Saturday, February 23, 2013

Geography, Two Point O

Most Americans under fifty and many in their second half have friends they’ve never met in places they will never visit. Even I have readers of my blog from Belarus to Malaysia according to Google. More than likely they are hackers or surfers. Fortunately I own nothing that anyone would want. I have friends who play on-line poker with Bolivians and Ukrainians at a virtual table. The world seems to have shrunk rendering geography irrelevant. However as the detective in old movies used to say, Not so fast, Lefty. I wouldn’t do that if I were you.

Climate change, notwithstanding, the map remains fundamentally fixed, at least since the Ice Age. Coral reefs may rear their heads then drown. Coastlines may get clawed but Switzerland remains landlocked, England shows no sign of relinquishing its island status and the Himalayas and Andes provide borders, in perpetuity, separating tribes and creating nation states.

Geography informs everything from our culture to our foreign policy. Who has the black stuff below ground is no small matter. Inland folks think a little differently than coast-dwellers. If Great Britain were attached to the European continent they might act like Germans who are defenseless, east and west and grew a chip on both shoulders. Islanders enjoy a natural fortress of ocean which can result in an isolationist mind set as it did for centuries in Japan or as a crucible for relative peace and cultural development in Crete and Greek islands.

In our current Iraqi and Afghan misadventures we may have been blindsided by simple geography. Like the Brits and Russians before us we disregarded the topography of that land mass east of Iran. From ancient time the mountainous region has divided people into tribes with separate language and customs. In Iraq which was created after WWI heedless of ethnicity, Kurds occupy a separate space off to the north, with a natural barrier of mountains, apart from the Sunnis and Shiites.

Africa, five times the size of Europe, lags in large measure to the cut-off of Mediterranean port countries from the continent below due to the Sahara desert. This kept the advanced civilizations of the near-east from contact with sub-Saharan regions. All but the eastern coast lack deep harbors for trade and the interior is thick with equatorial jungle.

Brazil and China have roughly the same land mass but China has navigable rivers and infra structure leading to the sea with port cities proximate for much of Asia and the Pacific islands where South America is fairly distant from any market other than the Americas. China is also mostly in the temperate zone with Beijing and Shanghai on the same latitude as New York and New Orleans.

If Americans feel exceptional it is more an accident of geography (climate and isolation) than anything in our character. I suspect Armenians and Albanians also feel unique. Acknowledgement of our place on the map and an appreciation of other nations’ geography might help to curb our zeal for intervention.

Latitudinal Eurasia has been much better off than longitudinal Africa or the Americas because technology was more readily disseminated across similar climates as well as movement of domestic animals and the immunities they have provided for humans.

The importance of Geography needs to be stated but not overstated. In his book The Revenge of Geography Robert Kaplan makes the case for the powerful influence of geography but not necessarily one that explains everything. 

Both centripetal and centrifugal forces are at play. There are natural divides along with shared waterways. Even given the limits of air power, the introduction of drones cannot be discounted nor can virtual virus attacks which know no weather or borders. But weapon technology that brings new destruction also generates collateral kinships. Satellites both kill and connect.

Oceans are rising and hundred-year storms occurring within decades. Perhaps our reckless stewardship of the planet with its dire consequences will join us in the singular effort of survival.

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