Prisoners of geography: Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need to Know About Global Politics
Elliott and Thompson paperback edition last updated 2019
If you’ve always wondered why Russia, China and the USA are so large, while other parts of the world present a patchwork of smaller countries, or why some areas seem to have permanent conflicts while others don’t, Tim Marshall has some very simple geographic answers for you, based on where the mountains and the plains are, how the rivers are navigable, and whether the coasts have natural harbours.
The vast North East European plain, for instance, where both Napoleon and Hitler sent their troops towards Moscow, explains why Russia had to grow big to find safety in strategic depth, and why it sought additional layers of shielding in the shape of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. It is also why Russians don’t like the idea of a westernised Ukraine. Marshall explains similar geographic drivers behind China’s obsession with Tibet, or Israel’s problems with Gaza and the West Bank.
Elsewhere, it’s not so much the geography that drives conflict, but the colonialists’ complete recklessness at ignoring it and just drawing lines on their maps of Africa and the Middle East to create states that have no rhyme or reason to exist. Thus, people in Iraq or the DRC are not only prisoners of geography but also of the fallout from colonialism.
This is all good and well and does a good job at giving a round-the-globe overview for a globalised time, bringing together issues that many people will have only registered separately or partially. Marshall published the original version in 2015, and has done some patching up to fit in developments like Brexit and the fall-out from the Trump presidency.
What he fails to include adequately, however, is climate change. While he dedicates a chapter to the changing reality of the Arctic and also mentions elsewhere that Bangladesh is at risk of disappearing under rising sea levels, his discussion of the strategic importance of energy resources such as new gas and oil reserves in the Arctic never once mentions the fact that humanity cannot afford to use these resources if we are hoping to keep warming under the Paris goal of 2 degrees. Heck, if we do use the fossil fuels in the Arctic, we’re probably going to go over 4 degrees in my lifetime.
Unless we’re going to live in a world run by a cynically operating Russia – standing to benefit from climate change and not giving a damn about the rest of the world – the whole geopolitical reasoning explained in the book will have to change fundamentally, because we are not only prisoners of geography, but also prisoners of the man-made climate catastrophe.