Shakespeare was wrong. When the Bard wrote that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” he failed to foresee the difficulties geographers would have deciding what term best describes the relationship between the people and their environment.
Now, William Meyer, associate professor of geography, makes the case that scholars should rally around the expression “conjoint constitution,” coined about 25 years ago by University of California–Santa Barbara professor William R. Freudenburg and colleagues, to describe the interplay between society and nature.
“[This] is the theme most at home in modernity…. It offers the most potential for new and surprising insight,” he writes in his paper “Nature, Society, and Conjoint Constitution,” which will appear later this year in the journal Geographical Review.
The concept of conjoint constitution differs from three longer-established world views that have vied for dominance over the centuries. The earliest of the three, the designed earth, held that a creator put our planet here and that everything is here for a purpose. Next came environmental determinism. Its backers believed features of the earth shaped nearby inhabitants. For example, people who lived by the sea would be different from mountain folk. Finally, the concept of human alteration emphasizes the ways that people physically create and revise their environments. “People sort of make the earth instead of environmental determinism in which the earth makes people,” Meyer explains.
Conjoint constitution holds that: “What nature means to people always depends on two things: natural phenomena and people’s characteristics. You need to know both to know whether a particular natural feature is an asset or a liability,” according to Meyer. It thus conflicts most sharply with environmental determinism, which sees natural phenomena as independent and external influences on people. The issue is what this fourth concept should be called.
“It’s been very hard for anyone to come up with a good label for what this is, so people can refer to it and everybody knows what they’re talking about,” says Meyer. “One of the purposes of the article is to articulate this in a way that nobody else has done before and establish it as a distinct and important perspective equal in importance to the other three.”
There is a constant interaction between environmental and human qualities that is inseparable — a constitution that is joined, thus the aptness of the term. “On the natural side, the environment can change physically, or you could have the exact same environment, but the people living in it and their technology can change,” says Meyer.
“What used to be a good feature of the environment might become a bad one. As railroads replace canals and automobiles and trucks replace railroads, different features of the environment go from being assets to being liabilities and vice versa,” he says.
Meyer points to the history of Boston as a perfect illustration of how the relationship between people and the landscape shifts, especially as technology changes. In pre-electric days, hills were a nuisance. Only a wealthy few wanted hilltop residences, because they had carriages and servants to haul supplies. Instead, higher elevations in Boston housed undesirable things such as prisons, poorhouses, and charity hospitals. Even at lower elevations, servants occupied higher floors of prestigious homes, because of the arduousness of climbing stairs.
Enter the internal-combustion engine. Suddenly, higher elevations became prestige locations. Now the scarcity of their views made them treasured building sites. Yet, the hills remained the same.
“The combination between the physical feature of elevation and the technologies the society had available to it, such as transportation technologies, determined what role the hills played,” says Meyer.
The changing role of snow in Boston also reveals the conjoint constitution in action. Before cars, merchants and residents loved snow-covered roads. For farmers and businesspeople, hard-packed snow made it easier and faster to ship goods by sleigh to the city. City folk and rural dwellers alike loved to go dashing through the snow in one-horse open sleighs. When Boston put in streetcar lines, public opinion opposed salting them to melt snow off the tracks, according to Meyer. It ruined the streets for commercial and recreational sleighing.
“Snow was a genuine asset for travel back in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Obviously, now it’s exactly the opposite” he says. “It’s not because snow is physically any different, but snow interacts in different ways with the transportation technologies we have now.”
Many earlier proponents of this theme favored the term “possibilism” as a label for understanding the relationship between nature and society. The word unfortunately suggests merely a diluted determinism in highlighting the possibilities of an environment, but its proponents had something else in mind.
“They saw human variables — cultural, technological, political, economic — playing as active a role as natural ones did in defining what even existed as possibilities, or as options within a particular area,” Meyer writes.
Meyer argues, though, that possibilism is, in practice, a misleading name. “It is an unsatisfactory label, too ambiguous and too much compromised by the assortment of meanings that have been read into it,” he writes.
He acknowledges that the term conjoint constitution is “cumbersome and opaque.” It is, nonetheless, the best solution, according to him. “It captures how the environment is always constituted by these two things together — people and environment. You always need to understand both to understand what the role of the environment is, what it means, and what it represents at a particular time.”
Meyer is the author of the books The Environmental Advantages of Cities: Countering Commonsense Antiurbanism and Americans and Their Weather: A History. He sees the focus of his research as environmental history.
“It’s another way of thinking about conjoint constitution,” he says. “It’s the history of the change in human-environment relations. It’s where the environment is the same, but you have change, and therefore you have history, because people have changed in ways that make the environment matter differently to them.”
Geography, unlike most academic disciplines, has substantial natural science and social science components. Physical geographers study topics like soils and landforms, while other geographers explore migration and culture and politics as they relate to the environment.
“A discipline like this is more essential now than ever,” Meyer says, “because many problems don’t pay attention to the distinction between the natural sciences and social sciences. These problems don’t say, ‘I’m going to only affect people’ or ‘I’m only going to affect nature.’ They affect both.”