The planet and people

Physical Geography - Geosystems - An Introduction to Physical Geography and the Environment. First edition - Physical Geography
May 27, 2005

These four books add to a large supply of introductory texts in physical geography. They offer interesting and divergent approaches, each a manifesto for the future of the discipline. Unfortunately, there is surprisingly little consensus on what this should be. One book advocates a unification of geography, two of them expound a systems mantra, and a fourth seems to want to hide its geographical credentials altogether. Three of the texts are accompanied by CD-Roms and have specialised websites. In short, they are a motley assortment, or you might say - like geography itself - a celebration of diversity. Choosing between them is a matter of individual taste.

The most familiar of the four, Physical Geography: Science and Systems of the Human Environment , has been a standard book in geography departments for many years. It is firmly based in earth-systems science and takes a strongly quantitative line. Its four main parts cover climate, the solid earth, landforms and soils. This arrangement works well and is not as biased towards geomorphology as these section headings imply. In fact, its coverage of physical systems is excellent, detailed and, unlike some of the other books, it does not sidestep hard issues such as the Coriolis effect; the book attempts a detailed explanation. This is typical of the thought that has gone into this text.

But despite the claim that this new edition is an international one, it is an unashamedly American product. In fact, it made me doubt that anywhere but the US existed: almost all examples are drawn from the US, and imperial units are used alongside metric ones. (Why are we still supporting non-SI units in what purports to be a scientific approach?) Even in describing Mediterranean climates, three out of the four examples are from the US.

The layout and typefaces are distracting, with at least six different fonts and numerous different styles used. But the text is good value at £35.95 for a hardback (the other three books are softback) with a CD-Rom and a website.

Geosystems is another US offering. But, in contrast to the first book, it offers a more global approach, even starting with an African proverb. The text, the most expensive of the four, is firmly in the systems camp, but it claims to take a more visual approach. This is presumably where the extra money went (it includes a CD-Rom and website).

The layout of the book is logical and flows better than that of some of the others. Finding the topics is easy, and the coverage is very good with some interesting detail on Rossby waves, oceans and the biosphere. While not as quantitative as the first book, it retains the same mixture of units.
My other niggle is the use of the “News Report” captions, which are rather awkward; I wonder how well these reports will age - will they have to be changed every couple of years?

The remaining two books are from the UK. They are cheaper than their US counterparts. An Introduction to Physical Geography and the Environment is the more scientific of the two. It has a dedicated website but no CD-Rom. Its coverage of topics is perhaps the widest of the four books. I am also impressed by the placement of the acknowledgements at the front, along with detailed further reading in each chapter. In the current climate of growing plagiarism and worries over copyright, this is refreshing and sends the right message to students. There is a nice introduction to Quaternary change. While some might find the pastel colours for backgrounds a little insipid, this is only a minor gripe. This book is my favourite of those under review.

Which brings me to Physical Geography: A Human Perspective . This is the cheapest of the four books and has the least extras and the most radical approach. I admit that I cannot make up my mind about it. While the first two books derive from a US model in which physical geography is merged with earth science, this book has a clear and opposite manifesto. It looks towards ever-closer ties with human geography. Its layout is by far the clearest, and it is printed on quality paper. It supplies good definitions in the margins and provides additional reading. It has excellent coverage of ecosystems and biogeography, deals strongly with measurement and mapping, and has an excellent look at the vital issue of dating.

However, I am uncomfortable with its tight anthropocentric focus. There is an arrogance in assuming that humans are the most important part of all the earth systems. There is little on geomorphology, glacial systems are almost absent, and oceans are largely ignored. If a book offers a global perspective, how can it ignore more than 75 per cent of the earth’s surface?

Were I choosing a text for our first-year course in physical geography, I would not buy any of the these four books. I want the coverage of An Introduction to Physical Geography and the Environment , the systems approach of Geosystems and the quantitative work of Physical Geography: Science and Systems of the Human Environment . If I were buying for myself, my choice would have to be Physical Geography: A Human Perspective . It might annoy me, but it would make me think.

James Casford is lecturer in geography, Durham University.

Physical Geography: Science and Systems of the Human Environment. Third edition

Author - Alan Strahler and Arthur Strahler
Publisher - Wiley
Pages - 794
Price - £35.95
ISBN - 0 471 65764 6

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