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The Power of Place

Joel Krupa

Power of PlaceHarm de Blij
The Power of Place
Oxford University Press USA, 2008
304 Pages
ISBN 978-0195367706


Former White House Press Secretary Bill Moyers once commented that “What Carl Sagan did for cosmology, Harm de Blij is doing for geography.” Lofty praise, to be sure, as Carl Sagan was widely acclaimed for his grasp on an impressive array of diverse subjects. Yet similar accolades continue to be showered on de Blij, a former editor at National Geographic and a distinguished professor of Geography at the University of Michigan, from the likes of development economist Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University to the editors of the journal Nature. Through his authorship of more than 30 books and dozens of peer-reviewed academic articles, de Blij has acquired a reputation as a well-versed and intellectually versatile macro thinker with a unique ability to uncover linkages between ostensibly unrelated events.

In The Power of Place, de Blij provides compelling evidence for the central role of geography in some of the most complex and divisive issues facing the world today. Seamlessly weaving his insights on wide range of disciplines from anthropology, to public health, economics, and religious history (among other subject areas), de Blij shows how uneven human and physical geography have dictated the emergence of the world as we know it. His examples, original and rich with interesting anecdotes, are always thought-provoking and, occasionally, unsettling. He reminds us that “it is human nature to assign to place of birth or upbringing a large measure of blame for failure and to credit personal virtues for success…for every self-made man there are thousands who were born in the right place at the right time.” Although other thinkers have highlighted the role of geographical factors in the evolution of society, such as Jared Diamond in his recent popular book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, de Blij persuasively argues that those individuals who are given a chance for upward mobility will remain in the minority.

Early in the book, de Blij¬πs section on religion draws on historical sociology and a plethora of different religious texts in arguing that the current form of many religions can be traced back to their geographical roots. For example, he argues the great monotheistic religions all had their origins in centralized, hierarchical desert societies. Possessing few natural resources in their vicinity, these societies looked outward for not only the economic expansion of existing water, livestock, and fertile pasture supplies, but also political, social, and cultural conquest and, ultimately, the forceful assimilation of others into their way of life. Quite naturally, according to de Blij, this militant attitude laid the roots for the Crusades, hysterical evangelical conversions in the Americas, and, in recent times, the oft-discussed activities of decentralized, fundamentalist terrorist cells like al-Qaeda.

By contrast, polytheistic religions of the Amazon rain forest and Papua New Guinea both have strong geographical roots in biologically rich rainforest zones and so the inhabitants of these regions rarely felt the need to compete with other villagers. This led to the more egalitarian, pluralistic models that often characterize these areas, as opposed to the more hierarchical, monolithic models that characterize monotheistic religions. Women in these societies were expected to play an important contributing role in everyday life, and moreover these civilizations, unlike monotheistic societies, share an aversion to proselytizing, rarely if ever spreading promises of heavenly or hellish afterlives.

In a fascinating section titled “The rough topography of human Health”, de Blij goes on to explain the link between various health issues and geography. In these pages, de Blij thoroughly repudiates the still-lingering notion that societies at the global economic core are more industrious or hard working than those in the underprivileged, primarily non-industrialized regions of the so-called “Global South”, arguing instead that infectious diseases like dengue fever, cholera, and other Neglected Tropical Diseases (NRDs) play a determining role in keeping the West ahead of the developing world. Why, he asks, do the mosquitoes of Africa transmit a routinely lethal malaria so much more effectively than in other parts of the world? Again, one of the answers lies in an accident of geography, as African habitats accommodate a particularly dangerous mosquito with a tendency to transmit malaria to humans rather than animals.

To further reinforce his thesis on the centrality of geographical factors to modern social phenomena, de Blij touches on the transformative role of rising urbanization, internal divisions in both developed and developing countries, and persistent gender inequality. In sometimes excruciating detail, de Blij systematically lays out the formidable barriers to entry that women still face in attempting to crack the “glass ceiling” of gender subjugation, ranging from odious examples of sexual terror in some Asian and African societies to more subtle examples of employment exclusion and disenfranchisement in the West. He suggests an explanation for how these conditions arise, noting that the most advanced countries in terms of gender equality can trace their good fortune to favorable geography: these states (primarily in Europe’s Nordic region) hold the luxury of relative homogeneity, modest spatial dimensions, high GDP, and a general sense of societal well-being.

Notwithstanding de Blij’s insightfulness, readers may find his prose style bombastic and difficult to follow in places. He also occasionally oversteps the bounds of rational detachment in his arguments, betraying a clear but thinly substantiated personal bias toward atheism, and more than a touch of American chauvinism. Overall, though, de Blij¬πs holistic analysis is refreshing. Researchers have proved de Blij’s thesis that barriers to entry into the upper strata of economics and politics remains, for the vast majority of the world¬πs population, ignored or understated. With the increasing importance of climate change and innovation clustering, geographical location is arguably becoming ever more important. We continue to see leaders driven by the power of an irrationally exuberant ideology: a vision of a completely interconnected world that embraces the prevailing economic orthodoxy that freer and more efficient capital markets will invariably lead to collective success. Yet this dream is oblivious to the nearly immovable obstacles that stand in the way.

Geography, from its relation to the prevalence of lethargy-inducing chronic malaria to gaps in gender opportunities, is central to the debate over how best to address global inequality, and needs to be recognized as such. de Blij carefully shows that our cultural topography mirrors, to a disconcertingly large degree, that of the physical landscape ­ unequal, tough, and unlikely to change in the near future.

Joel Krupa graduated in 2010 with an MSc in Environmental Policy from Mansfield College, Oxford.