Belt and of other Belts. However,
many of these are more or less correlated to Garreau’s regions. A
more recent book (The Day America Told the Truth) related to Garreau’s
work divided the Foundry into the Rust Belt and the more vibrant
Metropolis, and split Dixie into the New South (around Atlanta and the
Atlantic Coast) and Old Dixie (where it’s still poor).
*Regions are often also defined by dialect; in the South people drink
Coke, but in most of the Midwest and Northwest they drink pop, and in
New England and California they drink soda.
*Food, religion, economics, and politics also determine regions.
*Much has been made of the Red State/Blue State divide (although that’s
really more of an urban/rural divide), and regional differences do seem
to be growing in politics in a way not seen since the mid-19th Century.
*What other regions might we find in America?