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Eliseé Reclus by Dana Williams



Elisée Reclus (1830-1905) was a man famous for his intellectual work as a geographer and political activism, and he had innovative ideas that merged both his two passions together seamlessly. His impact as a geographer was perhaps minimized by his notoriety as a political activist and anarchist. Although enormously popular as a writer of geography in Europe, he did not fit in as a member of the academy until later in life. Since his passing in 1905, Reclus's impact upon geography can be seen in many fields of study. Academically, however, he is usually only mentioned in passing, and often referred to as a "radical", as if to dismiss his influence. But, his legacy is still retained by many serious geographers in France, Reclus's home country.

During his life he was both a student of Carl Ritter who taught at the University of Berlin and a comrade of the famous anarchists Michael Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin (also a geographer) in the First International. His political adherence to the Enlightenment ideas of anarchism blended with his love for the world and all its people, pouring into his work as geographer. Thus, as some argue, he contributed heavily to the birth of the field of social geography. Indeed, it is difficult to separate the two sides of Elisée Reclus--his passions for both his interests blurred together in a way that made perfect sense to him: to celebrate the world in all its beauty and freedom, unfettered to grow and shine in its natural environment. Thus, Marie Fleming, one of his biographers, claims that he was "the geographer of freedom".

Reclus's Version of Geography

Flemming notes that,

"The epistemology informing Reclus's geography, as might be expected from the assumptions of the period, was positivist. Part of his attraction to geography was the relative ease with which it yielded to first-hand empirical observation, and Reclus has a disdain for those who presumed to contribute to the field from the isolation of study. Scientific method was tied to observation, and all concepts and generalizations had to be derived from empirically verifiable data. Reclus saw the globe as an historically and spatially interrelated system subject to discoverable laws." (Flemming, 1988, 115)

Dunbar, another of Reclus's biographers, writes in Elisee Reclus: Historian of Nature that Reclus was the "leading figure in what might be called the protoprofessional period of French geography" (Dunbar, 1978, 11). Although he was probably the most prolific modern geographer, he could not have initiated the professionalization of geography because he did not have a doctorate degree required for being a professor in a French university, thus relinquishing the task to Paul Vidal de la Blache (Dunbar, 1978, 72). Instead, Reclus is credited with creating a favorable atmosphere for geography in France, although "not with a commanding role in directing the course of its evolution" (Dunbar, 1978, 129).

Dunbar quotes Béatrice Giblin who claims that Reclus has been subsequently erased from the history of French geography due to his anarchism and because he was not a mainstream geographer. Yet, Dunbar counters Giblin's argument by saying that Reclus's diminished prestige is not due to conspiracy any more than merely a passing of time. Dunbar states that Reclus's geographical views were "dangerous" to the established powers (and not necessarily French geographers) since they "showed that the earth can support everyone and because he pointed out past errors in the management of people and resources" (Dunbar, 1978, 129).

Reclus was a positivist like his fellow French geographer Paul Vidal de la Blache. Clark states that although he acknowledged the natural and environmental restraints placed upon human communities, Reclus did not attempt to reduce human decisions and conditions to "a mere reflection of geographical qualities", thus rejecting environmental determinism (Clark, 1997). His positivism "implied analysis that corresponded to empirically verifiable tendencies... [but] did not amount to recognition of laws to which people were more or less obliged to submit" (Flemming, 1988, 117).

Today, most people would term Reclus's approach to be "Marxist". In many ways, this would be accurate-Reclus agreed with much of Marx's premise on the workings of capitalism and industrialism. But, Reclus himself was very much at odds with Marx during his life, as they disagreed (as did Marxists and anarchists in general) on a great many matters, and to homogenize his political and geographical thoughts as being "Marxist" would likely be a fallacious statement. He and his contemporaries favored the term "libertarian" or "anarchist" to describe their desire to end oppression, hierarchy, and authority over others in order to enhance mutual aid, compassion, and freedom.

Cataloguing the World

Reclus is often placed into a traditional paradigm of geographers who catalogued vast areas of the earth's surface in a single-minded drive. Even though it is true that Reclus catalogued volume of geographic information, he approached it with a motivation and a passion that set him apart from his peers.

While many large-volume geographies of his time were written to catalog the world's resources to the benefit of European colonial powers, Reclus wrote his 19-volume La Nouvelle Geographie Universelle to show how the world could be shared to the benefit of all people. Blunt and Wills (2000, 5) write, "Reclus sought to use geography as a means to improve understanding, and empathy, across borders - eroding the power of the imperialist state by fostering universal humanitarian spirit between the peoples of each nation and territory".

Reclus's Nouvelle Geographie was widely praised for being an entertaining and informing work. In many ways, it brought lands from far and wide to common people who would have no feasible way of traveling to see them. In doing so, Reclus expanded people's appreciation of the world around them, in all its amazing diversity. All the same, some criticized him and his writing style, like an anonymous reviewer of the time (likely Vivien de Saint-Martin),

[Reclus's writing touches on the physical side of learning] rather than a didactic description bolstered by proofs and supporting references. The author never cites his sources... One can have some reservations about the absolute employment of this essentially literary method; but no one can deny that it is supported by a grand style and by splendid accessories, maps, plans, views, and typography. (Dunbar, 1978, 82)

Reclus's The Earth and its Inhabitants (the English version of Nouvelle Geographie or La Terre et les Hommes) is a good example of the style spoken of by the previous "anonymous" commentator. The very first of the 17 volume series is on Africa-apparently since it was the first inhabited continent-and goes methodically though all of the regions of Northern Africa. Each region is treated to an in-depth analysis of any of the following characteristics: climate, flora, fauna, inhabitants, religion, trade, administration, topography, relief of the land, population, historic retrospect, river gorges, orographic system, agriculture, art and industries, education, physical and political features, volcanic formations, hydrographic system, social usages, commercial relations, chronology, present conditions, geology, etc. (Reclus, 1886).

His emphasis in this first volume displays his inclination towards political and social freedom. He takes time to emphasize the autonomy and self-governance of the Kunama and Barea people (Reclus, 1886, 230-231), he laments the Bedouin's lack of tribal unity for "making common cause in defence of their common freedom" (Reclus, 1886, 347), and he ponders the sacrifice of the many human lives used to construct the great pyramids for their oppressors (Reclus, 1886, 403). As each page turns, the reader is reading a history, a present-day census, and a critical analysis of every facet of these communities and regions.

An earlier attempt at "cataloguing the world" came in the form of Reclus's La Terre, split into four chapters entitled "The Earth as a Planet", "The Land", "The Circulation of Water", and "Subterranean Forces". Unlike the Nouvelle Geographie, La Terre traipses through different aspects of the world, covering different places in the process, as opposed to merely dealing with all the different components of a region. La Terre's approach is a great introduction for students of geography, heavily detailed with maps and rich with a comprehensive history of prior geographical study, from Strabo to Humboldt.

Reading La Terre is like reading a luxurious travel guide (which Reclus actually did for some occasionally to make money). Its language is, as Purchase (1997, 46) notes, "graceful, rich, and suggestive". Reclus had the ability to write from a perspective of absolute authority, including detailed description of every intricate feature, while still providing interesting historical linkages, references to past scientists, and seemingly random bits of esoteric yet wonderous knowledge. With self-contained bits of wisdom such as "the earth belongs to all time" (as he explains a riverbed's geological story) the reader feels as if engaged in a simple, yet rich one-on-one conversation with Reclus himself (Reclus, 1871, 380).

Early in his life, he viewed revolution as aiming to achieve a universal republic, and for nationalism to become eventually obsolete as self-determinism of all scales of people became more feasible (Fleming, 1988, 36). Reclus was to recall that the inspiration for his geographical work did not come from textbooks, but from his own experiences and travels (Fleming, 1988, 42). A good example of this was when he spent time in New Orleans and noted the interactions between the White slave owners and their Black slaves, and postulated about the "most interesting ethnographic question"--the fusion of the races (Fleming, 1988, 43).

Forbearer of Social Ecology

John P. Clark, of Loloya University's Environmental Studies program in New Orleans, wrote The Dialectical Social Geography of Elisée Reclus in 1997. He claims that Reclus's impact upon the field of social geography is systematically overlooked in present-day geographic thought. He also states that Reclus was a strong advocate of what today is called "social ecology" and was a precursor to bioregional thinking.

Social ecology is an idea coined by Murray Bookchin, an urban theorist and anarchist/philosopher, who describes it as such: "nearly all our present ecological problems arise from deep-seated social problems. Conversely, present ecological problems cannot be clearly understood, much less resolved, without resolutely dealing with problems within society" (Bookchin, from Zimmerman, 1993). According to Bookchin's definition, Reclus's work seems to greatly address such concerns, especially in his works The Evolution of Cities, Mankind and the Earth, and The Earth (La Terre).

Clark notes that Reclus attempted to shift the viewpoint of a human-centered perspective to an earth-centered perspective. Reclus also differed from physical geographers of the time in that his emphasis upon the physical world did not stem from an interest in exploiting it and its "resources", but in creating a respect for it and describing the human impact upon it. Clark posits that Reclus viewed "the balance of nature [as] a balance of order and disorder", not incredibly unlike his anarchistic political view of social relations (Clark, 1997).

Reclus wrote in his 1869 work, La Terre (long before John Muir or other environmentalists, it should be noted),

Among the causes in human history that have led to the disappearance of many civilizations we ought to mention the brutal violence with which the majority of people related to the land they lived on. They cut trees, dried up springs, flooded rivers, damaged the climate and surrounded cities with swampy and pestilential zones; then when profaned nature became hostile to them they hated it and, not being able to retreat like savages to the woods, they let themselves be more and more brutal in their despotism.

In this passage, Reclus is observing the trend of human beings to arch their reach and domination over both the bountiful environment and over other humans. He repeatedly renounces both forms of exploitation, saying that they cause cyclical violence, leading to the repression of both earth and human.

So long as men fight to remove hereditary boundaries and fictitious frontiers among people; so long as the nutritive soil is reddened by the blood of crazy wretches who fight ruthlessly for a strip of territory either for the sake of pretended honour or from pure rage as did the barbarians of old days; so long as the hungry search fruitlessly for their daily bread and spiritual food-the earth will never be the paradise already glimpsed by the visionary searcher. The features of the planet will never be in complete harmony if people are not basically united in a concert with justice and peace. To become truly beautiful the "Beneficent Mother" waits for her children to embrace one another and finally build the great federation of free people. (Reclus, quoted in Purchase, 1997, 59)

Clark is critical of what he sees as Reclus's emphasis on human constructed beauty like "humanized" landscapes, over natural beauty itself. But, Clark states that this should not be a condemnation of Reclus's priorities or viewpoint, since he tried to strike a balance between nature and humans and therefore stressed "the importance of unity-in-diversity, and a commitment to non-domination and spontaneous development" (Clark, 1997).

Graham Purchase, of the University of Sydney, Australia, writes in his 1997 book Anarchism and Ecology echoes much of Clark's analysis of Reclus and his ecological thought. Purchase notes Reclus's last work, Mankind and the Earth, and quotes its main thesis: "Is the evolution of our species in perfect harmony with the laws of the Earth? This is what it concerns us to know!" Purchase sees this as the main thrust of Reclus's work, his study of the Earth's ecological balance and humankind's relationship to it. (Purchase, 1997, 47).

In noting Reclus's study of the interrelationship of the Earth and humankind, Purchase specifically points to his comments in La Terre, where Reclus emphasizes both the destructive impact of many diverse cultures and civilizations upon both the Earth itself, but also upon the people within them. In a way, Purchase says, the organic harmony of human prehistory was "defiled and perverted by Roman imperialism and later by monarchism, capitalism and State" (Purchase, 1997, 52). Purchase draws these observations from Reclus's constant assertion that the delicate balance between humanity and its surroundings have been eliminated. Whereas humans previously lived in a linked unison with their immediate environment, now the relationship is one of domination, exploitation, and destruction.

Reclus's vision of a future world social-anarchist order was one that was scientifically informed and composed of true social-ecological harmony. He thought that humanity should "build their cities and industries in accordance with the natural and regionally biogeography of the Earth and work in unity towards a global federation of ecological regions" (Purchase, 1997, 56). (In this light, he was not incredibly unlike his French contemporary Vidal who advocated using small ecologically compact units as a way of classifying the earth, called pays.) To reach such a future, Reclus saw the progress of travel, education, technology, and morality as being central (Purchase, 1997).

My Reflections

As a fellow believer in a free society that fulfills every person's needs and is based upon the concept of mutual aid, I find myself to be very sympathetic with the anarchistic ideas of Elisée Reclus. Additionally, Reclus's geographical ideas, specifically his ideas of social ecology, of which I was less familiar, also reach my receptive ears with satisfaction.

Reclus appears to have been a man who was filled with curiosity and passion for studying the world around him--both natural and human. Unlike many other natural and social scientists, Reclus's interest extends to a deep respect and love of the world, and specifically the delicate balance struck between both the earth and its human inhabitants. I greatly enjoyed his colorful and elaborate histories and descriptions of this balance, and his fearful and disdainful abhorrence at a world being destroyed by abusive human actions.

He also wrote with a relevance that is astonishing even today. He was writing during a time period where the "Industrial Revolution" was coming into full swing, and he was repulsed by the harm it was doing to the environment and human populations. But, he was quick to caution against the broad generalization that this was a new trend. He emphasized that this had been a consistent theme in modern human history--human beings imposing themselves upon other human beings (whether in slavery, serfdom, dictatorship, and now in wage slavery) just as human greed had been destroying the environment by their expansion and lust for land, minerals, and other resources. For me, his warnings are as vital to hear today as they were then; his important writings of historical human impact are an important story for all to hear. Although he is a bit too prolific for a student of geography to try to comprehensively study, outside of the large Nouvelle Geographie anthology, certain books, such as La Terre and Mankind and the Earth serve as a great introduction to his unique ideas.

His life was lived in a way I find very admirable and respectable. Even though he swam outside of mainstream academics for most his life, he still had a very healthy and vibrant intellectual career, and he never let his geographical writings overwhelm his political life and writing. In living both lives with equal (and usually overlapping) passion and vigor, I feel he is a great inspiration for those committed to intellectual inquiry and social change.

Works Cited

Blunt, Alison & Wills, Jane (2000). Dissident geographies. Harlow, England: Prentice Hall.
Bookchin, M. (1993). What is social ecology? From Zimmerman, M. E. (ed), Environmental philosophy: From animal rights to radical ecology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Clark, John P. (1997). The dialectical social geography of Élisée Reclus. Philosophy and Geography I: Space, Place, and Environmental Ethics. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 117-142.
Fleming, Marie (1988). The geography of freedom. Montréal: Black Rose.
Purchase, Graham (1997). Anarchism and ecology. Montréal: Black Rose.
Reclus, Elisée (1871). The earth. New York: Harper and Brothers.
Reclus, Elisée (1873). The ocean. London: Chapman and Hall. Reclus, Elisée (1883). La nouvelle geographie universelle. Paris: Hachette.
Reclus, Elisee (1886). The earth and its inhabitants. Volume 1: Africa. New York: Appleton.


History of Geographic Thought