ast week, as I cycled to a lecture hall in the early morning, I mulled over what I wanted to tell the students. Geography, wrote Giuseppe Dematteis in 1985, was the ultimate subversive discipline, the only one able to imagine that another world was possible. To do this, it needed to escape from the banal, escapist, everyday descriptions of the world promised by travel guides and tales of virile adventure. It needed to occupy the space of debate with alternatives, moving away from serving the interests of the powerful. A good message for first year undergraduates, I thought, and one that I could comfortably tell them from the comfort of the lectern. Before reaching the university, I passed through the Parc des Bastions housing the old university building. In front of the monumental Mur des Réformateurs stood the tents of those known here as the Indignés. Stone versions of Guillaume Farel, Jean Calvin, Théodore de Bèze and John Knox, with smaller statues of the Amiral de Coligny (France), Guillaume Le Taciturn (the Low Countries), Frédéric-Guillaume de Brandebourg (Germany), Roger Williams (New England), Oliver Cromwell (British Isles) and Istvan Bocskay (Hungary) were keeping watch. These were the Indignés of the past, fighting to overturn the existing order across a large part of the world, responding to deeply held feelings or imposing their ideas by force. In retrospect, we remember these Great Men as a group, and unify what must have seemed at the time like disparate and tentative, individual longings for change. In 2002, the name of Marie Dentière, a theologian and historian, was carved into the stones, the first woman to appear on the monument.

The following week, the camp in the park had been moved to another, more discrete corner. The air was crisp. It seemed smaller. The entrance had a large sign in English announcing that The Whole World is Watching, replacing the previous one that clamoured Les Hommes Avant le Profit. I like to imagine that the spirit of Mme Dentière had taken care of that one, for however inclusive the term Homme (man) might pretend to be, it seemed a curious translation of People Before Profits. In the early morning, in the great banking city, nobody at all was watching.

Translating the Occupy Wall Street movement across the world is hardly straightforward, something those early Reforms would have understood. Geographers can only explain, perhaps rather vaguely, that contexts, places and people matter; and that translation is never straightforward. Some ideas travel better than others, and the name and focus of the indignation shifts to reflect local concerns. Perhaps we can blame those old stone men, in retrospect, for sowing the seeds of world capitalism. Perhaps we could also wonder why it took so long to recognise that women were also part of that movement, and ponder on what it means to continue to narrate heroic tales of individuals who changed the world at a time when a world movement is doing so much to avoid having leaders emerge.

The city will soon be filled with 25,000 people, as the popular Course de l’Escalade brings together runners from around the world to commemorate the victory of the City of Geneva over the invading Savoyards in 1602. It was to make way for this that the tents of the Indignés were politely asked to leave the watchful gaze of the Reformers. The few muddy tents in the corner of a park seem of less immediate concern to the locals than their own, contemporary version of the Savoyards. The rage against the frontaliers, the people who live in France and work in Geneva, seems more immediate, more concrete than challenging the economic order of things. Here was a clearly identified enemy, the cause of perceived economic frailties. How easy to blame a neighbour rather than a banker, in a city that feeds off its banks.

When the runners set off across the town in December, I will pretend – if only for a moment – that these people are challenging us all to invent another world. And I will hope that we won’t all have to wear Lycra and Spandex to achieve it.