Mr Nicholas Hewlett, Headmaster, St Dunstan’s College
Most of you will know that I am a Geographer, having studied the subject at University and taught it throughout my career. Translating literally as the study or description of the Earth, I can trace my passion for ‘place’ back to being a small boy watching a television documentary of two men on a raft floating through dense jungle on the island of Papua New Guinea. Looking back, I think I was hooked on foreign travel from that point on, and wanting to understand the differences in the world. It would be more than 20 years before I fulfilled my childhood dream of visiting Papua New Guinea, and what better country does inspire reflection on some of the essential questions raised by the subject of Geography. Why does Papua New Guinea, a country with untold natural resource riches, rank amongst the poorest nations in the world? Why does Papua New Guinea find home to tree-climbing kangaroos and birds of paradise, animals found nowhere else on earth? Why did a volcanic eruption in that same archipelago in 1815 arguably manipulate the outcome of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe and a plethora of gothic literature? Why does Papua New Guinea have more standalone languages – over 700 – than any other country on earth? How did that happen?
For me, whilst Geography has, in the eyes of some critics, suffered something of an identity crisis, it has been exactly that lack of identity that makes it so exciting. The only subject to straddle the sciences and the humanities, to use the medium of place and space in seeking to understand how the two relate to one another and depend on one another. In a world where 13 million hectares of forest are destroyed across the globe every year, when President Trump, the leader of the free world, tweets his denial of climate change as a reality, where 143 million people are projected to become climate migrants, when over the last 50 years nearly 2000 wars have been fought over access to fresh water… who can dispute that our understanding of that interface between the natural and human world can be anything less than essential in our consciousness?
Simon Jenkins, that great journalist of the Guardian Newspaper, once said this:
Geography in the widest sense of the concept remains to me the queen of sciences. It holds the key that unlocks the coherence of the physical world as its sister, history, unlocks that of mankind’s occupation of it. Without geography’s mapping of planet Earth, the work of chemists, biologists and physicists is disjointed, mere technique.
It is geography that applies common sense to the statistical hysteria of the climatologists. It is geography that brings global warming into context and applies the test of feasibility to whatever political priorities are deemed necessary. It is geography that explains why each of us is located where we are, in neighbourhood, nation, continent and planet, and how fragile might be that location. Without geography’s instruction, we are in every sense lost - random robots who can only read and count
So this week, enjoy the sense of place we all feel. Our place at St Dunstan’s, our place in Catford, in London, in the European Union, in the Western Hemisphere and in the world. Think further on the challenges of our place in the world. How the science that underpins our place in it fundamentally controls our past, present and our future, the choices we take, the views we form and the decisions we make. And above anything else, open your mind to understanding the world, seek to explore it, see it, and ask questions of it, because it is Geography that ultimately makes us what we are.