Physical realities do more to shape world events than ideas
I am writing this on the most precious object I own: a chaise longue that I found in one of those treasure-trove furniture stores in East Hollywood. It took an age to complete its passage to London. During the wait, well, there are pet-owners who have worried less about a dog in the cargo hold. The shipping delays of 2022 were a harrowing reminder of something that I believed globalisation had phased out: geography.
Yes, I ham it up, this denatured urbanite thing, but the reality is even worse than the shtick. I don’t understand about pressure systems or harvests or water tables or fauna. I get rivers confused. As is the way in British public life, I am educated in abstractions. Human rights: a forward step for the species or hogwash? On which side should one have fought at Marston Moor? Who invented liberalism, David Hume or, perversely, by stressing the moral equality of all, St Paul? I can do this stuff all day.
But it isn’t the stuff that makes the world turn. If the events of recent years show us anything, it is how much of life comes down not to human-generated ideas but to immutable facts of nature. Some countries have accessible deposits of fossil fuels. Some have the metals that go into chips. Some have long borders to be paranoid about. Some have more than others to lose from a heating globe. Some lack and crave warm water ports. Some vote for detachment from their continent but find the geographic logic of trade hard to buck. Geography is, if not everything, then almost everything.
Back when this was denied, when tech and trade were held to have shrunk and “flattened” the world, some intellectuals kept going with their heresies. Ian Morris argued that Geography is Destiny. David Landes said that climate is under-discussed as an enricher or impoverisher of nations. Jared Diamond went down to the level of plant and animal life to explain the divergence of civilisations. Tim Marshall, in works of Naipaulian bleakness, said that war is almost inevitable in certain terrains. (If geographic determinists have a recurring obsession, it is with plains, which are said to instil a martial paranoia in their inhabitants by exposing them to ground invasion. Beware Nebraska.)
This worldview can be so fatalistic as to cross over into quackery. Russia “must” attack its western neighbours, such is its vulnerability to the flatlands. Xinjiang, at the hinge of east-west traffic through the millennia, will “always” be a trouble spot. The denial of human agency here has more of religion than of science about it.
But it is also a useful corrective for elites who too often err on the other side. Britain in particular accords a prestige to the study of ideas that it doesn’t to earthlier subjects. (I recall a colleague of hers mocking Theresa May as a “geographer”.) The life of the mind is only somewhat more rounded in America. Perhaps it all goes back to the Enlightenment view of the world as whatever human will and reason make of it. The idea that we are boxed in by intransigent facts of geography is not just dull to contemplate. It is an affront to a founding conceit of our civilisation. It is one in the eye for Descartes.
Yet those facts are all around us. Rice is more calorific than wheat per hectare. How much of world history — the vast populations that Asia has sustained, for instance — turns on just that? Why didn’t China do transoceanic conquest when it had the power to? A lack of Christian zeal or all that bounteous land of its own?
Even where ideas themselves seem paramount, there might be an element of geographic accident involved. Would Germany have been less conflicted over the Enlightenment, more like Britain and the Netherlands, if more of it were coastal? Did the relative lack of maritime contact with other countries slow its absorption of ideas?
You can vanish into a rabbit hole of conjecture. But that is healthier than not thinking in natural-physical terms at all. Francis Fukuyama still gets it in the neck for The End of History. The end of geography was a rasher call.
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