Reply To: Human geography
EncycliosOrganizerApril 24, 2023 at 9:51 AM
The field of investigation and trends in human geography
The ecological dimension
The question that human geography first seeks to answer is that of the inclusion of humans in the pyramids of living forms originated by solar energy and chlorophyll synthesis. All life forms are founded on the continuous reproduction of organic matter from carbon dioxide in the air, water and elements drawn from the environment. Attempts have long been made to apply methods suitable for animal societies to human groups by taking into consideration primarily the exchanges that take place between each group and the environment in which it is established and which supports it. The emphasis was on the overall productivity of spontaneous ecosystems and the way humans manipulate them to increase in absolute value their share without caring too much about the resulting reduction in overall productivity. Classical ecology also considered biological competitions and the risks of harm to human health.
Such an ecology fits well with archaic societies or the small rural cells of traditional societies, but it misses one of the dimensions of the relationship between humans and the environment: that which relates to exchange. Human groups do not only consume what is produced locally, and sometimes even use only products from outside; this has obvious consequences for human-environment relations. When basic foodstuffs are imported from distant countries and supplies change according to markets and the economy, consumers cannot have a clear awareness of the degradation they cause in this or that region of the world.
The expansion of the sphere of relationships, experienced as a liberation from the constraints of the environment, leads humans to forget that they depend on the living world for their food and much of the raw materials they need. While relations with the surrounding natural environment become somewhat more relaxed, increased consumption and more intense exploitation of fossil energy sources imply more waste; immediate environmental constraints are no longer imposed by the production of foodstuffs, but arise from the poor capacity of environments to recycle the substances released in the form of gases, dust, organic and mineral products, pesticides, and liquid effluents.
Humans have succeeded in transferring the effects of waste away from the areas where they usually live: for a century, the major advances in sanitation have been related to the removal of liquid effluents and solid wastes from population centers, and the recycling of these elements takes place without the risk of direct contamination of the populations that produce them. But avoiding the immediate harmful consequences is not the same as solving the problem; with the explosion of consumption and energy use, the areas affected by recycling problems are becoming larger and larger. Human beings can no longer do without ecological awareness. Gone are the times when balances were implemented locally, within very small units: with the progress of transportation, the dimension of the problems has greatly expanded. In terms of supply, they are now global rather than national or continental, as the management of the exploitation of marine fauna shows. With regard to waste, the local problems of air pollution become dramatic when population density and motorization are high, but the scale of the phenomenon changes when waterways are so polluted with organic matter or toxic products that they are carried to their estuaries without decomposing. Acid rain affects large continental areas, and an accident like Chernobyl has shown that significant contamination can occur hundreds or even thousands of kilometers away.
The geography of human-environment relations is based on the contributions of modern ecology, but it also takes into account aspects that transcend the field of natural sciences. Current environmental problems are inseparable from the expansion of trading areas enabled by transportation technology. The way these problems are felt and the reactions they elicit depend on what human groups think about nature and the world: by clarifying the problems of ecology through the analysis of socioeconomic mechanisms and that of mentalities and attitudes, geography decisively enriches approaches to what surrounds us.
The economic and social dimensions
The location of productive activities is conditioned by the ease of access to resources and markets and the arrangement of infrastructure designed to channel the flows of goods, people and information. To satisfactorily solve supply problems, to foil the dangers posed by climate uncertainties, to profit from the economies of scale allowed by the use of increasingly concentrated energy sources, society has no choice but to organize a division of labor pushed to the maximum: the reduction of transportation costs then sufficiently increases the possibilities for the disposal of production.
In human geography, the economic approach thus first clarifies the spatial distribution of productive activities: it must take into account on the one hand the location of resources, which is linked to the randomness of natural situations, and on the other hand the need to remain in close proximity to centers of consumption in order to reduce the transportation costs of finished products. On these premises is based the classical theory of location, which provided with von Thünen, Alfred Weber, Lösch and Christaller a satisfactory explanation of classical equilibria. The instrumental universe with which we surround ourselves becomes increasingly complex: the organization of production and the distribution of products involve increasingly intense exchanges of information. Recent research points to the long neglected importance of communication problems in the location of firms: the development of telematics and rapid transport encourages the dispersal of plants over larger areas, but the consequent multiplication of contact requirements leads to the location of management centers in metropolises, closely interconnected by major airlines. The integration of the economy on a global scale is associated with the metropolitan urbanization of part of the population.
The economy, however, is only one of the activities of human groups. In traditional societies, the stratifications determined by social life rested on the existence of well-defined statuses and classes; in industrializing societies, income distribution became the basic principle of such stratification during the 19th century, before cultural dimensions regained their function – something that characterizes postindustrial societies. The uneven distribution of wealth and status across space is a universal, but variable, aspect of civilizations.Political geography deals with the way in which distance and remoteness condition the exercise of power, authority and influence. It is much easier to operate a legitimate regime than a tyrannical one based only on violence. Since the former is based on ideological consensus, it is necessary to understand what the origin of ideologies is and why they are accepted. But to govern it is not enough to obtain the consent of the majority: control of deviants and those who challenge the rules of the system is also always necessary, and this implies dividing the territory into well-defined constituencies, without which it would be impossible to implement surveillance. One of the difficulties of today’s world lies in the fact that the principles operating in the economic sphere are at odds with those that dominate political life: worldwide economic integration tends to reduce the importance of borders, as well as, of course, the self-sufficiency of national economies, while the division of territory into distinct entities remains indispensable in any strategy of control.The social point of view thus sheds an interesting light on the problems of today’s world: by attributing a considerable role to ideologies, it leads us to consider the data of culture and the humanist perspective.