'To Civility and to Man's Use': History, Culture, and Nature

By Simmons, I. G. | The Geographical Review, January 1998 | Go to article overview

'To Civility and to Man's Use': History, Culture, and Nature


Simmons, I. G., The Geographical Review


In 1611 the metaphysical English poet John Donne, faced with a novel cosmology that upset many established certainties of both the natural and the human spheres, wrote of the relations of humans and nature:

Thus man, this world's vice-emperor, in whom All faculties, all graces are at home; And if in other creatures they appear, They're but man's ministers, and legates there, To work on their rebellions, and reduce Them to civility and to man's use.

(Donne 1971, 275)

Whether intended as irony or as straight-faced commentary, the passage ends on a note as familiar to us as was the thought to Donne: that other creatures - for which we can read the whole nonhuman world - were at the mercy of instrumental use in human hands. Later in the same poem, Donne complains that the world is "all in pieces, all coherence gone," another resonance with our times (p. 276). Yet, among other things, we stand at a time when as never before these strands of thought about the relations of human societies, their worldviews, and the construction of those attitudes are under scrutiny for their coherence and, indeed, their contribution to the well-being of the planet and its denizens.

The persistence in geography of the theme of human-environment relations is one of which American founders like Carl Sauer and his immediate colleagues and successors would have approved. Yet since the 1960s it has not been the dominant element in the subject, and geography has not necessarily been a lead discipline in the public examination of perceived problems in those connections. In this essay I neither lament past abstentions nor excoriate fellow geographers but instead celebrate earlier workers by building on their contributions and trying to go a stage farther along the roads they followed and constructed. Since the major contributions to the discipline by scholars like Sauer, both the world itself and academic geography have changed not a little. In that time the discipline has contributed to work in human-environment relations in two especially significant ways:

* Physical geographers have contributed an immense amount of scientific knowledge about the biophysical systems of the earth to the pool of awareness created by the natural sciences. Their input into geomorphology, ecosystem studies, soil science, and hazard research, to name but a few fields, has been considerable in volume and is acknowledged as critical to understanding in any holistic appreciation of the systems on the face of the planet.

* Human geographers have greatly extended their understanding of the complexities of human identity as played out on spatial, political, and other social stages. The diversity of topics studied and styles of approach have worried some commentators but, at the same time, have been fruitful for many others. The engagement of human geographers with the reevaluation of women in almost every sphere of life has probably been the most enriching of all.

A metaphor for this process is that of the accordion: At times the subject inhales from the air around it all that can be sucked in, not necessarily with a great deal of discrimination, and then this is mixed and exhaled in the form of shaped sound. We have to explore further whether this is a conventional tune or something more aleatory.

In human-environment relations, there is additional concern about what are usually labeled as "environmental problems," toward which one attitude is nihilism and existential funk, accompanied by a word salad in which language is the only reality. However, an alternative position, one of modified realism, exists: Out there is something we can never know, because our senses are too limited even when they are extended by instruments. So the congruence of human-environment relations and geography is great. This is given emphasis by the new interest in holistic views. The felt flow of humans and nature, so dear a subject for philosophers, is given voice in the programmatic statements of the geographers Peter Taylor, Michael Watts, and Ron Johnston, who suggest that the spirit of holism "is geography's only legitimate raison d'etre" (1995, 7). …

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