Now Reading
Is Geography Destiny or Not? Earth Focus | Earth Focus | News & Community

Is Geography Destiny or Not? Earth Focus | Earth Focus | News & Community

The notion that geography is destiny has a long, complicated history.

This idea was based on a belief among Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle that people from northern, colder, and whiter areas of the world were better than people from warmer, southerly regions. They had more diverse, darker skin tones and their environments shaped them. This idea has been long discredited.

Today, geography as destiny is being used to explain spatially distributed patterns of inequality. This means that I can predict your future, past, present, and future if you give me your zip code. Your destiny.

Problem is that the statistical correlation between geography, destiny, and fate may mask the most important fact: both are determined by socio-economic factors. Geographers are social scientists and understand this. It is important to understand the relationship between geography, human agency, and climate change, in which human beings are recognized worldwide as an environmental force.

Three films do exactly that in this season of “Earth Focus”, a public television documentary series. They may appear to support the idea that geography is destiny. These stories show how geography is shaped by people.

These documentaries examine the environmental determinants that affect health. This is how our environment and geography influence our health. It turns out that environmental determinants and social determinants of our health are closely related.

“We Are There We Live” reveals the socio-environmental determinants to health in South Gate, California, through the stories of patients and doctors at AltaMed community health clinic.

Preview: We Are Where We Live

If you live in low-income, densely populated neighborhoods of Southeast Los Angeles, where you are surrounded by freight trains, rigs spewing exhaust all day, and have little access to green space, you are likely to suffer from diabetes, asthma, cardiovascular disease, and depression.

The same applies if you live near the Inland Empire’s warehouse megacomplexes. These megacomplexes are located in the San Bernardino area. There, trains, planes, 18-wheelers and planes all work together to make sure that shoppers get next-day delivery on time.

These patterns are clearly geographical but are not affected by economic or social factors. They are influenced by the choices we make about what we buy each day, as well the way that businesses and investors organize these choices for us.

“Fighting for Air” is a campaign by everyday people to fight the e-commerce giants that are polluting the Inland Empire.

Fighting for Air (Preview).

Residents in the Inland Empire are organizing to reduce the pollution caused by the mess of freeways, railways, and airports that allow our packages to arrive on schedule. It is a classic example of environmental justice: Amazon versus David, community organizers against Amazon. One of their victories is chronicled in the documentary “Fighting for Air”.

The film’s organizers don’t believe that geography is destiny.

South Gate doctors are no different. They know the potential ailments their patients may suffer from due to their location. They are scientists, afterall. They understand correlations and causation.

They are humanitarians, as “We Are Where We Live”, a documentary about them, clearly shows. They believe in the power of human will, agency, and spirit to fight against so-called destiny. They are doctors. They focus on patients and individuals. These stories show that the perspective of individuals and their agency is just as important as the collective perspective. It can be more compelling than it seems, perhaps because we identify more strongly with individual narratives in the fight against destiny than we do collective narratives.

A family carries chairs and supplies for a day at the Whitter Narrows Recreation Area in South El Monte, California
A family relaxes at Whittier Narrows Recreation Area, South El Monte, California. From the film “We Are Where We Live”. | from the film “We Are Where We Live”

“The fault is not in our stars, dear Brutus,” Cassius said in Shakespeares Julius Caesar. “But, in ourselves, that’s why we are underlings.” “We Are Where We Live” does not portray South Gate’s doctors and patients as subordinates. The Inland Empire’s residents and environmental justice advocates in “Fighting for Air” do not agree.

Both stories’ protagonists make it clear that, while large structural forces can have an impact on their health, “geography IS destiny” is a concept that must be rejected, both individually and collectively. It is an attempt naturalize an inequitable social order. This is not surprising considering the origins.

Conceptually, the third documentary in the “Earth Focus” series, “For the Love of the Land”, presents a slightly more challenging problem. People have come accustomed to seeing their homes as stable, but climate change is changing them. Navajo sheepherders are experiencing water shortages. Northern California’s forests and vineyards are exploding. A Wisconsin farmer is forced to commit suicide by changing weather patterns that are destroying his dairy business.

“For the Love of the Land,” examines the impact climate change has had on the mental health of farmers, ranchers, and homesteaders in Northern California and Arizona.

For the Love of the Land (Preview).

Their geographies change before their eyes every day. This seems like fate. These changes, which we will call “climate” change, are caused by a human being “we”. This “we” includes the protagonists in this documentary to varying degree but is also many orders of magnitude greater than them. It encompasses all of us as well as collective forces that are far beyond our control.

Is geography destiny?

Are our stars to blame?

Oder in ourselves?

Can we make amends if it is our fault? Individually? Collectively?

These difficult questions are addressed in different ways by “Earth Focus” season 2.

The answer seems to be tentative, provisional and struggling: “Yes, yes, we can.”

Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) if you have thoughts of suicide. A list of additional resources can be found at

View Comments (0)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.