Sunday, April 25, 2010

Robert Kaplan: "For Greece’s Economy, Geography Was Destiny "

Robert Kaplan has an article entitled "For Greece’s Economy, Geography Was Destiny." In it Kaplan, a man I well respect for his military reporting and the job he has done bringing geography back into public discussion of global events, begins the article talking about how the poor soil of the Mediterranean coastal countries led to a culture of powerful, corrupt landowners. Meanwhile, Kaplan praises Northern Europe with its dark soil and its inland water ways as being the lands where liberalism was born thus giving the world the enlightenment, global trade, and movement. He uses these geographic factors to state Greece was doomed economically.

Kaplan sees the geographic trends but attributes it to the wrong factor. Yes, physical environments do shape cultures but culture's can adapt to environments in order to advance and improve. In a class I taught I pointed out how soil environmental determinism can be disproven by looking at chernozem. Chernozem, literally meaning black earth, is arguably the best agricultural soil in the world. It is found primarily in the Great Plains of Canada-United States and Ukraine. The Kievan Rus of Ukraine were only a minor European power (they became powerful when they shifted into modern-day Russia. Meanwhile, the Great Plains Indians were much less advanced than Woodlands Indians who built cities like Cahokia and formed political alliances like the Iroquois Confederacy.

In the case of Europe one should think of the Italian city-states like the Most Serene Republic of Venice and the Republic of Genoa which were world players. Civil law, descended from Roman law, is the world's most used legal system. Meanwhile Ireland, with good soil in the south and eastern parts of the island, has long been a background. In the case of Ireland, the Celtic Tiger seems to be a historical oddity as Ireland is one of the PIIGS which is drowning in debt. Also, Iceland has completely melted down and countries like the United Kingdom and Norway are experiencing their own economic troubles.

Kaplan has reminded some that geography is important and, yes, environment does play a roll. However, one needs to avoid the disproven thoughts that environment alone plays such a powerful role.

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