Environmental Geographer

What is Environmental Geography, Anyway?
James Hayes-Bohanan, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Geography
Co-Director, U.S.-Brazil Consortium on Urban Development
Bridgewater State College
Revised September 29, 2009
Environmental Geography Blog
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I have created this page because I have discovered that a lot of people come to my web site asking precisely the question above. If you are one of those seekers, please let me know what you think of this answer by sending e-mail (
jhayesboh@bridgew.edu ) or visiting my guest book .

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:

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 to 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 discipline of geography because I saw that it could give me a powerful combination of conceptual tools that I could use to understand complex environmental problems.

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 was a teaching assistant for professors in both groups. At that point, I realized 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 begins with 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 those cycles.

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 employee or volunteer in many such institutions, and I try to bring an understanding 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 , Hazards , and Human Dimensions of 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 geography.

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