The study of geography has not been described as such until relatively recently. Despite Ptolemy’s ‘Geographia’ being written millennia ago, it was not translated until the 15th century. The various disciplines considered to comprise what is considered modern geography (cartography, geology, anthropology, etc.) were still not labeled ‘geography’ until colonial times when explorers would set out to study and supposedly ‘discover’ new land. This means that the history of geography under that term is not expansive, and even if stretched back to the times of classical geography, would not encompass more than the 15th century, thus neglecting the vast knowledge and interpretations of the world that were accumulated during the times before it. Understanding and studying the history of geography is important due to its modern relevance. For a subject that has been studied for so long, but so disjointedly, understanding how geography was viewed in the past enables geographers to position their subject, and understand its identity within academia. It also provides valuable lessons, facilitating the ability of geographers to see modern events through a comparative lens in regard to the events which came before it, as well as understanding how the modern social order came to be. As there is such plurality in the history of geography, with it being studied, used, interpreted, and manipulated in a plethora of different ways, understanding its history is a tool that allows students to pave their own way forwards within the discipline.
History Facilitates Identity: Reconciling the Role of Geography
The identity of geography has varied across the world and across time, as its heterogeneity has enabled its use in many different circumstances and fields. Traditionally, both the study of geography and of its history has always been studied within the limits of the nation to which the author of the study belongs, with Britain especially always using the RGS, and the information gained during the pursuit of colonial power during times of the British Empire as the center of the historical discussion. However, as the study of the evolution of geographical thought progresses, there is a new emergence of studies that concern transnational geographical study, crossing both national and continental barriers. This means that different perspectives on events are becoming available, such as the role of geography on either side of a war, or the different geographical perspectives on a conflict, and how they differ from one another. The politicization of science during such events sheds a real light onto the ability of regimes to warp scientific pursuits and understanding to suit their own means, and also how the science itself manipulates the interpretation of its data, “adjust(ing) their theoretical concepts to new ideologies… to appear ‘useful’ to those in power” (Gyori and Gyuris, 2015). Without an understanding of the history of geography, it is easy to try and view it as an objective means of approaching politics, considering geography’s main purpose to be the facilitation of understanding of the world. However, once the various uses of geography across history are considered, the subjectivity of geographical interpretation and the role that geographers played in some of mankind’s greatest atrocities and achievements becomes clear – from the use of geographical scientific curiosity as an excuse to colonize and ‘civilize’ Africa and the Americas to the complex geopolitical studies carried out by the Nazi regime. Geography was key to the formation of the Nazi ideology, specifically spatial understandings, relationships between land, government, and people, and how to manipulate them. On the other hand, geography has also contributed to the collapse of slavery and other positive geopolitical events. The position and importance of geography within our modern world can only ever be understood through at least a partially historical lens, formulating the identity of the discipline.
Today Is the Product of Yesterday: Environmentalism and Policy
The value of studying the history of geography is also due to how the past has led to the present. When tackling many of the global challenges that are core to the modern study of geography, it is important to analyze why solving these issues is such a struggle. A major example of this is when studying the practical issue of climate change, especially from a political lens. Democratic countries have lower emissions of greenhouse gases and CFCs, less deforestation, and more public sanitation, and are also more likely to uphold the various international agreements on environmental management such as the Kyoto Protocol or Montreal Protocol, than autocratically ruled nations. Thus, perhaps understanding the correlation between a country’s relationship with the environment and with different political systems may enable a greater understanding of how to better implement international agreements in the future. So far most of the literature on this topic has been theoretical, with arguments made such as how autocrats only need to cater to the elite, so they don’t need to care about the environment, or how democratic nations have a more educated population, which will want more environmental protocols in place, without much regard for the history of these nations with democracy, autocracy and monarchy over time. Therefore, the history of geography has value because it enables a deeper understanding of why countries are in the positions that they currently are, and how geographers must consider all the factors of a situation before presenting the information.
History Repeats: Modern Imperialism
While the role of geography within the past is important because it informs how we arrived at the present, it also allows for comparison between events, especially in terms of repetitions. The clearest example of this is the parallels between British colonialism, beginning in the late 16th century, and modern American imperialism, as illustrated by the many texts written on the topic. References to a pursuit of a so-called ‘American Empire’, especially after the harshness and anger of the response to the terrorist attack in 2001 were very common, with many authors critiquing the choice of then-American President George W Bush to use language that is reminiscent of not only of a sense of total self-importance but also of the clear intent to create fear in other countries: “either you are with us or you are with the terrorists” (Smith, 2004: XII). This recognition of the power of historical geography, and just to what extent it can alter the perception of a nation or of academics overall is in itself a reaffirmation as to the importance of studying the history of geography. Of course, there are layers to imperialism that were not present at the initial time of British colonialism, because, at least as an excuse to present in front of the general public, the reason behind American imperialism seems to be a form of retaliation to a fight that has been initiated by the other side, whereas there was little to no threat to the British people if they had not gone ahead with colonialism. However, arguments can be made that there are many other reasons behind the American decision to interfere in other nations or to go to war with Afghanistan as well, some of which may have more relevance and correlate better with colonialist intentions, particularly those related to the need for accumulation of oil, which is reminiscent of the colonial need for commercial goods that they could then trade. The relevance of an understanding of historical geography within such a context is further illustrated through the way in which other scholars, particularly those who are sympathetic with the cause for American globalism, have expressed an urge to move away from the term imperialism altogether, and instead associate America’s decisions in regard to foreign policy and war with the connotations of wealth and prosperity that many western civilizations tend to attach to the word ‘empire’. Therefore, the history of geography is important because it manifests itself again in the modern day, and being able to draw connections between past and current events is an important skill, which even politicians expect people to be able to do.
Studying the history of their discipline must be a vital part of education within the field of geography because to study the history of geography is to study the progression of geographical thought. This progression of thought allows geographers to position themselves and their discipline in relation to the actions of those that came before them. It also enables a more holistic understanding of how certain events and situations came to be what they are today, as well as informs how modern events relate to those from the past. As John K. Wright (1925) asks, “Can the geographer, whose work is the study of man in relation to the terrestrial environment avoid considering man’s thought in relation to the terrestrial environment?”. The answer, of course, is no.
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