There is this idea that you can discount much of the complexity of social, random and religious implications from a nation’s rise and fall. And rather instead, pin all correlory causation onto geographical factors and geography alone.
But isn’t the picture much more complicated than this worldview would have us believe? Might it not be true that it is neither all or nothing, that after all is said and done it might actually end up being a little bit of both?
Tim Marshall, of ‘Prisoners Of Geography‘ fame, has dedicated two volumes to the myriad geographical implications that a country is either ‘born’ with or without. The geographic genes of a nation are unquestionably deciding factors of prosperity, but anyone who gives the idea just a moments more thought will then go on to discover how unquestionably a cultures influence is on that same prosperity as well.
The US Proving Geographic Determinism False
Were the Bill Of Rights and the American Constitution that which orienteered the United States to economic greatness? Or was it rather a combination of geographic factors; A wonderfully navigable river system, two long coastlines of two different oceans, natural and deep harbours, a majority of the country in the perfect temperate zone for agriculture, two borders – neither posing a serious military threat? Which of these overly reduced explanations for the economic greatness of America do you prefer? Was it the people or was it the geography?
The geographical determinist will insist the latter, and I might agree they are closer to the truth, however, is it not too convenient an explanation of history?
It’s More Than Geographic Determinism
Within the pages of history you are to read more about culture, people and beliefs than you are about the weather, disasters and natural borders. The overbearing influence of ‘mans’ decisions over time are worth exceptionally more than a geographical determinist would have you believe.
Ghengis Khan did more to design the modern world than did the snowmelt distribution of water across the Himalayas, but then it was the Eurasian steppe that made Ghengis Khan into the man endowed with the abilities only geographic determinism would have allowed him. If you take the circular reasoning all the way back to its first rotation it seems geographic determinism wins.
We know that geography came first. We also know that, despite attempts, geography is the one great input into human lives that we cannot alter. So then, could we not go on to conclude that because of A, we must have B?
If geography shaped the cultures with which we now are endowed, are they then not by their very definition deterministic?
Well, yes… but has history only been shaped by our geographical predilections? Now that is the question I think one cannot honestly answer with anything but no.
Flash Points Deny A Geographic Determinist Worldview
As Jared Diamond points out, had Clause Stauffenburg managed to kick his briefcase just a few centimetres closer to Hitler in his failed assassination attempt of July 20, 1944, then the European map for millions and millions of people would look entirely different today. But, in one of the billions of defining moments of history, Stauffenburg failed and Hitler perished by his own hand around a year later once the Soviet’s had already entered the Henhouse. And as such, featured more heavily in the post-war resolutions than they might of if Hitler was assassinated just a year earlier.
Clearly, an event not geographic that determined a LOT. A weaker Soviet Union (due to less land occupation) would have perhaps liberated more, or perhaps even less science on the international stage. Perhaps the space race would not have been as feverish. Perhaps the Bay Of Pigs would have just remained an obscure Cuban Playa. This event of history, Stauffenburg and his missing inches, an event entirely non-geographical, determined a future absent the geographical imperative.
Geographic Determinism V. Revisionist History
Now, if one is to play this game of hypotheticals you quickly get into the exciting revisionist possibilities of history.
What if the Nazi’s decided to take it easy on the Eastern Front? What if Churchill boozed his way into obscurity? What if Ghengis Khan had perished according to the life expectancy of his nomadic people at the time? What if, what if, what if – Instert x and y and roll the dice.
These are events non-geographical of ultimate determination.
The geographical determinist will argue – but what of the conditions that made all this possible… the geography? Well, yes. What of it?
As soon as scale of agriculture, scale of trade, scale of religion, scale of technology and scale of all the wonderful things we know about the world now are taken into account. A consequence of culture, tradition, belief, science – and only a tincy bit geography.
Once all these items of scale are taken into account there you have it. A world no longer determined by geography.
Geographic Determinism Today
Geography poses absolute and real-world implications today. It stifles certain economies, freezes populations, burns populations and informs entire cultures of their beliefs and world-views. This is to say it informs, but it does not determine.
Life is, surprise surprise… complex. It is beyond the comprehension of one mind, and likely even beyond that of the humanities hive mind. There are too many nodes. Too many branches. There was a time when geography determined all, but that time has passed. Each day introduces exponentially more complexity than the day previous.
Yesterday’s tomorrow doesn’t look like today.
We are several thousand years into the human experience, but I live in comfort, in the north. Geography barely determines my life at all. The same is said for my cousins in Clermont, rural Queensland.
Just measure the differing outcomes of North and South Korea – of France, Germany and Italy – of Thailand and Vietnam. There is, and I hope you agree, wonderful differences between these groups of people and cultures who share barely different geography.
Geography does not determine all. We want and we pray for that easy, aesthetic and understandable answer.
Sorry to say – but I dont have it.
Complexity expands faster than we can map it 🙂
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