Monday, July 19, 2010

Robert Kaplan's "Actually, It's Mountains"

Robert Kaplan, journalist/author who has written some excellent pieces on geopolitics, has a new geography-related article on how isolation due to natural geography has harmed national development. The article is titled "Actually, It's Mountains" with the subtitle "Sometimes the toughest obstacles are the naturally occurring ones."

I have been hard on Kaplan's geography work in the past because of his support of geographical determinism (geography predestines groups) instead of cultural determinism (culture defines a groups limits). However, Kaplan now introduces his article with
Precisely because geography is so overpowering and unchanging a factor in a state's destiny, there is a danger of taking it too far. So rather than believing that geography inevitably dooms states to failure, think of it as yet another complexifying factor for the weakest of countries. Their difficult geographies should spur us to action, rather than lead us to despair.

The article does a reasonable job explaining its thesis. However, the Africa bit ignores Ethiopia's involvement with the ancient and medieval worlds. The trade city of Timbuktu managed to bridge north and south Africa which did not need any major water system. Also, some cultures have managed to adopt to mountainous terrain while having governance without dictatorship. New Zealand and Switzerland are two prime examples mountainous freelands.

3 comments:

Darren said...

You have been correct to be hard on Kaplan.

Dan tdaxp said...

Geography matters, especially over time, but perhaps it matters most in the sense of cultural geography, or human terrain.

PS: Are you going to contribute to the Afghanistan 2050 roundtable?

Catholicgauze said...

Darren,
I do like Kaplan's other works but he needs a little more geographic learning before he states his theories.

TDAXP,
Thanks but no thanks. I feel like I do too much Afghan work already.