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The Spike [: or, Victoria University College Review 1957]

Man's Tenure of the Earth — The Nature of Geography and its Contribution in a Changing World

page 13

Man's Tenure of the Earth

The Nature of Geography and its Contribution in a Changing World

We Are Living today in a period of tremendous changes, a period without parallel in the history of mankind. Among these changes the changes in the technological field are the most immediately apparent, bringing about, almost before our eyes, new patterns of inter-relations between man and his environment. In the United States, where these changes are most advanced, the technological progress of the last decade foreshadows a "man-made world" based upon absolute mastery of the physical and biological environments:"—"Clouds and wind, plant and beast, the boundless heavens themselves are to be subjugated. . . . There is now in formation a world such as there has never been before" 1 . . . No less important are those related and deeper seated changes in the whole fabric of world society: the vast expansion in mankind's numbers, which may double the number of folk on earth within the lifetime of many living today, the political and economic emergence of the non-European world, the passing of the unchallenged supremacy the West has enjoyed for the last three centuries. Faced with such changes the West must make an "agonising re-appraisal" of its own position, must re-examine its traditional values and attitudes, and seek a new awareness of its place in the family of man.

It is scarcely to be expected that this global revolution should leave untouched those intellectual disciplines by which we seek to interpret the world; profound changes have occurred, are still occurring, in both the physical and social sciences. It was inevitable that geography, concerned more than any other discipline with an interpretation of the relationships between man and the earth, should feel these changes. It was perhaps inevitable that the methods and techniques formulated to interpret a gradually evolving European scene should prove inadequate for the interpretation of a new, swiftly changing world scene, characterised by a new dynamism in the relationship of man to the earth, by the emergence of old cultures and of new ideologies and by the growing interdependence of peoples. A geography conceived as a "study of areal differentiation" or as a "study of the discovery, identification and explanation of earth patterns" is no longer satisfying. Such a study cannot give adequate weight to the accelerating and expanding transformation of the environment by man,2 it can do little "to reveal humanity to itself, to aid it to an awareness of itself." Only by infusing into our teaching an ecological awareness, a new awareness of "the interdependence of all things in a common habitat" can we achieve these things.

And so, though it is a deviationist or heretical attitude, I would stress the need for a greater emphasis on the ecological aspects of our subject. I would define geography as the study of human ecology, "the science of human groups in their environmental setting." I would urge that the study of the physical features of the globe as an end in itself has no place in geography, that work in such fields as page 14 climatology or geomorphology is relevant to us as geographers only if the features we are studying significantly affect the conditions offered to man, if they, to use the words of Le Lannou, "contribute to establish a hierarchy of aptitudes."3 I would discard the oversimplified concept of the environment as a mere framework for man's activities, and would regard it as a series of complexes which react upon one another and in turn influence and are influenced by man's activities. Some, such as the complex of atmospheric elements making up the climate of an area, we can as yet influence only within narrow limits; others, such as the various complexes of the biological environment, are more plastic and can be modified or transformed in accordance with man's needs and desires. Recent centuries have thus seen the progressive reduction of the areas dominated by some of the pathogenic complexes such as plague or malaria, the creation of new "biological auxiliaries" such as rapid-maturing wheats, and the progressive replacement of wild flora and fauna by new man-created associations of plants and animals such as the grass/dairy cow association on which New Zealand's economy is partly based or the corn/cattle/hog association of the U.S.A. And so, I would stress, the relation of man to environment is not the old over-simplified one"—the relation of an actor to his stage"—but one far more complex. For man, by his activities, creates the environment in which he lives, and the shape in which he creates it depends on the character of the society of which he is a member, upon the culture and technology of that society. I would discard, then, the old duality which has so long plagued geography"—the duality of man and environment"—and would instead stress the interdependence of man and environment or, as Carl Sauer has expressed it, "the interdependence of living things in a common habitat."4 Finally, just as the ecologist concerns himself not only with the relationship between a plant species and its environment but also with the competition and interdependence between various groups of plants so, too, if the geographer is to achieve an understanding of the pattern of human groups in their spatial setting, he must concern himself with the interrelations and conflicts of the various types of society; here he will find a key to the understanding of much of the world's geographic pattern. This is well illustrated by Malaya. Here the intrusive cash economy of the European expresses itself in the establishment of vast rubber plantations, in the expansion of transport facilities and urban areas, in the growing social differentiation of the population and in its increased ethnic complexity resulting from the massive inflow of Chinese and Indian labour. But these influences have penetrated unevenly: the transformation has been greatest in the west coast strip, while in the north the traditional rice economy of the Malay has little changed and in the interior more primitive groups carry on their old way of life little influenced by either the rice economy of the Malay or the cash-getting economy introduced by the Europeans. Here, as in so many parts of the world, the geographical pattern is best understood in terms of a convergence of cultures, each of which utilises a particular group of resources and creates its own distinctive cultural landscape.

I would have you think, then, of geography as a study ecological in its approach, concerned with the interrelations between those physical, biological, and human complexes which give our world its infinite diversity. It is a study dynamic in content since the interrelations between the human group and the physical and biological complexes take place through the medium of man's culture and technology and these are constantly changing; we have a process of "continual reappraisal" by man of the varied elements of the environment. It is a study whose page 15 closest relationships are with the social rather than with the physical sciences, since its analysis of the pattern of human groups in their environmental setting must be in terms of the culture, the techniques, even the prejudices of the group concerned.

What are the contributions of such a geography to the life of the community in which the geographer lives? They are both material and spiritual.

On the material side, I would suggest that New Zealand, like the majority of Western countries, is moving increasingly in the direction of a controlled and planned environment. We have increasingly the techniques to reshape the elements in our environment and to remould them a little nearer our heart's desire. We can increasingly provide the opportunity for a rich and fulfilling life for all. We can, however, achieve those things only if we have a clear-sighted view of our objectives, an awareness of the potentialities of our country and an understanding of the problems loft as a legacy by past decades. Such an awareness, such an understanding, is one of the major contributions modern geography can make. More than that. Even though we still cling to the frontier attitude that our land and our resources are limitless, the increasing pressure of population is forcing us to a reappraisal of our attitude: we are slowly beginning to realise that resources, whether of market garden land, or minerals, or irrigation water or human skills are not limitless and that we can make the best use of them only by wise and intelligent planning. We can no longer afford the old trial and error processes of resource utilisation for these, as in the "Dust Bowl" of the semi-arid United States, were often destructive of both resources and human well being: instead, we can consciously strive to achieve by planning the most stable and satisfying equilibrium between society and the various complexes of the physical and biological environment. Such planning calls for a high degree of ecological awareness, for an ability to see phenomena as a whole in their spatial relationships. Here the trained geographer has a major contribution to make; that this is no pipedream is shown by the role played by geographers in the boldly conceived Tennessee Valley project which created a new relationship between man and environment in the poverty-stricken and erosion-ravaged farmlands of Tennessee, or in the work of geographers employed in the planning and development of post-war Britain. Here in New Zealand, where over wide areas man is still hesitantly adjusting to the potentialities of a little-known environment, the geographer has, I am convinced, a major role to play. That his contribution to date has been small can be attributed in part to the belief that our resources"—whether of land or timber"—were virtually limitless; partly to the common tendency, in part fostered by geographers themselves, to regard geography as a purely academic subject with no direct applications to the field of human affairs.

The spiritual contribution of geography cannot be completely divorced from its material contributions since the geographer's synthetic view, his concern with the inter-relatedness of things, gives him a distinctive world attitude and one essential for those guiding human affairs. Baulig, the French geographer, has defined the essence of geography as a state of mind; from this, it is only a step to describe it as an education. Just as a knowledge of painting or music adds immeasurably to the pleasure and satisfaction we derive from great music or great art, so does a geographical education add to the satisfaction we derive from any landscape. Such a knowledge enables us better to appreciate the inter-relatedness of terrain, land use and settlement in long-humanised areas such as Western Europe; it enables us page 16 to see a logic in the apparent disorder of the scattered patterns of cultivation in the rain forest of Africa, with each patch following selectively the pockets of good soil and the whole representing a skilful utilisation of a marginal environment; it explains the ordered sequence of agricultural landscapes, types of settlement and terrain between the laced surf of the Algerian coast and the shadowed golden sands of the Sahara. Geography can and should provide the basis for belter international understanding, giving a balanced picture of the past and present life of human groups the world over, indicating their traditions and values, their problems and the solutions they have found or sought to these problems. It helps to build up the concept of civilisation as "a vast network of reciprocal debts between nations."5 It can emphasise that, while the world is dangerously divided by political passions, mankind's solidarity in the fields of technology and culture is becoming daily more evident. It can help destroy old myths such as those of race superiority which stand in the way of mankind's attack on the basic problems of world poverty and can challenge, on scientific as well as humanitarian grounds, the tacit belief that the poverty and malnutrition of two-thirds of humanity is inevitable.6 And, because the whole world is his garden and all men his intellectual neighbours the geographer is, above all men, able to provide a clearsighted view of the problems of this second half of the twentieth century. These, the problems which will face us and our children, are the problems posed by the political and social emergence of the non-European peoples.7 They are the problems posed by the co-existence of various cultures, the problems of social, political and economic development which are being tackled by that two-thirds of humanity which is coloured, heirs to a different culture, a different set of values from our own West European culture. They are the problems of finding food and living space for an additional twelve hundred million of our fellow men, within the next generation and in a world which suffers from chronic malnutrition midst potential plenty, problems which are essentially ecological in character.

Along with the other social sciences and the earth sciences, geography can indicate the lines of a solution to those problems; above all, it can powerfully contribute to creating a climate of opinion in which the whole of mankind can co-operate in tackling the crucial issues which lie ahead. The faith in which the geographer makes this contribution is implicit in Sauer's concept of "Man"—ecologic dominant"; it was nobly expressed twenty-five centuries ago by Sophocles:

"Wonders are many on earth, and the greatest of these
Is man, who rides the ocean and takes his way
Through the deeps, through wind-swept valleys of perilous seas
That surge and sway.

He is master of ageless Earth, to his own will bending
The immortal mother of gods by the sweat of his brow,
As year succeeds to year, with toil unending
Of mule and plough.

There is nothing beyond his power, his subtlety
Meeteth all chance, all danger conquereth.
For every ill he hath found its remedy,
Save only death."8

Keith Buchanan

1 R. Jungk, Tomorrow is Already Here (London, 1954).

2 W. L. Thomas (ed.), Man's Role in Changing the Face of the Earth (Chicago, 1956).

3 M. le Lannou, La Geographie humaine (Paris, 1949), p. 45.

4 Carl Sauer, Agricultural Origins and Dispersals (New York, 1952), p. 1.

5 L. Francois in Courier (Unesco), Vol. V, No. 12, p. 4.

6 R. Brittain, Let There be Bread (N.Y., 1952).

7 J. Boyd-Orr, The White Man's Dilemma (London, 1954).

8 From the Antigone of Sophocles, trans. by E. F. Watling.