For a New Geography
Milton Santos, translated by Archie Davies
University of Minnesota Press, $28.00 (paper)

The Nature of Space
Milton Santos, translated by Brenda Baletti
Duke University Press, $27.95 (paper)

Lucretius may as well have said of geography, as he did of nature, that if you throw it out the door it will just come flying back in through the window. Recent events only confirm that insight: as Ambrose Bierce is said to have wryly noted, “War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.” While we once knew nothing of Fallujah or Kunduz, now Tuzla, the Strait of Kerch, and the Ukrainian grain ports of Mykolayiv and Chornomorsk may become as familiar as Sarajevo and Crimea were once strange.

Geography attracts many who see it as a path toward a revised social and political consciousness.

Though geography is an ancient way of knowing, it has shifted with the times. Each century has brought with it a new approach, which, in turn, has come under challenge. Mapping the world, its trade routes and its resources, its shifting boundaries and its human movements, was long geography’s exclusive focus. The geographers of the ancient world were often less concerned with topographic details than they were with portraying the spiritual place one occupies in relation to a ritual center. It was not until the Enlightenment that geography in the West became a formal study linking rational and empirical science.

As heirs to this background, the geographers of the twentieth century offered four main theoretical approaches. The first quarter of the century saw the rise of environmental determinism. At its height, Yale’s Ellsworth Huntington (who, not incidentally, was also president of the American Eugenics Society) could argue that the ideal latitude and longitude for human flourishing just happened to coincide with the coordinates for New Haven, CT. Starting in the 1950s an emphasis on quantitative studies created a revolution in geography, while an emphasis on the role of regionalism in national development fit well with the social and economic policies of the 1970s–1990s. Each approach has been challenged by critical geography, which interprets land use predominantly as a function of capitalist economics.

As a result of this fraught and evolving history, today’s geography comes in at least two main flavors—what might be called the old new geography and the new old geography.

The old new geography is the oldest form of geography: the determinism of place. On this view, latitude or topography controls our fate. Indeed, Aristotle first correlated latitude with resources, which led Columbus to descend to the zone of gold and hang a right. Ousted by other disciplines, this form of academic geography largely endures in popular nonfiction. We are introduced to various forms of the old geographic determinism in books such as Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel (1997), Harm de Blij’s Why Geography Matters: More Than Ever (2012), Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps that Explain Everything About the World (2015), and Robert D. Kaplan’s The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate (2012). Each envisions benefits that allow the advancement of some well-situated societies or the friction that imperils the ability of others embedded in less favored environments. What is new, here, is the impulse to link geographic explanation to the evolutionary history of our species, the collapse of cultures, or the resource strategies of various political regimes, as opposed to the more traditional concerns of topography or the earth sciences.

One consequence of this outlook is that everyone can get into the game. Military strategists can assert that future conflicts will center on resource location, political pundits that climate change will lead to popular revolutions, and scientists that the biosphere is so stressed that evolution will have to move forward from a greatly altered base. Metaphors are disguised as theories: we are told the world teeters on erratic “tipping points,” that “a science of history” can displace “fuzzy” cultural analysis, or that our “sick” planet requires radical “treatment.” Valuable as some of these connections may be, they nevertheless ignore how our ways of narrating history and human nature shape the facts, rather than the other way around.

The overriding challenge for geographical thinking today is striking the right degree of specificity.

By comparison, the new old geography—a “critical geography”—emphasizes race, colonialism, and concern for those who bear the disproportionate burden of climate change and political conflict. It is still old, in a certain sense, considering its concentration on physical setting and resource location over local culture and belief, but it tries to repair geography’s fragmentation into other disciplines even as it attempts to gather all the different aspects of a people’s encounter with their surroundings.

Nowhere are the dilemmas posed by the new old geography more provocatively explored than in several of the works, now available to an English-reading audience, of the late Afro-Brazilian geographer Milton Santos. For a New Geography (1990) gives a full sense of the history of the discipline that led up to Santos’s discontent with past approaches, whereas The Nature of Space (1996) argues more directly that geography must encompass the whole of one’s environmental experience. It is these themes that lie at the heart of Santos’s life work.

Born in 1926 in the northeast state of Bahia, both of Santos’s parents were teachers who were well-implanted in the country’s middle class. They homeschooled Santos, teaching him French. After studying law at university, Santos began teaching geography, but soon left to write and edit for a newspaper. He decided in the mid-1950s to earn a doctorate in geography at Strasbourg. In those days, geography on the continent was not simply a matter of cartography or watered-down geology, but rather a “human science” that integrated the history of land use, the transmigration of populations, and the view that the environment provides possibilities rather than setting absolute constraints. While not overtly partisan, this strain of geography attracted many who saw it as a path toward a revised social and political consciousness. In his work as a newspaperman, Santos had already moved to the left, and during his French education he became increasingly attracted to thinkers such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Baudrillard, and Karl Marx.

Returning to Bahia after taking his degree, Santos quickly became enmeshed in local reformist politics. During a brief experience as the head of a planning commission in his home state, his distaste for the so-called “progressive” style of Brazilian development grew. At the time, central planning was seen as the keystone to national development, and Santos, who became a close advisor to Brazil’s leftist President João Goulart, was highly critical of the autocratic elite controlling national and regional growth. Travel to Castro’s Cuba and the newly emergent countries of east Africa, along with dreams of a career in diplomacy, only whetted Santos’s appetite for more thoughtful reform.

Santos’s connection to Bahia always influenced his approach to politics and geography. The northeast of Brazil had a long history of resistance movements, runaway slave enclaves, and millenarian communes, all of which rankled the country’s right-wing. In 1964, when the military took over, Santos’s sympathies landed him in jail. Imprisoned for three months, and (owing in part to the intervention of the French ambassador), he was released on the condition that he leave the country. For the next thirteen years he lived and worked abroad, mainly in France but also with intermittent appointments at universities in Canada, the United Kingdom, and Venezuela. Later he would visit a number of other universities, including MIT, where he collaborated with Noam Chomsky.

Santos was finally able to return to Brazil in 1977 where, in the years before his death in 2001, he held an appointment at the University of São Paulo. During his exile he was prolific, publishing some forty books and winning geography’s highest award, the Vautrin Lud Prize. He is still the only scholar from the southern hemisphere to do so. For all his positive statements about geography’s contributions, however, much of Santos’s writing centered on his disagreement with the practices of the discipline. Three themes stand out in his critique: that quantification contributed to the blinkered professionalism of the discipline, that past efforts to render geography more holistic and interdisciplinary had failed, and that geography’s outmoded concepts constitute a form of oppression that harms developing countries. For Santos, each of these themes had a practical, no less than intellectual, implication.

Even in the postcolonial era, Santos contends, geography serves as a means of avoiding responsibility for systemic exploitation.

Santos’s preeminent bête noire was geography’s turn to quantification: he cites it as the main example of how the “new geography killed the future.” His criticism was grounded on two propositions. First, that quantification, whether of resources or populations, carved a set of indicators out of a natural whole. This, he believed, segregated elements from what must be seen as a cohesive unit. Given its emphasis on systems analysis, regression models, and the like, “the great mistake of so-called ‘quantitative geography’ was to treat a method—indeed, a questionable method—as a theory,” Santos writes in For a New Geography. Second, he argued that quantification eliminates time. Quantification, he believed, takes a micrometer cut through an ongoing process and freezes the moment in a structural mold, failing to capture the in flux nature of lived-in space. He writes:

The current application of mathematics to geography allows us to work with successive stages of spatial evolution but it is incapable of saying anything about what happens between one stage and another. Therefore, we witness the reproduction of successive stages but never their succession. We are working with results, but processes are omitted. . . . The space that mathematical geography reproduces is not the space of societies in movement but a snapshot of some of its moments. Photographs can only describe, and descriptions should never be confused with explanations.

Santos equates measurement to a denial of change. Indeed, self-appointed experts quantify the next alteration or set the criteria by which progress can be substantiated. The result, Santos implies, is a false sense of professionalism that reifies geography’s branches—economic, physical, and cultural—and contributes to their separation from each other.

Even when geography has tried to bring its subject into a larger interdisciplinary world, Santos argued, those efforts have been misguided. On at least three occasions, he says, such attempts have been “abortive.” Kant and others made the mistake of treating geography and history “as identical twins”—the former organizing matters in space, the latter in time—when they are connected but not interchangeable. In a second phase, geography misappropriated sociology and, as a result, diminished its own contributions. The sociology Santos criticizes focuses on the internal structure of groups, rather than their members’ view of their place in the environment, and thus renders societies frozen in some ethnographic present rather than being the agents of their own adaptations. Finally, geographers became so enamored of their own methods that they sacrificed how best to understand the overall relation of human communities to their environments.

Santos’s third theme concerns geography’s presumptions—almost always drawn from European intellectual sources—and their adverse effects on developing countries. “Coming late into the world as an official science, geography has strug­gled since its infancy to disconnect itself from powerful interests,” he writes. “One of the great conceptual feats of geography was to hide the role of the state—and of class—in the organization of society and space. Its other was to justify the colonial project.” Even in the postcolonial era, he says, geography serves as a means of avoiding responsibility for systemic exploitation.

Although Santos shows respect for his predecessors—such as Vidal de la Blache, Richard Hartshorne, and Alfred Hettner, who were the key figures in the regional approach to geography—he argues that their focus on regionalism translates to a new kind of determinism. He writes that “regional­ism is parallel to possibilism. It is determinism by another name” because it fails to consider the larger forces at work on any given place—the effect of federal policies, corporate practices, or professional training that benefit from regarding an area as just part of a given region’s domain rather than as an equal participant in an interacting whole. Santos concludes that “geography, so often in the service of oppression,” leads to a “perverse universalization, because under its façade of generalization is discrimination: the increasing wealth and power of some and the increasing poverty and vulnerability of the immense majority.” In a characteristic passage in For a New Geography, Santos assembles his various critiques:

In its thousands of years of history, humanity has evolved from the coexistence of many modes of production, each adapted to the particu­lar constellation of resources available to a collective, toward a singular mode of production divorced from local resources and directed by the needs of the center of the system.

In order for geography to contribute to this project, it had to adopt the precise numerical categories of modernization. The technics of quanti­fication became the method for “modern” growth.

Whether consciously or unconsciously, geography became not the guide of planning but its instrument. It justified needs defined a priori, rather than those emerging from an analysis of each given environment. The mathematical framework lent this process the guise of science.

Theses of regional inequality were accepted without deeper analysis of underlying mechanisms. Simplistic objects of calculation gave surface appearances the aura of theories or models. Reality was underestimated.

Santos believed geography’s outmoded concepts constitute a form of oppression that harms developing countries.

Santos’s dissatisfaction with his own discipline ultimately led to his most famous publication, The Active Role of Geography: A Manifesto (2000). In July 2000, together with some of his students, Santos distributed this document at a meeting of geographers, detailing the problems he saw in the discipline. Geography in Brazil was in trouble at that time. With dwindling enrollments in the field, universities began to design geography courses on matters such as tourism and remote sensing; the fragmentation that had long plagued the field was deepening. Citing geographers in his country for “epistemological indolence,” Santos set forth ten theses, the common thread being that geography was insufficiently oriented to the way that people encounter their settings and that the fragmented teaching of the field only exacerbated the discipline’s drift. Specifically, Santos suggested that colonial geography, which separated regions, served the Europeans’ divide-and-conquer policies by reducing the complex web of social and cultural features by which people conceptualize their environments to only those resources that were of benefit to the metropole.

The reaction to the Manifesto made visible the fault lines within the profession, as scholars read the document in a variety of ways. Nevertheless, in a public debate only months before he died, Santos defended the tone and content of the work, which ultimately was more significant for its public airing of a discipline in crisis than for any clear direction or remedy.

Santos’s central concept of space is hard to grasp, notwithstanding multiple attempts at its definition. Indeed, Santos admits that defining space “is extremely hard to do,” and even the translator of For a New Geography is forced to note the variety and imprecision of his attempts when she writes: “Among other things, he variously writes that space is a set of systems of actions,” including “socialized nature,” “a social fact,” “social order,” “worked matter,” “landscape-space,” “witness,” and “an effective and active condition of the concrete realization of the modes of production and their moments.”

Santos also conflates empiricism with quantification, disallowing the formulation of theory from the ground up rather than being subject to airy temptations from above. It is not always easy to know, for example, what Santos means when he says things such as, “to demystify man and space is to extract from nature the symbols that hide its truth,” or (as in the Manifesto) that “an approach that considers the idea of used territory leads to the idea of banal space, everyone’s space, the whole space.” In the absence of case studies against which one could assess his precise meaning and the value of his terminology, it is difficult at times to grasp the implications of his view.

To ask for greater specificity, however, is not to suggest that Santos’s geography is not commendable. Consider the case of Bill Gates. The Microsoft founder, whose personal wealth exceeds $120 billion, now owns over 265,000 acres of farmland in the United States, making him the nation’s largest holder of such land. As many commenters and geographers have shown, corporate approaches to farming have not only harmed the land but rendered it uncultivable in the long-term. Geographers can show what happens to the land when it is ill-used, as Santos would have preferred. In this respect, his body of work demonstrates his deep concern that professional geographers prioritized their own theorizing over listening to those who actually inhabit the land. Santos’s holism would require entrepreneurs like Gates to consider the full impact of their form of corporate farming and not simply its professed advantages for one sector of the economy.

There is a complex web of social and cultural features by which people conceptualize their environments.

Santos’s criticisms may, however, have been aimed at the wrong target. While some geographers do promote their own specialty, even when they might imagine themselves opposed to it, they are not necessarily the best ones to enlist in making Santos’s case. Lacking the scientific expertise of geologists, soil scientists, weather analysts, and other experts—lacking, in short, what geography as a discipline has suffered from generally, namely a cohesive set of theories—they are not in an intellectually strong position to affect a change of viewpoints. Whether it is practiced in Latin America or North America, geography has suffered from punching below its weight. It has persisted more as a subject matter than a discipline, even in Santos’s world, and has, as a result, appeared to many as increasingly irrelevant. That his colleagues in the field have not been able to translate his Manifesto into a design for reform only underscores this decline.

Santos’s work is thus left without an organized following. Relatively few geographers, even in his home country, have followed him, nor are many who practice the discipline in the European tradition about to admit its shortcomings. Santos may have been right to direct his critique to geographers who need to keep the larger picture in mind and not grow too specialized, but their errors are not unique to them. Of what discipline may it not be said that, in its arcane jargon or need to appear original, specialization has not at times led practitioners away from systemic connections in favor of privileging their own specialty? In this sense, we still await those who can reveal a coherent view of a world that is, geographically speaking, increasingly incoherent.

The overriding challenge for geographical thinking today is striking the right degree of specificity. It brings to mind the story of the king who wanted a map with precise details of his realm: dissatisfied with proposal after proposal, he was eventually presented with a map as large as the kingdom itself. As in any endeavor, we must always be abstracting: the essence of explanation is to extract the essential insight from a morass of too much information.

At the same time, geography is among the most concrete of subjects, and there are risks to too much generality. Santos sometimes raises the field to so high a level of abstraction that the grounded features blur and merge, becoming so indistinct as to be ungraspable. To be sure, the two books reviewed here—only a small portion of his extensive corpus—do not represent Santos’s interest in urbanization or his earlier engagement in actual planning. Santos does recognize that any philosophy that stems from his more inclusive approach must first be based on sound empirical examples. But without enough of the latter, one will be hard put to judge the value of the former. Speaking of his anthropological fieldwork in Morocco, Clifford Geertz once said that “we had to become parochial in order to become cosmopolitan” and that “there is no ascent to truth without descent to cases.” Holism is not antithetical to localism, nor is particularism antithetical to theorizing. For geographers especially, the view from afar should never compromise getting down to earth.

Geographic awareness does not come naturally. Studies have shown that without frequent practice human beings struggle to find their way, and the absence of even a mental map may come at a steep price. It is in this context that the field of geography has struggled to find its way. Divisions within the discipline are exacerbated by public ignorance of the physical world and lack of interest in the subject. Surveys show that even Harvard undergraduates are no different from the 75 percent of students at large who are woefully ignorant of basic geography. As closely as they may have followed Russia’s war on Ukraine, how many know that, after Norway, Ukraine’s east contains the second largest known reserves of natural gas in Europe? Similar geopolitical connections cannot be ignored: grain shortages from Ukraine and elsewhere contributed to the Arab Spring. Drought in the Middle East—combined with people in the region having to spend some 35 percent of their income on food (as opposed to less than 10 percent in developed countries)—has had a profound effect on politics in the region.

Our ways of narrating history and human nature shape the facts, rather than the other way around.

The old saying that you can forget geography but not defeat it has been proven incorrect: as Hegel said, “where the Greeks once lived, the Turks now live; and that’s an end on the matter.” Still, displacing all geographical considerations with sociological ones may only substitute one form of blindsiding for another. Santos was aware that we have forfeited our knowledge of basic geography all too easily. In the United States, a number of universities have eliminated geography (only Dartmouth among Ivy League schools retains the subject) and remaining departments rarely have more than a handful of Ph.D. graduates each year. Meanwhile, salaries for undergraduate majors remain relatively low.

But geography matters. The late twentieth-century conceit that we would all somehow become the same—that the world is becoming flat, that history has come to an end, that globalism is our destiny—has proven naïve. Google Maps allows you to situate yourself at the center and create your own map of relationships and imagined destinations. But mapmakers, like nature, abhor a vacuum: an unfilled space suggests ignorance. Milton Santos has offered one map for crossing the perilous terrain of academic specialties. At a time when so many take geography for granted as maps appear at our fingertips with the click of a button, this deeply humanistic guide may prompt us to ask anew where in the world we have been set down.