Tuesday, 31 October 2017

AAG 2018: The Historical Ontology of Environment: From the Unity of Nature to the Birth of Geopolitics

To date, I've never been to any of the big North American academic conferences (in fact, to date, I've never been to the Americas). However, I'll be breaking that three-decade streak in April by attending the Association of American Geographers Annual Meeting in New Orleans.

The abstract that I've submitted is essentially a summary of my PhD thesis, which, by that time, should be somewhere nearing completion. I'm looking forward to presenting it:
The Historical Ontology of Environment: From the Unity of Nature to the Birth of Geopolitics
By around 1910, 'environment' (and its cognates) had become a conceptual commonplace of Euro-American scientific, literary and political conversation. How did this come to be the case? How was this expression shifted and translated through different registers, regimes, disciplines and languages? In other words, how did we come to live in an 'environmental' world – and what difference does it make that (or if) we do? These are questions that are fundamental to the identity and origins of disciplinary geography; however, they also go well beyond it. This paper gives a short history of the emergence of 'environment' up to its initial moment of expansion and popularisation at the beginning of the twentieth-century. Beginning from the physics of Isaac Newton, it runs through the biology of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, the sociology of Auguste Comte, Harriet Martineau, Émile Durkheim, Gabriel Tarde and Herbert Spencer, the novels of Honoré de Balzac, Émile Zola and Thomas Carlyle, the climatology and cosmography of Alexander von Humboldt, the ecology of Charles Darwin and Ernst Haeckel, and the euthenics of Ellen Swallow Richards to the geopolitics of Friedrich Ratzel, Halford Mackinder and Ellen Churchill Semple. Of course, 'environment' circa 1910 is not yet the concept of care and conservation found from the 1960s onwards. However, by following these early moments of creation and propagation, this history facilitates a more complex understanding of twentieth- and twenty-first-century environmental thought and problems. Fundamental to the history of geography, then, but also to its present. Is environment an adequate concept for the problems of the Anthropocene? What is the relationship of environment to the Earth system? Is there future in environment – and, if so, how is it to be made?

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