I am a geographer. It is a bold statement. Particularly when you are filling out your tax return, and are asked for occupation, and there is no “geographer” in the list of hundreds of jobs. In the tax office’s eyes, I don’t exist. Still on the birth certificates of my children, I am listed as a geographer. And having a degree in geography probably helps.
But I would have to say, that despite this degree, I didn’t until recently really get what geography was all about, and why it is important to my work. I read a wonderful book called Maphead Charting the Wide Weird World of Geography Wonks by Ken Jennings. It is a wonderful, funny book about people who love maps. OK, confession time. When other kids were buying Rolling Stones or Police 45s, I was sneaking off at the Vicmap shop buying 1:100,000 maps of Halls Gap and other places. OK, that’s out there now. I can move on.
Back to the book. There is one section where Jennings rather hilariously describes what a geographer does, taking the form of a dinner party conversation. I won’t go into the detail, but it revolves around geography=maps. But what he says, in all seriousness, is that geography gives us the lens through which to view a number of disciplines, economics, sociology, demography, psychology, political science, meteorology, earth sciences, because it all comes back to someone having two feet firmly planted on the ground: place, and space. Or in more recent times, anchored somehow in a virtual geography
This made total sense to me. I am interested in all these things, have a smattering of an understanding of a lot of them. Sometimes just enough to be dangerous. Often it’s enough to sound convincing (and feel like you are skating on thin ice).
It made me realise why I think I am generally pretty good at what I do. (my daughter Amy thinks I am the best in the world. But she also thinks I could play AFL football, and are an amazing guitarist..ah the unconditional love!) Disasters are the intersection of all of these elements, all generally at once. I get the different elements of disaster management, not in a lot of detail, but enough to understand why they are important. It also means that people won’t necessarily pull the wool over my eyes either.
As most of these things happen in a place, then it is important to have someone who can step back, close their eyes and see the whole picture. Engineers look at roads and bridges and don’t often think of social consequences of what get’s built and when. Economists may not look at social consequences of providing or not providing assistance. Social workers may not understand the economic consequences of donated goods, psychologist may only see the anxiety disorder. The army establish a field hospital on the football ground because it’s an open space, but don’t see that the best thing for that town is have the opening game of the footy season.
One of the first questions I always have in my mind is what’s happening here, and I realised that the here is place. It then helps me ask the question “what might happen here” By being having a nose for various bits and pieces , you can start to make sense of it all. And that is one of the most important part of emergency management, sense making and meaning making.
It is also why I think, after all this time, I have returned to reading about place, and particularly the work of geographer Yi Fu Tuan.
So, we geographers aren’t all obsessed with maps. We just like to look at the world differently.