How are concerns about climate change both shaped by and shaping the geographical imagination?

Alan Finkel opens his essay “Getting to Zero” (Finkel, 2021 pg. 1) by quoting Buckminster Fuller:

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes an existing model obsolete.”

We each have a mental model of the geography of the world. A ‘geographical imagination’ encompassing the natural and human spaces and the relationships between them. This essay will explore how the geographical imagination has changed in response to the challenge of climate change and vice versa.

The term ‘geographical imagination’ was first coined by Hugh Prince in 1962 (Gieseking, 2017). Referencing discussion since the work of Prince, Derek Gregory defines the geographical imagination as:

“…a sensitivity towards the significance of place and space, landscape and nature, in the constitution and conduct of life on Earth.”

(Gregory, 2009 pg. 282).

Gregory also argues that there is a collection of geographical imaginations, which vary under the influence of culture and context. A corollary of this is that each individual person possesses their own geographical imagination. Based on Gregory’s discussion Kathryn Yusoff and Jennifer Gabrys provide the following concise and clear definition:

“Geographical imaginations is a term that is used by geographers to describe the role of the imagination in shaping geographic thought, perception, and models of the world.” (Yusoff & Gabrys, 2011 pg. 16)

This clear definition encompasses place, space and spatial relationships, as well as the cultural domain, and is the basis for the following discussion.

Climate is a familiar concept, but it is surprisingly difficult to define. Mike Hulme discusses several scientific definitions before settling on describing climate as the “normalizing idea” behind the weather (Hulme, 2015 pg. 3). Hulme establishes that climate also has a cultural dimension and discusses how the understanding of climate has changed over time in parallel with cultural change. In Greco-Roman culture the climate was considered fixed. Western science later developed the idea that climate, along with other Earth systems, was evolving over time and subject to major disruptions (Hulme, 2015).

During the 20th Century there was a further change. Beginning with numerous catastrophist books such as “Silent Spring” (Carson, 1962), and images of the Earth from space which portrayed the Earth as a fragile “blue marble” (Hamilton, 2015), the realization that homo sapiens are a significant agent of change on Earth systems became widely established and incorporated into the geographical imagination.  In this context the definition of climate, viewed through the lens of that modified geographical imagination, evolved to include the idea that human scientific activity “…sows the seeds of destruction through the creation of new risks.” (Yusoff & Gabrys, 2011 pg.519). Belief that anthropogenic factors were significant in a changing climate became dominant.

Taking this one step further many writers, a recent example being Damon Gameau (Gameau, 2019), have extended the notion of anthropogenic influence to the personal level. Many people now believe that individual choices are an important part of collective action, impacting on climate.

To this point we have discussed the geographical imagination and climate in the context of a scientific epistemology. As discussed above, climate is also a cultural construct (Hulme, 2015) and we can reasonably conclude that many people without a scientific background develop their understanding of climate change through the window of popular culture. Appealing to ‘the science’ when discussing climate change, as many do, neglects that cultural dimension. It is common to blame political pressure, or cognitive dissonance, for a failure to accept and consequently act on climate change. In fact, a significant likely cause is that the cultural dimension has been neglected and there has been a failure to consider “a nuanced understanding of the mindset [or geographical imagination] of your intended audience” (Ward, 2021) (author’s insertion). At this point in the discussion, we will examine the cultural influence in geographical imaginations and the understanding of climate change.

Climate chaos has been a theme in many contemporary fictional works. The movie The Day After Tomorrow (2004) depicts a global ‘superstorm’ and finishes optimistically with the main characters overcoming adversity, while Ridley Scott’s dystopian Blade Runner (1982) presents the viewer with a dark eternally raining cityscape.

Literary works present similarly diverse imaginary futures. New York 2140 (Robinson, 2018) portrays a flooded New York where the characters live their lives in a modern Venice.

(Robinson, 2018)

The Drowned World (Ballard, 1962) in contrast portrays a London transformed into a stifling hot tropical wetland, which is barely habitable.

Graphical representations of climate futures are also common. Martin Mahony has explored how climate futures have been represented in photo montages and how that has influenced climate consciousness (Mahony, 2016). Mahony cites many examples, but dominant themes include flooded buildings (especially easily recognized structures) and familiar locations transformed into tropical or pastoral landscapes. Most are apocalyptic, but some take a humorous approach.

Looking at this diverse collection of examples it is obvious that they are superficial, inconsistent and one-dimensional in their depiction of climate change. The obvious question is, therefore, what overall influence might they have on geographical imaginations? Is their impact too superficial, and do their diverse messages cancel each other out? At the most fundamental level, however, the one thing they do have in common is change. In all these examples the sense of place becomes temporal, allowing for the evolution of places and climate. Furthermore, the change is more often depicted as subject to anthropogenic influence. Secondly, these various possible futures encourage speculation and open geographic imaginations to possibilities. In this way Mahony concludes that these representations do have a positive impact on geographical imaginations:

“As such, photomontage may prove to be a particularly powerful form of global environmental image-making and an agent of new, progressive geographical imaginations…”

(Mahony, 2016 pg. 15)

An aspect of geographical imaginations which has not yet been discussed in detail is the sense of place, or more specifically ‘place attachment’. Patrick Devine-Write, Jennifer Price and Zoe Leviston have explored place attachment and its connection with personal perceptions of climate change. (Devine-Wright, 2014). The place attachment is defined at three levels. At the local level a person only values what is spatially and temporally immediate. The second level describes attachment at a national level and the top level is a ‘global attachment’, where people self-identify as global citizens.

Devine-Wright Used a statistical analysis of online survey responses to identify the place attachment and attitudes to climate change of 1147 people in rural, regional and metropolitan Australia.

They discovered that national place attachment is the strongest influence among Australian adults, followed by global attachment, and local attachment is the least common.

The data revealed that individuals with a stronger global attachment were more likely to believe in anthropogenic causes for climate change, while those with stronger national attachment were more likely to believe in natural causes and disagree with human causality. The methodology gave strong support to these correlations but was not able to establish causality. Place attachment is complex and correlates with right wing political attachment and social dominance orientation, so it could be that the causality resides in these other areas. (Devine-Wright, 2014)

The geographical imagination and concerns about climate change interact in a complex way. Evidence shows that that concerns about climate change, expressed through empirical and cultural language, impact on the geographical imagination. Conversely geographical imaginations, at the very least correlate with, and probably impact on concern about climate change.  Understanding this relationship is key to effectively communicating the challenge of climate change.


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