Tag Archives: The Geographical Journal

Despatches from the Field

by Benjamin Sacks

Account of L V S Blacker, The Geographical Journal, 1921.

Account of L V S Blacker, The Geographical Journal, 1921.

Matthew Parris and Andrew Bryson’s two recent collections of British diplomatic correspondence since the 1930s have expanded the general public’s awareness of the personal opinions and daily (and not-so-daily) adventures of British ambassadors, first and second secretaries, and chief-of-missions throughout the world. But the Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers) had long been active in receiving and publishing such reports from geographers. Indeed, such reports arguably sustained and expanded the Society’s membership base throughout the last century, until The Geographical Journal, the principal journal of record (as well as the RGS-IBG more generally), gradually shifted its focus from expeditionary promotion to the funding and publicising of scholarly research and geographic education. In many respects, geographers’ reports, letters, and other writings mirrored their Colonial or Foreign Office counterparts: nuanced combinations of anthropological observation, personal narrative, ramblings and distractions, and hard-nosed scientific, cultural, or topographical inquiry. In short, then, geographers and diplomats were (and remain) remarkably similar, representing their nation in diverse (usually foreign) environments, at once “blending in” and remaining conspicuously aloof.

In the second issue of the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London, Edward Nicolls, Duke Calabar, and C H Coulthurst recounted, through a series of carefully selected letters, their difficult, and ultimately unsuccessful effort to explore the Gambian interior in Central West Africa. Their correspondence was by no means a straightforward, disinterested observation of record, but rather an stylised, colourful, and dramatised narrative, written to demonstrate both the authors’ harrowing circumstances, and ostensibly to highlight how they triumphed (or perished):

Sir, – It is with sincere regret I inform you of the death of Mr. Coulthurst…He had got as far as the Eboe country…The King of Eboe refused to let him pass…I have secured most, if not all, Mr. Coulthurst’s effects, but I cannot find or get any intelligence of his writing-desk or journal…There appears to be some mystery about the journal and writing-desk…(p. 309).

What had happened to Coulthurst’s journal? Did someone surreptitiously remove it before Nicholls’ arrival? Did it contain a damning note? Or was its loss simply the result of disorganisation, a storm, or absent-mindedness? Likely intended, Nicolls’ account served not only to report the passing of a colleague and fellow explorer, but stressed the former’s devotion to duty (the assumption that he kept a journal for the Society, and that it had been possibly secreted away), as well as the latter’s self-promotion – Nicholls’ fond, even idealistic account of Coulthurst’s life (he ‘took a very honourable degree’ and ‘from infancy his heart was set on African enterprise’) could serve him well in advancing his own career (p. 310).

This was only the beginning. The official 1921 report of Captain L V S Blacker, of the Corps of Guides in the Punjab, published in The Geographical Journal‘s pages, echoes the diplomatic opinions and narratives of ministers extraordinary and plenipotentiary. ‘Islam has spurned the Prussian’, Blacker began,’ so his vapid psychology took him back to Attila, his forbear’ (p. 178). Clearly racist overtones aside, it was an evident flourish to set the stage: presenting a familiar ‘us’ versus ‘the other’, a remark evidently, at least likely in Blacker’s mind, to acquaint the reader with his plight – and how his overcame it. Similar literary, personal emotions, ensconced in flowery diction, appeared throughout. ‘In early 1918′, he pronounced, the looming political strife between indigenous Central Asian peoples and the Bolshevik usurpers ‘were hidden from us, or only discerned dimly across the great spaces of deserts and ice-bound mountain ranges, over which even the hardy Central Asian trader now seldom came’ (p. 179). As Parris and Bryson demonstrated through their archival search, such enterprising language could just have easily flowed from the pen of HM minister to Turkmenistan some eight decades later.

books_icon E Nicholls, D Calabar, and C H Coulthurst, 1832, Failure of another expedition to explore the interior of Africa, Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London, 2, 305-12.

books_icon L V S Blacker, 1921, Travels in Turkistan, 1918-20, The Geographical Journal, 58, 178-97.

books_icon M Parris and A Bryson, 2012, The Spanish ambassador’s suitcase: and other stories from the diplomatic bag, London: Penguin Press.

Libya: Bound in Europe’s Sphere

441px-Visita_del_RE_a_BengasiBy Benjamin Sacks

Libya’s struggles continue to haunt the international community. Well over a year after Muammar Muhammad al-Qaddafi’s death at the hands of rebels forces in Sirte, midway between Tripoli and Benghazi, militant and sectarian groups compete with each other for control of key provinces and national resources. Last Thursday, an estimated one hundred militiamen disrupted proceedings of the Libyan National Congress, protesting the government’s proposal to “purge Qaddafi-era officials from public office”. Militia leaders noted that they agreed with the proposal, but feared that the National Congress would seek to dilute the bill’s efficacy in order to protect their own interests. The British Embassy waded into the protests, reminding Libyan political groups that the National Congress must be allowed to conduct its business safely, democratically  and without harassment: “These people were chosen to represent Libya and it is important to give them space and security so that they may make their decisions”. The Embassy’s commentary was unsurprising, given both the United Kingdom’s recent involvement in the outcome of the Libyan Civil War, as well as Europe’s longstanding interest in Libya, its land, and peoples.

In the December 2012 issue of The Geographical Journal, James D Sidaway (University of Singapore) recounted Europe’s twentieth century predilection with Libya. His account artfully and succinctly contextualized Britain and France’s most recent intervention within the backdrop of often-complicated European-Libyan interests. Sidaway described Libya’s twentieth and twenty-first century geopolitics as “Subaltern”, deliberately borrowing from Joanne Sharp’s 2011 Geoforum article, where state regimes implement policies largely designed to sustain the regime’s survival, not dramatically enhance the populace’s welfare. Some of the blame for this, certainly, rested with Qaddafi’s egoistic desires to control Libya for the rest of his life (and beyond, through his sons). But the initial enthusiasm for his regime, and indeed the impetus behind his removal forty-odd years on, was to alter the nation’s relationship with Europe.

In the 1960s, Qaddafi took advantage of decades of nationalist anger against Europe and the United States to gain power. From the 1920s to the end of the Second World War, Libya was a proxy state under the control of Fascist Italy. Benito Mussolini envisioned Libya as the cornerstone in a “new Roman empire, by means of Italian settlement and planning and resting on the repression of all revolts and organised resistance” (297). Italian colonisation sought to impose European, not indigenous conceptions of order and society, a policy many Libyans continued to resent long after Mussolini’s capture and execution in 1945. But the end of international war did not mark the end of Libya’s entanglement with the West. After the Italian withdrawal, the British and American installed Idris, the Allied-backed leader of wartime Cyrenaica (eastern Libya), as the first monarch of the new Kingdom of Libya. “For the best part of [the next] two decades”, Sidaway argued, “Libya’s post-colonial trajectory was exemplary in the eyes of Western powers” (298). Idris’s foreign and domestic policies alike sought to maintain the elite’s status quo. Although Qaddafi radically shifted Libya’s path towards nationalism and secular Islamic authority after the 1969 coup, he too demonstrated a tendency to prioritise measures intended, first and foremost, to protect his regime’s stability vis-à-vis the West and its allies within Libya. Qaddafi’s Libya thus continued to be governed (and defined) as a response to European and American behaviour. Even as the Qaddafi regime slid towards collapse, its leader looked not to internal negotiations, but rather to Europe for a solution amenable, of course, to his interests (299). Support was not forthcoming, in part because the Libyan opposition revolted against Qaddafi, in part, because of his anti-Europe, anti-democratic stances. For better or worse, then, Libya has long been, and remains, in Europe’s strong gravitational pull.

The difficulty, as Sidaway reminded us, is that Libya’s complicated history, both with Europe and its African neighbours, has done much to erase memories of the region’s violent past (and present). In the 2008 festivities marking a formal rapprochement between Libya and Italy, for instance, few officials wished to discuss Qaddafi’s extensive human rights violations, or then-Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s leaked comments on the accord’s economic benefits.

60-world2 Chris Stephen, Libyan national congress attacked by rogue militiasThe Guardian, 7 March 2013.

books_icon James D Sidaway, 2012, Subaltern Geopolitics: Libya in the Mirror of EuropeThe Geographical Journal 178.4, 296-301.

books_icon N Barbour, 1950, The Arabs of Cyrenaica: Review, The Sanusi of Cyrenaica by E E Evans-PritchardThe Geographical Journal 115.1/3, 96-98.

Red Cross Red Crescent: A Geographical Life

800px-Croixrouge_logosby Benjamin Sacks

In the August 1924 edition of The Geographical Journal, the Royal Geographical Society republished a notice from Monsieur Raoul Montandon, then-president of the Geographical Society of Geneva. The Geneva group was finalising a new series, entitled Materiaux pour l’Étude des Calamités, in honour of the International Red Cross Committee. Both the Geneva and London societies, as well as G Ciraolo, president of the Italian Red Cross, hoped to galvanise as much support as possible amongst geographers to assist in editing Materiaux. In so doing, the societies sought to fashion a truly international journal, bridging the divide between medicine, international affairs, and geography.

The joint call came at a propitious moment in the Red Cross and the RGS’s history. The non-sectarian, non-governmental movement, which celebrated its one hundred and fiftieth anniversary this week, had recently recovered from its massive undertakings on both sides in the First World War, and was well-poised to take advantage of international sympathies, as expressed by the League of Nations, in particular, towards preventing another world war. Indeed, geographical societies, the Red Cross, and the League of Nations were deeply linked.

The Red Cross (and Red Crescent after 1919) stands as one of the few success stories in twentieth century international cooperation. Geographers and explorers became involved early in the organisation’s modern development. Fridtjof Nansen, a geographical polymath who sailed schooners, reached towards the north pole on drifting ice flows, sketched arctic landscapes, tested scientific theories in Greenland, and served as Norway’s (then newly-independent from Sweden) first ambassador to the United Kingdom, helped lead the Red Cross’s humanitarian efforts in Russia and Armenia immediately following the vicious Civil War. For these efforts, he was awarded the 1922 Nobel Prize. He worked with both the Red Cross and the League of Nations until his death in 1930, hoping to prevent another catastrophe on the scale of the 1914-1918 war.

Nansen was by no means alone in aiding the Red Cross’s mission. An examination of The Geographical Journal‘s obituaries revealed a number of geographers and explorers who worked with the Red Cross and to spread geographical knowledge. May French Sheldon, one of the first women elected to the RGS fellowship (1892), was an itinerant explorer in the mould of Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg who travelled three times around the world and was the first female to lead an expedition into Central Africa. In the First World War she embarked on an international lecture tour to raise money for the beleaguered Belgian Red Cross.

Just as Sheldon fashioned her own geographical career, Prince Iyesato, head of Japan’s Tokugawa family (who had lost power in 1867, but were eventually restored to leading the House of Peers) was elected a Life Fellow of the RGS for his lifelong interest in and support of geographical endeavours. As an unofficial patron, he travelled to London to attend the Society’s 1930 centenary celebration. In the 1920s, he directed the Japanese Red Cross, sending volunteers to aid in the Great War’s aftermath, as well as undertaking responsibilities on behalf of Japan at the League of Nations.

books_icon 1924, Scientific Study of Natural Catastrophes, The Geographical Journal, 64, 2, 191-92.

books_icon Brown, R. N. Rudmose, Obituary: Fridtjof Nansen, The Geographical Journal, 76, 1, 92-95.

books_icon 1936, Obituary: May French Sheldon, The Geographical Journal, 87, 3, 288.

books_icon 1940, Obituary: Prince Iyesato Tokugawa, The Geographical Journal, 96, 6, 451.

books_icon Austen, Nancy Virginia, 1921, “Prince Tokugawa, Heir of Japan’s Last Shogun“, New Outlook, 129, 514-15.

60-world2Red Cross celebrates 150th anniversary“, BBC News, 17 February 2013.

The Icelandic Ash-Cloud Saga – Three Years On

By Catherine Waite

In the spring of 2010 the global media was dominated by stories of disruption as a result of the eruption of Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull. Despite being a significant volcanic eruption, the direct consequences of this event were never really a matter of life or death given the comparatively remote location of the volcano. However, Eyjafjallajökull’s eruption will be remembered due to the world-wide disruption that ensued. In the week following the eruption over 95,000 flights were cancelled and 10 million passengers were stranded (Adey et al. 2011).

Natural hazards such as volcanoes, earthquakes and hurricanes are widely seen to be part of the realm of geographical research but studies published in journals including Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers and The Geographical Journal  clearly demonstrate the full scope of geographical research potential that events such as this stimulate. In Donovan and Oppenheimer’s (2011) work on the reconstruction of geography in relation to the Eyjafjallajökull eruption, they argue that

“the apparent breakdown of communication between scientific research, policy-makers and the public is the manifestation of a wider problem – one that is well-suited to geographical research, combining as it does both human and physical dimensions” (p.4)

This relationship between these stakeholders is demonstrated in today’s ruling at the European Court of Justice regarding compensation claims made to airlines following the eruption. This case brings together members of the public, airlines, national and European justice systems and others such as the hotels, restaurants and firms whose business was affected by the disruption.

Consequently the significance of geography to this story is clear. The eruption itself will obviously be subject to geographical study but geography as a discipline is also well suited to study the short and long-term impacts of this event as well as considering solutions and mitigation methods to prevent disruption of this scale happening again in the future.

books_iconAdey, P., Anderson, B. and Guerrero, L.L. 2011 An ash cloud, airspace and environmental threat Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 36 338-343

books_iconDonovan, A.R. and Oppenheimer, C. 2011 The 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption and the reconstruction of geography The Geographical Journal 177:1 4-11

books_iconDonovan, A.R. and Oppenheimer, C. 2012 The aviation sagas: geographies of volcanic risk The Geographical Journal 178:2 98-103

60-world2BBC News Ryanair ash cloud case: EU’s top court rules against airline 31st January 2013

Rule by Nudge: Geographies of Libertarian Paternalism

By Martin Mahony

Much of the debate in the recent US election – when it hasn’t been explicitly focused on GDP and unemployment numbers – has concerned the role of the federal government in the lives of individual citizens. The debate is often cast in terms of ‘big government versus small government’, and the tensions within and between these positions were brought to light in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney was forced to retreat from previous comments he had made about reducing the role of the federal government in disaster relief, as plaudits rolled in for the performance of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the hours and days following Hurricane Sandy’s landfall on the East Coast.

In the UK, conservative politicians are more likely to acknowledge the moral and social worth of a centrally-administered welfare system than their US counterparts. However, the debate becomes much more complex when it moves away from questions of taxation and finance and into the everyday realm of people’s behaviour and exercise of choice. Traditionally, conservative thinkers have seen the free-market as the best framework within which citizens can make decisions which add-up to a desirable and democratically legitimate outcome.

However, in light of realizations that human beings aren’t the ‘rational economic actors’ assumed by economic models, a new way of thinking has emerged. ‘Libertarian paternalism’ has come to occupy a central place in the current Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government’s thinking. In a new commentary piece in The Geographical Journal, Mark Whitehead and colleagues argue that David Cameron’s embracing of this philosophy (popularized by Thaler and Sunstein in their book Nudge) is as significant as Margaret Thatcher’s embracing of the free-market neoliberalism of Hayek.

In a blog post on the BBC website, documentary-maker Adam Curtis paints a picture of how behavioural psychology and behavioural economics have come together with emerging cognitive sciences of decision-making to constitute a new tool by which the (British) state seeks to govern its citizens. The idea of ‘nudging’ is that desirable behaviours can be promoted by subtly changing the ‘choice architecture’ within which people make decisions. For example, placing fruit in prominent positions in school canteens is thought to increase fruit consumption, but in a way which doesn’t force anyone to eat the fruit – the power to choose is, ostensibly, still in the hands of the child.

Whitehead et al.’s paper suggests that this philosophy is having a profound effect on the relationship between UK citizens and the state. It is also altering the spatial environments in which we live through the incorporation of ‘nudging’ into everything from urban planning policies to kitchen design. In the past, geographers have made profound contributions to the study of the ethical and political consequences of neoliberal thought. The ascent of libertarian paternalism now offers new challenges and opportunities for geographers as the spatial relationships between the rulers and the ruled are transformed by the rise of the nudge.

 Mitt Romney disaster relief position faces scrutinyThe Huffington Post, 31st October 2012

 From pigeon to Superman and back againBBC – Adam Curtis Blog, 21st October 2012

Mark Whitehead et al., 2012, Geography, libertarian paternalism and neuro-politics in the UK, The Geographical Journal 178 302-307

Pests, Pathogens and Passports

By Jen Dickie

Entrance to Saltby Estate Dairy Farm.  Biosecurity measures to protect the cattle in this large dairy farm against foot and mouth.  This image is owned by Kate Jewell and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license. If you have ever visited Australia you will have experienced a force to be reckoned with- the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service; woe betide anyone who forgets the piece of fruit squashed at the bottom of their hand luggage!  Few places exist where the importance of biosecurity is more prominent to the general public than in Australia’s airports where strict regulations are imposed on the importation of food, plant material and animal products to minimise the risk of exotic pests and diseases entering the country.  Whilst public awareness campaigns of biosecurity issues are common in Australia, in the UK it appears that both public and governmental awareness only increase after the damage has been done.

Over the last few weeks, Chalara fraxinea, or ash dieback as it is commonly known, has dominated the news.  This virulent fungal disease is thought to have hitched a lift with imported saplings from Europe and has already been confirmed in over 80 locations (Forestry Commission, 5th Nov).  Patrick Barkham from The Guardian questions whether more could have been done to prevent this outbreak and criticises the government for the “apparently sluggish response” to the disease.  As fears grow over the future of our woodlands, more threats from foreign pathogens to our native species are coming out of the woodwork, with Robin McKie from The Observer warning that the Scots pine “could be the next casualty of a ‘tidal wave’ of tree diseases”.

However, it is not just the plant kingdom that is under threat.  The controversial badger cull to prevent the spread of bovine tuberculosis (bTB) has recently been discussed in parliament.  In an article for The Geographical Journal, Gareth Enticott, Alex Franklin and Steven Van Winden explore different biosecurity strategies and behaviours practiced by farmers in response to bTB.  Their findings suggest that the promotion of biosecurity to farmers should draw on locally situated practices and knowledge rather than taking a standardised approach.  They argue that policy-makers need to “re-evaluate the purpose of disease control and their approaches to it”.

It has taken a series of pest and disease outbreaks for the seriousness of the UK’s biosecurity to hit the headlines.  Lessons can be learned from the Australian approach but as more reports emerge, claiming that the government was aware of the ash dieback invasion three years ago, perhaps more focus is needed on biosecurity risk assessments rather than on mitigation efforts once the problem has taken hold.

 Gareth Enticott, Alex Franklin and Steven Van Winden, 2012, Biosecurity and food security: spatial strategies for combating bovine tuberculosis in the UK, The Geographical Journal, DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-4959.2012.00475.x

 Scots pine could be next casualty of a ‘tidal wave’ of tree diseases, The Observer, 3 November 2012

 The ash tree crisis: a disaster in the making, The Guardian, 30 October 2012

 Badger cull: MPs vote 147 to 28 for abandoning cull entirely, The Guardian,  25th October 2012

 Ash disease found in Essex and Kent, Forestry Commission, 5th November 2012

An Antagonistic Climate

By Martin Mahony

Image by Eric Vance, EPA Chief Photographer (Environmental Protection Agency)According to a recent PBS documentary entitled Climate of Doubt, a sustained attack on the science of climate change from a range of predominantly conservative, free-market think-tanks and research institutions has pushed the climate issue off the political agenda in the US. For Republicans, any adherence to the consensus position offered by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) would seem to be political suicide in front of a sceptical conservative public. For Democrats, climate change can seemingly only be discussed in terms of the economic opportunities offered by investment in alternative energy sources.

The PBS documentary could be criticised for simplifying the issue of scepticism and its role in science and politics, and all sides of the debate – including PBS – still cling on to the idea that science provides the one and only path to politically actionable policies to address questions of environmental change and societal vulnerabilities.

The antagonistic battle over the reality of climate change continued this week with news that prominent climate scientist Michael E. Mann of Penn State University is taking a prominent US conservative publication to court over claims of defamation. In a blog post on the Competitive Enterprise Institute website, Mann was compared to recently convicted child molester Jerry Sandusky, although the target of Mann’s molestation was claimed to be climate data and statistical methodologies.

While this is an extreme case, it is an example of the kind of ad hominen argumentation that so often characterises climate change debates. In an innovative new paper in The Geographical Journal, Nelya Koteyko and colleagues explore  the discourse and rhetoric employed by contributors to online newspaper comment threads. The paper shows how “stereotypes” of science and politics are used to distance climate scientists from commonly-held ideals of scientific practice (such as disinterestedness or organized scepticism), and how the ‘Climategate’ incidents of late 2009 bolstered the arguments of sceptical readers against the reality of climate change.

Like the Michael E. Mann incident and the PBS documentary, the paper highlights the deep entangling of climate scepticism and conservative economic ideologies, as sceptical statements often combine scientific issues with arguments against higher taxation and greater government involvement in the regulation of industry. Although it is important for scientists to be able to defend themselves against personal attacks and harassment, these episodes should tell us that the apparent political gridlock over climate change will not be solved simply by more science, or by convincing all sceptics of the reliability of the headline claims made by the IPCC. In a climate of ideological antagonism, it will take a titanic effort of political argumentation and innovation to move the policy discussion forwards. Science cannot do the job of politics.

 Penn State scientist Michael Mann alleges defamation, seeks damagesYale Forum on Climate Change and the Media

 Nelya Koteyko, Rusi Jaspal & Brigitte Nerlich, 2012, Climate change and “climategate” in online reader comments: a mixed methods studyThe Geographical Journal, DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-4959.2012.00479.x

Geography Matters: Space, Place and British Politics

By Catherine Waite

The arrival of autumn means that it is, once more, political party conference season in Britain. This week has seen the Conservative Party Conference take place in Birmingham, following those of the Labour Party and Liberal Democrats in Manchester and Brighton respectively during September. Consequently, in recent weeks, the British media has been dominated by reports of the activities, pledges and promises that have been made at these conferences. At the forefront of the discussions is the state of the economy and welfare provision, as well as continued debates about Britain’s position within the EU and, in the case of the Conservative Party Conference, the media frenzy surrounding ‘Borismania’. Alongside all of these issues an increasing number of references are being made to the forthcoming 2015 general election.

In many ways, politics is inherently geographical and just a brief perusal of the content of any geographical journal will demonstrate the numerous ways in which geography and politics are inextricably linked. Political geography is widely studied and this is reflected in its dedicated Royal Geographical Society research group, PolGRG. Within this subject more specific aspects of politics are given geographical consideration and this is evident in the recent work of Ron Johnston and Charles Pattie on electoral geography. Johnston and Pattie begin one such article by stating “Elections are a geographer’s delight” (2009:1), noting that elections produce vast quantities of mappable data which can be easily cartographically depicted using geographical information systems (GIS). Beyond this, it is clear from their more recent research, published in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, that geography can play an important role in understanding voting patterns (Johnston and Pattie 2012). Understanding the dynamics of such processes and their outcomes demonstrates the significance of space, place and society in shaping the British political landscape.

So, over the next two years, in the lead up to the 2015 general election, consider the influence that geography has on politics, because in the words of Johnston and Pattie “Geography matters” (2012:12).

Johnston, R. and Pattie, C. 2009 Geography: The Key to Recent British Elections. Geography Compass 3:1865–1880

Johnston, R. and Pattie, C. 2011 The British general election of 2010: a three-party contest – or three two-party contests? The Geographical Journal 177:17–26

Johnston, R. and Pattie, C. 2012 Learning electoral geography? Party campaigning, constituency marginality and voting at the 2010 British general election Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers doi: 10.1111/j.1475-5661.2012.00527.x

Young, disillusioned, and ready for Ed? The Independent 5th October 2012

David Cameron: Conservatives will never vacate the centre ground The Telegraph 6th October 2012

The Return of that Great British Institution, the Weather

By Briony Turner

Source: author

Somewhat regrettably, those scorching days admiring sporting finesse, feeling the heat of the sun against skin (and the 100% recycled polyester iconic top of a Games Maker –the not so regrettable aspect) are now a distant memory, washed out by a month’s worth of downpour in one day.

Having had the topic of weather embargoed for the summer (Games Makers were implored not to be quintessentially British and moan about the weather), the country has returned to its favourite topic of conversation, wiping even the Duchess of Cambridge off the front pages.  According to the Met Office official blog, the culprit is an ‘unusually active’ and ‘lingering’ (blame that part on the jet stream) low pressure system from the Atlantic which has had a field day moving north across the UK, picking up the cooler polar air en route, causing a deeper depression, not only meteorologically but also metaphorically in its wake.

Future climate projections suggest a rise in frequency of such extreme events.  Some geographers, Marc Tadaki and colleagues, are caught up in whether physical geography needs to exist,  and/or indulge in a ‘navel gazing and angst’ debate as to the purpose of geography (Dalby, 2012 p.270).  However, others have simply rolled up their sleeves and are conducting geographical analyses, improving the understanding of and addressing climate change and human vulnerabilities, as noted by Simon Dalby in his recent book review in The Geographical Journal.   These applications and analyses form the basis of information provided by organisations like the Environment Agency, whose website provides the latest flood alerts and enables householders to identify the extent to which, if at all, their homes are at risk of flooding. A catastrophe modelling firm, working with the European Space Agency, has recently launched a mapping tool with geo-coded ‘snapshots’ and impact assessment features to help insurers handle the aftermath of flooding.

Extensive systems and infrastructure, including governance arrangements, are in place to attempt to reduce the impact and effects of flooding.  Homeowners in the UK at risk of flooding currently benefit from the “Statement of Principles”, an agreement between Government and insurers, although it will expire on the 1st July 2013.  Defra are currently working on a replacement.  An article in The Geographical Journal, provides a timely reminder of the complexities encountered in public engagement within flood risk management (FRM) and the potential negative consequences that can result if the local micro-politics are not understood and sensitivities, particularly repercussions of shifts in local power relations, are not accounted for before application of FRM engagement.

One way of reducing the scale of flooding in urban areas is to intercept and delay rain and surface runoff by utilising and improving urban ecosystems.  Built environment industry experts are looking at innovative ways of ecologically adapting the built environment, there’s an annual conference and, this year, a public exhibition of the Integrated Habitats Design Competition’s winners and finalists in October at the Natural History Museum (a Fringe Event of the UN Convention on Biodiversity).  This just goes to show that urban ecosystems can be enhanced, have social, economic as well as ecological value and, as Robert Francis and colleagues point out in their article in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, offer opportunities for innovative research.

Flooding – availability and coverage of insurance Association of British Insurers

S. Dalby, 2012, Geo 2.0: digital tools, geographical vision and a changing planet, The Geographical Journal 178 270–274

UK Climate Projections:  Briefing report (UKCP09) Defra

R. A. Francis, J. Lorimer and M. Raco, 2012, Urban ecosystems as ‘natural’ homes for biogeographical boundary crossings, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 37 183–190

Defra tweaking statement of principles replacement Insurance Times.co.uk

What’s bringing the stormy weather to the UK? Official blog of the Met Office news team

Satellite Flood Footprints PERILS

M. Tadaki, J. Salmond, R.  Le Heron and G. Brierley, 2012, Nature, culture, and the work of physical geography, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 37 547–562

C-P. Tseng, and E.C. Penning-Rowsell, 2012, Micro-political and related barriers to stakeholder engagement in flood risk management, The Geographical Journal 178 253–269.

Britain gets almost a month of rain in 24 hours , The Guardian

Postcolonialism, Responsibility, and ‘The Other’

By Benjamin Sacks

‘Responsibility is increasingly summoned as a route to living ethically in a postcolonial world’ (p. 418). So begins Pat Noxolo’s (University of Sheffield), Parvati Raghuram’s (Open University), and Clare Madge’s (University of Leicester) astute and occasionally scathing discussion of the current state of responsibility to and within developing countries. Published in the July 2012 issue of Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, ‘Unsettling Responsibility: Postcolonial Interventions’ unravels traditional conceptualisations of responsibility and agency, at once highlighting recent, significant scholarship in the field and discussing possible new approaches to empowering peoples in developing countries.

Postcolonialism is often understood as a linear ‘give-and-take’; an attempt to rebalance wealth, resources, and power from highly developed, imperial states and their former colonies. But this singular approach is problematic at best. Joanne Sharp and John Briggs, for instance, both geographers at the University of Glasgow, admitted in a jointly-authored 2007 Geographical Journal article that they remained deeply divided over why postcolonial development had failed. Briggs, ensconced in development studies, pointed to ground level problems in developing states. Sharp, conversely, attacked the ‘dominating universalizing discourse of the West, and particularly the extent to which it suggests that it alone has the answer to development problems’ (p. 6). Their disagreement underscored the fundamental problem with the pervading model: the West empowered ‘The Other’ as and when it saw fit; the developing, or ‘Third World’, as victims, took whatever the West could offer.

‘Unsettling Responsibility’ seeks to alter this approach. The authors cite Doreen Massey’s (2004) and Matthew Sparke’s (2007) criticisms as catalysts for a new, multilinear system where ‘responsibility’ and ‘agency’ – both contested terms – are identified in developed and developing countries, supported, and adjusted accordingly (pp. 418-20). Responsibility is neither solely in the hands of the West nor in those of the developing world. Instead, responsibility and accountability operate on international, national, and local tiers, between developed and developing constituencies, various economic and social sectors, via contradictory legal structures, ‘ethical and moral economies’, and certainly through differing academic and administrative systems. Highlighting such factors, of course, complicates postcolonial discourse. In so doing, however, Noxolo, Raghuram, and Madge establish a potent framework that is applicable in a comprehensive range of situations, from Africa to Asia and the Caribbean.

Postcolonialism is an ironic term, for it implies that society has moved beyond colonial attitudes and aspirations, and is actively pursuing equality amongst countries’ standard of living. The number of Western-led interventions since the Second World War suggests otherwise. Further, ‘theories of responsibility’ utilised at ‘a high level of abstraction’ have only muddied geopolitical and anthropological analysis (p. 420). The authors recall G C Spivak’s Other Asias (2008) tenet that globalisation’s interconnectivity has created a plethora of ‘hugely uneven global relationships’ between the Global North and Global South. But importantly, responsibility and agency do not rest entirely with one side or the other: these relationships, however lopsided they may be, are the result of actors’ behaviour and decisions in both developed and developing states. In order to better analyse individual relationships of responsibility and dependency, Noxolo, Raghuram, and Madge contend that the language and processes surrounding ascription and agency must change, and that support should be provided where needed across the entire postcolonial relationship.

Pat Noxolo, Parvati Raghuram, and Clare Madge, ‘Unsettling Responsibility: Postcolonial Interventions‘, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, Volume 37, Issue 3, pages 418-429, July 2012

Joanne Sharp and John Briggs, ‘Postcolonialism and Development: New Dialogues?The Geographical Journal, Volume 172, Issue 1, pages 6-9, March 2006