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Emerson, Ralph Waldo
The phrase "geography is destiny," is more a polemical if not a bare political statement than an adequate academic reflection of how landforms and water systems affect the course of human settlement. There are many forms of determinism -- or the belief that people and events are driven by external forces. Geographical determinism is related to environmentalism and both can be traced at least to the historian Herodotus, in ancient Greece, who traveled to Asia and Africa noting how people differed due to climate, soil, exposure, and water qualities of their native regions. Historical geographer Clarence Glacken has deeply analyzed development of environmentalist thought and the the tendency from then until Darwin's time showing that many great thinkers have attributed the success of failure of ethnic minorities, their nationalities and entire states, or even whole empires to the pressure of the environment on human institutions.
The map shown above is a copy of Claudius Ptolemy's 150 AD map of the then known world depicting the airs, waters and places by degrees.
The very famous statement of geographical determinism, elicited its finest expression in the writings of D. H. Lawrence, who insisted among the northern peoples there was a sort of "ice wisdom." This knowledge from the ice age was the very sort of blood knowledge that tropical people's do not possess because they did not experience the ten or more glaciating advances during the last million years that tested the metal of European, Asiatic and North American peoples.
The idea that knowledge –that unlocked or open doorway – is passed in the blood from generation to generation was refuted by Darwin, and later Mendel, and then again by contemporary genetics. Yet the belief that we are shaped by environmental circumstances remained alive in the medical professions. The bias today is that human nature is shaped by our inheritance. That inheritance is largely the product of environmental change and biological adaptations to that change, or at least that is the way a popular construction of environmental determinism explains our fate. We live at the mercy of an angry god who created the landscape as a test of our skills. Shaped by the land we perish under the weight of its natural laws. Malaria or literally "bad air" (mal + aria) was attributed to hot, humid and virtually unhealthy vapors emitted from swamps and low lying areas. Some places can be bad, after all, Kentucke, in the Shawnee language meant "a dark and bloody ground."
Nothing is more persistent in its perniciousness than a pervasive idea that refuses to submit to rational explanation. Environmental determinism is just one form of geographical prison that we confront. People are inferior to other people because of their geographical situation, living conditions and exposure to nature, is the most pernicious manifestation of this belief. In 19th century London, during repeated Cholera epidemics, the ruling classes and the educated elites all blamed the poor for the disease due to their slovenly habits. The spread of the disease in the hot summer months was said to be due to geography of squalid, tenement living conditions.
But was environment the immediate cause of their behavior and the underlying cause of their death from this horrible disease? Before railroads, which needed to adhere to geographical contours such as following water sources and river valleys through mountain passes, the food people consumed was based on geography so the idea that health and disease, food and malnutrition, and success or failure where entwined with geography was common place. Even when Adam Smith extolled the virtues of the markets, the size and location of markets --studied by economic geographers-- became a matter of placement along a river, or other artery of travel. Commerce seemed to funnel through high mountain passes, water bodies, or stall, for a while, at the falls in a river system.
Geography or the tug of space on its inhabitants seemed to explain why Greece dominated the early Mediterranean, how China dominated Asia, why Spain ruled the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, or why Britain was inhabited the world's shopkeepers." Geography determined one's sphere of authority and territorial hegemony. Or did it? Environmental history has to marry geography to ecology and it must discard the habit of determinism, since geographical, genetic,economic or environmental determinism are all traps to ensnare the mind from thinking more deeply about where we are.
The Canadian / Australian writer, Janette Turner Hospital has suggested the necessity of a frame that is at once a wall within which we live and an aperture from which we may view the outside world. In the Johannis or Jan Vermeer painting of the "Geographer" the artist literally sheds light on this particular practitioner who, with compass in hand and resting in the light on a manuscript of maps, contemplates. He pauses to reflect on what he has just learned, caught in the light – if not enlightened, then pausing to recollect and reconnect what he has known to what he is discovering in the act of consulting the manuscript we call an Atlas. The context of the painting in light through a window. The frame for Vermeer is the part of the room exposed to the twin windows, where the scholar is standing below the globe, looking at graphical representations of the world. Clearly the world that is being mapped or made into a globe is outside, but it is also inside the room for Vermeer to paint, for the geographer to ponder, and for us to see, if not admire.
She provokes us with this covert geography and that is the territory for the ecological historian to traverse, describe and perhaps discover unseen pitfalls ? An ecological approach to history assumes nothing more than contingency and complementarity. That is events are not determined, they instead rely on what have preceded the initial conditions of our investigation. In nearly every case, because of feedback, there are complementary forces that act on climate, settlement, population growth or decline, soil, food, water availability such that too many factors always affect outcomes. That means the unintended consequences must be paid attention to, as opposed to human intentions. Columbus went west, not east, to India, only to open the world to two unexpected landmasses larger than even Australia and Antarctica the four continents that were unknown to even Chinese, Indian and European map makers. This painting reveals just one example of frame, context, and a body of knowledge as complementary factors in the forces that change our view of the world. In the seventeenth century the world was profoundly redefined, and Vermeer captures that moment in his painting as if all of history could be portrayed as a portrait of a person struck by the investigative light of a revelation about the great cosmos in which we are either lost or found.
Ralph Waldo Emerson,
History and geography, in Rousseau’s view (1762):
Europe is “the western excrescence of the continent of Asia.”
Europe Between the Oceans, Sir Barry Cunliffe, emeritus professor of European archaeology at Oxford University.
Le long duree, or
Knowledge is always enveloped by uncertainty, restricted by experience, access, and curiosity–but surely knowing is intrinsically circumscribed by physical, chemical, geological and biological conditions such that knowledge is the exception to the more general rule of ignorance.
The good concept here is that geography as nature's 'medium of expression' over "10,000-year epochs" is the dispatcher, driver, and disposer of human intentions. The key failing in this otherwise provocative quotation is the choice of the phrase, "randomly recarving geography" there is nothing random about geology, except in the mind of the author. Plate Tectonics and sedimentation, erosion and deposition are processes we can comprehend as both contingent and cumulative, but they are not random in the strict sense of the term.