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Prisoners Of Geography Review

Horia Coman
Leading the Bolt platform and developer infrastructure groups. We're working on cool products like maps, data foundations, microservices tooling, etc.
Originally published at horia141.com on ・3 min read

I’ve just finished reading “Prisoners Of Geography - Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need To Know About Global Politics”. The title is a bit long, but the book isn’t and is approachable to boot. It’s an introduction into geopolitics - or how the geography of the world affects politics and the development of states. It’s follows the same vein as “Guns, Germs and Steel” or “Why Nations Fail” (my review). But where those two tried to impose a unifying theory of why the world is the way it is, this one has more modest goals, and looks at geography as one factor shaping nations today. Which is nice, because there’s no need to twist the data to fit the model.

The book has ten chapters, each covering a large-ish geographic area of the world. They are, in turn, about Russia, China, USA, Western Europe, Africa, The Middle East, India and Pakistan, Korea and Japan, Latin America and The Arctic. Each chapter begins with a bit of history of the region and an overview of its geography. From there, various deductions are made. For example, if there’s a narrow straight somewhere, then it becomes a strategic objective to control it and be able to patrol it. The Strait of Mallaca or the Florida Straits are like this for south east Asia or the US. On the other hand, if there’s a mountain range or desert then that makes a natural border for a country. The Himalayas act as a buffer between China and India, and the Sonoran Desert as one between the USA and Mexico.

What I found most interesting was the large effect geography had on the development of countries. This is an echo of “Guns, Germs and Steel”, but I feel it’s much better highlighted here. For example, Europe has a large network of navigable rivers, making trade that much easier, especially before mass transit and large road networks. Sub Saharan Africa, on the other hand, has a lot of rivers, but they are not navigable - they have a lot of waterfalls and large level differences. Being where the trade happens is also very important. South American nations like Argentina and Chile have some troubles because they are so far away from the larger economies of North America and Western Europe. Ditto, issues of where arable land and fresh water are available are very current, even with the advances in technology of the last two centuries. It might take 2% of a country’s population to grow the food to feed everyone, but the demands on land are still large.

Half of the contents of a chapter is dedicated to the past. But the other half is dedicated to the future, and this is where I think the book shines the most. Because the constraints imposed by geography are still going to force countries to act in certain ways (alongside other constraints as well). And some of the predicted things have begun to take shape - more intense fights for the Arctic (which is made available by global warming), issues of sovereignty over various islands in SE Asia, reconfiguration of borders in the Middle East from the post colonial ones to more socio-geographic ones etc. It’s not perfect, and things like Brexit throw a wrench in the whole system (they’re what “Why Nations Fail” call contingent factors - random things with great long term effects), but it is a good tool to have in one’s arsenal. Certainly some of the previous decade’s events become easier to understand.

Overall, this is a good and informative read, and a definite boon in the quest to build a model of the way the world works.

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