A few days ago a giant rift occured in the world of geography listserves. First, this email was send in the Canadian Association of Geographers (CAG) listserve, and it made its way to the UK Critical Geography listserve which is where I picked it up. Since this email has been sent out, it has gone viral. Physical and Human geographers alike across the globe are debating its validity, and its points (whether they agree or disagree with them). This has surely caused some panic among certain circles, and others see it as a normal response to the politics of disciplines which exist within Geography departments worldwide. Please take the time to read this and comment, I would like to have a real discussion amongst young geographers on the topic of the split between physical and human geography.
Stephen Johnston. 2012. Get Rid of Geography Departments. Geolog 41(1):6-7
A couple of years ago I was teaching a structural geology class when a woman burst into the classroom in a bit of a panic. She had had a class in the room just prior to my class, and had left her purse beneath her seat. One of my students had already found the purse, and I had it up at the front of the classroom. Understandably the woman was relieved to have her purse returned, and was appreciative of us having taken care of it for her. I can’t remember what I had projected up on the screen at the time, but I think it might have been a simplified figure of a subduction zone, and the woman stopped and said “oh, you’re doing geography; I love geography”. To which I replied “No, we are not doing geography”. The woman looked confused. “But it looks like you are doing geography”, to which I replied “No, we are not”. The woman retreated, thankful that she had her purse, but thoroughly confused at my insistence that we were not doing Geography. Which brings me to my point: We need to get rid of Geography departments. If I had my way I would get rid of Geography as a field of study. I would get it out of our high schools, out of the universities, and out of the public eye. And I would remove funding for Geography departments as individual entities.
Why get rid of Geography? Perhaps this column is just one more volley in a long internecine battle. It was, after all, geologists who were responsible for the 1949 closure of the Department of Geography at Harvard. Marland Billings, one of our more famous geologists and a professor of Geology at Harvard at the time, was the lead advocate in what became a successful campaign to rid Harvard of Geography. Geography, it was said, was an intellectual kindergarten and its Ph.D.’s worthless. In the end it was declared that Geography was “not a university topic” and the department shut down. Yikes! So let me state clearly that my suggestion to close down Geography departments is not due to spite, jealousy, or a misplaced desire to reduce the number of scientists competing for dwindling research dollars. In fact, quite the opposite.
Probably the main challenges facing society and civilization over the next 100 years are all going to be related to rapid, anthropogenically driven climate change. Earth Scientists need to be strong contributors to debates and discussions concerning the magnitude and consequences of climate change. We need to be at the table during deliberations over what aspects of climate change can be fought, and what must be accepted as inevitable. We need to bring all the data possible to bear on what is a global issue that will leave no country unscathed. And to do that, we need to do away with the entirely arbitrary isolation of Physical Geographers. I want to close down Geography departments because I want Physical Geographers to be important members of comprehensive Earth System departments. If we don’t join together with Physical Geographers, we are going to unnecessarily limit our ability to understand climate change.
What is it that we Earth Scientists, including Physical Geographers, bring to the questions regarding climate change? As Earth Scientists we have access to billions of years of climate change as recorded in rocks. It is in this rock record of Earth System evolution that we can mine answers regarding the nature and consequences of climate change are to be found. We bring to the table an understanding of the rates of climate change; of the role of the oceans, atmosphere and solid Earth; of cause and effect; and of the physical limits to which the Earth System can be pushed. And the most complete record of an extreme change of climate, and hence the most instructive, is to be found in the Quaternary descent into the hard Ice House world of the Pleistocene and the subsequent Holocene recovery, culminating in our current Interglacial age. But instead of housing those Earth Scientists who focus on the Quaternary Period together with those exploring changes in the Earth System back into the depths of deep time, we have instead sequestered the two groups into separate departments, and commonly into separate faculties.
The Physical Geographers, whose primary focus is the Quaternary Earth System, find themselves within Geography departments, departments that are commonly housed within Social Science Faculties. The geologists and palaeontologists whose focus and interests lie primarily within Miocene and older rocks, stretching all the back into the Archean, find themselves sequestered into Earth Science (and increasingly rarely, Geology) departments housed in a Faculty of Science.
The obvious question is ‘Why’? Why are Physical Geographers kept separate from the rest of the Earth Scientists when we share the common goal of understanding the Earth System? Why, when the processes that shaped the Quaternary Earth are the same as those that shaped Earth through deep time, do we isolate Physical Geographers? And most importantly, why, given that our greatest challenge is climate change, do we confine the Physical Geographers, who are best positioned to teach us about Earth’s most recent extreme climate event, within their own department. We need to end the artificial and arbitrary division that isolates Physical Geographers from geologists and the other Earth Scientists who toil within Earth Science departments. We need comprehensive Earth System departments. And we need to do it now; the Earth is not going to patiently wait for us to get our house in order.
Stephen T. Johnston
Past President, GAC & Professor and Head,
School of Earth & Ocean Science, Victoria,
BC. Victoria, BC.