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The National Geographic Society (NGS) is the world’s largest nonprofit scientific and education institution. Established in 1888 under its first president, Gardiner Greene Hubbard, the NGS aims to increase and disseminate geographical knowledge of the natural and social world. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., the Society is involved in a wide range of activities. Principal among these has been the production of the National Geographic Magazine, which for over a century has brought information on the environment, nature, society, and culture to millions of people in an accessible form. Now published and distributed in 30 languages, it has a worldwide circulation of nine million copies, of which 2.1 million copies are published in local languages other than English. As its average reader in the United States is aging-the majority are over 50 years of age-or moving to the internet, the NGS has evolved into new media and new markets. In association with the broadcasters NBC, FOX, and BSkyB, the National Geographic Channel is broadcast in 25 languages and claims to reach more than 200 million households in 146 countries. Its Web site claims an average 55 million page views a month. Earnings from these activities have provided grants for scientific and interdisciplinary field research, conservation and education projects, and expeditions. As a consequence, the NGS can be regarded as a powerful media organization that must balance the commercial realities of publishing and television with its educational and scientific mission and the demands of environmental politics.
Historically, the National Geographic Magazine embodied society’s interest in advancing and disseminating knowledge as part of its contribution to public education and civic improvement. But the Society originally cultivated an outlook that reflected Western supremacy over the rest of the world. Scholars have suggested that the Society exercised a kind of conservative humanism that celebrated diversity and promoted universal values while permitting it readers to consign non-Western peoples to an earlier stage of progress. This comfortable armchair geography, shaped in the neo-imperialist contexts of the 20th century, typically obscured Western relationships with the Global South. Other critics have suggested that today the Society presents uncritical reflections on the consequences of globalization and tends to commodify nature for human spectacle.
Despite these criticisms, however, the NGS is an unrivalled advocate for the natural world, maintains a firm commitment to conservation and preservation, and continues to ensure geographical issues remain a focus of public debate. It has not taken a conservative approach to debating climate change, for example, nor has it balked from underlining the relationships between consumption and resource and environmental exploitation around issues such as diamond production. Somewhat paradoxically, despite the NGS’s awesome media presence, Americans’ knowledge of basic world geography is among the poorest in the Western world according to the National Geographic-Roper Survey of Geographic Literacy. In response, the NGS has developed programs to address “geographical illiteracy” in American schools and introduced a range of other publications including National Geographic Explorer Classroom Magazine and National Geographic Kids Magazine. This ongoing interest in education reveals its commitment to progressive change and demonstrates its continuing faith in geography as a path to both self-knowledge and responsible use of the planet’s natural and cultural resources.
- Bonnett, “Geography as the World Discipline: Connecting Popular and Academic Geographical Imaginations,” Area (v.32, 2003);
- Catherine Lutz and Jane L. Collins, Reading National Geographic (The University of Chicago Press, 1993).