Friday, March 17, 2017

Prisoners of Geography

Wouldn't it be nice to be able to explain the world's current political state of affairs using just a few maps? That's what Tim Marshall attempts to do in Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World. I enjoyed the geography and history lessons, but I thought the author's conclusions were poorly supported.

To me, the book was comprised of a bunch of force-fit narratives (based on geography) to explain how things came to be in their present state. In terms of a set of geographic principles that can actually be used to predict political behaviour (rather than describe what has already happened, conveniently), the book falls pretty flat.

Some examples where some principles employed seemed very loose include:

1) Sometimes Country A has no problem with bordering Country B because B it is too small to be a threat, but other times B is soooo important because it could fall under the control of Country C, which is a threat. When B is important and when it's not seems pretty arbitrary, and based on the actual political events that have taken place, rather than any geography. China, Tibet, and Kazakhstan and work as an example of A, and two B's, one of which is a threat that needs to be dealt with while the other isn't, respectively.

2) I had to lol at this beauty: 'Geography had determined that if a political entity could get to and then control the land "from sea to shining sea" it would be a great power, the greatest history has known.' I can see how geography can play an important role in a country's development. Arable land, connecting and navigable rivers, and natural boundaries (security) are all helpful, but obviously there is more to it than that in order to become the greatest power in history, like say, system of government.

3) The African problems are also the result of geography, according to Marshall. Amazing rivers and lots of coastline are considered assets in other parts of the world, but apparently in Africa the natural harbours are terrible, resulting in great difficulty in trade and transportation. That's interesting, because I have heard they were able to move a slave or two rather profitably back in the day.

4) Minerals and other natural resources are sometimes positive for those in a geographic region, and sometimes negative, depending on the situation. Again, I'd argue that the political system is what's driving the results here.

The dependence of geography to explain a lot this stuff reads like Man with Hammer Syndrome. I don't doubt geography has heavily influenced history and the present, but it is only one of many things. Just because we can't explain what all of them are, doesn't make geography any more important than it otherwise would be.

If you are interested in learning why some countries are richer than others, I would recommend Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty, instead. If you're interested in political histories of various parts of the world, I would recommend 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created and Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. They use geography as *a* factor rather than *the* factor to explain historical events.

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