Has the Royal Geographical Society Abandoned the Spirit of Adventure?
McCARTHY, Michael, The Independent (London, England)
The big question
Why are we asking this now?
Because a number of Fellows of this venerable society think that is exactly what it has done by abandoning the large-scale field expeditions to remoter parts of the globe it has mounted since its foundation in 1830, and which have involved legendary explorers from David Livingstone in Africa, to Scott of the Antarctic.
Has the RGS in fact changed its policy?
Yes it has. As a result of two policy reviews in 2001 and 2004, the society decided to abandon its own large-scale expeditions, and concentrate its funding instead on supporting a number of smaller geographical research projects carried out across the world by other institutions. Since 2005 it has given grants of more than 500,000 to 50 projects spanning 65 countries involving hundreds of scientists; the society says these projects have made substantial contributions to geographical knowledge.
What's wrong with that?
A number of very prominent RGS Fellows think that the society's role should be much more than that of a funding body for academic research carried out by others. They believe it should continue the formidable tradition which over nearly two centuries made it celebrated, of advancing geographical knowledge by mounting substantial expeditions of its own.
This group features a number of people who even in this day and age would be tagged in the popular mind as "explorers": they include Colonel John Blashford-Snell, often photographed in an old- fashioned pith helmet, who led a famous expedition down the Blue Nile in 1968; Sir Ranulph Fiennes, who has led numerous expeditions including a famous circling of the world via the two poles in 1982; Robin Hanbury-Tenison, whose expeditions to the Amazon and to Sarawak in the 1970s and 1980s helped to spark international concern for rainforests and for their tribal peoples; and Pen Hadow, the Arctic adventurer who is currently on an expedition to measure how fast the sea ice of the Arctic Ocean is melting. All these people, with numerous supporters, are fiercely opposed to the RGS switch in policy.
So what are they doing about it?
A 78-strong group of them has requested a Special General Meeting of RGS Fellows next Monday, at the society's splendid Norman Shaw headquarters in Kensington, with a resolution calling for the policy switch to be reversed, and large-scale expeditions to be undertaken once again.
All 10,500 Fellows are eligible to vote on the resolution, and a postal ballot has been organised; the result will be known at the time of the meeting, and added to the votes of those present (who will probably number several hundred). The Council of the RGS is strongly opposed to the resolution, and there are big guns on their side too: all living former RGS Presidents are against it and support the Society's current strategy. For the record, they are Professor Michael Wise, Lord Chorley, Sir Crispin Tickell, the Earl of Selborne, Professor Sir Ron Cooke, Sir Neil Cossons, and Professor Sir Gordon Conway.
So the disagreement is intense?
It certainly is. It has become acrimonious; tension is evident, even bitterness. Feelings are running high. The root cause of the RGS split is a shift in the very nature of the discipline of geography: from geography as exploration, to geography as research.
Exploration is geography's past, and a very glamorous past it was, dangerous and romantic. Yet by the end of the Second World War, certainly by the 1960s, most of the globe had been discovered, if not mapped in detail; there was no more North-west Passage to be searched for. So geographers made a subtle but major switch in their focus: they changed from merely describing places, to understanding what was going on in them. They went from being explorers in spirit, to being analysts. …