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?

Review of "Genealogies of Environmentalism: The Lost Works of Clarence Glacken"

In 1967, Clarence Glacken published Traces on the Rhodian Shore – an encyclopaedic masterpiece in the history of geographical ideas describing, as per the book’s subtitle, Nature and Culture in Western Thought from Ancient Times to the End of the Eighteenth Century. Despite writing many more pages prior to his death in 1989 at the age of 80, most of these, tragically, were lost, destroyed or simply unpublished – until now.
My review of "Genealogies of Environmentalism: The Lost Works of Clarence Glacken" has just come out at the journal Local Environment. This link apparently gives subscription-free access to the first fifty clicks (the standard link is here; if anyone can't access it and wishes to, feel free to get in touch).

It's a fairly short and sweet affair. I basically summarise the text and discuss its circumstances, weaknesses and (not inconsiderable) strengths. The one conceptual point I draw out of it in particular is from p.183, where Glacken writes:
Environmental determinism in fact has been so strong that only with the greatest difficulty have systematic studies of man’s role in changing the physical environment been made.
This connection between environmental determinism in the sense of that which imposes upon and moulds the environed and environment in the post-1960s sense of something to be concerned for is, for me, crucial.

Borrowing a phrase from Bruno Latour, I call it an example of the redistribution of agencies – something that I am trying to further develop in my thesis work.