The Quest for No Man’s Land

By Noam Lesham, Durham University, UK, and Alasdair Pinkerton, Royal Holloway University of London, UK. 

A migrant camp on the Slovenia-Croatia border, September 2015. Photographer: Elliot Graves, FOXEP

A migrant camp on the Slovenia-Croatia border, September 2015. Photographer: Elliot Graves, FOXEP

Recent news reports of new ‘no man’s lands’ emerging across Europe conjure an image of migrants trapped in places that are considered to be somehow “in between”. Typically that means in between hastily erected border fences, such as those that have suddenly appeared on the Hungarian borders with Croatia, Serbia and Austria, or at reinstated border posts between Schengen-area countries.

This re-emergence of ‘no-man’s land’ in the popular vocabulary is just its latest incarnation. In Western cultural memory, ‘no-man’s land’ traditionally invokes the killing fields of the First World War. Disseminated and popularised through journalistic accounts from the Western Front, the no-man’s land became known as the ultimate locus of physical and corporeal destruction. However, in the latter half of the 20th century, no man’s lands have been associated with anywhere from “ungovernable territories” and the spatio-legal limbos of the ‘war on terror’, to plighted deindustrialised urban boroughs in North America.

This growing proliferation prompted us to ask the seemingly simple question that lies at the heart of our paper published by Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers: What is no-man’s land? The answers to this question seem intuitively obvious, yet bewilderingly broad.

At its core, our article sets out to rethink the significance of no man’s lands to the political and social challenges of the present. Revisiting over 1000 of the term’s history, we focus attention on the realities of life for individuals and communities who live, work in or travel through these space. Rather than empty sites or “dead zones”, we argue that no man’s lands are living spaces. While the withdrawal of traditional forms of power often results in material dilapidation and heightened vulnerability of populations, we find that no man’s lands often become sites of political activity and cultural creativity.

We recently completed a 6,000 mile journey in search of no-man’s lands past and present. This took us from the mediaeval Nomansland in Herefordshire, through the French villages decimated in WWI, the route of the Iron Curtain and the Cypriot Buffer Zone. We were hoping to reach Bir Tawil on the Egypt-Sudan border, the last unclaimed territory on earth, but this never transpired.

As we were crossing Europe, the Schengen Agreement was coming under immense pressure with old borders reinstated almost overnight. It was then that the media use of no man’s land began proliferating. However, the new no-man’s lands of Europe may be opening up along the lines of national borders, but also in spaces hundreds of miles from Europe’s ‘edges’. Pedestrian underpasses, train platforms, and even train carriages can and have become, however briefly, sites of restriction, enclosure and abandonment.

Second, these no-man’s lands are highly dynamic – they migrate, they move, they materialise and de-materialise with startling rapidity in response to shifting political decisions (perhaps especially so when there are differential political decisions across borders), police activity or the presence of NGOs and international humanitarian activity.

Rethinking no-man’s lands in the 21st century is a key challenge that will require a more rigorous engagement from historians, geographers and political scientists. At the same time, and as we are reminded daily, this is also task with concrete policy implications, one with immense social and political stakes.

About the authors: Noam Lesham is a lecturer in the Department of Geography at Durham University and Alasdair Pinkerton is a Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London. Find out more about the Into no man’s land expedition, co-led by Noam and Alasdair, at  .

60-world2 Aronson G 2015 Egypt threatened by ‘ungoverned space’ on Libyan border AL-Monitor

60-world2 BBC 2015 Migrant crisis: Trapped in no-man’s land at the Croatia/Serbia border

books_icon Leshem, N. and Pinkerton, A. (2015), Re-inhabiting no-man’s land: genealogies, political life and critical agendas. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. doi: 10.1111/tran.12102

60-world2 Raven B 2014 No man’s land: Unwanted land piles up in Jackson County  M Live Media Group

60-world2 Iyengar R 2015 Hungary reopens Budapest train station to stranded refugees after two days Time 

Geographies of youth work, volunteering and employment #YWW15

By Sarah Mills, Loughborough University

Today marks the start of ‘National Youth Work Week’ (2nd – 8th November 2015). This annual event is a celebration of youth work and its achievements, but is also a time to reflect on some of the challenges across the youth work landscape. Paul Miller, interim Chief Executive of the National Youth Agency, stated at the event’s launch that:

“Youth Work Week is a time when people from every part of the sector can come together to celebrate and promote what youth workers do and the transformative contribution they are making to young people’s lives.” (NYA, 2015)

This was the case at the Jewish Lads’ Brigade & Club in Manchester in the 1950s and 1960s, the focus of my recent article in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. As part of a wider national post-war reconstruction effort for the organisation as a whole, one group in Manchester took a radical step of employing a professionally trained youth worker – Stanley Rowe (Figure 1). During his employment, Rowe completely revived and rejuvenated the Club and it became a crucially important space in the lives of hundreds of young people living in the city (Figure 2).

Figure 1: Stanley Rowe at the Jewish Lads’ Brigade & Club, Manchester With kind permission from the University of Southampton

Figure 1: Stanley Rowe at the Jewish Lads’ Brigade & Club, Manchester. With kind permission from the University of Southampton

Figure 2: Young people at the Jewish Lads’ Brigade & Club, Manchester With kind permission from the University of Southampton

Figure 2: Young people at the Jewish Lads’ Brigade & Club, Manchester. With kind permission from the University of Southampton

Rowe’s background in youth and community work inspired a new emphasis at the Club on young people’s ‘voice’ and they established their own Club Committee. Indeed, young people’s voice is a theme still very much on the political agenda, as both the theme for this year’s National Youth Work Week and the 2015 UN International Youth Day in relation to ‘youth civic engagement’.

In the article, I use the historical example of the JLB & C to make a series of wider arguments about youth work, volunteering and employment more broadly. Both Rowe and his voluntary base encouraged young people to volunteer in their local communities, both as a route to employment but also as a response to faith-based duty (although it is interesting to note that Rowe himself was non-Jewish). More importantly however, the paper considers some of the opportunities and tensions that arise between volunteers and employees when they work alongside one another, under the same remit here of providing a service to young people.

The current landscape of organised activities for young people outside of formal education in the UK is composed of diverse schemes funded and delivered by the state, voluntary organisations, charities, religious institutions, neighbourhoods, families or a combination thereof. Most of these spaces and schemes are sustained through a mix of paid and unpaid labour, with a complex relationship between volunteering and employment. Indeed, this dynamic has become increasingly politicised in the UK, for example in the provision of libraries and other public services. This paper emphasises some of the emotional challenges of volunteering and employment and the sheer volume of work involved in sustaining these types of spaces through holding them together in place.

Overall, this article explores the spatialities of informal education, drawing connections between the historical record and contemporary youth work practice.

About the Author:

Sarah Mills is a Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at Loughborough University.


books_icon Mills, S. (2015) Geographies of youth work, volunteering and employment: the Jewish Lads’ Brigade and Club in post-war Manchester, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 40 (4): 523-535

60-world2 National Youth Agency (2015) ‘NYA launches Youth Work Week 2015’ Available at:

60-world2 UN (2015) ‘2015 International Youth Day: Youth Civic Engagement’ Available at:

The Growing Banking Sector under Austerity: Food Banking that is…

By Julian Shaw, King’s College London

Closed Businesses in Humber Street. Image Credit: Andy Beecroft

Closed Businesses in Humber Street. Image Credit: Andy Beecroft

Across the less-affluent towns of the UK it is a familiar experience to walk through once thriving high streets and now see boarded up shops, pubs, and social clubs. Budget stores seem to be the only ones surviving now. Budget stores and food banks actually.

In their recent article for Area, Hannah Lambie-Mumford and Mark Green (2015) explore the correlation between welfare cuts and the increase in food bank reliance of children from the most deprived parts of the country. An uncomfortable reality for the Austerity discourse of the current neoliberal Conservative government.

Some commentators regard Food Banks as the “epitome of the Big Society”; a solution to community food needs in times of crisis (Conservative Home, 2012). Yet Lambie-Mumford and Green (2015) reveal that these ‘solutions’ to community hardship have failed to maintain previous standards of living; instead less and less is being consumed by many of the poorest families (especially of expensive healthy items like fruit and veg). Lambie-Mumford and Green (2015) assert with conviction that viewing Food Banks as solutions to the problems of communal hardship is misguided; instead they assert that “food banks work to relieve symptoms of food insecurity; they do not…address the root causes” (ibid.: 5).

As we approach the implementation of the Conservative Government’s July Budget 2015, another wave of £12 billion welfare cuts are planned. The Independent recently reported that within this budget, plans to cut £4.5 billion from the working tax credits bill (despite opposition from within the Conservative party) are likely to leave “3.2 million families worse off by an average of £1,300 a year when they come into effect next April” (Independent, 2015); that this is around £25 a week less.

A brief glance at the ONS data for household expenditure in 2014 (ONS, 2014) and an alarming detail stands out; average expenditure on ‘Food and non-alcoholic drinks’ was £54.80 a week in 2014. If similar trends to the Save the Children survey (2012) continue, how much more can weekly food budgets be cut by already desperate families? And how much more can food banks provide? Will those donating food continue with their kind offerings when it becomes the ‘norm’?

The ironic sting in the tail, is that the carrot offered by the July Budget 2015 – the new £7.20 per hour minimum wage, re-labelled the ‘National Living Wage’ (NLW) – may mean that more businesses in poor towns will be forced to close or downsize. In a recent survey of convenience stores in the UK it was asserted that 6% of businesses will close, while 58% of businesses will reduce staff numbers, if the NLW is introduced (ACS, 2015). In addition, the founder of JD Wetherspoon Pubs, Tim Martin declared last month that the NLW risks further pub closures as well, “especially in the less-affluent areas” (The Guardian, 2015). When the dereliction of the town centre reaches its zenith, are we going to see a return of the high street bank to the town centres? But this time they will be food banks.


60-world2 ACS (2015)Living Wage Introduction Will Lead to Job Losses, Delayed Investment and Business Closures Online Article.  (Accessed online on 19th October 2015)

60-world2 Independent (2015)George Osborne to remain stubborn on tax credits despite Tory backlash: ‘We are not going to move on it… no caveats‘” Article online. (Accessed on 19th October 2015)

books_icon Lambie-Mumford, H., and Green, M.A., (2015) Austerity, welfare reform and the rising use of food banks by children in England and Wales, Area, doi: 10.1111/area.12233

60-world2 ONS (2014) Family Spending 2014 Data. (Accessed on 19th October 2015)

60-world2 Save the Children (2012) Child poverty in 2012: it shouldn’t happen here, Save the Children, Manchester

60-world2 The Guardian (2015)Wetherspoon boss attacks minimum wage plan as profits slump Article online. (Accessed online on 19th October 2015)

Can new remote sensing technologies improve diplomacy in shared river catchments?

By Joseph J. Bailey, University of Nottingham, UK.

Rivers are the arteries of the world, carrying life-giving water to the organs that are the natural habitats and human settlements. An increase or decrease in flow can have disastrous consequences through droughts and flooding, thus ensuring a sustainable water supply is seen as a priority by many states worldwide. Despite the vast number of environmental problems dams can (and do) cause, they allow people to not only control water flow to the population in times of low or high supply/demand, but also produce energy through hydroelectric technologies. Whether or not to build a dam, and when to remove a dam, is, or at least should be, decided by comparing the environmental impact with the benefits of energy and water provision. The accumulated impact of building multiple dams within a watershed should also be considered, because this can result in lower water quality for humans, alongside inflated environmental impacts.

It is not surprising then that dams are highly contentions across all scales, from the local to the global. Indeed, they are one of the most contentious geopolitical issues in the world today, with international debates surrounding the Nile in Africa and within-country debates over Brazil’s Belo Monte and Madeira dams, to take just two examples. Dams have even been considered ‘powerful weapons of war’ in the Middle East. To sum up, dams are amongst the most important structures in the world because they safeguard the most valuable resource in the world for whoever owns it. Dams therefore hold great political, as well as hydrological, power and are understandably at the centre of many international debates and discussions.

Brahmaputra River, Shigatse, Tibet

Brahmaputra River, Shigatse, Tibet (Boqiang Liao via Wikimedia Commons, available at:,_Shigatse.jpg?uselang=en-gb)

Often in such debates and discussions, the owner of the upper reaches of a river, and any dams therein, holds vast amounts data about spatial and temporal water flow (discharge) in that region, and may closely guard those data from its neighbours, and from global data hubs. Those who hold the data have a political advantage when discussing the future for a particular river, and those downstream, who possess no or very little data on the upstream parts of the river flowing through their country, may struggle to apply any political pressure.

This issue of data sharing, or lack thereof, is discussed in a paper by Gleason and Hamdan (2015) in The Geographical Journal. They write how a novel remote sensing technique might be able to help with this using two case studies: the Brahmaputra and the Mekong (known as the Lancang in China). Both have featured in the news recently, with the opening of a Chinese dam in the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra in Tibet (e.g. Reuters Africa, Voice of America) and with the Mekong because of the many dam constructions completed recently or in progress (map and details at International Rivers; also see Al Jazeera). Both of these situations are very complicated, affecting millions of people in the countries concerned, as well as attracting international attention.

The aforementioned technique highlighted by Gleason and Hamdan (2015), and initially developed by Gleason and Smith (2014), is called ‘at-many-stations hydraulic geometry’ (AMHG). It uses remotely sensed data (from satellites) and recent advancements in geomorphic theory and aims to address the data shortfall many countries experience in relation to inaccessible watersheds. These are usually in another country, but the technique may also be of use in hard-to-reach areas within a country. While the model produces noteworthy inaccuracies compared to in situ gauge measurements, these data are obtainable by anyone and may at least partially fill a knowledge gap for some countries.

Perhaps through enabling countries without direct access to flow rate information of river stretches outside of their borders, data from remote sensing technologies will benefit a nation’s diplomatic standing with their neighbours. Such technologies are also likely to improve in the future with dedicated satellites for measuring river properties (see Gleason and Hamdan, 2015). This will overcome inaccuracies seen with AMHG, which, at present, may be an argument that countries owning upper reaches can use against those further downstream; that the data being used are not accurate enough to make a valid case for more or less water to be released downstream, for example.

However, whilst these new technologies will no doubt be able to assist with hydrological monitoring into the future and probably help with these often tense cross-border situations by enabling downstream countries, the ultimate challenges, as is already the case in many places at the moment, will be political and rely on the relationship between the countries concerned. This is because one country will always control the dam that stops and releases the water, even if their neighbour knows absolutely everything about the watershed concerned through remote sensing. There are many discussions to be had about who really owns rivers, containing arguably the most valuable resource on the planet, when they start in one country and flow into another. As climate change continues, and populations grow, water resources are likely to be stretched ever further and it may be prudent to attempt to resolve the issues discussed here sooner rather than later.


books_icon Gleason C. J. and Smith L. C. (2014). Toward global mapping of river discharge using satellite images and at-many-stations hydraulic geometry. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111, 4788–91.

books_iconGleason, C. J. and Hamdan, A. N. (2015). Crossing the (Watershed) Divide: Satellite Data and the Changing Politics of International River Basins. The Geographical Journal (early view).

West Philippine Sea? ASEAN Sea? What’s in a Name

By Scott Kirsch, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Two US Navy warships, with the hospital ship USS Mercy in foreground, docked at Subic Bay, Philippines, August 2015. Photo credit: Scott Kirsch

Two US Navy warships, with the hospital ship USS Mercy in foreground, docked at Subic Bay, Philippines, August 2015. Photo credit: Scott Kirsch

Even as China’s “creeping assertiveness” in the South China Sea has given way to a more fully realized dredging geopolitics – reflected spectacularly in photographs of new and quite different artificial reefs produced by China and the Philippines near the disputed Spratly Islands – geopolitics in the South China Sea is also increasingly being rendered in maps, from China’s territorial “9-dash line”, since 2012 emblazoned inside its citizens’ passports, to Google’s 10-dash version of China’s 9-dash line, which provoked a crowd-sourced controversy of its own.   In June, 2015, the Philippine government attempted to raise the diplomatic stakes when it submitted to the United Nations Tribunal on the Law of the Sea in The Hague a 1734 Murillo Velarde map of the archipelago, recently purchased at auction at Sotheby’s by Filipino businessman Mel Velarde for an astonishing £170,000, in support of its claim that the contested Scarborough Shoal – then known as Panacot – was historically part of Spanish Philippine territory.  Given that the contents of Murillo Velarde’s hydrographic and chorographic chart were already well known – indeed they were the basis of Philippine cartography until 1898 – it was a stiff price to pay for Mel Velarde, evidently driven by patriotism and genealogy, also reflecting the persistence of the peculiar rhetoric of maps in contemporary geopolitical discourse and practice, maps which appear to provide both evidence of, and an argument for, particular geographical claims.

While the Velarde map may or may not prove persuasive in The Hague, the controversy underscores the re-emergence of geopolitics, with its pervasive cartographic imaginations, in recent efforts among six Southeast Asian states which are currently staking overlapping claims to territorial waters and exclusive economic zones in the South China Sea.   Efforts to inscribe or re-inscribe maritime spaces in the South China Sea with boundaries, markers, and names, alongside the production of new reefs, islands, and other back-filled spaces, have occurred in the context of China’s dramatic recent industrial growth, which has also been reflected in expanded resource markets and heightened Chinese naval presence and activity in what is, for China, simply the South Sea.

In 2011 the Philippine government – in a moment of nationalist unity shared among the legislative, executive, and armed forces – made it official that the South China Sea was to be known henceforth as the West Philippine Sea.  Interestingly, for Walden Bello, the Filipino legislator and public intellectual who drafted the resolution calling for the official change, the exercise in naming, “wasn’t meant to connote a specific territorial boundary.  We wanted it just to reflect that this wasn’t China’s sea.  We are by no means fixed with regards to our attitude to the name.  … We are even open to calling it the Southeast Asia Sea or ASEAN Sea or what have you.  Our proposal” as Bello would describe it in December 2011 interview, “was at most a symbolic and politico-psychological move.”  But if, for Bello, the choice for the Philippines was between “pursuing multilateral solutions, within the ASEAN framework and under the auspices of the UNCLOS … and creating a bipolar Sino-American face-off by bringing America into the picture,” then, since 2012, when the US and Philippines agreed to an Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, the trend has been clearly toward an increasing bilateral militarization, drawing the US Navy back to Subic Bay, the former home base of the Seventh Fleet, at a frequency not seen since the base closure in 1992.

In my forthcoming article “Insular territories: US colonial science, geopolitics, and the (re)mapping of the Philippines,” I explore interconnections among processes of mapping, knowing, and naming during an earlier moment of geopolitical transition in Asia and the Western Pacific, focusing on the establishment of a US colonial or “Insular” empire in the Philippines following the 1898 Spanish-American War.  At that time, as US scientists, cartographers, and imperialists – sometimes all in the same person – worked to link the production of knowledge to transformations of place, region, archipelago, and nation, the category of the Insular served as a physical geographic stand-in for describing, in more accurate, political terms, a colonial state and formal empire, thus eliding, at least at the level of official culture, uncomfortable contradictions between empire and democracy, liberator and subjugator.  This is not to make the argument today that “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” except to emphasize that the complex relations among mapping, naming and territorial change are always tied in complex ways to evolving geographical contexts.  At the risk of importing a polar metaphor to the tropics, what’s in a name, in contemporary South Sea geopolitics, appears to be just the tip of the iceberg.

About the author: Scott Kirsch is Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Geography Department at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Scott is a cultural, historical and political geographer, his research interests include social and political implications of technology; 19th & 20th century US science; history of scientific exploration and cartography; nuclear landscapes; US geopolitics, especially in Philippines and Asia/Pacific; and geographies of war and peace. 


60-world2 Dodds, K.  2015.  Dredging geopolitics: Moving dirt, silt and sand.   Posted April 17, 2015.

60-world2 The Guardian.  2015.  Philippines reinforces its claim to South China Sea outpost.  Posted July 14, 2015.

60-world2 Heydarian, J.  2011.  The West Philippine Sea?  The Diplomat speaks with Walden Bello about China, the U.S. role in Asia and renaming the South China Sea.  Posted December 15, 2011.

books_icon Kirsch, S.  2014.  Insular territories: US colonial science, geopolitics, and the (re)mapping of the Philippines. The Geographical Journal. doi: 10.1111/geoj.12072

60-world2 Ramzy, A.  2015.  Google maps changes name on disputed South China Sea shoal.   Posted July 15, 2015.

60-world2 Tordesillas, E.T.  2015.  PH to submit 300-year-old map to UN in case vs China.  Posted June 7, 2015.


Israeli authorities impose new spatial barriers in Jerusalem after violence escalates

By Ryan McCarrel, University College Dublin

Ofer Prison near Jerusalem. via Wikimedia Commons

Ofer Prison near Jerusalem. via Wikimedia Commons

Over the last several days an unfortunate spike in violence has once again shaken Jerusalem to its core – stoking fears of reprisals among Palestinians and Israelis alike. According to Peter Baumont of The Guardian (2015), most of these violent attacks have occurred along, “the city’s so-called ‘seam line’, which marks the boundary between Jewish west and largely Palestinian east Jerusalem.” As the situation threatens to spiral out of control, Israeli authorities have taken to establishing check points and blockades to try and “seal off” some Palestinian neighborhoods.

Israeli officials have a long history of using spatial tactics like these in order to try and control the mobility of Palestinians. The most prominent of which is a 422 mile long separation wall. This has notably led many activists and academics alike to draw parallels between the separation wall and the United States government’s construction of barriers along their southern border with Mexico. In the latest issue of Area, geographers Geoffrey Boyce, David Marshal and Jeffrey Wolson suggest that that such comparisons are problematic and potentially misleading.

They argue that, “the function, origin and impact of specific security walls within a larger nexus of ‘borderisation’ becomes an empirical question to be established through careful exploration and research” (Boyce et al., 2015: 294). In other words, while there may be seemingly obvious parallels in practices, these shouldn’t be assumed at the outset. Instead, they suggest that careful empirical research reveals small details that open up, “opportunities for strategic intervention and collaboration”  (Boyce et al., 2015: 294).

Their intervention responds to a growing body of academic work in the field of geography, that looks into, “spatial tactics, or the use of space to control people, objects, and their movement” (Mountz et al., 2012: 523). Geographical research into these tactics is growing in importance as governments  around the world, including Israel and the United States, continue turn to them in order to try and manage issues ranging from migration to conflict.

books_icon Alan Boyce, G., Marshall, D. J., & Wilson, J. (2015). Concrete connections? Articulation, homology and the political geography of boundary walls. Area, 47(3), 289–295.
60-world2 Beaumont, P. (2015, October 14). New checkpoints and fears divide Jerusalem’s Jews and Palestinians. The Guardian. Available at:

books_icon Mountz, A., Coddington, K., Catania, R. T., & Loyd, J. M. (2013). Conceptualizing detention: Mobility, containment, bordering, and exclusion. Progress in Human Geography, 37(4), 522–541.

Listening to Nature

By Paul C. Adams (University of Texas)

The current geological era has been dubbed the Anthropocene. This term is meant to signify that humans now ‘have a decisive influence on the state, dynamics and future of the Earth system’. We are affecting so many systems simultaneously—atmospheric, terrestrial and aquatic—that earth scientists are at a loss to understand exactly how human actions are entangled in many of the processes of environmental disturbance they are observing. Are things changing because we’ve added something (like pollution), taken something away (like the animals we fish and hunt) or transformed something (like the rivers we have rerouted and channelized) or all three? The engineering mindset that got us into this situation may be the wrong approach to get us out. It might help to think in a radically different way, developing a respect for nature as a host of interdependent, intercommunicating organisms, and thinking of each place as what I call an ‘enviro-organism’. To see why I move in this direction, we have to take a step back and reflect for a moment on what people mean by ‘nature.’

Nature confronts us with impressions of the unbelievably large and the incredibly small. The New Horizons spacecraft departed from the earth at a whopping 58,000 kilometres an hour but it took nine years for it to reach Pluto.  The length of the voyage merely to the edge of our solar system reminds us that our planet is a mere speck in the universe. Meanwhile, the physicists at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, are stretching our understanding down to the very smallest scale phenomena. The particles they study cannot really be thought of as things in a conventional sense, but they are necessary for the existence of more thing-like things such as atoms and molecules. And the scales of time taken into account by physicists and astronomers are equally alienating. Nature pushes us to our limits, extending human awareness to scales that are too large or too small to feel a sense of involvement. There is something awe-inspiring about imaginatively voyaging from the microscopic to the macroscopic, from the interior of atoms to the far edge of the universe, but these elements of nature seem to have no place for humanity as we know it.


adams-blogpic-Geological-time-spiral. Courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey

Geological Time Spiral. Courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey

There is of course another side to nature. When a dentist from Minnesota shot a lion named Cecil in 2014, there was international outrage. When sea stars (‘starfish’) began to tear themselves to pieces off the west coast of North America there was widespread concern. There is now a new concern about 12,000 square kilometres of coral that is expected to die over the next year because of climate change. It is more than a bit disturbing to many nature-lovers that hundreds of frog species are predicted to go extinct by the end of the century. In these cases, ‘nature’ appears as something fragile, something to care about, and something we should be taking care of. Nature’s middle scales are more easily embraced within human concern than the scalar extremes studied by astronomers and physicists.

Nature means radically different things and this raises questions. If the nature around us has all been humanized in some way, if it is not entirely wild like Pluto or entirely strange like subatomic particles (some of which are technically classified as ‘strange’), and furthermore if it is frequently unruly—unpredictable and occasionally dangerous, then why should we care about it? How can we make sense of our passion to save lions, frogs, corals, or starfish? Are our caring feelings misguided? Do they betray emotionalism more than our capacity for rational thought?

I would argue that a beginning of an answer lies in thinking of nature in a fundamentally different way—not as strange (like elementary particles and galaxies) or tragically compromised (like endangered species and ecosystems), but as a collection of beings that have things to say to us, beings we have only started to attend to, beings we could learn important things from if we knew how to listen. In my article ‘Placing the Anthropocene: A Day in the Life of an Enviro-Organism’, I offer a glimpse of nature as a collection of living and nonliving things that communicate with us and with each other. I propose that we should meet these fellow creatures in a spirit of dialogue, or even in a spirit of orchestral performance. By doing so, our ambivalent relation to nature becomes clearer. This attitude to nature helps us find a place for ourselves as observers filled with awe and scientific curiosity, but also as caretakers of a small corner of the universe.

About the author:

Dr. Paul C. Adams is Associate Professor in the Department of Geography and the Environment at the University of Texas at Austin.

books_icon Adams, P. C. (2015), Placing the Anthropocene: a day in the life of an enviro-organism. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. doi: 10.1111/tran.12103

60-world2 Capecchi C and Rogers k 2015 Killer of Cecil the Lion Finds Out That He Is a Target Now, of Internet Vigilantism The New York Times

60-world2 Dunnakey A 2015 Coral reefs endangered by bleaching in global event, researchers say CNN

60-world2 Lee J 2015 Starfish are still dying, but here’s reason for hope The National Geographic

60-world2 NASA 2015 New Horizons: The First Mission to the Pluto System and the Kuiper Belt

60-world2 Platt J 2015 Frog Mass Extinction on the Horizon Scientific American 

60-world2 Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy Working Group on the ‘Anthropocene’