Arnold Kling  

Geography as Destiny

A Paragraph to Ponder... Henry Kaufman's Narrative of t...

Robert D. Kaplan writes mostly about politics and conflict. But there is much of importance to economists. Some excerpts follow.

there is a certain geographic logic to where certain ideas take hold. Communist Eastern Europe, Mongolia, China, and North Korea were all contiguous to the great land power of the Soviet Union. Classic fascism was a predominantly European affair. And liberalism nurtured its deepest roots in the United States and Great Britain, essentially island nations and sea powers both. Such determinism is easy to hate but hard to dismiss.
...In three decades covering the Middle East, I have watched it evolve from a largely rural society to a realm of teeming megacities. In the next 20 years, the Arab world's population will nearly double while supplies of groundwater will diminish.
A Eurasia of vast urban areas, overlapping missile ranges, and sensational media will be one of constantly enraged crowds, fed by rumors transported at the speed of light from one Third World megalopolis to another. So in addition to Malthus, we will also hear much about Elias Canetti, the 20th-century philosopher of crowd psychology: the phenomenon of a mass of people abandoning their individuality for an intoxicating collective symbol. It is in the cities of Eurasia principally where crowd psychology will have its greatest geopolitical impact. Alas, ideas do matter. And it is the very compression of geography that will provide optimum breeding grounds for dangerous ideologies and channels for them to spread.
...much of Eurasia will eventually be as claustrophobic as Israel and the Palestinian territories, with geography controlling everything and no room to maneuver. Although Zionism shows the power of ideas, the battle over land between Israelis and Palestinians is a case of utter geographical determinism. This is Eurasia's future as well.
...Estimates of the number of firearms in Yemen vary, but any Yemeni who wants a weapon can get one easily. Meanwhile, groundwater supplies will last no more than a generation or two.
I'll never forget what a U.S. military expert told me in the capital, Sanaa: "Terrorism is an entrepreneurial activity, and in Yemen you've got over 20 million aggressive, commercial-minded, and well-armed people, all extremely hard-working compared with the Saudis next door. It's the future, and it terrifies the hell out of the government in Riyadh." The future of teeming, tribal Yemen will go a long way to determining the future of Saudi Arabia. And geography, not ideas, has everything to do with it.

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CATEGORIES: Political Economy

COMMENTS (6 to date)
globalizer writes:

My heavens. What a lot of blather. "Geography" doesn't seem to have much of anything to do with whatever the author is talking about. Perhaps demographics, and the difference in interests and culture between urban and rural populations (about which Ibn Khaldoun wrote more coherently in 1400 or so, and Solzhenitsyne more recently), does. At the very least, people like Kaplan could make a slight approximation to specifying dependent and independent variables if they want anyone to have any respect for their journalistic approximations to causal models.

Tim Heinse writes:

I believe the author's point is quite clear. Conflicts in the 21st century and beyond will increasingly pit the haves vs. the have nots. As more and more people are crowded into the same area, (increased population density), with fewer resources, (food, water, shelter) this becomes prime breeding grounds for anger, frustration, and revolt. We have heard this before from many sources. It's time to pay attention and do something about it.

Demographics is just statistical geography, in order for the numbers to have meaning they must have a location or place.

Stephen Smith writes:

Anybody who wants to convince me that water will take on an added importance in the 21st century has to explain to me me why this is wrong.

Isaac K. writes:

An interesting and well observed point.
HOWEVER, regarding Israel, the accusation of restricting the water supply is OFTEN used politically, though it has yet to be the SOLE source of conflict.
What the author seems to be confusing is the good (water) and the production wrought from said good (food).
While food might be easily and frequently imported, water is not. Israel faces constant water shortages as a result of drought, which puts limitations on things like ones ability to shower, wash clothing, or, say, DRINK WATER.

Additionally, small towns and villages on subsistance farming often do not have the financial resources to import food.

Will water be the cause of wars independantly? probably not. But it will be a point to cause pressure politically. Importing water is not really a viable option, considering the costs involved. And where would you import FROM? by definition, these areas are low on water because they have GEOGRAPHICALLY low amounts of precipitation.
A better solution than "water importation" is the implementation of hydrolysis plants to desalinize the water. The trick is making the technology cheap and efficient enough for large-scale implementation.

George writes:

Meanwhile, groundwater supplies will last no more than a generation or two.

Seawater + energy = fresh water

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