Geographical places in the world
‘The great challenges of the 21st century are geographical in their formulation, analysis and consequence, and they transcend the physical/social divide’
To study the Earth, its biodiversity and humans as part of that, is to study geography.
A few decades ago, our discipline was in the academic doldrums. Split between the science of the physical world and the social science of humanity, it was accused of being a subject without a core: no more than a bunch of disparate interests and maverick academics gathered under the banner of place and space, teaching undergraduates of middling ability who were often set on a career in banking.
In the UK, the phrase “geography teacher” remains a term of abuse. It has been used to disparage the manners, attitudes and even sartorial elegance of individuals as disparate as Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and musician Jarvis Cocker. Yet geography has never been more important than it is now. Humans have never been more networked, and we have never known so much about the natural world, its biodiversity, its chemistry, the flows of its energy that we capture and put to work and the consequences of our actions on a dynamic biosphere. The linking of all these things is the essence of geography, and the subject is enjoying a renaissance.
In 1971, US biologist Barry Commoner set out four laws of ecology in his book The Closing Circle: Nature, Man and Technology. These were: everything is connected to everything else; everything must go somewhere; nature knows best; and there is no such thing as a free lunch. Some might think this is all rather New Age and glib, but unpick these simple homilies and you reveal the origins of modern geography. It is indeed a scavenger discipline, picking up ideas from fields as diverse as ancient philosophy and modern biology and sticking them together. But connections lie at the heart of globalisation; nature is at the root of sustainability; and that lack of a free lunch is linked to the importance of equality.