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Posts Tagged ‘Geography’

Geography links


The photograph above was made on my way to work one day. I have no idea why these old suitcases were left outside by the fence – probably just for garbage pick up.

Time for some geography links. I haven’t done that in a while.

Let’s start with the worst news in a while as far as magazine industry, and to an extend geography goes. In Canada, geography is very poorly taught in primary, elementary, and secondary school system. To make things worse, even our national popular magazine about geography, Canadian Geographic, is so abysmal we actually did not renew our subscription. So the fact that National Geographic has been purchased by Fox is really tragic. National Geographic is not a perfect magazine, but it is the best magazine on the market that promotes geographic knowledge and encourages interest in the world we live in. It has a strong American bias and a share of other issues, but we had subscription for years. I read every issue and the girls are starting to read stories that are of interest to them. I would like to think that editorial independence and high standards, especially when it comes to visuals will remain as they are or get better, but Fox’s track record is not good. Not cancelling my subscription yet, but watching closely.

After you contemplate the terrifying concentration of the global media ownership, head over to the Economist and take a look at a story that claims that the EU will soon have more internal physical barriers to movement of people than it did during the Cold War.

The rest of the links should be a little bit less pessimistic.

Lucas Foglia has been photographing American West and is concerned about what rural America will look like: “What is going to allow people to continue to live in the rural American West and how are we going to preserve or use the wild land we have left?”

Cornell University Library and its Division of Rare & Manuscript Collections has made public an amazing collection of persuasive cartography. Watch out, it’s highly addictive and you may find yourself wasting ridiculous amount of time – although, in my books, that would not be time wasted.

Two somewhat connected and fascinating stories. The first one looks at just how powerful oral traditions are as repositories of community knowledge. University of Sunshine Coast geographer Patrick Dunn’s research demonstrated that some Australian Aboriginal stories preserve environmental and ecological memories and knowledge stretching as far back as 7,000 years. The second story comes from the world of art and focuses on incredible work by an Australian Aboriginal painter Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri. The fascinating thing is that his intricate paintings are not just visually impressive, but also serve as a repository of community stories. The code is incomprehensible to us, but those who understand it have an access to a lot more than a visually arresting work.

Researching funding and a place of geography

GEOG 6000
Bojan Fürst
Reflection III: Lost among sciences

Patricia Gober’s address at the annual general meeting of the Association of America Geographers is probably the most sensible thing we have read so far on the discipline of geography as it tries to find its place among various scientific disciplines. I find it curious that geography has such difficulty in defining itself as well as finding acceptance among other sciences. Gober’s call for unity and synthesis is precisely why I am interested in geography in the first place. The ability to draw on various aspects of physical as well as social sciences is a remarkable asset, at least in my eyes. And no other discipline is so aware of physical space as geography is – that is a unique and very valuable insight geographers bring to the table that other sciences, especially social sciences, often don’t understand. It’s not surprising, then, that Gober, Barnes, and Herbert and Matthews all see the future of the discipline in acknowledging, at least in some way, that geography could provide a bridge between the worlds of social and physical aspects of science since it does contain both.

The development of Canadian geography (according to Barnes, anyway (PDF)) is interesting because it reflects Canada’s own historic, economic, cultural and political developments. The lack of communications between the anglophone and francophone geographers and a focus on mapping of natural resources are very much Canadian pursuits in my mind. The latest focus on GIS technology can be seen in that vein too as can current efforts in mapping the Arctic with its objectives of ensuring Canadian sovereignty over the area as well as, once again, map the potential natural resources.

Another sobering aspect that Barnes brings up is the role and involvement of the government in the shaping of the discipline. Given the size of the country, it is not surprising in the least that the government had to step in and fund major geographic studies. I think that too often we forget that the various levels of government through their funding agencies and programs have always been funding most of the research at Canadian universities. In that light, Gober’s assertion that the status quo of scientists being able to do whatever they want will change because the public and the policy makers will demand results they deem important rings a bit hollow (although it might be more true in the US. I really don’t know.). I don’t think that we ever had a time when scientists were able to pursue the whims of their own curiosity. I do think she is correct in a sense that the current policy framework surrounding research, especially in Canada, is creating a situation where the government has much stronger say in what kind of research gets funded than before. Probably the most striking example is recent shift in SSHRC funding that is more heavily weighted towards research in business.

As a rule, I don’t have anything against research solving practical problems (I spend at least eight hours every day trying to do just that), but research agenda dictated by bureaucratic edict rather than scientific curiosity and imagination can hardly be called research at all.


This is a poster featuring some of my own research results that I recently made for a meeting of the Atlantic chapter of the Canadian Association of Geographers.

Croatian word of the day: poster poster


On geography

GEOG 6000
Reflection II: When your last chapter should have been first

There is much to be offended by in the history of geography as a discipline and a few things that, as a geographer, I find slightly embarrassing. As infuriating as I found the first few chapters of Livingstone’s dispassionate expose of what he frames as the history of geography in anglo-saxon tradition, the book as a whole provided a fascinating view of the political and historic complexities as well as petty grievances that shaped and influenced the discipline.

The chapters dealing with evolution, race and the Empire were truly reveling of enormous hubris within the British ruling class. From the characterization of essentially everybody else as lesser people to the arrogance of assuming that every human endeavour should be in the service of the Empire, the struggle to define what geography in particular and academic research in general are is fascinating. Livingston, as an academic, offered a fairly balanced account of the period, but there is a more entertaining way to learn about the struggles, foibles and sheer stupidity of imperial science. English Passengers is an amazing historical novel written by Matthew Kneale featuring an intriguing set of characters and a plot that is sure to warm a geographer’s heart. It’s a sea yarn at its best. And, unlike Livingston whose last chapter would have served as an excellent first chapter, Matthew Kneale is a supreme storyteller.

Livingston on the other hand, takes a few chapters to hit his stride.

From regional approaches to environmental determinism to the debates around the validity of various quantitative models aimed first and foremost at establishing geography as a ‘proper’ science, the book is full of actually insightful anecdotes. There are two things that I find fascinating about this more recent history. First, it is quite interesting that the divisions established a century or more ago are still very much playing themselves out. Jeffrey Sachs article on poverty and economic development in Scientific American a few years ago is a prime example of environmental determinism that is still alive and well (at least if Sachs’ CV is any indication). Geography’s determination to employ complex mathematical models and indices still occasionally leaves an impression that inferiority complex of not being a ‘real’ science dominates approaches adopted by some of the practitioners of the discipline.

Maybe what we need to accept as geographers is that the beauty and the value geography brings to the table lays precisely in its dual nature of being a physical as well as a human discipline. Livingston offers two quotes that to me seem to speak of the importance of keeping both of those aspects within the discipline. He quotes Darryl Forde as saying that “human geography demands as much knowledge of humanity as of geography,” and then later on paraphrases Charles Taylor warning that “[t]o succeed in substituting calculation for evaluation would therefore be […] a thoroughly dehumanizing achievement.” In a world that is full of complexities maybe we just need to accept that we need a discipline such as geography that is not afraid of inherent fluidity that comes from knowing that the world is more complex than anything that could fit inside a neat academic definition.

The photo is from Change Islands.

Croatian word of the day: akademija academy [aka de mi ya]


Maps, maps, and more maps

Time to clean up links that keep accumulating in my To Blog About folder. Let’s stick with the geography theme and look at some maps.

Thanks to Kottke’s ridiculously interesting blog, here is a set of maps from major cities around the world that, using flickr, show the difference between the places most often photographed by tourists and the places most often photographed by the locals. Really, really neat.

Subway maps have legendary status among designers. Here are samples of some of the world’s most impressive subway maps.

Maisonneuve Magazine has a post on Eric Fischer’s maps of race and ethnicity in American cities. Fascinating visual reminder of just how racially segregated American cities still are. I wonder what the maps would look like if we were to do this in major Canadian cities.

Yanko Tsvetkov is a UK-based designer who had fun with some rough maps of European stereotypes – they wouldn’t be funny if there wasn’t a grain of truth in them.

Thanks again to Kottke, check out two mapping exercises I find particularly interesting because they reinforce the fact that every map is a social construct creating a representation of not just space, but also of social and power relations. The first one is a mapping project commissioned by the British Council that provides a visual record of visitors’ experiences at a cultural event. Walking Papers is similarly an attempt to create socially constructed maps of local points of interest.

About a year and a half ago, I had a chance to participate in a small way in what geographer Derek Smith (in the photograph) termed “kitchen table mapping.” Through a series of interviews with local residents in Change Islands he managed to add a couple of hundred names to an official map that contained barely a dozen of place names. The final map (PDF), (available through Stages and Stores) reflects detailed geographic knowledge of the area local residents have, but it is also an important document preserving heritage that has been passed through the generations. The map may also provide local fisherman with additional information in their quest to develop sustainable fishing practices in the area.

Croatian word of the day: karta map


Igor, Battery, and GEOG-6000 post

Hurricane Igor left us unscathed, but the city and the province have suffered extensive damage. There are portions of the province still effectively cut off from the rest of the island and there are parts of the city (including our daughter’s school) still without power. We are all okay. Big thank you to all of you who asked and were kind enough to think of us. CBC’s Storm Centre has a collection of photos and videos for those of you inclined to take a look.

The photograph is from the Battery earlier this year.

As promised, here is the first in a series of posts originally written as assignments for my Geography 6000 course on the development of geographic thought and practice.

GEOG6000: What is geographic research?

Two years ago I would have never called myself a geographer. I thought of myself as a documentary photographer and a journalist and, at the time, was trying to figure out how to pursue a project I felt very passionate about. A small portion of that project became an MA in geography which suited me fine – as long as I could keep making photographs.

Since becoming involved in geographic research, I have learned to appreciate the complexity of geographic sites, people and their relationships to each other and the environment they live in and the external forces that constantly shape and reshape the nature of those relationships. The actual research process is rewarding and I sincerely hope it will result in new and useful knowledge.

But there is a catch.

In the first couple of chapters of his book The Geographical Tradition, David Livingston cautions about a fairytale that is so often told to young undergraduate. It’s a gripping story of a few brilliant and enlightened scientists standing up to the centuries of accumulated power and dogma in the hands of close minded religious priests and monks. In reality, the lines between religion, magic, occult and what we would today recognize as science were very much blurred. The first, fictional, story is rather compelling, but if it were true, I wonder what those brave enlightened superheroes of science would make of Memorial. Would they recognize the little row of cells along the SN200x corridor as a place of science and insatiable curiosity or would it remind them of monks’ cells? And I suppose you could look at the MUN’s clock tower as a stand in for a church spire and a cross – we worship a mechanical contraption instead of the divine authority.

I am being somewhat facetious, but as I work through the bureaucracy of this academic institution in order to be able to do the research I want to, it is impossible not to compare the hierarchical world of academia, its ceremonial regalia and the bestowing of degrees on young graduates as they kneel in front of their superiors to the world of organized religion.

The thing is, though, that the early scientists would probably feel quite comfortable with the whole scene of modern academia. Imagine Newton in chancellor’s robs and you’ll see what I mean.

Croatian word of the day: tradicija tradition [tra dee tz i ya]


Geographical Tradition

I just finished reading David Livingston’s The Geographical Tradition. It’s a mandatory read for Geography 6000 class I am taking this semester. If the man had used the last chapter as the first chapter in the book, he would have bought himself a lot of good will. Speaking of GEOG 6000, I will do the same thing I did a year and a half ago with another class and post my weekly assignments here. They are of blog nature to begin with and I actually enjoy the philosophical debates that the class is supposed to generate.

The photograph was made earlier this year during a fire downtown that destroyed an entire office building.

Croatian word of the day: poglavlje chapter [po gla v lye]


Prorogation protests, geography of power,

Another photo from the January 23 prorogation protest in front of the Colonial Building in St. John’s. It fits somehow with the readings in my Geography 6001 class.

The class looks at theoretical and methodological developments in the field of geography. A lot of it so far has to do with construction of models, complex systems, narrative approaches to research and the endless debates over whether or not geography is a science (don’t even go there). However, a couple of approaches are more interesting than others because they acknowledge inherent complexity of the world we are part of. Robert Kates, in an article he seemingly co-authored with half of the people at Cambridge and Harvard, uses term sustainability science, which is almost pointless, and talks about nature-society systems, which is actually a useful concept because it very explicitly links the two and emphasizes the interdependence and linkages between them.

The approach that is a lot more useful is political ecology and Roderick Neumann is one of the people associated with it. Political ecology is a useful tool to start thinking in terms of multiple players and actors while at the same time recognizing natural and political relationships that define what is possible to achieve. Neumann points out that the property rights and the way they shape human-environment relations are of paramount importance. That makes political ecology “radical”, in Neumann’s words, because it forces us to deal with the obvious elephant in the room – economic model demanding that every other area of human activity is subservient to dictates of the market. Market itself is virtually magical and all-powerful.

Neumann is far from being the only one pointing out the obvious. Richard Peet, a Marxist geographer, in his book Geography of Power charts the financial, economic and political lines of influence that are forcing a singular development strategy on virtually every country in the world. Geography of Power is a great primer on global political geography and political economy. It calls for serious re-imagining of what development is and what kind of world do we want to live in. Unfortunately, the examples of Hugo Chavez and Castro as the counter-hegemonic heros are disappointing. Neither of those men deserve the praise Peet offers. The fact that he can’t offer anything better is probably the most telling example of just how powerful the international financial institutions have become. Political leaders who go against the grain usually don’t last long although, sitting on massive amounts of oil and gas helps.

What are the solutions? While revolutions are exciting and make for great photography, they tend to be bloody and ineffective in the long run. Whether or not it is possible to work within the existing power structures to truly move the global society forward remains to be seen, but the time might be running out. Peet offers examples of successful organizing and calls for “the counter-hegemonic policy formation” that redefines who we are and the society we want to build. It’s a fine idea. We might need a catastrophe of truly global proportions to actually do something about it.

Croatian word of the day: razvoj development


[Old Blog] Sachs, geography of poverty, environmental determinism

What a massive wallop that was yesterday. I thought the wind was going to rip the house doors and windows off.

Entry 14, February 13, 2009
Mapping poverty and environmental determinism

Just finished reading Sachs’ piece The Geography of Poverty and Wealth in the Scientific American. Hmmm… Sachs is right that ignoring the geographic realities on the ground is not going to get us very far in elevating the worst of the world’s poverty. And that’s about it. Sachs acknowledges later in the paper that there are other, more complex forces at play, but I still think that he is putting too much stress on the physical geography of poverty.

In 2003, I studied social policy development at the Institute of Social Studies in the Hague. I was the only Westerner in the classroom and I was surrounded by some of the smartest and most committed people I ever met. They came from various southeast and central Asian countries, South America, and Africa. After spending three months in intense discussions, study groups and role playing exercises, I was permanently cured of any notion that these people need us to teach them how to solve poverty problems in their own countries.

And that is my main objection to Sachs’ approach.

Environmental determinism just lets the rich off the hook a bit too easily. It disregards the differences within the regions and the impact that centuries of us, Westerners, plundering the developing world’s resources has on their economies. It glosses over the 500 years of colonialism and domination. Congo is not poor because it has no resources. Sudan actually can feed itself and countries of Eastern Europe were not economically stagnant because of the lack of resources, lack of agriculturally productive land and lack of access to seas. I am not really going to expand on this more because Richard Peet did an excellent review of Sachs’ book of which this article is the main thesis. Having said all that, I think Sachs, albeit unwittingly, does pose a serious question. If environmental determinism is the name of the game, what does that mean for the distribution of wealth and power considering rapid and unpredictable changes that climate change effects may soon bring to the planet? His map of wealth and poverty may look very different 10 years from now.
Croatian word of the day:siromaštvo poverty [seer o ma sh tvo]


[Old Blog] Landscapes

This is Vukovar in the fall of 2007.

GEOG 4010
Entry 8 – January 30, 2009

My interest in geography, cultural geography, really comes from my interest in landscapes. I can safely say that I have been jinxed by the old Chinese curse of living in interesting times. In the 1990s, Croatia went through a war and transition to market economy. The changes in the landscape were formidable, violent and fast. After the fighting finished and the ceasefire was negotiated, I worked as an interpreter with EU military observers. As I was roaming the roads nobody had any business to be on, I was struck with how important it was for the Serb paramilitaries to obliterate the landscape. The houses, churches and production facilities were not simply damaged in fighting, but blown up and bulldozed down. In order to make ethnic claims on the territory it was obvious that the occupiers understood well the importance of changing the landscape and the social, political and religious marks on that landscape in order to be able to claim it as their own.

The other thing that fascinated me was the wildlife, which in short few years has taken over entire villages and towns. There were hawks and falcones and deer strolling among the trees growing out of ruined houses. It was tempting to say that the nature was reclaiming its own, but anyone with eyes to see could not mistake the mess for anything else but a distinctly human work.