Category Archives: Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers

Academic Writing and Geography Narrated

by Fiona Ferbrache

The ruins of Erskine Beveridge, is Fraser MacDonald’s (2013) narrative essay available as an early view article in Transactions. It tells the story of a house – Taigh Mòr, built by Erskine Beveridge on an intertidal island in the Outer Hebrides – and its inhabitants – the Beveridge family, who used the property as a summer retreat. It is also a first class piece of geographical writing.

Ruined_house_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1428145

House ruins (Source: Wikimedia Commons: Graham Horn)

MacDonald’s narrative non-fiction is unusual in style and form, and may at first appear unconventional for some geographers. This is not a style that appears frequently in published journals of our discipline, but may be situated within a renewed interest in literary geographies, including geographies of storytelling, and bio-geo-geography (see for example Lorimer and Wylie). In another way, the text reminded me of the personalised and enquiring travels made and recounted by Robert Macfarlane in The Old Ways. The style and methods are not dissimilar.

MacDonald’s aim in this piece is to “maintain a primary commitment to storytelling as an exemplar of geographical writing” (p.2). Yet, it goes further than this as it is inherently about (historical) geography. The deteriorating Taigh Mòr is situated at the centre of the tale, around which the lives of its inhabitants are explored and retold. The work touches at least three geographical themes: ruins, spaces of science and antiquarian knowledge, and fieldwork. The methods underpinning the ‘fieldwork’ included walking, interviewing, synthesising published sources, interpreting material remains in the landscape, and triangulating observations against other archives. Thus, the rich text is descriptive and analytical as it probes, explores and lays a thread for the reader to follow.

MacDonald argues that geographers “have some way to go before matters of form and style receive the same sort of attention currently given to methodology” (p.2). For young geographers, this commitment to storytelling, as an exemplar of geographical writing, will hopefully inspire creativity and originality, beyond geography’s more familiar writing conventions.

books_icon  MacDonald, F. 2013 The ruins of Erskine Beveridge. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers.  DOI: 10.1111/tran.12042

books_icon  Lorimer, H. 2003 Telling small stories: spaces of knowledge and the practice of geography. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 28, pp.197-217

books_icon  Wiley, J. 2009 Landscape, absence and the geographies of love. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 34, pp.275-289

60-world2  Stylish Academic Writing – a guide

Doing flood risk science differently?

By Helen Pallett

uk flooding 2007

The Summer 2007 UK foods. Image credit: Mat Fascione

A group of scientists at the University of Oxford have launched a new citizen science project to help them better understand the 2013-14 winter storms and flooding in the UK. Flooding events over the last decade have received increasing media attention and have been the object of controversies around the official responses. Debates have centred around the contribution of urbanisation to the increased frequency of flooding events, as well as the inadequacy of flood protection and flood response systems. But perhaps the most consistent topic of public debate has been the connection between (human induced) climate change and these extreme weather events.

The Oxford University project Weather@home 2014 asks whether and how much climate change has had an effect on the winter 2013-14 storms and floods and seeks to answer this question through the use of climate models. As the Guardian’s environment editor Damian Carrington explains here, running climate models can be time consuming but the more runs the team has to compare and plot, the clearer any trend will be. So the scientists invite anybody who is interested to sign up and help complete up to 30,000 climate model re-runs of winter 2013-14 with different assumptions about the influence of climate change on weather patterns.

This is an innovative citizen science project in that it expects its citizen scientists to contribute to the work of scientific analysis, rather than simply data collection (though the practice of climate modelling rather blurs this distinction). And it does seem an appropriate project in what has been labelled, ‘the year of the code’ (see for example, here). As with any citizen science project, however it has its limitations, especially in the role carved out for the citizen scientists. Assuming the participants are able to code (and clearly many people cannot), they are free to run as many model runs as they like, set within the scientific and technological framework provided by the Oxford University scientists. The participants, cannot for example, come up with competing models, do runs which seek to answer different questions about the floods, or draw on their own knowledge or experience of the winter floods in their engagement with the project. The scientific framing of this project is a highly contentious one within the climate science community, with many other scientists arguing that the task of attempting to attribute extreme weather events to climate change is impossible and unhelpful. Yet the participants have no say in this.

This shouldn’t surprise us of course, and does not prevent it from being a potentially productive and enriching experience for the both the scientists and citizen scientists involved. But another group of researchers has also been experimenting with involving non-scientists in flood-risk science in a very different way. The flood scientist Stuart Lane along with an interdisciplinary team of natural and social scientists attempted an experiment in flood management involving scientific experts and citizens with experience of flooding, but without giving them pre-defined roles. Natural and social scientists and citizens worked together to generate new knowledge about a flooding event, and to negotiate the different assumptions and commitments of each group, in order to inform public interventions in flood risk management. Thus all members of the group were seen to have relevant and useful knowledge, and efforts were made to develop collective understandings which were not differentiated between academics and non-academics. This research project contributed to scientific understandings of flood hydrology through the creation of new models for example, and also the collection of qualitative understandings and experiences of flooding. But it also helped to overcome an impasse in the management of floods in Pickering, the area under study, where no decision had been made about the appropriate use of resources for flood risk management, by helping to reconfigure relationships between the scientific ‘experts’ and local people.

These contrasting citizen science projects, both focussed on flooding, help to showcase the wide range of ways in which non-scientists can be involved in research projects. However, they also show the importance of aims and framing in determining the outcomes of the project and the ways in which non-scientists participate. The Oxford University project was framed as a conventional scientific study aiming to show how climate change had influenced recent extreme weather events, and co-opting citizen scientists as volunteers to help get the scientific work done more quickly. In the case of the Pickering flooding experiment, the researchers had no clear scientific aim, but rather were deliberately attempting to unsettle power relations between so-called experts and non-experts, and to see if this had an impact of the flood management plans people emerged with. Whilst many will claim that the scientific robustness of the knowledge and flood models generated by the latter project are undermined by the researcher’s determination to involve non-scientists at all stages, the project’s political and practical outcomes (and therefore the impacts on the citizen scientists) were overwhelmingly positive.

S N Lane, N Odoni, C Landstrom, S J Whatmore, N Ward & S Bradley 2011 Doing flood risk science differently: an experiment in radical scientific methodTransactions of the Institute of British Geographers 36(1): 15-36

Citizen scientists test influence of climate change on UK winter deluge: results poor in Guardian – Damian Carrington’s Environment Blog, March 24th

Weather@home 2014: the causes of the UK winter floods, climateprediction.net

Sochi and the spatialities of contentious politics

By Helen Pallett

2013_WSDC_Sochi_-_Zbigniew_Brodka_2

Image credit: Sacha Krotov

With the Winter Olympics drawing to a close at the weekend, global attention has moved away from Sochi, at least until March 7th when the Winter Paralympics begins. The Sochi Winter Olympics have been notable, not only for the achievements of the athletes involved, but for their politics. The site itself was heavily monitored and policed to curb the activities of ‘extremists’ out to disrupt and injure, and many activists were arrested or forcibly moved from the location. But Sochi itself also took on a broader political symbolism as an emblem of the struggle for LGBT rights. Some states such as the US deliberately sent prominent gay sports people to Sochi to head-up their delegations, whilst many news outlets, such as The Guardian, The New Statesman and Channel 4 in the UK, took the opportunity to highlight their support for the cause of equal rights, particularly through the use of the symbolic rainbow flag. President Putin meanwhile notoriously told gay people that they were very welcome in Sochi but that they should leave children alone.

The Sochi Winter Olympics then was a moment of contentious politics, created by the increasingly draconian laws being passed recently in Russia regarding LGBT rights, and the releasing of several prominent activists from prison, in the run up to when the world’s eyes would be on Sochi for the games. But there is also a complex spatiality to this contentious politics. In a study of the contentious politics of immigrant workers’ rights in the United States Helga Leitner, Eric Sheppard and Kristin Sziarto argued that it was important to understand the role of scale, place, networks, positionality and mobility in shaping and forming part of this politics.

Scale is important to understanding the contested politics of Sochi, as movements and debates occurred at multiple overlapping and interrelating scales. From the policing or transgression of the micro-spaces around the Olympic site, to the scale of Sochi as a city which became an emblem of the LGBT rights struggle, to the scale of Russia as a country and legal and political context of the Winter Olympics, to the global scale of the Olympics itself with the world’s attention on developments in Sochi. These different scales interacted with one another, influencing  other processes and producing new political effects, which in this case served to magnify the issue of LGBT rights beyond this one city.

The politics of place are also clearly at play in Sochi, with the city becoming so much of an emblem of broader struggles for LGBT rights, linked to its fleeting importance at a site for a major sporting event. Sochi’s reputation as a resort for Russia’s wealthy and extravagant elite only served to increase the controversy around the games. Like with many other social movements and instances of contentious politics the topology of networks was important to the visibility of the LGBT rights struggle around Sochi, connecting Russian and Sochi-based activists to other LGBT activists globally, and importantly, being passed through high profile media networks from Twitter to the international news outlets. The struggle for LGBT rights was also passed through significant sporting networks, reaching far beyond the pool of athletes involved in this Winter Olympics to the delegations sent by other countries to the games, or to other sportsmen and sportswomen who chose this particular moment to be open about their own sexuality or to affirm their support of LGBT rights.

The mobility of many members of these networks was also a significant factor in their success in making LGBT rights into such a significant issue around the games, whilst attempts to curb the mobility of activists’ and other individuals’ bodies around the Sochi site was an important way in which Russian authorities attempted to resist and undermine the struggle.

Finally, Leitner and colleagues assert that socio-spatial positionality is also an important component of such politics, bringing into focus difference and inequality. In this case, the difference in Russia’s stance on LGBT rights was an important vector of difference in comparison to significant moves towards the fulfillment of LGBT rights, such as gay marriage, in much of Western Europe and North America, which had important implications for how the political struggle played out and was resisted by the Russian Government. But equally the struggle for LGBT rights around the Sochi Winter Olympics was very successful at forging alliances between different groups of activists, different national LGBT rights movements, and between activists and sports people or sports fans. That prominent news outlets also felt the need to show their support to the cause shows the strength of such alliances.

Attention to the complex spatialities of social movements and contentious politics, such as the LGBT rights struggle, can illuminate the  interactions of different tactics, arenas, allegiances and oppositions in the movement, as well as highlighting the multiple locations or levers of the political struggle ‘on the ground’.

books_icon Helga Leitner, Eric Sheppard & Kristin Sziarto 2008 The spatialities of contentious politicsTransactions of the Institute of British Geographers 33(2): 157-172

60-world2 Pussy Riot members among group of activists arrested in Sochi The Guardian, February 18

60-world2 5 reasons why Sochi’s Olympics may be the most controversial games yet The Guardian, January 31

60-world2 Channel 4 goes rainbow to wish “good luck to those out in sochi” Channel 4, February 6

60-world2 Putin cautions gay visitors to Sochi BBC News, January 17

From the bedroom to the nation state: the geographies of welfare reform

By Helen Pallett

bedroom tax

Image credit: Brian McNeil

Debates about the UK welfare or ‘benefits’ system have been difficult to avoid in the media over the past weeks, from the furore surrounding the Channel 4 programme ‘Benefits Street’, to the reception of UN housing envoy Raquel Rolnik’s report on the impacts of the so-called ‘bedroom tax’. These stories are also part of a larger shift in the machineries of the British welfare system and public attitudes to benefit claimants which have emerged during the reign of the coalition government, though which arguably began during previous administrations.

With around 70% of households in the UK receiving at least one kind of state benefit, the vast changes we are currently witnessing in the welfare system are likely to have wide-ranging impacts. Current and recent changes to the benefits system include; the introduction of a benefits cap of £26,000 per year, the withdrawal of child benefit from households with a single income greater than £60,000 per year, changes in modes of assessment and criteria for eligibility for disability living allowance, a reduction in housing benefit available to low income households with spare rooms (the ‘bedroom tax’), and a reduction in the number of benefits available to under 25s.

Geographers studying the benefits system have a particular interest in how the impacts of these changes are felt differently between different regions and local authorities. This concern with the distribution of harms and benefits is particularly apt given the rhetoric of ‘fairness’ which has been used by politicians to justify such changes. This is something which Chris Hamnett observes in a recent article in the Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. 

Hamnett draws our attention to several aspects of the changes to the welfare system which are of particular geographical interest. Firstly, he considers the national impacts of the welfare changes in the light of austerity and spending cuts, with attempts to reduce overall welfare spending and to move towards a ‘workfare’ system which puts more emphasis on rewarding those in work and forces those out of work to be actively looking for work in order to receive benefits. These changes have also occurred alongside a hardening of public opinion towards those facing benefits – for example 80% of people supported the benefits cap – which will make any attempts to reverse these changes in future difficult.

Secondly, against a backdrop of contrasting regional welfare bills and huge differences in the mix of benefits claimed in different regions, Hamnett concludes that the impacts of many of the benefits cuts will be socially regressive. For example, in old ex-industrial areas, such as the former coal-mining regions of Wales and North East England, there are twice as many people claiming disability living allowance than in the South of England. Thus the restrictions in those eligible to claim disability living allowance have a disproportionate impact on the old ex-industrial regions, which also have a higher proportion of people out of work and on low incomes.

A third geographical trend that Hamnett observes at the local authority level, relates to the housing mix of certain inner city areas. Whilst the £26,000 benefit cap appears very generous, it has resulted in reductions in the amount of housing benefit available to low income households living in areas of very high rent, such as central London. Hamnett predicts that this, alongside the impacts of the ‘bedroom tax’ will make certain areas of London and elsewhere uninhabitable for low income families, leading to a pronounced zoning of high income and low income areas.

When considering the potential impacts of future changes to the welfare system it is important to think not only of individual stories of poverty or dependency, but to consider how they might effect the  already highly uneven geographical distribution of needs, benefits and incomes. Welfare changes are likely to have distinctly ‘spaced’ impacts and furthermore will be increasingly written into the fabric of these spaces – from the nation, to the de-instrustialised region, to the layout of the inner city, down the appropriate usage of the bedroom.

books_icon Chris Hamnett 2013 Shrinking the welfare state: the structure, geography and impact of British government benefit cuts Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers Online first DOI: 10.1111/tran.12049

60-world2 Benefits street: the hard-working history that Channel 4 left out Guardian, 29 January

60-world2 Bedroom tax: Raquel Rolnik’s uncomfortable truths Guardian, 3 February

Conducting emotional subjects: neuroscience in schools

By Helen Pallett

Classroom

Image credit: Marlith

On January 7th it was announced that a new fund has been launched, backed by the Wellcome trust and the Education Endowment Foundation, to promote the use of neuroscience research and neuroscientific understandings of learning in classrooms in England. As Dr Hilary Leevers of the Wellcome trust put it, many are concerned with an apparent ‘evidence gap’ between advances in neuroscience and real classroom practices.

In an article in the Guardian Leevers described certain neuroscientific concepts currently used in schools, such as the idea of children being left-brained or right brained, or tests to work out whether children are visual, auditory or kinsaesthetic learners as little more than “neuromyths”. In the response to the prevalence of such apparently ill-conceived ideas, Leevers and colleagues have proposed that the new fund will seek to support partnerships between teachers and neuroscientists to develop and test evidence-based interventions in classrooms.

This development is part of a broader set of changes in actions and attitudes around education policy in England and Wales, related to calls for the use of more rigorously scientific methods and ideas in the implementation and evaluation of new policies and programmes. Alongside the importing of ideas from neuroscience into the classroom, such developments have also included attempts to monitor and evaluate changes in education policy through quasi experimental methods such as randomised controlled trials (for example, see here).

In a new paper in the journal Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers Elizabeth Gagen describes a specific aspect of this emerging relationship between neuroscience and schools, namely the introduction of emotional literacy into the curriculum. Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL) was introduced into schools in 2007, giving pupils resources to improve their self-awareness and anger management, amongst other moral virtues. Gagen analyses this new development not only as an instance of knowledge transfer allowing the productive use of recent neuroscientific ideas in the classroom, but she also sees SEAL as being linked to a broader citizenship agenda in English schools. 

The compulsory teaching of citizenship began in 2002, mostly focussed on the political aspects of citizenship in the hope that it would promote political engagement amongst young people and reduce anti social behaviour. For Gagen the later introduction of emotional literacy into this curriculum represents a re-imagining of the ideas of citizenship and subjectivity, which has been enabled through the development of new ideas in popular neuroscience. She argues that pupils are not simply being schooled in developments in neuroscience and emotional coping strategies, but rather they are being disciplined into a certain understanding of emotional conduct and citizenship, which has broader implications beyond the classroom.

In this new world of neuroscience-informed education practice, it is important not only to question the evidential and conceptual bases for new developments, but also to think more broadly about the kinds of citizens such initiatives imagine and seek to bring into being and what implications these modes of disciplining might have as school pupils develop.

Elizabeth A. Gagen, 2014, Governing emotions: citizenship, neuroscience and the education of youth Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers DOI: 10.1111/tran.12048

Myths about how the brain works have no place in the classroom The Guardian, 7 January

Brain Scientists to work with schools on how to learn BBC News, 7 January

Glocal Finance: bounded forms of global financial capitalism

By Fiona Ferbrache

Warehouses being built adjacent to airport runways may be used as 'freeports' to store valuable goods

Warehouses being built adjacent to airport runways may be used as ‘freeports’ to store valuable goods

Entrepôts, freeports, bonded warehouses… these terms refer to special economic zones in which regulations are relatively relaxed in comparison with those of surrounding jurisdictions.  Such spaces are often part of international trading networks and may be analysed to gain insight to financial relations across and within bounded spaces. 

Guernsey (Channel Islands) is one example of an historical entrepôt. During the 17th and 18th centuries, it developed a key role in Anglo-French trade in wine, spirits and tobacco. Not only was the island strategically located between France and England, but it was used by both countries, at different time, to reduce the costs of import/export. Today, Guernsey provides another example of a special economic zone through status as an offshore financial centre.  The attractions of such spaces (security, tax advantages (relative to mainland jurisdictions) and confidentiality) are also found in a growing number of  freeports.

Freeports refer to repositories at airports that are becoming increasingly popular places to store and trade valuable or luxury goods.  You can read about them in a recent article from The Economist (2013).  Goods may arrive by plane, be transported to freeport warehouse (literally alongside the runway), and then traded without incurring import or other taxation duties.  This occurs partly because goods in freeports can be considered ‘in transit’ – neither ‘here’ nor ‘there’ (another interesting link for geographers might be how this connects with ‘mobilities’). 

The Economist suggests that rising interest in freeports is entangled with global processes and regulations that have evolved since the start of the financial crisis.  It is here that I wish to make a link with a new TIBG paper by Hendrike and Sidaway (2013), and their exploration of how the global financial crisis was mediated in one very specific place: Pforzheim, southwest Germany. Pforzheim is  treated as a ‘glocal’ display of the crisis in which financial decisions were taken at the local level but complexly interlinked with broader processes and structures of financial capitalism. Through this study, Hendrike and Sidaway provide a symptomatic example of how the financial crisis was mediated through particular scales and polity. 

It is not the intention here to present these spaces as negative or deviant, but as localised or ‘bounded spaces’ in an interconnected world.  A commonality between entrepôts, freeports and Pforzheim, is the way in which global issues (such as the financial crisis or trade networks) are interpreted, negotiated and contested through bounded spaces; examination of which can inform out understanding or broader processes and structures.


books_icon
 Hendrikse, R.P. & Sidaway, J.D. 2013 Financial wizardry and the Golden City: tracking the financial crisis through Pforzheim, Germany. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. DOI: 10.1111/tran.12024

books_icon  Aalbers, M. (2009) Geographies of the financial crisis. Area. 41(1): 34-42

books_icon  Derudder, B., Hoyler, M. & Taylor, P. (2011) Goodbye Reykjavik: international banking centres and the global financial crisis. Area. 43(2): 173-182

60-world2 The Economist (2013) Freeports: Uber-warehouses for the ultra-rich.

60-world2  The New York Times (2012) Swiss Freeports are home for a growing treasury of art
 

Rewilding as a new paradigm for nature conservation?

By Helen Pallett

polar bear

Image credit: Maartenrus from nl

The news that the residents of a small town in subarctic Canada are teaching the polar bears they encounter to fear humans has strong resonances with wider debates about the future of conservation and environmentalism in the face of global environmental change. Seasonal migration patterns of animals like polar bears have been affected by reduced sea ice in the Arctic alongside other climatic and environmental changes, in this case bringing them more closely in contact with humans for a longer period of the year. These increasingly stressed and hungry polar bears have resorted to attacks on humans, putting a strain on human-polar bear relations in Churchill, Canada.

This story forms part of world-wide picture of community responses to global environmental change and other human induced impacts on their surrounding environments. What is new about recent developments, in comparison to more conventional forms of conservation which have long been a human response to changing environments, is that communities and conservation groups are not intervening to conserve - to try to keep things as they are or stabilise declines in certain populations or environmental quality – rather they are intervening with the explicit motive of altering these environments. The aim of this new wave of projects is to enrich environments and ecosystems in line with understandings of the palaeoecology of the areas – i.e. what the environments would have been like before human influence, shifting the baseline of conservation efforts further back into history – sometimes involving the re-introduction of species which had long left the region and explicit attempts to de-domesticate flora and fauna (as the residents of Churchill have been doing with their polar bears). These initiatives have been labelled ‘Rewilding’.

The mission of the Rewilding Europe project is to ‘rewild’ 1 million hectares of European land by 2020. Some of the projects they support include: increasing Iberian Lynx populations in Western Iberia; the reintroduction of beavers and bison in the Romanian mountains; and improving the habitats of bears, wolves and other wild animals in the Eastern Carpathians of Slovakia and Poland (for more information see here). The commentator George Monbiot has recently argued for similar approaches to be tried in Britain, accusing British conservation groups as having a lack of ambition in failing to push for the reintroduction of carnivores such as wolves into the landscape.

Advocates like Monbiot are particularly concerned with the ‘wildness’ of environments; promoting the creation of wildness through planned and in some cases far reaching interventions and evoking a sense of delight and wonder in the face of the wild. The idea of wildness too has been of interest to geographers who have explored how wildness is constructed and used as a device in debates about land use. With regards to the supposed pristine wildness of the landscape of the Scottish Highlands, geographer Fraser MacDonald has argued that such romantic views mask the human labour which goes into to maintaining such environments, detracting from the lived human experience of these lands and drawing attention only to the visual characteristics of such landscapes.

In a recent paper in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers Jamie Lorimer and Clemens Driessen examine a rewilding initiative in the Oostvaaredersplassen, a public polder near Amsterdam. The polder is on land reclaimed from the sea in the 1960s for an industrial development which was never followed through. Instead the polder was colonised by greylag geese whose intensive grazing of the area eventually made it an ideal habitat for other migratory birds. And in the 1970s the authorities decided to diversify and de-domesticate the land further by introducing red deer. In their account of this initiative Lorimer and Driessen emphasise the accidental or even experimental nature of these developments, in contrast to the close planning and management which have characterised other forms of conservation.

The experiment at Oostvaaredersplassen has proved controversial and grabbed popular attention precisely because of the challenges it raises for conventional understandings of conservation. The experimental environment is not a completely wild one, it was not ‘found’ as we imagine most field science projects to be, but neither does it operate in carefully controlled laboratory conditions. The ecologists working on the area reject theories which would predict the orderly and linear succession of flora on the land , thus adopting a much more speculative approach to their management which is open to surprise and unexpected developments.

It is important for geographers to respond critically to romantic justifications of conservation efforts which conjure up pictures of pristine wildness, or even wilderness, or seem to exclude marginalised human voices from having a say in conservation and landuse decisions. On the other hand, the paradigm of rewilding offers opportunities for geographers to conceive of and intervene in conservation initiatives differently; to become involved in more open-ended experiments including both human and non-human actors, which both acknowledge the labour and intentions of humans and also the potential for environments to develop in unexpected directions.

books_icon Jamie Lorimer & Clemens Driessen 2013 Wild experiments at the Oostvaaredersplassen: rethinking environmentalism in the Anthropocene Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers Online first

60-world2 Fraser MacDonald Unwilding Scotland Bella Calledonia, 2 November 2013

60-world2 How a Canadian town is teaching polar bears to fear humans in order to save them  - video Guardian, 25 November 2013

60-world2 Making Europe a wilder place – interactive Guardian, 15 October 2013

60-world2 Why are Britain’s conservation groups so lacking in ambition? Guardian, 18 October 2013

Historical Geographies: creating geography in 18th century France

by Fiona Ferbrache

Paul Vidal de la Blache (1845-1918) commands an especially important position in the history of modern geography, as the acknowledged ‘founding father’ of the French School of Human Geography. 

AvePaul(1)This is how Howard (1986:174) introduces the man whose name is displayed on the road sign, illustrated on the right.  Vidal de la Blache was born in Pézenas and one of the town’s main thoroughfares is named after the geographer (see earlier post on place-naming). 

Vidal de la Blache’s Tableau de la Geographie de la France is perhaps his best known book, and his ideas on regional geography strongly shaped geographical paradigms at that time (see Baker 2002).  However, we need to look further back than the Vidalian era to better understand the development of geography, both in France and more generally.

Heffernan’s article in TIBG provides this “deeper history” by exploring the scientific value of geography during the early 18th century “before the first geographical societies were established in Paris, Berlin and London” (p.1).  He draws on archives and publications of the Paris Academy of Sciences to explain how geography became recognised as a science, particularly with the election of a specialist in geography in 1730 – Philippe Buache.  Heffernan’s broader argument proposes this organisation as one of the key sites in which geography became defined, practised and produced in Europe (linking to the creation of scientific knowledge and epistemic formation).  So how was geography defined at this time?

Geography emerged, as scientific practices such as cartographic survey were re-allocated from astronomy.  This, Heffernan suggests, laid “the conceptual terrain on which the modern discipline would later be enacted” (p.9).  The influence of Buache’s work in the mid 18th century (notably his 1752 memoire) is also said to have laid the path for political debates about the role of ‘natural’ regions to French administrative geography.  These geographical ideas are perhaps linked to those that came later in the work of Vidal de la Blache.

Overall, Heffernan’s paper provides a deeper insight to the historical creation of geography as a recognised discipline. 

books_icon  Baker, A.R.H. 2002 Book Review: Le tableau de la géographie de la France de Paul Vidal de la Blache. Dans le labyrinthe des formes. Progress in Human Geography. 26:707

 books_iconHeffernan, M. 2013 Geography and the Paris Academy of Sciences: politics and patronage in early 18th-century France. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. DOI: 10.1111/tran.12008

Opening Spatial Secrets and Closed Spaces: Urban Exploration

by Fiona Ferbrache

Urban exploration 0001Robert Macfarlane (author of The Old Ways and other adventures on foot) focused his attention on Urban Exploration last month with an article in The Guardian.  Macfarlane’s piece opens as “a guide for the uninitiated”; a little like a job application with a list of essential criteria for those wishing to pepper pot manoeuvre the architecture and materiality of urban spaces.  Following Macfarlane through a “strange world of urban exploration”, the reader is introduced to a land of porous infrastructure where spaces deemed to be closed off, secret and securitised are opened up by the urban explorer.

Geographers reading Macfarlane’s article may decipher urban exploration as a critical engagement with space.  For example, he writes that “the usual constraints of urban motion, whether enforced by physical barriers or legal convention” do not necessarily restrict the urban explorer.  In another way, street level is interpreted as “a  median altitude” in urban exploration, as accessible spaces penetrate downwards through sewers, bunkers and tunnels, and upwards via skyscrapers and cranes.  Perhaps this is proper space exploration as well as urban exploration?

Macfarlane is guided through his urban initiation by experienced explorer (and geographer) Bradley Garrett.  From Macfarlane’s conversational introduction to urban exploration, readers can gain a more theoretical perspective from Garrett (2013) in an early view TIBG paper.  Here, Garrett refers to urban exploration as “recreational trespass” and explores explicitly some of the challenges to spatial engagements that are implied by Macfarlane: “urban exploration as a practice that speaks directly to past and present debates around space, place, subversion, surveillance, community and urban life within geography” (p.2).

The two articles are written for different audiences, thus offering young geographers useful insights to purposeful writing.  For the more experienced geographer, Garrett’s paper sets up urban exploration in the context of political action, and will be of further interest to those concerned with deep ethnographies.  For explorers, it may be the physical infrastructure of the local town that seems the most intriguing.

books_icon  Garrett, B.L. 2010 Urban explorers: quests for myth, mystery and meaning. Geography Compass 4,10 pp.1448-61

books_icon  Garrett, B.L. 2013 Undertaking recreational trespass: urban exploration and infiltration. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographer. DOI: 10.1111/tran.12001

60-world2  Macfarlane, R. 2013 The Strange World of Urban Exploration. The Guardian

What future for the IPCC?

By Helen Pallett

Stop_global_warming_sign_in_blizzard_-_February_10,_2010_blizzard

Image credit: AgnosticPreachersKid

Climate change has been squarely back on our TV screens and in our newspapers over the last two weeks, with the now familiar media circus surrounding the unveiling of the latest assessment report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The IPCC’s fifth assessment report came with increased assurances of the probability of dire impacts caused by human-induced climate change, and moved many British papers from the Guardian to (perhaps more surprisingly) the Telegraph to proclaim the need for immediate global action both to mitigate and cope with these impacts.

Whilst this arguably felt like the most credulous and trusting reception an IPCC report has been met with, there have been rumbles from within the institution itself and from the scientific profession more widely hinting at increasing frustration with IPCC organising and working practices. Former lead author on the 2001 and 2007 IPCC reports, Kevin Trenberth is one who has put his head above the parapet to ask whether it is time to change the IPCC’s reporting practices. He argues that the IPCC has largely fulfilled its original function of synthesising and deliberating over relevant scientific advice on climate change, and that society’s needs are now changing. Furthermore, the effort of writing IPCC reports is “huge, cumbersome and burdensome” he claims, both for the organisation as a whole and for the individual scientists who volunteer their time. He suggests that in light of this and in response to the climate impacts being felt by citizens all over the world, the IPCC should move to a system of more continuous and responsive reporting, rather than the spasmodic compiling of large tomes.

Former climate scientist and IPCC contributor Professor Mike Hulme has leveled perhaps a more radical critique at the IPCC in a recent podcast. Hulme argues that the overemphasis on the science of climate change is a distraction from the more difficult political challenges of promoting policies to mitigate the effects of climate change at multiple scales, and dealing with climate impacts on the ground. Hulme advocates instead an approach which he calls ‘climate pragmatism’ which puts emphasis on improving the ability of societies to deal with risks, the improvement of air quality at regional and national scales, and finally innovation and investment around renewable energy. Such efforts do not require the traditional targets and timetables attached to most international climate negotiations, and indeed do not rest on the need for all countries to agree on these measures. But most importantly for Hulme, this approach does not necessitate any emphatic agreement on the science of climate change or firm predictions of what impacts will be felt where and when.

Hulme has long been a constructive critic of the IPCC, writing a piece in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers on the topic in 2007. In this piece Hulme argues that climate change is both a physical transformation and a cultural object which will have other effects on society. Whilst the IPCC offers a detailed account of this physical transformation, its emphasis on the contributions of natural scientists means that it has done little to address the development of climate change as a cultural object. Furthermore, the account that the IPCC offers is universal and at a global scale, ignoring the different meanings which may be attached to climatic changes in different local and cultural contexts, and preferring the apparent objectivity of numbers and graphs over attempts to understand diverse lived experiences of weather and climate.  The diversity of situated meanings of climate change was further emphasised when the British secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs Owen Paterson announced at a conservative party conference fringe event on Sunday evening that global warming could have some positive effects in the UK. The critiques of Paterson’s comments which followed generally focussed on his lack of appreciation and understanding of the science of climate change (for example see here), rather than his apparent lack of concern for humans living in areas outside of the UK who are facing the possibility of much more catastrophic impacts.

Hulme’s account undermines not only the workings and aims of the IPCC, but also its scope and content, suggesting that alternative modes of knowledge-making about climate might beget different behaviours and policies in future. The story of the ambitious project of the IPCC continues, but who knows what shape it will take in the years to come.

60-world2 Climate change: the uses of uncertainty The Guardian, 26 September

60-world2 We need to cool things down over climate change The Telegraph, 26 September

60-world2 Global warming can have a positive side, says Owen Paterson The Guardian, September 30

60-world2 Owen Paterson v the science of climate change The Guardian, September 30

60-world2 Kevin Trenberth, Time to change how the IPCC reports? The Conversation, September 28

60-world2 IPCC report distracts from resolving political challenges of climate change, says King’s expert  Kings College London, September 27

books_icon Mike Hulme, 2007 Geographical work at the boundaries of climate change Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 33 5-11