Monday, 29 July 2013

An engaging study of the lifecycle of civilizations in Revenge of Geography

From The Week of July 22nd, 2013

Though it is an exercise fraught with failure and misapprehension, there are few tasks more worthwhile than the effort to improve our understanding of the cultures from which we come. For, despite the challenges, despite having to constantly check for ones biases and preconceptions, there is no better way to advance one's culture than to grasp the influences, the logistics and the the history that informs it and to separate these truths from the stereotypes that so often characterize national cultures. There are reasons for why our countries are the way they are, why some are rude and others prickly. And the sooner we understand this, the sooner we can begin to predict the future with some modest accuracy. This Robert Kaplan studiously demonstrates in his examination of the world viewed through the lens of geography.

For ten-thousand years, civilizations both grand and small, both coastal and landlocked, have risen and fallen. Some crumbled into dust with barely a lasting mark to remember them by. Others immortalized their legacies through engineering and enduring monuments that have left no doubt of the links they forged in the unbroken chain of humanity's march towards a more knowledgeable future. However, despite having different languages and assets, populations and ethics, lifespans and legacies, they did, all possess one common trait. They all eventually collapsed, their prowess and their vigor consumed by younger, energetic states. This inescapable fate has prompted both historians and interested parties to analyze this perfect mortality rate and divine from it lasting clues that might help stave off the inevitable deaths of current cultures.

Though this has given rise to nearly as many universal theories as their are studiers of this question, few are as simple as Mr. Kaplan's. Setting aside the monumental fields of economics and law, politics and multiculturalism, he contends that the ultimate fates of nations are written into their geographies. From the vital rivers that organized and then gave rise to cohesive cultures in China and Egypt to the sweeps of coastal-rich territory in Europe and North America, he argues that these invaluable resources concentrate populations which in turn innovate and inflate until they've become regional powers capable of spanning entire continents.

This would seem to be a wise, and even pleasingly unbiased, assessment of why some nations stabilize and succeed while others disintegrate and fail, but is it applicable in a 21st-century world where bombers and drones, have overcome the once-formidable natural barriers that have historically held nations back? Mr. Kaplan believes so. In fact, he is convinced that these technologies which have so effectively reduced mountains to molehills have created a whole host of new existential problems for humanity's various national tribes. After all, prior to the age of flight, India never had to worry about China. The Himalayas took care of any fear of invasion on both sides of that question. The same for nations separated by substantial waterways that would've taken weeks to traverse in centuries past that now take hours. The globalization of the world may have revolutionized trade, but it has opened up theatres of conflict that would have been unthinkable in times past.

The Revenge of Geography is an engaging analysis of 21st-century geopolitics informed by a first-rate mind. Mr. Kaplan has an admirable grasp of the present that is informed by both an intriguing read of geography and an educational grasp of the past civilizations that comprise known history. It explains south Asia, the Middle East, Europe and North America in a manner that is no less explicable for it being erudite. And yet, there's a blitheness here that haunts his study no less than it does all those that purport to boil the world down to a single, defining trait. There can be no doubting that geography has played vital role in the shaping of our nations and our cultures, but can the success of he United States really be put down simply to the fact that it had manageable neighbors to north and south, plentiful coast to east and west, and abundant heartland in which to spread out and thrive? Factors all, surely, but far from the only ones to be heard in the formation of the defining nation of the last 200 years...

But though Revenge of Geography may state its case too definitively, it does so in an unforgettable manner. For Mr. Kaplan introduces us here to intellectuals who conceive of the world, and even history, as a series of existential conflicts for dominance. Art and science, philosophies and customs, are discarded by the minds of these men and replaced with a heartless pragmatism that is predicated on the idea that governments seek always to expand not only their powers but their borders as well. There's plenty of evidence to support this cynical view, but there's just as much evidence to counter it as well. For while states may act in the interests of the people they contain, willing to go to war for gains both economic and territorial, people are often far more emotional and far less strategic than this. They would rather live in a world that is not zero-sum, a world where everyone has a fair shot of progress and comfort, rather than one in which their interests are mercilessly advanced at the expense of everyone else. The utterly pragmatic approach here is as striking as it is narrow.

There's much of value here, but for all Mr. Kaplan's skill, he fails to convince us that geography trumps ideology or cultural ethos. Nonetheless, well worth the read... (3/5 Stars)

No comments:

Post a Comment