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The term Geography formally applies to an academic discipline (and a human construct) that encompasses study of the Earth’s surface (Physical Geography), its inhabitants (Human Geography), and, more recently, its environment (Environmental Geography). Geographic data collected points to the “connectedness” of world systems, however, formulated in a unitary discipline to study the whole planet and all its denizens.
The Irish philosopher and theologian George Berkeley (1685–1753) laid out the notion of subjective idealism, in which the material world exists only through human perceptions. Many other Western writers have contested this notion, arguing that the external world had its own reality and that if humans ceased to exist then that world would still be there. In many ways the term geography as used in popular parlance and in academia still reflects that dichotomy.
Yet the English word geography (and its equivalent in many Western languages) is a critical reminder of humanity’s place in the cosmos. There is geography (lower case) as understood popularly, meaning the way in which the world is laid out: “the geography of Latin America” or the “geography of cities in South Asia.” (The term is still sometimes confused with the physical geography of a denoted area, but that usage is declining.) As well, there is Geography (upper case), an academic discipline that tries to describe and explain the phenomena of the surface of the Earth. If only the largely “natural” world of earth, air, and water is investigated, then there is Physical Geography, and if the human species is involved then, unsurprisingly, there is Human Geography. Since the nineteenth century Geography has undertaken to interface both the physical and the human, and, since the late 1980s, the increasing public profile of “the environment” has brought forth studies labeled Environmental Geography.
Showing the World
How might it be possible to characterize the planet’s geography without resorting to the kind of pixel-bypixel count of different surface elements now made possible by computers and satellites? The statistics of land and sea cover deal with the immutable (continuous water bodies cover about 74 per cent of the surface) and the changeable, such as the cropland area at about 13.8 per cent, which had been close to zero only 10,000 years ago. The changes in land cover over time and space conform to a general model in which natural ecosystems are replaced with small-scale agriculture, then intensive agriculture, and finally urban-industrial zones. Throughout there have been attempts to protect some of the ecosystems as parks and reserves. One scientific way of describing this mosaic is to measure the ratio of solar-based energy flow to the energy flow directed by the human inhabitants. This ratio has shifted markedly in the last fifty years, with energy largely derived from oil being applied to the more intensive use of the Earth’s surface and other resources. Thus more land was converted to crop production in the period from 1950 to 1980 than in the 150 years between 1700 and 1850. About 35 per cent of mangroves were lost, while water withdrawals from rivers and lakes doubled in the forty years between 1960 and 2000. Perhaps 10–30 per cent of mammal, bird, and amphibian species are threatened with extinction.
Can these data tell us anything more about the geography of the Earth? They certainly emphasize “connectedness.” Even if humans had never existed (or if they cease to exist, as no doubt one day they will) there are linkages and feedbacks that bring many processes into relationships with each other. Aerosols scattering just above the oceans metamorphose into cloud droplets that affect rainfall over adjacent continents; the temperature gradients of the South Pacific produce weather effects, and hence fires, over many parts of the Americas and Australia; a widespread cooling locks up water as ice, and therefore sea-level falls. In the most extreme interpretation of these ideas, James Lovelock (b. 1919) has proposed the Gaia hypothesis, that life created the global conditions for its perpetuation. But biological processes such as speciation have been essentially local, as have the amounts of recovery of land surface after glaciation or the sizes of landslides after earthquakes. There seems to be a case for differentiating between geographies resulting from interactions that occur in many places but do not coalesce (worldwide), and those in which any change can eventually affect the whole planet—as through alterations in solar energy input or the gaseous composition of the atmosphere—which we may call truly global.
Time and Place
One way of describing the development of the world’s geography is thus to chronicle through time the tensions between local processes and those that have been global. The great glaciations of the Pleistocene period, between 2.5 million years ago and 9640 BCE, had global significance since all the climatic belts of the planet shifted southward. Yet within that envelope, the concatenation of different species meant the development of variable ecosystems in various places: the savannas of tropical Africa were not the same as those of Venezuela, for example. Interaction between human communities after 9000 BCE brought new genotypes as agriculture enforced selective breeding in the light of cultural demands, and new ecosystems as earlier ecologies were modified by human actions. The scale of many such activities expanded with trade and exploration even before the advent of steam power reduced the effects of distance and weather upon human economies and polities.
One major change was of course the application of fossil fuels via an iron-based technology that emplaced the whole suite of cultural, economic, and environmental changes from about 1750 CE to 1900 CE, a period often labeled the Industrial Revolution. There was indeed “something new under the sun,” as the historian John R. McNeill has put it. This too was the time when a truly global effect became unequivocally manifest, as the greenhouse gas levels of the upper atmosphere began to rise in concert with the combustion of fossil fuels, the reduction in biomass, and the spread of irrigated wetlands. Since about 1950 CE all the trends of the post-eighteenth-century era have intensified and the terms globalization and global village are commonplace, although not all these recent economic and cultural trends actually affect the upper atmosphere or the entire world ocean and so are more accurately described as worldwide. Microelectronics far outpaces Puck in girdling the Earth. (Puck, a mischievous fairy in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, could circle the globe in forty minutes.) The humanization of the globe is now at a point where many people are anxious about the possibilities of sudden, irreversible, and certainly unpredictable change in weather patterns, climatic shifts, sea-levels, drought and flood frequency, water, food and energy security, mass migration, and conflicts of many kinds.
Modeling the World
So what has the human construct Geography said about all this change? Geographers existed under that very name in the classical Mediterranean and in the same function in dynastic China. Their role was to catalogue the known world of the time—as an act of knowledge-gathering in Muslim Alexandria in the six centuries after 600 BCE, for example, or as a list of potential tribute-payers to the emperors of the Middle Kingdom in the fifteenth century CE. The advent of European and Chinese ocean-going vessels (with the Portuguese caravel as the Boeing 737 of its time) expanded the geographers’ chief role to one of providing directions, especially in the form of maps. As with the material world, the alterations of the nineteenth century were profound: in keeping with Euro-American imperialism, for example, Geography reverted to its earlier though much expanded role of cataloguing the peoples, produce, travel routes, and religious-conversion potential of colonies, might-be colonies, and other dominions. At one spatial scale there might be list after list of the products of the factories of the Ruhr or of New England, at another an assessment of the geopolitical consequences of the Russian colonization of Siberia.
In academic Geography it was largely assumed that to name something was to capture its essence objectively, that to give it a number improved that objectivity, and that models based on analogies with studies in physics or derived from the theories of classical economics would explain patterns of distribution of human-made phenomena; for the nonhuman the explanatory methodologies of the appropriate sciences would be sufficient. The 1970s saw a considerable change with the injection of philosophical idealism. It was realized that the positioning of the human subject was vital. As agents, humans did not necessarily act as the rational players envisaged by classical economics; as investigators, geographers were not free from biases of upbringing, sources of finance, institutional pressures, gender prejudices and plain old orneriness. This led to the so-called cultural turn, in which the whole gamut of human culture might be called into play in order to discuss a geographical distribution or process. A factory might apparently be located at X because of the availability of low-cost transport, but in fact its proximity to several attractive golf courses tickled the fancy of the Japanese CEO. The insertion of theory was given another boost by poststructuralist philosophers such as Michel Foucault (1926–1984) in constructing archaeologies of ways of thinking and writing about the world. They raised the question of sources of authority, a debate now overtaken by the prominence of the small screen of TV and computers as the crucial shaper of beliefs.
Given that Geography has dealt with both the human and nonhuman components of the planet, we might expect its practitioners to have been leading authorities in the waves of environmental concern that were present in the 1970s (the ecological crisis) and exist again now with climatic change at the forefront. That has largely not been the case. Like many other disciplines, Geography has had its specialists in that area, but has never taken to it in a grand manner. Indeed, for some it has usually been about “development,” and any reorientation towards a worldview constrained by limits of all kinds (including that of human numbers) has been resisted. Since the year 2000, outgrowths of its diversity have included two markedly different approaches. The first is the highly instrumental use of GPS (global positioning system) and GIS (geographic information system). The ability to locate any point within a few centimeters has spawned a whole set of geo-related industries concerned with resource use, planning, environmental inventory, and spatial imagination. The second growth is almost diametrically opposite: the personal construction of an interior world from a fragmentary outer cosmos seems to have been pioneered by the literary figure W. G. Sebald (1944–2001) and has been carried on (in the United Kingdom, at least) by people who have attracted the label “psychogeographers.” One of them has imitated Sebald’s journey down the coast of East Anglia with a foot patrol of London’s circumferential M25 motorway.
There is a world out there and there are models of that world in our heads and in our media. In a mirror-like fashion, Western thought has often relied on dualities. The idea that humans are totally exceptional has created gaps between human societies and valuation of the rest of the cosmos as a mere theatre for their actions. But global linkages show us that is not the case: we are “all netted together,” as Charles Darwin wrote in a notebook of 1838. The divergences in Geography suggest that there is still some way to go in formulating a unitary discipline of the whole of the planet and all its denizens.
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