Time was when most educated people knew, more or less, what geography meant. Putting aside its Greek etymology (“earth description”), for people of a certain age it instantly evokes images of oxbow lakes, valley-scouring glaciers, mountains, volcanoes, alluvial fans, cloud formation and perhaps a bearded teacher.
Physical geography is the venerable descendant of the early investigative forays made by the ancient Greeks who took the first steps in this formal examination of our planet — men like Anaximander of Miletus, the sixth-century BC polymath credited with introducing the gnomon, an early sundial that helped determine solstices and equinoxes, to Greece.
With considerable input from Chinese and, later, Arab civilisations, geography emerged as a curious hybrid of cartography, geometry, astronomy, philosophy and literature. Perhaps no one expressed the emerging discipline with quite as much chutzpah as Herodotus, the fifth-century BC Greek whose traditional “Father of History” moniker belied his position as an early and itinerant — if madcap and unreliable — geographer. In Egypt, he set up his vast open-air laboratory and studied its mysteries, the source of the Nile, its seasonal flooding and alluvial deposits, its flora and fauna. He understood, as many physical geographers do today, the compelling need to take to the field for his research and conduct the ancient world equivalent of empirical observation. No armchair geographer he.
In the 19th century, when the Royal Geographical Society was a byword for international exploration and scientific discovery, the German naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt helped lay the foundations for modern geography with his magnum opus Kosmos, a prodigious, five-volume attempt to unify the various strands of geographical science. Charles Darwin considered Humboldt “the greatest scientific traveller who ever lived”.
For many geographers today, this sort of physical geography is deeply unfashionable and downright irrelevant. Human geographers, by definition, are more interested in people than in places. They are interested, among other things, in gender, culture, health, development, urban environments, behaviour, politics, transportation and tourism. Many physical geographers feel increasingly alienated by their colleagues’ distrust of empirical science, a scepticism informed largely by the post-modernist assault on geography in recent years.
The tensions within geographical science have come to an acrimonious head at the RGS. A high-profile initiative, named The Beagle Campaign in honour of Darwin’s ground-breaking, RGS-assisted expedition to South America in 1831-1836 and launched on the 150th anniversary of his On the Origin of Species, aims to restore balance to the Society’s activities by getting it to mount its own field research projects again. The Society has failed to mount a single expedition in a decade. On 18 May, Fellows voted 61 per cent to 38 per cent against the initiative, an extraordinary show of support for the underdogs. The campaign, with which this writer is closely involved, has uncovered deep fissures within an organisation that for almost two centuries has been a broad church of interests and experiences at the forefront of geographical discovery (www.thebeaglecampaign.com).
The stakes remain high. Although the debate has largely been confined to 10,500 Fellows, given the status and historical significance of the RGS, its ramifications for geography are likely to be felt far more widely worldwide. The contention revolves around the Society’s failure to mount even one large multidisciplinary research project — as expeditions are now known — in a decade. As astonishing as it may sound, the RGS no longer conducts any of its own research, a serious indictment of its loss of vision and purpose. It is no exaggeration to say that through its major field projects of the 19th and 20th centuries, which went to the ends of the earth, the RGS (with the Institute of British Geographers, to give it its full title) has contributed much to our knowledge and understanding of the world. Names like Scott, Shackleton, Livingstone, Speke, Stanley, Burton, Doughty and Everest all convey a humbling thrill when visitors step inside the Society’s magnificent Ondaatje Theatre.
The Society’s response to this debate provides a sobering snapshot of what it is, or what it can be, to be a geographer today. Among six projects that the RGS says demonstrate its commitment to support (other people’s) research, are two fairly eyebrow-raising studies. One, conducted by Dr Craig Young and colleagues from Manchester Metropolitan University, is entitled “Global change and post-socialist urban identities”. Another, led by Dr Heaven Crawley and colleagues from Swansea University, is “Children and global change: Experiencing migration, negotiating identities”. Professor Ian Swingland, founder of the Durrell Institute for Conservation and Ecology, is unimpressed. “My scientific and international experience strongly suggests to me that neither of these projects is academically robust, likely to change anything on the ground, improve the status of the environment or the social woes of the world, and they are frankly to a large degree incomprehensible,” he wrote in an open letter to Sir Gordon Conway, the RGS president. “They will make no difference to anything other than those prosecuting the work. What are ‘post-socialist urban identities’ exactly? What are ‘children’s reflexive negotiations of their identities’ precisely? And does it matter? And will this work educate the future ways we can help the world?”
What such research appears to demonstrate is the tragic introversion and irrelevance of swathes of contemporary academe, academics writing for academics, leaving the rest of the world none the wiser — or better off. In an era when environmental woes and challenges press in on us, the RGS’s failure to provide high-profile leadership on vital issues such as climate change, global warming, biodiversity, the forced migration of species, deforestation, desertification and a host of other scientific unknowns is deeply regrettable. What can one say of post-structuralist cultural studies other than they provide careers for a certain breed of academic geographer?
The internal RGS debate has nothing to do with romance, nostalgia or pith helmets, as critics of The Beagle Campaign have rather lazily argued. It is all about science and real-world, empirical observation and exploration at a critical time for humankind and its interaction with the planet. Often there is simply no substitute for getting out into the field.
As the environmental scientist James Lovelock warns in his latest book, The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning, “Observation in the real world and small-scale experiments on the Earth now take second place to expensive and ever-expanding theoretical models” of questionable reliability. “Our tank is near empty of data and we are running on theoretical vapour.” Herodotus, Humboldt and Darwin would have understood this in a flash.