In 2016 five scholars published a paper on planet politics that criticized International Relations (IR) for not taking the Anthropocene and environmental concerns seriously (Burke et al, 2016). Written in the form of a manifesto, their criticisms of IR were timely. Since the 1950s IR, especially in its US form, was driven by immediate Cold War concerns of security and relations between great powers. Yet this IR of the later twentieth century superseded a more materialist IR that had flourished in the first half of the century. Part of this materialist tradition can be found in works of international political economy written by the likes of Norman Angell, H. N. Brailsford, Mary Parker Follett, Paul Reinsch, Helena Swanwick, and Thomas Parker Moon. Another part is made up of the international political geographers that were inspired By Ellen Churchill Semple’s imaginative adaptation of the work of Friedrich Ratzel.
Political geography in the interwar period was one of the major sources of thinking about the international order. Premised on the importance of human interactions with space and the physical world, political geographers pondered questions of technology, raw material spread, land use, and the effects of state-building and imperialism. In this sense there was a planet politics in IR before 1950. Perhaps the best example of this comes from the work of the Harvard-base political geographer Derwent Whittlesey.
Whittlesey’s first contribution to the idea of the interaction between culture and environment came in the 1920s through the concept of sequent occupance: the idea that each pattern of settlement and land use influences and guides the character of subsequent patterns. Here Whittlesey took the notion that population distribution and human activities are the result of the physical environment of climate, resources and topography, and added the dimension of time. There were two elements to this addition of time. First, land use transforms the land, which in turn leads to new types of land use. In extreme cases this can be because of the unsustainability of an economic activity leading to the degradation of the land. Second, new forms of land use build upon the previous land use, thus sequences of land use, even if they appear to be jarring discontinuities, are as much products of previous stages as they are of physical and environmental constraints (Whittlesey, 1929: 162-5).
There are two takeaways from Whittlesey’s concept of sequent occupance that would later be developed in his international thought. First, that the relationship between human societies and the environment was not solely of one shaping the other. When we look over time human activity is simultaneously influenced by the physical world, and is also (often dramatically) changing the environment at the same time. There is, therefore, a complex relationship between human activity and physical factors that includes regular feedback between the two. Second, culture becomes an important variable in understanding how humans interact with their environment. For Whittlesey cultures that developed under different sets of environmental conditions are frequently transferred to very different environments. When they do, they often have major effects on these new environments. Later Whittlesey would use the global spread of the European idea of the state as a way of explaining many of the problems facing mid-twentieth century international politics.
Yet, before Whittlesey could make this jump between land use and the rise of the European state he needed to explore how a particular aspect of culture – political authority – affected the physical environment. ‘Phenomena engendered by political forces’, he concluded, ‘should have a recognized place as elements in the geographic structure of every region’ (Whittlesey, 1935: 97). Anticipating the work of Rob Walker (1993: chs 6-8), he began with the role of boundaries. For Whittlesey border regions were a varied phenomenon, but generalizations could be made about the role that centralizing political authorities had had on them. When central power was weak, as has been the case for much of human history, borders form zones. In these zones those either side of a border share more in common with each other than they do with the metropolitan centres that claimed to control them. Thus, border regions were areas of lively cross-border cultural and economic exchange. The growth of central authority in modern states has replaced border zones with linear boundaries, and in the process has cut through communities, lines of kinship and economic transactions. This process, in turn, leaves its mark on both land use and on the landscape. Even in mountain zones, often considered the most natural of boundaries, these processes occur when a linear boundary is imposed (Whittlesey, 1935: 88-9). This effect of borders is magnified by the role played by tariffs and other similar controls that lead to the breaking up of previous economic links. This is particularly the case with agriculture, which is especially sensitive to changes from free trade to protectionism. Farmers under state-based protectionism will move to grow needed crops that might not otherwise have an advantage in a specific area, with implications for the environment (Whittlesey, 1935: 94).
While the growth of central authority has a dramatic effect on border regions, it also changes the relationship with the natural environment within the state. Central authorities, by their nature, impose uniformity over diverse natural landscapes. In the United States one of the clearest signs of this is uniform land surveys that impose the same plot sizes over physical environments that may require very different forms of farming (Whittlesey, 1935: 90). Similarly, legal norms adopted in different conditions are usually imposed without amendment in different territories. Thus English common law riparian rights, which were developed in a humid and temperate western European environment, were adopted in more arid zones such as the San Joaquin Valley. The development of irrigation was adversely affected by the need to bend to common law rights that were inappropriate for an area suited to a more Mediterranean system of agriculture (Whittlesey, 1935: 96).
Throughout his exploration of the role of centralized and centralizing authority Whittlesey often delved into the role of imperial expansion on land use and settlement patterns. The spread of the modern state became one of the central themes of his 1939 the Earth and the State. It also reappeared in his Environmental Foundations of European History of 1949. It was not, though, the only theme. While Whittlesey saw the spread of the modern state from Western Europe as ‘the major geopolitical fact of modern times’ (Whittlesey, 1939: 86) that spread had to be understood within the context of the interaction between human society and its physical environment.
Building on his argument on central authority, Whittlesey argued that the mode of government was a product of both environmental and human conditions. Environmental conditions were passive, in the sense that they did not actively dictate a particular form of government, but they were ceaseless and constant in their presence. Here Whittlesey does not mean passive in a negative sense of merely receiving, but rather as a criticism of those who would see the environment as an active anthropomorphic agent pointing people in a specific historical direction (as his mentor Ellen Churchill Semple (1911) did). Human conditions were of two types. First, there were the cultural factors and tenacious political attachments that influenced how the society reacted to the environmental conditions. Second, there were technological changes that altered the importance of certain environmental conditions, and often created new relations with the environment that made past social arrangements and laws redundant or damaging to the environment (Whittlesey, 1939: 556-7; 1949:5). The varying strength of the forces of environmental and human conditions also depends on the nature of the environment. In harsh natural environments the effects of environmental conditioning are much stronger, while in better endowed areas there are greater opportunities for a wide range of cultural adaptations to the habitat (Whittlesey, 1939: 557-8).
In 1945 Whittlesey developed his view of the interaction between human society and the environment by putting it into the context of what he called the horizon of geography. Human society developed its geographical view by expanding from two to three, and finally to four, dimensions. Prior to the modern machine age humans thought of their societies as interacting with the Earth along the two dimensions of a flat space. The development of a new coal and oil driven industrial order added the third dimension of height through aircraft, submarines, radio and deep mining for minerals. With the development of this third dimension the possibilities of damaging the environment through human activity increased significantly. For Whittlesey damage to the human habitat was a result of human societies failing to adapt to the new realities of this third dimension. In short, our societies were still stuck in the institutions and thinking of a two dimensional world, and without adequate adjustment to the realities and possibilities of a three dimensional reality we would continue to wreak havoc on our habitat. Whittlesey singled out modern war as an example of this. While both world wars made use of the technologies of the new dimension, the continued division of the world into a two dimensional patchwork of states meant that the attempt to adjust to the new realities of the interdependence of the third dimension went down the destructive route of violent conquests in the service of autarky (Whittlesey, 1945: 28-9).
For Whittlesey the means by which a society regulates its relationship with the natural environment is the law. It is through its legal system that a society extracts a livelihood from its environment, and in the long run successful laws will be the ones that conform to the basic conditions of the habitat (Whittlesey, 1939: 8, 557, 558). At the same time, though, laws act upon the environment, changing it in significant ways. In its most extreme form, and where laws do not adequately conform to the habitat, this can result in the severe degrading of the environment (Whittlesey, 1939: 589). If human societies were always static then it could be deduced that systems of law would all eventually lead to a harmony with the habitat. Yet, most human societies occupy their habitat dynamically. This dynamism is most clearly expressed in the role of technology. By creating new relationships with the environment, especially new needs in the exploitation of the habitat, technology is frequently making the laws that societies rely on obsolete and counterproductive. This need to adapt laws to accommodate changes in technology that alter the relationship with the habitat is often in conflict with the conservative ‘emotional character of political thought’ that hold ‘communities and states to traditional patterns and practices long after their original connection with the natural environment has been forgotten’ (Whittlesey, 1939: 591). The result of this is that even when laws change to adapt to the new relationship with the habitat, and in line with the idea of sequent occupance, elements of the previous law is preserved in the new.
Here Whittlesey added a fourth dimension to the three dimensions of the machine age: that of time. Time had already become important through the introduction of machines. Greater velocity of transport had led to a shrinking of the world relative to speed; the faster pace of human life was speeding up transactions, but also increased the extraction of minerals; while machines made the need for the synchronization of timing a central concern of most human activities (Whittlesey, 1945: 23-4). Taking the fourth dimension seriously allows us to see that human occupance was not about stable systems, but rather a continuing process of change. Time allowed us to see how so much of our laws were holdovers from past periods, and also how the issue of time in questions of conservation made the difference between whether a utilization of a natural resource was either useful/regenerative or abusive/destructive (Whittlesey, 1945: 29-31). Here, the realization of the importance of the fourth dimension of time to space – and especially the increased velocity of technological change – meant that all geography needed to also be historical geography (Whittlesey, 1945: 33).
Change in the face of a new technological relationship with the habitat is never an easy process, and Whittlesey saw it as a constant three-stage cycle that largely dominated the evolution of political society. The first stage of adaption was the establishment of governmental and legal structures to deal with the new ways of utilizing the earth’s resources. This was often brutally imposed in a top-down manner. Some evidence for the success of this elite imposed method of resource management have been explored in detail by Jared Diamond in his analyses of the successful forest management policies in Tokugawa Japan and in the Trujillo and Balaguer regimes in the Dominican Republic (Diamond, 2011: 294-306, 341-49. Diamond does also discuss bottom-up responses). Later, Whittlesey would hint that a less brutal alternative was open to us, but that it required people to have a better perception of the effects of the machine age (Whittlesey, 1945: 21). The second stage involved the struggle to make these new laws less brutal, and is marked by the recognition of what Whittlesey called ‘human values’. The Third stage was marked by the further extension of technology over material means, which in turn created the need for new forms of political control, and thus bringing a society back to stage one (Whittlesey, 1939: 55). Before technological innovations a society is limited in what it can do by the availability of natural resources (Whittlesey, 1939: 27). Technology is, therefore, at one level liberating, since it opens up new possibilities for using resources that overcome the natural limits of a society. At another level, though, the crisis that it throws the old legal system into, along with the natural conservatism of political philosophy, often favours brutal reforms. Whittlesey, a strong opponent of fascism, saw in the new totalitarianism around him in the 1930s just such an attempt to deal with the multiple ironies and contradictions that the machine age had thrown up. In a milder form, the executive–led programmes of the FDR administration in the US also fit Whittlesey’s model.
‘The major geopolitical fact of modern times’ Whittlesey wrote in 1939, ‘is the conquest of the world by the political system evolved in the coastland states of Western Europe’ (Whittlesey, 1939: 86). This exportation of the Western European state – whether by colonization, imposition or emulation – was not necessarily the result of the superiority of its political system, but rather to do with the transport revolution in the sixteenth century that turned the ocean from a barrier to a highway. Basically, Whittlesey argued, this transport revolution in ocean-going vessels ‘turned the continents inside out’, by transferring the centre of gravity of political power from continental centres to the ocean-facing littoral of continents (Whittlesey, 1939: 59). The spread of the Western European state was the basis upon which a new interdependent world economy was created, and thus ushered in the new reality of a finite global order in the twentieth century (Whittlesey, 1949: 118-9, 126-8, 133-5; 1945: 11-12). While this spread was responsible for the new interdependent global political economy, this did not mean that Whittlesey saw the state as an essentially global institution. The state took with it its Western European character, which included laws and political institutions that were designed for a temperate and wet habitat. From his own experiences of English common law riparian rights in California (discussed above) Whittlesey know that this could have disastrous results in dryer climates. His 1945 analysis also added the experience of the Midwest dust-bowl to that tally. The spread of western European norms had led to the imposition of legal systems that, if not modified, would do serious damage to fragile environments (Whittlesey 1939: 560-1). In addition to this, the notion of immovable property that was such a cornerstone of Western European settled intensive agriculture led to a system of clear state boundaries that were damaging for regions of more marginal production (Whittlesey, 1939: 559, also 91-4). Whittlesey’s view was that these imposed rules would need to be modified to fit the conditions of the habitat, either by creating new hybrid legal systems, or by overthrow and replacement (Whittlesey, 1945: 12).
In one sense, though, there was no going back. The spread of the Western European state had now created a new global system in which industrialization had created a new set of relations between human culture and the environment. The patchwork of states that still dominated twentieth century life represented largely the political order suited to a pre-machine age order of self-sufficient states. In this sense the concept of national self-determination ran counter to the longer historical secular trend of favouring larger units (Whittlesey, 1935: 579, 580). The boundaries of European states especially were a product of early modern nation-building, and conformed to the earlier reality of an agrarian society based on the canal, coastal shipping and horse-drawn traffic (Whittlesey, 1949: 127). Quite possibly, Whittlesey wrote in 1939, ‘all of the states of Europe west of Russia are too small to fit the conditions of the twentieth century’ (Whittlesey, 1939: 581). By contrast, the large powers like the United States and Russia, were better suited to the era of long-distance rail, air routes, and radio transmissions (Whittlesey, 1939: 12, 576; 1949: 128-132). The problem was that conservative human loyalties still stuck to parochial and national patterns. The problem of reconciling these parochial loyalties with the realities of interdependence was, for Whittlesey, the origin of fascism. Fascism accepted the economic need for a unit beyond the small scale national state, but the only way that it could accomplish this and keep parochial national loyalties was through a system of regional and global conquest. In short, parochial loyalties and machine age economics produced fascist political systems (Whittlesey, 1939: 55, 584). Although Whittlesey did not discuss the political alternative to fascism in any detail, he did hint that federation was a possible alternative (Whittlesey, 1939: 580). In 1949 he argued for both European federation and a weaker association with the United States and Canada as possible ways out for the specific problems that the European stated faced (Whittlesey, 1949: 146-7).
Whittlesey shared with the broader early twentieth century IR tradition in Britain and America a view that the major problems of global governance (especially war) were a product of a mismatch between a fundamentally changed world being run by societies using older agrarian ideas. Whittlesey’s contribution to this tradition was to argue that this mismatch would lead to a longer term problem of environmental degradation. Expansion of the geographic horizon’, he wrote in 1945, ‘is usually accompanied by intensified disturbance of nature’s balance.”
Huge acreage of soils is depleted, in places ruined, by machine methods of tillage that modern inventions have put into the hands of every farmer. Water supplies have been pumped for irrigation at rates far in excess of replenishment, to the ultimate detriment of the users. Extraction of minerals threatens to exhaust not merely small deposits, but also major enrichments. Depredations have made serious inroads into many vital natural resources. All three dimensions of earth-space are affected (Whittlesey, 1945: 28-9).
Thus humanity needed to be aware of the relentless influence of the environment, and how human activity shaped that influence. Yet nature was an agent of a different kind. It was not the active anthropomorphic agent found in Semple’s work, whispering solutions in our ear. There was no plan that nature had in store for us, and no natural society capable of an untroubled balance with our habitat. No stable ‘laws of history’ came from nature. Rather the environment’s ceaseless presence and fungible reactions to human practices made instability and the role of the fourth dimension of time a central part of human society. The problem was not the question of how humans could care for a stable planet – the planet would survive humanity – rather the issue was could our civilization survive the inevitable environmental feedback from our activities. The problem of global order was not just a human on human problem; it was also a matter of human relations with the non-human habitat.
Burke, A., S. Fishel, A. Mitchell, S. Dalby, and D. Levine (2016) ‘Planet Politics: A Manifesto from the End of IR’, Millennium – Journal of International Studies. 44(3), 499-523.
Diamond, J. (2011) Collapse. How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Penguin.
Semple, E. (1911) Influences of Geographic Environment on the Basis of Ratzel’s System of Anthropo-Geography. London: Constable.
Walker, R. (1993) Inside/Outside. International Relations as Political Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Whittlesey, D. (1929) ‘Sequent Occupance’, Annals of the Association of American Geographers. 19(3), 162-5.
Whittlesey, D. (1935) ‘The Impress of Effective Central Authority upon the Landscape’, Annals of the Association of American Geographers. 25(2), 85-97.
Whittlesey, D. (1939) The Earth and the State. A Study of Political Geography (New York: Henry Holt.
Whittlesey, D (1945) ‘The Horizon of Geography’, Annals of the Association of American Geographers. 15-21, 1-36.
Whittlesey, D. (1949) Environmental Foundations of European History. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.