I was a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society between October 1998 and December 2018.
Fellowship was by election and was maintained by paying an annual subscription. At the time of my election, the Fellowship was not only intended for those professionally engaged in geography but also embraced those who had an avocational interest in the subject. My interest in cartography stems from childhood (resulting in a large and somewhat unruly collection of antique maps) and has since been augmented by interests in the history and other aspects of public transport systems in England as well as a general regard for our environment and its preservation from commercial encroachment.
Starting in 2007, the Beagle Campaign was launched with the stated objectives “to reactivate the society’s own research and re-establish the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) as the world leader of exploration endeavour: to advance geographical science on all fronts and to bring together the relevant scientific/exploration departments – under the society’s umbrella; it can also help solve climate change conundrums and other pressing issues related to human interaction with Earth. The RGS (with IBG) is in the unique position to achieve these goals, for we live in a new age of exploration as if everything the Society has achieved since its foundation has been training for this time.” This reflected the pivotal role of the RGS in having sponsored leading expeditions such as those of Darwin, Shackleton, Livingstone, Stanley, Scott and others. The campaign sought to place exploration once more as a primary rather than peripheral part of the Society’s activities. This appealed to me not merely from my Romanticist admiration for the explorers of the past but because I could see the considerable value of exploration in today’s world.
Unfortunately, despite gathering considerable support among the Fellowship and in the national press, the Society voted against the resolution put by the Beagle Campaign that it should once again mount large-scale multidisciplinary expeditions (in addition to continuing to support smaller-scale or independent external expeditions). Almost 40% of those Fellows and Postgraduate Fellows voting had supported the resolution, revealing a deeply divided Society.
The writer Justin Marozzi, one of the supporters of the campaign, had summarized the issue in an article for Standpoint Magazine entitled, “What is the Royal Geographical Society for — exploration or ‘post-socialist urban identities’?” Marozzi expressed the divide thus, “In the 19th century, when the Royal Geographical Society was a byword for international exploration and scientific discovery, the German naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt helped lay the foundations for modern geography with his magnum opus Kosmos, a prodigious, five-volume attempt to unify the various strands of geographical science. Charles Darwin considered Humboldt “the greatest scientific traveller who ever lived”. For many geographers today, this sort of physical geography is deeply unfashionable and downright irrelevant. Human geographers, by definition, are more interested in people than in places. They are interested, among other things, in gender, culture, health, development, urban environments, behaviour, politics, transportation and tourism. Many physical geographers feel increasingly alienated by their colleagues’ distrust of empirical science, a scepticism informed largely by the post-modernist assault on geography in recent years…
Among six projects that the RGS says demonstrate its commitment to support (other people’s) research, are two fairly eyebrow-raising studies. One, conducted by Dr Craig Young and colleagues from Manchester Metropolitan University, is entitled “Global change and post-socialist urban identities”. Another, led by Dr Heaven Crawley and colleagues from Swansea University, is “Children and global change: Experiencing migration, negotiating identities”. Professor Ian Swingland, founder of the Durrell Institute for Conservation and Ecology, is unimpressed. “My scientific and international experience strongly suggests to me that neither of these projects is academically robust, likely to change anything on the ground, improve the status of the environment or the social woes of the world, and they are frankly to a large degree incomprehensible,” he wrote in an open letter to Sir Gordon Conway, the RGS president. “They will make no difference to anything other than those prosecuting the work. What are ‘post-socialist urban identities’ exactly? What are ‘children’s reflexive negotiations of their identities’ precisely? And does it matter? And will this work educate the future ways we can help the world?” What such research appears to demonstrate is the tragic introversion and irrelevance of swathes of contemporary academe, academics writing for academics, leaving the rest of the world none the wiser — or better off. In an era when environmental woes and challenges press in on us, the RGS’s failure to provide high-profile leadership on vital issues such as climate change, global warming, biodiversity, the forced migration of species, deforestation, desertification and a host of other scientific unknowns is deeply regrettable. What can one say of post-structuralist cultural studies other than they provide careers for a certain breed of academic geographer?”
Although the vote was lost, the Beagle Campaign vowed to continue, but it made no further headway and it was clear that the Society’s leadership were minded to impose their view of the way ahead rather than making any meaningful compromise. The criteria for election to the Fellowship were redefined so as to now be principally aimed at the academic and professional geographer.
After twenty years as a Fellow, I resigned from the Society in December 2018.