aPriL does feral sometimes 's Reviews > Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World

Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall
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“Prisoners of Geography” is brief (too brief in my opinion) but yet the book is a delightful and informative read. The intertwined story of human development, war and geography is coherently arranged and very interesting. It has a lot of maps - hooray!

These pages reveal the occasional underlying rationality behind why governments sometimes behave the way they do, as well as maybe some reasons why some countries are so impoverished while others have done very well financially. Politics and history are necessarily brought into each chapter because tribalism, colonialism, Manly-pride and war have had often more to do with a country’s development than rational or ‘best practices’ decision-making which took into account an area’s geography and resources. Tribal affiliations, culture and technology still deeply affect how nations evolve, as well as accidents of history and growth patterns. The author does not do any judgmental analysis of any governments’ follies or weaknesses to predation by jealous or greedy neighboring countries, but gentle reader, you certainly will.

The author includes general details which are enough to connect the dots of history and politics, but his primary focus is on how the presence of mountain ranges, rivers, plains, climate, technology, flora, fauna and natural resources either nurtured or damaged the economic development of countries and/or its vulnerability to war. Mountains, swamps and deserts might cut off communities from each other, creating maybe a hundred local religions, languages and tribes living in disconnected small villages - or maybe the presence of navigable rivers or plains might have facilitated a common language, customs, trading, and later, national ambitions. Climate, of course, is HUGE.

Lots of rivers without waterfalls, that are also easily connected to other rivers, provide communities with low-cost connected shipping. Plains in temperate climate zones permit farming, and easy access of business travel and delivery of goods (and invading military troops), promoting the building of cities and industry (and envious neighbors who may have too many mountains, swamps, or deserts - a good case for using a mountain range as a protection barrier and border, although that can be a deterrent to good relationships, too). Lovely ocean beaches are certainly places where one can relax, and if the underlying geology is amiable to the building of ports for deep-water shipping, a country has a major leg up for production and prosperity.

Ports cannot be built very cheaply or easily in Africa, for example, despite its long ocean borders. Africa’s underlying beach geology does not support the building of ports, apparently. Africa also has a myriad of other geological and geographical features which prohibit easy development of its resources, particularly in building infrastructure. Most of Africa’s rivers have too many waterfalls and many of them do not connect easily to other rivers. The Nile River drains through too many different countries who do not trust each other - with reason - which is a problem of politics and tribalism - not entirely a problem of geography and climate alone, obviously. In any case, tribalism, a past of colonialism, and poor leadership are huge deterrents to building up modern production methods and safe communities in Africa. It is not only about its geology and its climate. Africa’s climate, btw, is wonderful for the development of one thing - malaria, one of the most long-term debilitating illnesses on earth.

Frankly, I do not know if I should feel hopeful or despairing about Humanity’s ability to persevere in eking out meaning and a life with few comforts in an impoverished country due to resource mismanagement, geographical location, and/or the greed of its elite class or its covetous warmongering neighboring nations. I do most certainly feel damn lucky I live in a country naturally endowed with many resources and thousands of miles of land, a comparatively small but not too small generally homogeneous population, a mostly temperate climate, with two oceans protecting two of the borders and friendly countries on the other two borders.

Most of us complain daily about what is wrong here in the United States, but we ignore the many things that are right. We are at peace here in the ‘homeland’ which actually contributes a great deal to our prosperity - more than most of us know. The shelves of our groceries and stores bend down under the weight of goods and food from all over the world (as well as what is manufactured here and distributed on our connected river-ways and road/train/airplane infrastructure) thanks to our high-tech deep-water ports and shipping technology. We have about 5% unemployment year after year, generally, and minimal economic ‘safety nets’ (arguably insufficient and mismanaged as the ‘nets’ may be, especially in the area of supporting mental disabilities). An education is almost available to everyone (some preexisting and historically dramatic exceptions prevail in some neighborhoods because of racism). For most of us, we eat everyday under roofs protecting us from the worst of the mostly temperate climate, with clean drinking water readily available, and most of us are inoculated (by antibiotics which require refrigeration, available everywhere here) from the many diseases which debilitate other nations. Most of us can read and write in the one mainstream language necessary for commerce and comfort here; we do not have to navigate the dozens, and even hundreds, of languages other countries do. Tribalism/religious-class stratification is not based on ethnicity or place of birth as much or as powerfully as in other countries (imho, wealth is FAR-and-away a predictor in how respectfully or ‘fairly’ one is treated - of course, access to the organs of ‘wealth creation’ is another story in our recent history). Despite our complaints about access to the offices of officials and (mis)management of government agencies, in comparison to other countries, we are a paradise of function and process. We rank low on most corruption indexes. We are technologically well-endowed, and tech is available and widespread throughout the country. Most of us flip switches every night to turn on heat and light, without worrying if the electrical company is enforcing a brownout, and our refrigerators keep our perishable food cold - no daily shopping at a live-animal/produce market required. I literally have not heard of anyone in the States who has to walk one or two, or even three, hours one way to a waterhole daily to scoop up two pails of water for the necessities of cooking, bathing and drinking, as I have read what happens in many communities in Africa. And despite the ‘bad apples’ among them, most police officers and definitely most of our military service members, do not see us (ok, most of us, less true for minority communities) as prey, in comparison to Africa, Asia, the Middle East, South America and Russia. We are more able to move up and down in social class because class is based mostly on wealth, not so much on tribal or religious affiliation; and we have considerably less corruption and more accountability of officials and legal organizations, comparably speaking.

I have read elsewhere our type of government impedes any single political group from gaining monolithic authority while starving the creation of too many interest groups which might fragment the ability of government to govern. Of course, strengthening elements of identity politics as well as economic disparities are currently stressing the governance of America. Time will tell.

Given some of the outcomes of politics, history and geography described in this book, though, I am a little scared. Climate change could upend the uneasy balance of the political and economic divisions we have managed to power through in bad times historically. Having oceans on two borders and friendly neighboring countries acting as a buffer to hostile nations (having buffer nations surrounding it is Russia’s goto strategy - See Ukraine - as well as China) won’t be enough. Our primarily temperate climate, navigable rivers, technologically-tamed mountains, and developed infrastructure and technological advances may be why the United States is still standing no matter what our internal and external political and social difficulties, but what if the deserts grow bigger, more dry and hotter? What if the water tables fall to nothing, and the rains fail to come? What if the fertile soils blow away, the friendly insects and local wildlife and flora die, and new disease-carrying flora and fauna invade a country, this country, much more hospitable to them? ‘Prisoners of Geography’ has made me ever so much more aware of how much of what part of the Earth’s surface we are fortunate or unfortunate to be born on matters.

I guess we will find out in fifty years or so how much a formerly favorable climate and geography helped our luck as a successful country.

Governments often try to manipulate the perceptions and appearances of their actions and ambitions - but geography and resources are the hard bedrock of all surface Realpolitik Truths which no government or military force can afford to ignore. Those governments who ignore geography and climate do so at risk of losing everything.

The ten maps author Tim Marshall has included in this book:

United States
Western Europe
The Middle East
India and Pakistan
Korea and Japan
Latin America
The Arctic

There also is a Bibliography and an Index, as well as many gorgeous maps.
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Reading Progress

February 6, 2018 – Shelved
February 6, 2018 – Shelved as: to-read
February 20, 2018 – Started Reading
February 20, 2018 –
February 22, 2018 –
February 26, 2018 – Finished Reading
February 27, 2018 – Shelved as: academic-notations
February 27, 2018 – Shelved as: favorites
February 27, 2018 – Shelved as: history
February 27, 2018 – Shelved as: illuminating
February 27, 2018 – Shelved as: non-fiction
February 27, 2018 – Shelved as: politics
February 27, 2018 – Shelved as: twisted-my-synapses-peculiar
February 27, 2018 – Shelved as: science

Comments Showing 1-15 of 15 (15 new)

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message 1: by Betsy (new) - added it

Betsy Preaching to the choir here.

aPriL does feral sometimes Betsy wrote: "Preaching to the choir here."

*thumbs up*

: )

message 3: by Trish (new)

Trish Such a fascinating choice of subject. You do it justice. I'd love to see which maps you would choose to describe America, or perhaps, the world's future.

aPriL does feral sometimes Perhaps a map of Mars? I’m not sure how I would use it as a future for Earth - what Earth will become or where Mankind will go - an expression of our technological idiocy or prowess.....

: /

message 5: by Cecily (new)

Cecily Count me intrigued - especially the idea that an entire continent is geologically difficult for building ports!

aPriL does feral sometimes Something to do with tectonic plates, how the local formation of the continental plates can constrict access, or the depths or shallowness of the ocean to avoid ripping up the bottoms of boats close to land, or the way engineers can build a port cheaply, not having to continuously maintain at great expense, like dredging, either.

Even if a port can be cheaply built, then there is the question of nearby navigable rivers available to ship goods cheaply into the interior of Africa. Most African rivers allow for only a hundred miles of upriver travel, even if their mouths empty into an ocean where a port can cheaply be built. There has to be a good reason to go the expense of building a port, especially an expensive, hard to maintain port, like the presence of a nearby navigable river to help shipping off-loaded goods upriver to cities or towns to sell stuff or trade, if there are goods built or gathered by people in upriver cities or towns the world wants to buy.

The key word here is CHEAP. America had natural ports which required NO money to prepare the area next to a shore for large boat to park, so-to-speak. The appropriate analogy is most of America's shores had free, easy, no back-in, low maintenance, parking for boats to 'park', and no one charged a fee to park there. Plus, goods were easily offloaded to a nearby deep easygoing clear river which was easy for smaller boats to putter up or row upstream for hundreds of miles. Once you got upriver, there were lots of lowhanging fruit to grab, so-to-speak, easy access to minerals, or trees to cut down, lots of clean spring water, few diseases from bugs, temperate weather which did not hamper hard labor, etc.

It is as a number of things required to develop Africa cannot be done without a tremendous amount of billions of dollars - no possibility of easy and cheap development or natural deep-water ports, with nearby rivers without waterfalls or waterways that aren't too shallow or require constant dredging, which permits goods delivered to an African port to be easily transferred to other interior cities, then delivered to towns along more interior rivers, trains, roads trucks to other villages, etc. - an easily built and maintained transportation network, in other words -

message 7: by Cecily (new)

Cecily Thank you so much for giving such a detailed explanation. It's still a little amazing, but it makes more sense.

As for the importance of money, and lots of it, I guess that's one thing the vast amounts of Chinese investment may help with.

aPriL does feral sometimes The section on Africa explains China has virtually taken over Africa economically (my words). The author devotes most of the Africa chapter explaining how Africa is now basically a province of China.

China is also developing Afghanistan, Pakistan, and is also going after 'property' India considers their property. However, I think it is only the presence of the Himalayas which prevents China from acquiring supposedly unaligned countries in the area (Nepal) or territory which has been ignored and undeveloped by India although claimed by India. India has been throwing up dust at China, but if you asked my opinion (no one has) China has the muscle, money and focus to take over much of of the undeveloped and neglected land India is claiming, and it already is moving in. China has the unified military and the technology - India is busy killing or burning down its own property or its citizens, or each other because of religious prejudices. They care about China's encroachment and actual seizure of roads and towns which WERE considered land inside of India's boundaries, but India's political parties are too busy hating each other because they are the wrong kind of Hindu cast.

The author says all of this much nicer than me...

message 9: by Cecily (new)

Cecily aPriL does feral sometimes wrote: "The section on Africa explains China has virtually taken over Africa economically (my words)...."

I was aware of that, though not perhaps to quite such an extent, and certainly not to the level of detail in the book. What's strange is how little comment it generates in the rest of the world.

Certainly investment of money and organisation can be hugely beneficial, but there is always a price to pay, and how many of those affected have a real say in it?

aPriL does feral sometimes From other sources such as the New York Times, I think I read the Chinese do not hire a lot of Africans, and when they need to, they do not give them much authority. However, in return for being allowed to open mines, building and running factories and plants, and to grow grain on African land, they are building roads and schools, and providing some financing and engineers for dams and electrical infrastructure.

In the past, when Europeans and Americans tried to build stuff in Africa, everything fell apart again when Westerners left - no one in Africa seems to care about maintenance, either because they do not have the resources or the interest.

Unlike Chinese businesses, Westerners left after a project was done, except for a few businesses like pumping oil which maintain a Western presence. Maybe the difference is China’s projects are built and run and maintained by Chinese companies whose output is sent back to China - minerals, food, etc. The roads and electrical grid Chinese engineers are building are for Chinese trucks to deliver the goods from their businesses in Africa to restored or new African ports (by China) to ship on Chinese ships to China for Chinese customers and the Chinese government.

From the articles, interviewed Africans who have been employed are very grateful, but they are definitely on the outside looking in as employees. So far. The Chinese also make no human rights demands of African governments either.

I wonder how the Chinese handle the built-in tribalism of the locals - if a certain tribe is in power, they usually refuse access to jobs by other tribes. Do the Chinese comply? Or, since the management and running of these Chinese companies are strictly staffed by Chinese employees only, do they care about the local politics as long as the manual labor is in place when needed, whoever sent them? Of course, African governments certainly provide military protection when needed. It would be interesting to read a book about this.

message 11: by Cecily (new)

Cecily Oh, I hadn't considered the tribal angle. Anathema to a one-party state where one ethnic group is hugely dominant over a country the size of a continent. I expect that in the short run, investment can contain such divisions to some extent. "Short run" and "some" being the operative words.

message 12: by Ij (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ij Great book, great review!!!

message 13: by Liz (new) - added it

Liz I’ve never heard of this book but it sounds fascinating. Thanks for putting it on my radar.

aPriL does feral sometimes I hope you enjoy the book, Liz!

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