Joining the dots
When an Edinburgh cartographer first formed what would become the Royal Scottish Geographical Society nearly 130 years ago, it was out of frustration at the poor quality of map craftmanship across Britain.
Since that time, the subject of geography has grown from being about lines on maps to take in everything from the shifting of tectonic plates to the growing world population.
Mike Robinson took over as RSGS’ chief executive more than four years ago with the aim of rejuvenating and modernising one of Scotland’s oldest charities and he says “reminding people of the relevance of geography to day-to-day life.”
The role which many people associate the subject with in their daily life is perhaps best reflected by one example Robinson gives since he has been in charge, about a glazier who came round to the RSGS’ Perth headquarters to repair a broken window.
“He was two seconds in the door and said: ‘Ah, geographical society, is it? What is the capital of Ecuador?’ “That summed it up for me. Folk have a view of what geography means, but actually, geography is about joined-up thinking.
“It’s got science at its core, but it’s also about how people interact with places and how people interact with the environment.”
Since his appointment, the society has moved its HQ to Perth – also where Robinson is from – and raised the money to turn the Fair Maid’s house – Perth’s oldest building, into an education and visitor centre.
For the first time, collections owned by RSGS, with maps dating back hundreds of years – right up to modern Lonely Planet guides – have gone on public display.
Although Robinson says, like many older charities, RSGS has “struggled” a bit, it still has an aura of respect that has built up over the last century and more.
It has a well respected set of awards given to notable figures, including the Livingstone medal, whose recipients have included David Attenborough, former Irish President Mary Robinson and Chris Bonnington.
That Livingstone link dates back to the RSGS’ beginnings, as the famous Scottish explorer’s daughter, Agnes, had helped to set up the charity. In the year when events are being held across the country to mark the 200th anniversary of Livingstone’s birth, that spirit of seeing where Scotland fits in with the rest of the world, is still thriving.
Robinson says he is particularly motivated by how the study of geography and his work can help make the world – not just Scotland – a more sustainable place to live.
“I don’t think we’ve ever been sustainable as a species. It’s just something we didn’t really think about that hard. I think climate change is an accidental consequence of being unsustainable,” he says.
“As we’ve filled every corner of the globe, expanded populations everywhere and used more and more resources, it’s an inevitability that we’ve got to work out how to be sustainable.” He adds: “Fundamentally, for me, the whole point of this, it’s about making human life as comfortable as possible.
“We’re trying to sustain a balance, which humans are part of and we want that to be as comfortable as possible.
“We don’t want extreme weather, massive flooding, higher temperatures here, there and everywhere. It’s all about sustaining a balance that everyone can be a part of.”
Earlier this year the society expressed concerns that geology was dropping off the radar in Scottish schools.
Despite a rich-history within these shores – the 18th-century Scottish scientist James Hutton is known as the father of modern geology – and one of the most diverse geological landscapes in the world – numbers of pupils taking the subject at Higher level fell to just 17 in 2012, and no new geology teachers have been trained for 25 years.
Robinson says: “It seems incredible we’re getting to a point where we’re just sort of leaving that behind.
“I don’t believe we’re moving away from it because we’ve decided it’s no longer relevant, we’re moving away from it because nobody seems to remember that Scotland led the world in this area.” It’s not just geology; Robinson also has fears about the way geography is being constrained in Scottish schools.
“Geography is a way of bringing the social subjects and sciences together. It increases scientific literacy and is actually a stepping stone towards more pure sciences.
“On lots of levels, you’d think it’s something that is being promoted, but it’s struggling a little bit because it’s being constrained. It isn’t a pure science, so it’s being squeezed into the social studies category.
“The science is almost being stripped out and yet the whole point about geography is that it brings these disciplines together – if you take the science out, you’ve missed the point.” Robinson was instrumental in setting up the Stop Climate Chaos Scotland (SCCS) – a coalition of more than 60 groups and two million members.
He said it started with the idea of creating a ‘Make Poverty History Plus’.
It included not just NGOs like WWF, Friends of the Earth Scotland and Oxfam, but a broad range of organisations such as church bodies, the National Trust for Scotland and National Union of Students.
“It had to be as big as it could be, because it had to be as representative as it could be – it also needed to draw on all the different reasons why people were worried about climate change.
“The reasons for setting it up were fairly obvious and that was the screaming demand for something to be done about climate change.
“There was felt to be a bit of a vacuum in terms of the coordinated and concerted effort to do something about it.
“Civil society, for me, is a moral and ethical compass in our society. It is often the bit that tweaks your conscience about what needs to be done.” Pressure from SCCS was an important factor in the Scottish version of the Climate Change Act, introduced a year later than the UK Government’s, but with tougher targets to cut carbon emissions.
That Act, for him, is one of the best things Scotland has done for years, and while he says that alone isn’t enough to meet climate change goals, it was “world leading and remains world leading”.
“If we take a step back and look at what we’ve done already, I know a lot of it is commitment rather than necessarily achievement, but it is something that is being looked at very seriously by the rest of the world.”
However, this year, many environmental groups have expressed disappointment with how the Government is responding to its own targets, set out in 2009, particularly the second Report on Policies and Proposals (RPP2), a sector-by-sector blueprint for how emissions will be cut.
“Far too much of the report rests on what we might do and not enough of it on what we are going to do,” he says. “There’s not enough commitment, it’s too vague.” He adds: “It’s never going to be completely prescriptive in every area of work, because you’d take a lifetime to write that, but it does lack detail – critical detail in certain areas.” Robinson’s previous work, after a spell working at Unilever, has included RSPB Scotland and as director of development at Edinburgh’s Botanic Garden. However, the views that have shaped much of what he has achieved have come from the voluntary work he has carried out.
An expedition to Borneo in his early twenties sparked his interest and he became a board member of Survival International – and he organised the first delegation to the Scottish Parliament of a Yanomami tribesman who came to Edinburgh in the first year the Parliament was opened.
Although no longer chair, he still sits on the board of Stop Climate Chaos Scotland, and many more groups besides, a deliberate ploy, he says, to ensure the wider links between them are all ‘joined-up’: “Literally, what I am trying to do is join them up by being part of them all, so that climate change and sustainability are on the agenda.
“I have taken the decision to be part of as many of the bodies as I have in order to join them together and help make that happen.” Most importantly, RSGS’ role is not an insular one; it is always looking at how Scotland impacts elsewhere.
He adds: “What’s exciting is it’s about what is Scotland’s role in the world and there are a lot of positives there.
“It’s not just about showing moral leadership, which is a very important aspect of what we can do.
“One of the reasons Geography was established in the first place was for other types of things, like trade opportunities and employment opportunities. For me, it is how you join all these things up.
“I think things go hand in hand, they’re all interrelated and it’s just about having that wider vision and self-belief – that’s really important. Scotland needs a bit more self-belief sometimes.”