Sunday, April 23, 2017

Hemmed in by geography

I'm reading a very interesting book at the moment called Prisoners of Geography: ten maps that tell you everything you need to know about global politics, by Tim Marshall. I think the subtitle is slightly overstated. 'Everything' isn't true, because some countries aren't included: Australia gets three brief mentions, and New Zealand one. Plainly our politics aren't global enough.

But what the book does tell you is fascinating. It brings a whole new light to so much world news, and some breadth to just who holds power in the world. And who doesn't.

For instance, Russia, which is a vast nation in terms of real estate, is in reality only a relatively small country, because so much of the area it covers isn't much good for human beings to live in (as anyone sent to Siberia will tell you). The Russia we mostly think of is a smallish area to the West.

Furthermore, there are considerable problems with Russia's location: it's far more landlocked than it would like to be. And that's what Marshall is discussing: countries are bound far more strongly by where they're physically placed on the earth than by many other considerations. If there's no real access to waterways, then that can be extremely inhibiting. A number of countries are completely landlocked. If there are mountain ranges on your borders, then this may be helpful in terms of stopping invaders, but it's also a nuisance when it comes to trying to get over the mountains yourself.

And it helps to have good neighbours. Many countries don't, and spend a great deal of time fighting those next door.

Marshall also points out how the 'countries' we know in the world at present are, in some cases, relatively new on the world map. They didn't exist in this form a couple of hundred years ago. The British are to blame for some of these changes (along with the French and other empire-building nations). For example, the Brits, once they'd done with their Empires, tended to make hasty decisions about who would live where after the Brits themselves had gone. India and Pakistan's problems stem in part from this. Pakistan is one of the youngest 'nations' in the world, because basically it didn't exist less than a hundred years ago. Bangladesh is ever younger.

The Brits also drew lines across vast swathes of the Arab world, causing some of the problems we know today - though not all of them. The Arab tribes have been at war with each other for centuries, in one way or another. But a somewhat laissez-faire approach to map-making has had some huge consequences for those living in the region. You wouldn't expect maps to change the way nations see themselves; maps, after all, are only pieces of paper. (Unless of course they're magic, as the map in my latest children's fantasy is.)

Marshall manages to get to the nub of different countries' problems in succinct ways, and leaves you with a clearer understanding of what's going on around you. While his thesis is that geography itself is partly to blame for much of the world's infighting, he also shows how the movement of peoples around that geography can have beneficial or disastrous effects on other people, ones who were there first, as it were.

Marshall's point about geography, of course, affects us all even at a micro level. I live on a hill, which affects how I get to the city retail areas which are mostly on the flat. But it does mean I have great views of the Harbour and sea. I'm unlikely to be flooded, because water runs off our property easily, unlike some of my fellow citizens in areas that have been reclaimed.

New Zealanders, for the most part, live on two relatively equally-sized islands (imaginatively-named by our forebears as North and South). The gap between these two islands is a nuisance for travellers. Either we have to fly from the South to the North or vice versa, or we have to spend a considerable time going over the Cook Strait, a choppy bit of water that isn't always kind to travellers.

The North Island is warmer, as you'd expect, and has more population in its bigger cities. But in spite of what North Islanders think, the South isn't that cold: Scotland is much colder in the winter; many cities in the USA have snow for months at a time. We here in Dunedin, for instance, are lucky to get it once a year.

So geography and weather make a difference, as Napoleon found to his cost when he lost thousands of his French soldiers to the Russian weather - as Hitler also did with his German troops. For all our sense that we live in a world of vast choice, the reality is that we're hemmed in considerably by geography...

Marshall's book is fairly up to date, but the world keeps changing. He extends his book's range on his website The What and the Why.

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