A Queer Renaissance of Geography

A Queer Renaissance of Geography | Atmos

Photograph by Julia Ishac / Connected Archives

Harvard University’s first geography graduate in 70 years argues that the discipline’s refusal to adhere to traditional academic boundaries is exactly why it’s needed to confront the climate crisis.

My graduation from Harvard in 2020 was historic in two ways: It was the university’s first online commencement ceremony, and through it, I received Harvard’s first geography degree in 70 years. That is because the university’s geography department was disbanded in 1948, still the only one in the institution’s four-century history to close indefinitely. It succumbed to a perfect storm of threats including growing Red Scare paranoia, a challenging postwar financial climate, and consequent funding disputes. While many debate what mattered most, few doubt the importance of one complicating factor: the rumored homosexuality of department chair Derwent Whittlesey.

Geography’s collapse at Harvard was only the first domino to fall for the now-imperiled discipline. The University of Pennsylvania’s department closed in 1963, then Yale’s in 1967, and perhaps most shockingly of all, Columbia’s top-ranked program dissolved in 1986. A smattering of faculties survived the turn of the century, primarily at public and land-grant universities, but they generally suffer today from low enrollment and sparse awareness of the discipline. As French geographer Jean Gottmann lamented in 1982, Harvard’s abrupt decision was “a terrible blow… to American geography” from which it has never fully recovered.

The role of homophobia in the department’s closure—and its eventual revival by a queer student seven decades later—may be simple happenstance. I believe, however, that there is greater meaning to the causal role of queerness in the field’s history. Geography is a uniquely nonconforming discipline that locates itself precariously between the social and natural sciences. Some may think of geography as the memorization of obscure rivers or the drawing of detailed maps, and at some level the map is the sacred document of geographers. But much like historians tend to texts and artifacts, the critical practice of geography breathes life into the map, asking how and why a place came to be as depicted. Pulling from history, geology, anthropology, and beyond, the discipline is distinct in its refusal to conform neatly to the stringent disciplinary categorizations of the modern university.

At its heart, geography asks how the environment has shaped human history and how, in turn, humans have shaped the environment.

At its heart, geography asks how the environment has shaped human history and how, in turn, humans have shaped the environment. Today, as our relationship with nature changes rapidly on an ever-heating planet, these are precisely the questions we need to ask. The very factors that made geography vulnerable in 1948—its imaginative power, nonconformity, and perhaps even the queerness of many of its practitioners—make the case for its relevance in 2024.

I discovered the little-known history of Harvard’s geography department on an obscure Internet forum my freshman year. Months later, armed with archival research and a healthy dose of queer vengeance, I successfully petitioned the faculty to pursue a self-directed geography curriculum. My studies took me to surprising and far-flung places. In a given semester, my week might have started at the Museum of Contemporary Zoology debating the scientific merits of human exceptionalism; next running to an art history course investigating the influence of nature on American political identity; then to a tutorial on international development with the economics department’s last-remaining Marxist. Over time, I became familiar with a dozen disciplines’ attempts to make sense of life on a changing planet, from urban planning and English literature to evolutionary biology and history. While all were generative, none alone were sufficient to address the great complexity of the challenges we face.

That’s because the climate crisis—an anthropogenic event of geologic consequence and planetary scale—defies the very departmental boundaries the modern university has clung so desperately to. Geography tends wilfully to the frictions and synergies created where one disciplinary perspective collides with another, generating theories of its own in the process. A critic once lampooned geography as “intellectual kindergarten” for its unwillingness to commit to purely humanistic or scientific inquiry, but as the climate crisis makes social questions scientific, scientific questions economic, and economic questions literary, isn’t that the exact kind of transboundary thinking we need?

Geography is on life support, but not all is lost. Here and there, seedlings of a geographic renaissance are beginning to root.

After graduating from Harvard, I joined the inaugural cohort of a new program in the geography department of the University of Cambridge. Ostentatiously titled “Anthropocene Studies,” the course convened 15 master’s students to interrogate the idea that we live in a geologic period defined by human activity. Coming from an almost impossible diversity of backgrounds—biology, physics, literature, visual art, political science, and law—we wrestled with the merits of the concept and its implications for each of our respective disciplines. With geographic theory serving as our foundation, we engaged in the unruly and complex debates that come with life on our changing planet.

To ask, “How was this world built?” implies that there is another world for us to build.

Once I entered the workforce, I quickly saw that the expansive nature of my geographic education had great value beyond academia, too. The same boundaries upheld in academia often divide scientists from investors, conservation biologists from philanthropic donors, and policymakers from frontline communities. Whether building novel climate technology with material scientists in California, championing community-driven wildlife conservation in Central Africa, or navigating international policy negotiations at the United Nations COP conferencemy greatest asset has been my ability to harmonize the many languages spoken within the environmental movement. My education in geography forced me to grapple with the great breadth of perspectives at play in confronting the climate crisis, and it has granted me a unique capacity to cultivate conversations, build coalitions, and advance comprehensive solutions through collaboration.

Studying geography can be painful. It reveals the ways that harmful ideologies of the past bear physically on the present, tracing the modern legacies of violence, colonization, and extraction that mark up our Earth. It is harrowing to see the world for its scars, and it can be tempting to accept the harms of the Anthropocene as totalizing and complete. But geography is not a backward-facing discipline; it plays with the variables of time to investigate how historic actions shape the present and how present actions may give way to an infinite number of futures not yet foretold. To ask, “How was this world built?” implies that there is another world for us to build.

In doing so, geography has granted me a newfound sense of agency against the anxiety and helplessness that so often characterize life in the climate crisis. Just as the ideologies and decisions of the past have brought us to this perilous edge, our planetary future will be shaped by the way we navigate the present. This comes with daunting responsibilities: to trace the histories that brought us here, to imagine what a thriving future for our planet might look like, and to begin the long path toward building it. A return to geography—in its most radical, inclusive, and, yes, queerest form—may just help us get there.

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