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Before defining "environmental geography," it might be useful to
consider the discipline of geography in general. (See the AAG "
What is Geography?" page or my Ten
Geographic Ideas page for further discussion.) One
common misconception is that geography is simply the study of place
names. I am must admit that I am not much better at naming capitals and
rivers than some of my non-geographer friends. Geography is often
considered the same as cartography, or the making of maps. Most
geographers are very skilled in reading and understanding maps,
but most working geographers to not create maps as their main
occupation. Some have written that "Geography is what geographers do,"
but this really begs the question.
I usually introduce the discipline with the following three questions
that I think drive most of what geographers do:
- Where is it?
- Why is it there?
- So what?
In other words, geographers study the spatial distribution of things
(languages, economic activity, pollution, transportation routes, soils,
climates, whatever) to find out why they are distributed as they are.
The geographer then tries to figure out why these distributions matter,
and to in what ways this understanding can suggest the solution to
problems that occur in the world.
A few months after I was born, geographer William Pattison attempted
settle the question of what geography is. His Four
Traditions article remains an important touchstone for geographers.
In it, he defines geography according to four major traditions:
As an undergraduate who originally majored in linguistics, I became
increasingly interested in geography as I became aware of environmental
problems, especially the relationships among population growth,
resource consumption, and the
problems arising from the overharvesting of resources. I embraced the
of geography because I saw that it could give me a powerful combination
conceptual tools that I could use to understand complex environmental
- The Spatial Tradition: Geographers have long been
concerned with mapping and the spatial arrangement of things (as I
mention above). Around the time that Professor Pattison was writing,
geographers were developing statistical methods to improve both the
description and analysis of such spatial patterns. Because this trend
was not without its critics, the Pattison article is often seen as a
fence-mending effort within the discipline.
- The Area Studies Tradition: Geographers such as Reclus and
Humboldt were famous for their exhaustive descriptions of places. Even
today, many geographers develop an expertise in the study of one or two
regions. Typically, geographers will learn the language or langauges
spoken in the region being studied and they will develop an
understanding of both the
natural physical features and of the human activities and patterns. The
goal is to become an expert on the region as it is and to study
problems or questions about the region.
- The Man-Land [sic] Tradition: Beginning with George
Perkins Marsh in the middle of the nineteenth century, geographers have
sought to understand how the natural environment either determines or
constrains human behavior and how humans, in turn, modify the physical
them. Given the inherent sexism of this title, most geographers would
use the term "human-environment" to describe this tradition.
- The Earth Sciences Tradition: Many geography programs in
the United States emerged from geology departments, and the connection
between the disciplines remains strong. Most geographers -- even if
they focus on human geography -- receive some training in such physical
geography areas landforms, climate, soils, and the distribution of
In graduate school, however, I noticed that most geographers identified
rather strongly as either "human" or "physical" geographers. In one
department, the offices were arranged so that the "humans" were on one
side of the main entrance and the "physicals" on the other! I learned
something from all
of them: I took most of my courses from the physical geographers but
a teaching assistant for professors in both groups. At that point, I
that I could not classify myself on either side of the discipline -- or
the hallway. I called myself, simply, a "geographer."
In my subsequent graduate work, I gravitated toward human geographers
and also toward those who were integrating human and physical geography
in their studies of global environmental change. Gradually, I began to
identify myself as an "environmental geographer" as a way of indicating
that I am interested in a wholistic approach to the discipline. (I
admit, though, that my c.v. lists the physical
and human courses I have taken separately!)
Environmental geography as I currently teach it involves several
aspects of the relationship between humans and the environment. This
a recognition that what we call "natural resources" are socially
constructed. That is, something only becomes a resource if humans make
it so through
a variety of cultural, technological, and economic filters. It is not
possible to understand environmental problems without understanding the
demographic, cultural, and economic processes that lead to increased
resource consumption and waste generation. Many of these processes are
complex and transnational. Potential solutions arise only from
understanding the "normal" functioning of biogeochemical cycles (the
circulation of water, carbon, nitrogen, and so on) as well as the
technologies that humans employ to interfere with
Finally, I am keenly interested in those institutions that focus on
mediating human/environment relationships. By this I refer to
government environmental agencies and regulations, international
agreements, non-profit environmental groups, for-profit environmental
businesses, and agents of change within
other for-profit businesses. I have been directly involved as an
or volunteer in many such institutions, and I try to bring an
of them to my students.
The Association of American Geographers does not have a specialty group
called "Environmental Geography," so perhaps the term is my own
invention. The AAG does, however, have three specialty groups that
bridge the human/physical divide in relevant ways. These are the
Energy and Environment
, and Human
Global Change specialty groups.
A fourth group, Environmental
Perception and Behavioral Geography
, has a similar name but is engaged in a somewhat different area of
scholarship, concerned with how people understand and interpret the
spatial aspects of the world around them. This is a specialty more
aligned with psychology
than with environmental studies per se, though of course one's
perception of the world does have implications for environmental
Return to James Hayes-Bohanan's Environmental
Geography Pages .