Geography: Posts

Environmental Humility and other Reflections on "Rational Landscapes and Humanistic Geography"

Edward Relph discusses his book, Rational Landscapes and Humanistic Geography.

Some words are not trustworthy. I discovered that “humanistic” is one that carries a baggage of unexpected implications almost as soon as I began to think about writing the book that became Rational Landscapes and Humanistic Geography.

In the late 1970s academic geography was in the midst of an intellectual upheaval. It had become dominated by self-proclaimed spatial scientists attempting to impose on it scientific methods with all their paraphernalia of measurements, models, theories and explanations. I was part of a loosely coordinated resistance movement of “humanistic” geographers who preferred interpretive approaches aligned with those of the humanities. I had recently written Place and Placelessness, a polemic informed by ideas drawn from philosophy, history and literature about the ways in which diverse and distinctive old places were being overwhelmed by standardized modernist landscapes. I was totally primed to write a manifesto for humanistic geography.

However, as soon as I began to dig into what “humanistic” meant it became clear that for just about everyone except our small group of resistance geographers it had to do less with the humanities than with humanism - the conviction that human reason is privileged as the best way to understand nature, the world, people, places and just about everything else. This conviction had its origins in Cartesian philosophy, and during the Enlightenment it became central to philosophy, science, and political revolutions. It has subsequently infiltrated almost every ideology and branch of knowledge, even ones that are in apparent opposition - Marxism, capitalism, law, Christianity, atheism, existentialism have all been explicitly interpreted as humanistic. In short, even though the route from Descartes to central place theory and apartment towers of social housing is long and convoluted, both spatial science and modernist landscape uniformity are outcomes of humanistic thought. My intended manifesto for humanistic geography was in self-contradictory tatters even before I began to write it.

But, and this is a very substantial ‘but,’ in the course of my digging I learned that numerous philosophers and other critics had argued persuasively that human reason has in practice turned out to be a rather limited faculty and has often degenerated into a detached and oppressive humanistic rationalism which reduces nature to resources and people to numbers. So instead of a manifesto I wrote a book that is in part a critique of humanism, in part an elaboration of the parallel histories of the ideas of humanism and landscape, and in part an account of the ways in which rationalism infuses modern landscapes where all the bits are measured, designed and planned in detail yet the outcomes are inadequate because they feel shallow and the bits do not fit together well. Only four pages are specifically about humanistic geography.

More positively Rational Landscapes makes a case for what I called “environmental humility,” an idea I developed from phenomenology and Heidegger’s philosophy of letting things be, with strong support from John Ruskin’s writings about landscape and seeing clearly. ‘Humility’ has the same etymological root as ‘humanism’ (the Latin word humus for ‘earth’, indicating that we are all earth born and will return to the earth). Whereas rationalistic humanism assumes human superiority and imposes abstract convictions on the world, I argued that environmental humility requires ways of thinking and doing that respond to people, places and environments. Even though the concept of environmental humility has generated little academic attention, I do think it is a valuable idea and indeed one of increasing relevance. The precise name is not important but the attitude it describes is part of everyday experience for organic gardeners and farmers, and it is implicated, for instance, in the convictions both of those who protest instances of environmental degradation, such as the destruction of old growth forests, and of those who argue for approaches to city planning that aim to work with rather than against communities and the distinctiveness of places. And a greater degree of environmental humility might well have resulted in somewhat less climate change, the consequences of which could make almost everyone less arrogant about the merits of untrammeled human reason.

Would I change anything if I were to rewrite Rational Landscapes today? I think my criticisms of humanistic geography were warranted; it has never developed as significant subfield of the discipline. I haven’t read much about humanism in the last thirty years but a quick Google search suggests that not much new has been written, so my criticisms and rejection of humanism because of its tendency to descend into thoughtless, self-serving rationalism should remain valid. My descriptions of rational landscapes that are paradoxically dehumanizing because they are excessively humanized still seem accurate; if anything the processes operating behind recent place-making have become increasingly subtle - like genetic modification and nanotechnology they change almost everything yet leave things looking much the same as always.

On reflection, however, I should have paid attention both to the links between rationalistic humanism and capitalism, which seem to me to have intertwined histories, and to gender issues, not least because there is a striking dearth of women among the humanist authors I referenced (which suggests that humanism is primarily a male domain). And, given the current swirl of mobile devices and social media, it would now remiss of me not to consider Marshall McLuhan’s argument that the age of reason was an outcome of the rise of printing with its linear patterns and sequential structures, while electronic media facilitate an oral culture in which feelings supplant reason. If he’s right, it seems that texting, Google, Facebook and blogs like this one could all be harbingers of the demise of humanistic rationalism. Of course, what follows might be a world filled with gossip, idle chatter, ill-informed opinions and ragged conflicts instead of the responsive, responsible and environmentally humble future I would prefer.