By Emeritus Professor David Lambert
An earlier version of this article was published in Public History Weekly: that was a special issue in which scholars discussed mainly the role of history in addressing the Anthropocene. It is interesting indeed that history educators are taking an interest in deep time – that is, geological time scales. But as John Dewey pointed out in the early twentieth century, at about the time when teaching American history in US schools was in its great ascendancy, geography is the subject that studies the Earth as the home of humankind. It is therefore reasonable to ask what geographical studies might bring to deliberations with young people about contemporary predicaments and existential challenges associated with the human epoch – I say more about this later.
However, the profound significance of a geographical gaze as distinct from an historical one was, for Dewey, dependent upon its insistence on synthesis – to see the Earth as whole and not divided into human, physical, social or natural realms. Achieving such unity is pedagogically ambitious requiring a conceptual approach to teaching geography, always coming back to understanding the relations and links between phenomena. In Dewey’s estimation this was rarely achieved, school geography more likely to resemble the cartoonish caricature of the subject: of lists, maps and more lists to memorize random facts for no apparent purpose:
“The earth as the home of man is humanizing and unified; the earth viewed as a miscellany of facts is scattering and imaginatively inert.” (Dewey, 1916, p 240)
Leaving aside the school subject for a moment, geography itself has been described as one of the fundamental curiosities that human beings possess. Furthermore, it is claimed that an interest in geography is in the end, always about survival (Bonnett, 2008). Where you build your settlements (and what with), what you choose to grow, where you dispose of waste, the measures you take to sustain life, what you make and who you trade with… these are all matters that give rise to geographical questions, and John Dewey realised this. They are questions that demand knowledge of both the physical environment (weather and climate, life on earth and landscape) and human behaviours (in cultural, economic, social and political realms), for geographical questions are usually concerned with how various influences and factors interrelate and interact. Thus, although we can talk about ‘human’ and ‘physical’ geography – and frequently geographers self-identify as being one or the other – in truth, thinking geographically about an ever-changing world always carries a relational component which seeks to cross this ‘human-nature’ divide (see Castree, 2005).
It is important to acknowledge the intellectual challenge contained in this claim about the power of geography, for the physical-human divide is real in both epistemological and ontological terms. For many in academic life it is unbridgeable, to the point at which some leading geographers have questioned the very possibility of describing geography as a discipline at all (Clifford, 2018). It is at least sprawling, eclectic and very ‘horizontal’ in its structure, making geography appear unruly and lacking the well-defined ‘verticality’ displayed by, say, physics – or perhaps in its own highly specialist research sub-fields. Furthermore, in chasing specialist research funding and prioritising publication in high-status journals, academics in geography departments can function perfectly well without having to ‘think geographically’ in the sense outlined above. This alone may explain why many geography departments in the US have been reclassified since the 1990s, and why in the USA the majority have disappeared completely – never really recovering from what the president of Harvard declared on closing down the geography programme there in 1948, that ‘geography is not a university subject’.
The bequeathed problem is that in most US states, geography is no longer an identifiable school subject either, appearing only as an often quite minor ‘content strand’ within social studies. Geography’s unquestioned place in school during expansive and turbulent nation building years of the latter half of the nineteenth century was undermined in the 1916 National Education Association (NEA) report which recommended that geography be limited to half a year in seventh grade. From then on the subject was considered merely ‘incidental to history’, a judgement influenced perhaps by the contemporaneous commentary from Dewey. It has frankly never recovered from this judgement, mainly through its own failure to articulate convincingly its purpose and educational value (McDougall (2015, p 51). This is not quite the same in the UK where a lively discourse has emerged over many decades showing the contributions geographical thinking can make, not only to the intellectual development of children and young people but to their preparedness to ‘take on the world’ (Massey, 2014). In the UK, there is a fairly sophisticated, dynamic understanding of school geography, even though this is often at variance with what geographers do in the universities – and of course, geography as it exists in the popular imagination of pub quizzes, game shows and indeed many politicians and policy makers.
I suspect John Dewey would agree with my argument here that geography, based on the notion of educating young people to ‘think geographically’, is a precious cultural asset, and that in the human epoch it needs to be rediscovered in the school curriculum. It is a school subject that is inherently inter-disciplinary, and which explicitly takes as its object of study the Earth as our home. When we re-imagine those enduring ‘survival’ questions sampled earlier for present day societal and global challenges (including, but not limited to, the climate emergency), then the case for geographical thinking becomes even more convincing. Take for instance the 2020 global pandemic: the scrambling of governments to respond with varying levels of effectiveness have created fascinating human geographies. Understanding the pandemic, in terms of how the Covid19 virus spreads, the circumstances that encouraged its transmission and the measures that have managed to suppress this, arises from quintessentially geographical questions. The spatially differentiated incidence and impact of the disease can be explained only by a combination of environmental, social, economic and of course political factors. It is important to understand the significance of ‘the geography of it all’.
Furthermore, the 2020-21 health emergency has resulted in monumental levels of state debt – on top of the years of austerity that followed the 2008 global financial crisis. In Chapter 6 of The Enigma of Capital (entitled ‘The geography of it all’), David Harvey states categorically that “the circulation of capital does not take place on the head of a pin” (2010:159), instead stressing the ways that global capital flows are also spatially discerning. Just as with the global pandemic – or even the circulation of heat in the Earth’s atmospheric system – a global perspective does not imply that local geographies are dead. Far from it, as attempts at forms of international or even global governance show us very well. Trump’s ‘America First’ policies designed to undermine NATO, the UN and WHO, and of course the UK’s Brexit adventure, were politics fuelled by nativist instincts and none too carefully examined notions of national exceptionalism. But as Harvey has also pointed out, it was no use assembling rational economic arguments to stave off Brexit in 2016: “economics only trumps politics in the long run, and in the long run we are all dead.”
So, while economics is notoriously abstract (theorising, as if on the head of a pin), geography attempts to give human and physical processes empirical meaning. Political geographers have shown that the scale of localised ‘experience’ in which people live, and the ‘real’ scale of global processes both directly, but differentially, impact on people’s lives (Flint and Taylor, 2018). Given that part of thinking geographically means that we teach young people to grasp the interlocking nature of place and space we can see the profound educational contribution teaching geography can make, at least in principle. This is not to teach young people what to think about the politics, but through the geography of it all, ways to think productively about themselves at home on planet Earth. To give this statement empirical bite, let us just consider just one recent incidence of the climate emergency: the forest fires raging in California and the Pacific Northwest States in 2021. These fierce and deadly fires are diagnosed as part of the global climate emergency. They result from extreme weather events predicted to occur with more frequency and with greater peaks than before the atmospheric impact of rapid sustained carbon-based economic growth since the mid-twentieth century. However, politicians, even those with climate change denying instincts, were not entirely out of order in claiming local explanations and solutions to the catastrophes – which are, of course, all experienced in localities. Issues such as improving forest management techniques, creating more and wider fire breaks and even regulations on where to build settlements – all need to adjust to the new normal. Think geographically requires us to hold all this in mind, as “unified” to use Dewey’s words.
Thinking geographically, in the form I am assembling here, is multifaceted and not straightforward. It is not ‘just’ another way to enhance curiosity in young people, important though this is. Developing curiosity in schools, through languages, mathematics, the sciences, arts and humanities, is perhaps the greatest tool society has collectively, to enhance democracy and to help resist baser, parochial political instincts. However, it goes almost without saying that such a liberal, Deweyian ideal is now under so much pressure that it has an almost hollow tone to it. In the world of education, we are used to the discourse of failure and derision resulting in continuous reform designed to raise levels of ‘accountability’ in teaching and in teacher training, but also in school organisation, school management and leadership, the curriculum, pedagogy and assessment. For in society at large, which is far from sanguine about the Age of Acceleration (Friedman, 2016) – of which the climate emergency is just one aspect, we are browbeaten about the end of progress. It is now no longer assumed that children will have ‘better’ lives than their parents, producing a lingering air of anxiety or even deep and profound fatalism. In these circumstances, schools have become mainly an arm of performance driven economic policy, as if just more of the same, but just faster being based on ‘new kinds of smart’, will resolve things. Education can surely provide a more ambitious response than this, which is tantamount to ‘hoping for the best’. Can we return to, or renew, a bigger sense of mission in education, one that imagines schools as part of the means at society’s disposal to stave-off the inevitable? If we can, developing the capacity in young people to think geographically has a part to play in this.
And so we come, if not to the apocalypse, to confronting the human epoch, or Anthropocene. For when the pandemic is under control, Brexit has become a fact and the Trump years have been placed in parenthesis (perhaps), the discomforting truth remains that we know human societies on planet Earth face existential challenges. Even geographer Danny Dorling in his optimistic Slowdown (Dorling, 2020) in which he shows that many of the taken for granted ‘accelerations’ of our age, notably the population explosion, are well past their peaks, admits that the climate emergency is both real and urgent. So far, global mitigation policies have been inadequate to prevent average global temperature increases of more than 2 degrees centigrade – which will result in the inundation of major world cities, the disappearance of whole countries, high frequency extreme weather events and enormous movements of desperate people (and the prospect of the global super-rich trying to insulate themselves on protected gated communities in New Zealand and other ‘safe havens’). To paraphrase David Harvey, the economy might well trump politics in the long run, but the environment trumps everything.
In other words, environmental earth systems represent the bottom bottom line in any attempt to audit and understand human life at home on planet Earth. But not only this. The profundity of the Anthropocene is in accepting that it is an identifiable epoch of geological time – when human activity powerful enough to shape the planet’s physical systems will have detectable consequences in the fossil record. When we read that the weight of plastic waste in the sea is now the equivalent of the weight of the fish that swim in it; or that the weight of human made edifices now outweighs the whole of plant and animal life on Earth, we can intuit that the Anthropocene (which is said by many to have begun in the mid-twentieth century) is a fact. We might query the measurement instruments and methodology, but we would know that to do so would be like whistling in the wind. For we know that humans have the ability to extinguish biodiversity (including much human life) on Earth. And we know that this is beginning to look inevitable.
Enormous intellectual effort is being put to work, not only to find technological and economic solutions but also social and cultural interventions that may help stave-off the inevitable. Interestingly, there are also important debates emerging about how it came to be like this. For example, philosophers of history are conversing about how to incorporate the long-term history of the Earth into historical studies and how to recognise the non-human, or ‘planetary’, as historical (Latour and Chakrabarty, 2020). A key point in the historical debate is the acceptance that “… the Earth has become an agent and no longer the backdrop of human agency” which leads to the conclusion that earth systems, Gaia (or indeed geography) are far from merely ‘incidental’ to history. This is potentially quite an about turn from the earlier, degraded view of geography that took hold for much of the twentieth century. Interestingly, Bruno Latour designates the last century as the “lost century” – because it took scholars and society at large so long to grasp the real ‘bottom line’. This was especially true in the triumphalist period since 1989 and the ‘end of history’ following the Cold War victory over communism, a time when the risks of climate change and pollution were already well understood.
An appropriate educational response to the human epoch needs to value geographical thinking: thinking that does not put human beings above (or even separate from) nature; that puts locales and nations into their global context; and which always seeks to understand interconnections. The relevance of Geography For Life in the US, or the National Curriculum programmes of study in England, for encouraging or enabling teachers to engage in such ‘unified’ thinking with their students has to be brought into question. Reform has to get beyond refining and reproducing the standards. We tried to take some steps to do this in the GeoCapabilities project, which has attracted considerable productive debate in the field of geography education (eg Béneker, 2018; Bustin, 2019; Maude, 2016; Lambert, Solem and Tani, 2015; Lambert, Béneker and Bladh; 2021; Uhlenwinkel et al, 2017). I believe reformed school geography, which seeks to enhance children and young people’s capabilities with regard to thinking about society-nature relationships and environmental futures, represents a profound educational response to the challenges of the human epoch.
One of the principles of the GeoCapabilities project was that real curriculum reform is distributed. It is in the hands of teachers working in educational settings locally, often in teams but frequently on their own. Teachers are the curriculum makers: they enact the curriculum with the young people they teach. In this sense teachers have considerable agency (see Lambert and León, 2023). Yes, they have to meet the standards and deliver the programme, but there are so many ways to do this and to make it matter to students.
Béneker, T. (2018) Powerful Knowledge in Geographical Education. Inaugural lecture as professor of Geography and Education, Faculty of Geosciences, Utrecht University (16.10.2018)
Bustin, R. (2019) The Potential of Geography Education and the Capability Approach. Abingdon: Routledge.
Bernstein, B. (2000) Pedagogy, symbolic control and identity. Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield
Bonnett, A. (2008) What is Geography? London: Sage.
Castree, N. (2005) Nature (Key Ideas in Geography). Abingdon: Routledge.
Clifford, N. (2018) Geography’s identity as an academic discipline. Jones, M. and Lambert, D. (Eds) Debates in Geography Education. Abingdon: Routledge.
Dewey, J. (1916) Democracy and Education: An introduction to the philosophy of education. New York: MacMillan. ( https://www.fulltextarchive.com/page/Democracy-and-Education/)
Dorling, D. (2020) Slowdown: the end of the Great Acceleration – and why it’s good for the planet, the economy and our lives. New Haven and London: Yale University Press
Flint C and Taylor P (2018) Political Geography: World Economy, Nation State and Locality. (Seventh Edition) Abingdon: Routledge.
Friedman, T. L. (2016). Thank You for Being Late: An Optimists Guide to Thriving in the Age of Acceleration. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Harvey, D. (2010) The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism. London: Profile Books.
Lambert, D., Béneker, T. and Bladh, G. (2021) The challenge of ‘recontextualisation’ and Future 3 curriculum scenarios: an overview in Fargher, M., Mitchel, D. and Till, E. (Eds) (2021) Recontextualising Geography in Education.Cham: Springer.
Lambert, D. and León, K. (2023) The value of geography to an individual’s education, in Biddulph, M., Catling, S., Hammond, L. & and McKendrick, J. (Eds) Transforming Children’s Geographies: Rethinking Children’s Geographical Education. Abingdon: Routledge.
Lambert, D., Solem, M., and Tani, S. (2015). Achieving Human Potential Through Geography Education: A Capabilities Approach to Curriculum Making in Schools. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Vol. 105 (4), pp. 723-735.
Latour, B. and Chakrabarty, D. (2020) Conflicts of Planetary Proportion – a conversation, Journal of the Philosophy of History, 14, 419-454.
Massey, D. (20-14) Taking on the World, Geography, 99, 1, 36-39.
Maude, A. (2016). What might powerful geographical knowledge look like? Geography, Vol. 101, Part 1 pp. 70-76.
McDougall, W. A. (2015) Geography, History and True Education Research in Geographic Education 17, 1, 10-89.
Morgan, J. (2012) Teaching Secondary Geography as if the Planet Matters. Abingdon: Routledge.
Uhlenwinkel, A., Béneker, T., Bladh, G., Tani, S. and Lambert, D. (2017) GeoCapabilities and Curriculum Leadership: balancing the Priorities of aims-based and knowledge-led Curriculum Thinking in Schools, International Research in Geographical and Environmental Education, 26, 4, 327-341.
Vernon, E. (2016) The structure of knowledge: does theory matter? Geography, 101, 2, 100-104.
Vernon, E. (2019) Teaching to the epistemic self: ascending and descending the ladder of knowledge, The Curriculum Journal, 31, 1, 27-47.
 https://public-history-weekly.degruyter.com/9-2021-1/geography-anthropocene/ Aspects republished here with permission and thanks to the Editors Arthur Chapman and Marko Demantowsky
 This terminology draws on the British sociologist of education Basil Bernstein (2000) whose theorising on knowledge structures has been influential. School teacher Ester Vernon has explored Bernstein in the context of teaching geography (Vernon , 2016; 2019)
This website contains outcomes and materials arising from the international GeoCapabilities project, seed funded by the NSF in the US, and then by the EU Comenius programme. Despite being described by one prominent US geography educationist as “useless nonsense”, one of the overarching aims of the project has been to focus on the affordances of high-quality geography education in ‘this day and age’, and the significance of thinking geographically.