‘I got into geography through chance, of course, but there were some influential figures. My grandfather was a geographer who studied in my department at Oxford. He made me learn how to read ordnance survey maps when I was six. I was then lucky to have an inspiring geography teacher at school, who made the subject vast and exciting. When the time for university came, I actually wanted to do economics but didn’t like the way it was taught, so I settled on geography and maths.
I went to Newcastle University, mostly to get as far away from Oxford – my home town – as I could. At the time, Newcastle’s geography department had some of the highest publishing young geographers in the world. I ended up staying to do a PhD, and that’s where you begin to get locked in. I was devising an escape strategy when the Vice Chancellor made me Professor for the Public Understanding of Social Science at Newcastle. The Halford Mackinder Professorship of Geography at Oxford University then came up, which curtailed my brief escape – and I’m pleased about that!
I’m fascinated by global data. When I started writing Slowdown around six or seven years ago, I reviewed over 200 series of data on population, economies, technical innovation, and many other subjects. I thought I’d find a multitude of statistics that were still accelerating. But though the rate of consumption, pollution, international travel and global temperatures were on the rise – the shock was finding a surprising amount that were falling. Once you start to unravel data, you can become quite optimistic. People say that to overcome the climate emergency, we have to first overhaul our economies. In fact, they have begun to slow down already, and the tide is beginning to turn.
I relate our current fears around climate change to the threat of nuclear war when I was growing up in the 1970s. By the 1980s, disarmament began and 90 per cent of nuclear warheads were decommissioned. That was a true human success. Despite the enormity of climate change, we know that it takes about two generations for human beings to accept that something they do is awful – history tells us that we can succeed again.
The incredible growth of GDP in the 1950s and 60s was partly due to population expansion, which basically saw the number of customers of products like Coca Cola increase dramatically every year. Now, we have plummeting fertility rates around most of the world and a far better educated population than we’ve ever had. When you get over a certain age, you realise that you’re not going to be happier by buying a new shirt every weekend, so the slowdowns that we’re seeing are partly due to the repercussions of changing population demographics. There is also the realisation that producing higher quality items that last longer might be a better economic model for businesses.
We do need to slow down faster than we currently are. History gives us hope, however. Like the decommissioning of nuclear weapons in the 1980s, a younger generation of impassioned people will age and eventually take control of the political agenda with regard to climate change. In the last decade, we’ve created a positive movement and the climate change deniers have mostly disappeared. There is now a new demographic on the other end of the spectrum, who are abstaining from having children either as a climate-conscious act, or because they foresee that the world will be a far too awful place in which to raise children – the data tell us that neither of these things need-be necessary. Suppose if Greta Thunberg’s parents had decided not to have her…
I think the last 10 years have been really exciting for geography – we’ve got so much worth saying. In my department, we have 250 staff, of which 100 are climate change scientists. For the new generation of young people who are passionate about the planet, the degree choice is obvious: geography. But it’s not just climate change that has brought newfound interest in geography. If you’re fascinated as to why six billionaires today earn as much as the world’s poor, the degree choice for you is geography.
The majority of students coming in [to my department] are now highly enthusiastic and motivated to learn. However, there’s a gap between the way in which A levels are taught and the university method. When students arrive to study geography at university, they can find it hard to adapt to the idea that they can use their imagination; there isn’t always a correct answer. You’re really allowed to do almost anything you like as a geographer – by combining this new enthusiasm with free thought, geography can truly push boundaries.’