Monday, July 26, 2010



I outlined my initial view of environmental geography a couple of blogs ago. Since then I have been looking around for something that could clarify, expand and explain my view with a little more clarity and depth. I hope that my outline of the different approaches to studying hazards is beginning to show how environmental geography can be relevant.

I have been, however, loking for something that would serve as a reference for dicsussion; something that might need expansion and correction from time to time but one which readers of the blog might like to mull over and consider. A useful starting point might be the quote below taken from a book by Bent Flyvbjerg. I have just replaced the words ‘social science’ with the words ‘environmental geography’.

.. we must take up problems that matter to the local, national, and global communities in which we live, and we must do it in ways that matter; we must focus on issues of values and power like great social scientists have advocated ….. Finally, we must effectively communicate the results of our research to fellow citizens. If we do this we may successfully transform [environmental geography] from what is fast becoming a sterile academic activity, which is undertaken mostly for its own sake and in increasing isolation from a society on which it has little effect and from which it gets little appreciation. We may transform [environmental geography] to an activity done in public for the public, sometimes to clarify, sometimes to intervene, sometimes to generate new perspectives, and always to serve as eyes and ears in our ongoing efforts at understanding the present and deliberating about the future.

(Bent Flyvbjerg, 2001, Making social science matter – why social science inquiry fails and how it can succeed again. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. p.166.)

Bent Flyvbjerg is professor at the University of Oxford, in the Said Business School ( He has lead a debate calling for a rejection of the natural science model of research in the social sciences and making social sciences more relevant to people outside science such as citizens and policy makers. He has developed the phronetic approach to social sciences, i.e. studying of social phenomena with a focus on power and values. This approach asks four specific questions:

1. Where are we going?
2. Is this development desirable?
3. Who gains and who loses, and by which mechanisms of power?
4. What, if anything, should we do about it?

(see Wikipiedia for more details:

Whilst Flyvbjerg focuses on a idealised model of how physical science is done culminating in a predictive model of reality that is not necessarily how mdoern science with one eye on complexity views or understands reality, he does make an interesting point that predictability as understood in the natural sciences may not be achievable in the social sciences. The application of a model with relaible equations or laws may not be that useful in trying to predict human behaviour or in answering questions of what ought to be, of what is fair, questions of value and judgement that natural science, in the view of many social scientists, has trouble with.

My own view is that the physical sciences (for want of a better term) ask important, but different types of questions of the environment than social sciences so it is not a surprise that different types of answers are produced by each type of study. What the above quote does emphasis is that study for its own sake will produce a sterile subject. Although environmental geography has not wandered down this cul-de-sac yet, it is vital that it is practised and practised in a relevant context for it to develop and to provide communities with the perspective and power to improve their circumstances. In other words environmental geography must be relevant.

So what would a relevant environmental geography look like? Could it square the circle of incorporating both natural and social science? Could it inform and empower communities? A possible example of this type of environmental geography is provided by the South Durban Environmental Alliance ( This is a community based organization, active since 1996, (an umbrella for 14 affiliate organizations) that lobbies, reports and researches industrial incidents in the South Durban area of South Africa. It is a good example of participatory science or democratic science where communities get involved in developing, logging, collating and interpreting scientific information and knowledge. The division between ‘expert’ and ‘local’ knowledge becomes deliberately blurred. The reporting of incidents, for example, is collated and mapped . A set of data reliant on local knowledge, presented in a format understandable to local people and available for local communities to lobby on the basis of ‘scientific’ information.
Geography is central to this alliance and they have produced a brochure on their use of GIS in developing this community based science.
Although this type of community based activity may not be translatable across the globe it does illustrate how individuals can use geography to monitor, interpret and lobby for action on their local environments. Environmental geography that really matters.

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