The blog of Tokyo based photographer and photojournalist, Damon Coulter

Busy Thinking About This

Went to the opening night of The Cove movie in Shibuya on Saturday night. Missed the protests against it as I had another rather annoying job to do but met some interesting people when i did get there. Some interesting Japanese people indeed who were completely unbowed and unafraid of the right-wingers and their idiocy, and more importantly unprejudiced  about their opinion of the film. They told me that they had enjoyed it and it made them think. and that made me think and allowed me to finish an essay I had been writing for my geography studies.

Now geography is a social science, and a physical one too, just to make it extra difficult, and is to some people a little pointless. Granted when an earthquake wobbles my house it is not particularly useful to  know about subduction zones, destructive plate margins and plate tectonics in general as it doesn’t stop the house falling down, if it is badly built, a fact realists say shows we should study more about practical things like building better houses first. Yet geography lit the way for that skill itself and people can now make buildings (some anyway) in Japan that are earthquake proof because they understand earthquakes. Just image if you didn’t know what was happening when an earthquake hit: you’d be terrified. We all know now and, to the lament of fundamentalist everywhere, we are thankfully losing the darkness of ignorance that superstition and religion filled up in the past.

The same is true of our understanding of nations and societies across the globe. Human Geography is not merely the elementary school trivia of learning capital cities and longest rivers, though that is of course the start, but as events happen now that are pan-global in character and effect, like global warming or immigration, and have an impact on all of us, everywhere, we need to start understanding our part and purpose in this planet’s system. Make no mistake this spinning ball of gas, mud and salty water will be here long after we have gone and we are just a moment of its history; we are not important to the planet but it is important to us and as such it is most important that we see the truth of the results and effects of our actions here. There is nowhere else after all.

That the Japanese people I met at the Cove cinema, with their own national characters, agendas and identity, took a risk to see a movie that other Japanese people, with  a different understanding of what the characters, identity and agendas of Japanese people should be, said was anti-Japanese is fantastic because just as the sea-life of the Antarctic or the oceans around Taiji does not belong to Japan, or any one nation for that matter, the idea the right-wing have the monopoly on what constitutes Japaneseness is all wrong and needs to be questioned and challenged if information is to be shared. Patriotism is seeing not only the good in your country but also the bad and wishing to change that to something which will better your nation. And knowledge from a free press, free thought and freedom to take a risk that what you learn my be uncomfortable; may be shocking and yes, may even be wrong is the most important thing. Without it you cannot move for or against, but with that information the world is open to you to see clearly.  And further when you have that knowledge, when you can see what is good and bad; what is excess and what is missing, how can you help but want to make this great little planet a much better place?

Geography is such a broad subject that though it may seem directionless and my wife cannot quite understand why I did choose a more practical subject to study, I think there is a need to understand the world at a level that can and will make a difference. Anyway here is the essay I wrote in answer to the question that geography is more of a follower than a leader in social sciences.

I am studying in isolation here so any feedback will be greatly received; especially if you have or are studying geography yourself. I have my understanding of course but as I said above if I can add any of yours to that it will make everything better.

This is not a photo post but I sometimes just write about the world as I see it here and this is basically about how we should see it so is in keeping. Got three phone calls and had lunch in the middle of this introduction so forgive its disjointedness.



“The history of geography is long and varied; the wish to remark upon the world around us at least as old at the Greek geographer, Strabo who described the landscapes and peoples around the Mediterranean region, and even as far south as Ethiopia, in his exhaustive, 17 volume “Geographica” book published sometime around 24 A.D. As other sciences developed Geopgraphy’s intial purpose, it unique wanderlust of the imagination learnt and borrowed in an attempt to measure and explain what was seen but the emotional imperative to the subject has never fully disappeared and it is this that gives geography its unique character.

Geography’s modern, academic roots are perhaps less noble however and could be said to be firmly planted in the building of European empires in the 18th and 19th Centuries where geographers’ knowledge about the foreign lands directed the routes, actions and often the excuses of that oft rapacious exploration. Despite this geography has always benefited the world it catalogues, indeed Ann Godlewska called empire-era geographers “the soldiers of modernity” (1995) to reflect the developmental side-effects of Empires’ growth yet there is no denying that this “darker” history became, over the course of the 20th Century and continues to be to this day, an embarrassment to the geographic establishment; something that has left many lamenting an emptiness at the heart of the subject, a missing raison d’être or pureness of purpose for the inclusion of the subject in academia more hallowed halls.

But how can this be? The study of geography is by very definition the recording of the world and all that is in it and to understand where, how and why we live the way we do is surely the ultimate scholastic endeavor for whatever reason whether this is the searching for and naming of the highest  Himalayan peak with nationalistic bombast, or  the mundane explanations of meal times and etiquette for a travel guidebook. The scope of interest needed to recognize and list the mere existence of these very disparate  subjects and the depth of interpretations needed to explain them and more to make them relevant to our greater understanding of the global practices and ultimately our place in them is, to my mind, a science of the highest order. Why, for example, is Himalayan mountain a thing of beauty and adventure to an American alpinist but an inconvenience, at best, or even a massive, foreboding presence of spiritual significance to a Nepali hill farmer? The answer is not a simple one and needs all of geography’s unique disciplines and investigations to explain it.

Most people do not realize as they read their National Geographic magazine or Lonely Planet guidebook in some cheap hostel in Thailand that they are taking part in a geographical education which is the culmination of a process that started when humans first left Africa in search of new lands and new challenges around one and half million years ago. The first explorations were probably pure curiosity: this innate human condition the driving force that first set humans on a course for exploration and when these early explorers returned with excited and pride-filled news of the places they had “found” the information in their campfire tales may well have inspired others to retrace their steps and try to profit from these new lands. The information of these further places, both rumour and fact, told by those early pathfinders informed and inspired those that came after.

For many thousands of years such travelogues remained our major source of geographical information adapting over time from oral story-telling to written languages. The first truly great book of travel geography was perhaps Marco Polo’s famous account of his 24 year exploration of Asia (which was itself inspired by the travels of his father, Niccolò and Uncle Maffeo when they returned to Venice in 1269 after almost 20 years on the road). The minutia of the encounters and scenes Marco Polo described in his book, “The Travels”, were for many centuries the only source of detailed information on the lands he had ventured through. His friendships with and understanding of the rulers and rules of the Mongol and Chinese Empires informing European missions and diplomacy.

Such explorations and explorers themselves continued over the centuries to expand knowledge and “discover” lands and peoples and claim them in the name of monarchs and gods from Europe. These were the earliest geographers whose tales, and more importantly, scientific observations were readily consumed by both academia and the increasingly literate populace of the countries they hailed from.

Yet all this adventurism did allow the understanding of the world to grow and as increases in technology allowed further and more daring exploration, the science of geography developed to record the wonder of the new lands explored with a less literary or moralistic eye and a keener sense of the usefulness of the information being recorded. Popular geography with its accounts of daring-do and guidebooks tips was still the ordinary person’s usual interaction with the subject and is perhaps unique in having this avenue of education but though a traveller like Alexander Von Humboldt caught the imagination of the reading public the purposes of his exploration, as were most others at that time, were carried out with a methodical and concentrated scientific approach befitting the age of enlightenment.

It was at this time that geography got its separate and schizophrenic character. When Humboldt delineated the isothermal lines to record similar climates across the globe (1817) or demonstrated the decrease in the Earth’s magnetic field as one travelled from the pole to the equator he was applying recent laws and ideas from the sciences of  physics and biology to the world on a grander scale than anyone had ever done before. These approaches, and the results he got, helped limit religion in our understanding of “God’s work” and also crippled faith in older explanations for natural phenomena such as Neptunism that could not stand up against the onslaught of observations of the world as it was, not as people wanted it to be. The most famous example of this type of scientific restructuring of ideas is undoubtably Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution which has been called “The single best idea anyone has ever had.” Though scientific critics argue Humboldt’s world was depicted rather too romantically, often concentrating on the physical aspects of the globe and leaving out the people who inhabited it, or reducing indigenous peoples to unimportant savages, Humboldt himself believed in “The unity of nature” where all sciences such as biology, meteorology and geology were connected. Indeed though his research into climate and plant biology helped increase the expansion of sugar production in Spanish Cuba he also wrote critically of the inequities of colonial policies and the bad conditions in the lives of slaves that worked in such places.

It is hardly surprising, as Homboldt’s wide ranging observations showed, that geographers should seek to specialize among geography’s many subjects. Geography was just too big a subject to remain intact as one academic discipline and it was impossible to be master of all schools. The most obvious split was between the physical side of the subject and the human side which occurred in the 1960s just as images from space and from the farthest corners of the world came into people living rooms allowing us to connect on an emotional level for the first time with fragility of our environment and the shared humanity of the global populace.

Analyzing these different subjects required the adoption of laws and techniques (some only recently discovered) from more established disciplines. These were of course adapted to geography’s particular needs not least of which was the fact that the environment could never completely be removed from the study of human actions on the planet nor, as the Twentieth Century progressed, could it be ignored that human-beings’ effects on the physical planet  were becoming increasing manifest also.

The environment had always been thought  to be an important factor in the life of people on the planet, from the design of their houses and clothes to the more obvious effect it had on their agriculture and thus dietary and cultural habits. An ugly extrapolation of this study was the school of Environmental Determinism which combined with Social Darwinism (that argued that societies and people succeeded or failed on their unchangeable, ethnic, natural abilities) allowed colonialism to justify exerting control on less developed and therefore what were argued as less evolved humans in other countries. Climatic was thought to affect intelligence, strength and vitality and have created inferior races especially in the tropical and equatorial areas. The legacy of this idea continues to today but thankfully, for the most part, suspect assumptions and unscientific observations that led to such racial profiling by the likes of Ellsworth Huntington and to a lesser degree, Ellen Semple in the US at the beginning of the 20th Century have been mostly discredited now.

What this attempt at interpretation of the effects of climate and environment did do however was allow more specific regional studies to be carried out where rather than looking critically at the differences between races and areas the uniqueness of regions was celebrated as distinct, and now equal, characters were analyzed. This idiographic approach to study was original in geography as people like Richard Hartshorne and Carl Sauer carried out studies without a nomothetic or law seeking purpose to guide and often on a very local or micro environmental scale. Though Sauer believed in a “hearth” from which initial, pure, ideas and agendas may have come and thus allowed the possibility that his local phenomena might have a global or larger regional significance and historical antecedent his research did not specifically look for this and his “possibilism” was highly imaginative if often a little hard to pin down in what, if any, useful information it provided.

In the middle of the Twentieth Century geography took another analytical turn, which is often called  the Quantitative Revolution. The methodology borrowed extensively from the studies of other sciences especially in relation to economics, politics and population but the reducing of the intricacies of the world and the people inhabiting it to  mathematical models and statistical formula could be said to have reduced the attraction and relevance of geography in the minds of the general reader which since the beginning of people’s interest in the world has always been the way to share and through sharing add to the geographical knowledge we have. Such nomothetic or law-seeking research, though certainly collecting a lot of useful information, was also seen as inflexible or even dishonest when presenting its results. In academia and more so in the minds of casual observers of geographical phenomena the ease and simpleness of the explanations provided for the complexities observed just didn’t sound believable or hold true when tested another way and such positivism became unpopular.

Thus was born Behavioral geography which borrowed extensively from sciences like psychology and argued that human subjects of geographical study are not themselves geographers and consequently can choose actions based on a lack of information (a radical but very obvious idea that geographers had never assumed before) or even act on prejudice, whimsy and even completely irrationally. This school was anti-positivist: it did not believe in general theories but more observed patterns of individual actions. It put the adventure back in geography too crossing over with the sciences of anthropology it allowed explorers like Thor Heyerdahl to prove that primitive Pacific-Island races could have travelled vast distances in small boats like the one used in his 1947 Kon-Tiki expedition, even if it could not quite explain why they would wish too do so or how they knew they would find other places to live at the end of the journey.

But this was the start of what I believe to be geography’s uniquely  focused viewpoint on the world. The world in easily measured biologically and chemically. The physics of the natural laws and the effects they have on the physical environment can be monitored and mapped. The mathematics of statistical data are invaluable when we wish to see what is and isn’t happening in the areas of study we choose and we can use them to work out important and complex ideas. All these many and varied techniques have been borrowed and used by geographers over the centuries. What is special about geography however is the idea that we are part of the process. Behavioral and later Humanist and structural geographical schools used political thoughts and ideas that went some way to making this idea acceptable but they often relied too much on psychological precedents or doctrine that created personal experiments that explained little that could be transfered and translated to wider areas and issues. Such studies did show that the person reflecting on the data they observe and collect is affected by it and in turn affects it in the interpretations and laws that result. No other science does this and this reflexive approach to geography is the reason the subject has and can perhaps more than ever now lead in making the understanding of the world wider. In some ways it is a return to the travelogues of old, a rejection of the cold, impersonal data collection which for so long stymied geography’s character. As Nigel Thrift points out in “Future of Geography” (2002) the collection of geographical data is now not limited to observable facts and indeed shouldn’t be: the senses of touch, smell, sound and taste are as equally important to our understanding of the world and have ..”led geographers towards trying to understand the currents and impulses that have so often been placed to one side of the human in human geography…”

As we face an uncertain future on this planet it is important that the world not be looked at so impersonally anymore if we hope to remain part of it and it is imperative that we take care of it to the best of our knowledge. The information being gathered by geographers now should not merely list the facts of the world. While other sciences may number the elements and measure the pull and push of a myriad phenomena the work of geographers is to use that information to inspire those that share the same planet and live by its rules; who, like the academics, equally find incomprehension and wonderment in some aspect of this world and understanding and nuance in others. Geographers can use the results of surveys and focuses to see where things work and where they don’t and like a good patriot who is not blind to their country’s faults but hopes to change them, geography’s main purpose, the very reason is it so broad in subject and, despite the significant influence of sciences perceived as harder and more serious, has maintain it emotional edge must be the painful isolation of our mistakes and the germ of ideas to repair them.”


One response

  1. Andy

    Still need to read your essay but have just seen The Cove…………shocked and not shocked in equal proportions. Sadly I’m never surprised this stuff goes on but equally gob smacked that we (humans) continue to act so badly to all (people,animals,landscapes) around us

    July 21, 2010 at 8:00 am

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