Author name: Martin W. Lewis

Remapping the Great Lakes from a Hydrological Perspective

As noted in the two previous GeoCurrents posts, Lake Huron and Lake Michigan are a single body of water, forming the world’s largest freshwater lake (by surface area) by a considerable margin. The Wikipedia article on this greatest of the Great Lakes explains the situation:

Lake Michigan–Huron (also Huron–Michigan) is the body of water combining Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, which are joined through the 5-mile-wide (8.0 km), 295-foot-deep (90 m), open-water Straits of Mackinac. Huron and Michigan are hydrologically a single lake because the flow of water through the straits keeps their water levels in overall equilibrium. Although the flow is generally eastward, the water moves in either direction depending on local conditions. Combined, Lake Michigan–Huron is the largest freshwater lake by area in the world.


For casual purposes, there are no problems with regarding this single body of water as divided into two discrete lakes. For both scientific and comparative purposes, however, it is more useful – and accurate – to treat Michigan-Huron as a single lake. Not surprisingly, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) hydrological diagram of the Great Lakes follows this model. But it also divides this massive lake into three basins: Michigan, Huron, and Georgian Bay. Georgian Bay is conventionally regarded as part of Lake Huron, but it hydrologically functions as a separate basin.


Given these complications, it seems worthwhile to experiment with remapping the Great Lakes. The first map posted below shows the standard five-lake model. The second map depicts Michigan-Huron as a single lake, while adding the much smaller but still substantial (430 sq mi) Lake Saint Clair, which is an essential component of the Great Lakes system. The third map divides Lake Michigan-Huron into its three separate basins. The final map shows how the Great Lakes would be depicted if we were to regard all deep embayments as separate lakes.





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Remapping the World’s Largest Lakes

Wikipedia’s article on the world’s largest lakes by surface area features a fantastic map of the fifteen largest, using the dymaxion projection devised by the inimitable Buckminster Fuller. As can be seen, more than half fit into the category of the “Greater Great Lakes of North America” as defined in the previous GeoCurrents article. It is interesting that all these lakes except Ladoga are arrayed along a single sinuous curve that extends from Lake Malawi in southern Africa to Lake Ontario in eastern North America. But intriguing though it is, this arrangement is essentially just a feature of the map projection.


Close inspection reveals that the Wikipedia map includes a significant “ghost”: the Aral Sea, which was until recently a huge brackish lake in Central Asia. It has largely vanished over the past half-century due to the diversion of most of the flow of the Anu Darya and Syr Darya rivers that feed it into agricultural fields. I have redrafted the Wikipedia map to show this lake as it existed circa 1960.  It was then, by conventional criteria, the third largest lake in the world (by surface area).


The third map, posted below, takes this redrafting exercise two more steps. Limiting its purview to freshwater lakes, it deletes the Caspian Sea, the world’s largest lake by a considerable margin. (It does include Lake Balkhash in Central Asia; although the eastern part of this lake is saline, its larger western segment is fresh.) Using strict hydrological criteria, it also combines Huron and Michigan into a single entity, which can be called either Lake Michigan-Huron or Lake Huron-Michigan. This water body is actually the world’s largest freshwater lake.


Remapping the World’s Largest Lakes Read More »

Mapping the Greater Great Lakes of North America

It is difficult to deny the greatness of the Great Lakes, which together form the largest aggregation of large lakes on the planet.  Although almost all sources include five lakes in this collection – Superior, Huron, Michigan, Erie, and Ontario – controversies persist. By geological criteria, Michigan and Huron form a single lake, reducing the number of Great Lakes to four. Yet some observers insist that there are actually six Great Lakes, adding Lake Champlain to the list. In 1998, the United States Congress went so far as to pass a bill giving Lake Champlain official Great Lakes status, thereby allowing the use of targeted Federal funding for the lake and its basin. The bill, however, generated considerable controversy, as Lake Champlain is much smaller than the “other” Great Lakes and is located at some distance from them. Co-chair of the Congressional Great Lakes Task Force Steven C. LaTourette denounced the maneuver, stating that ‘‘If Lake Champlain ends up as a Great Lake, I propose we rename it ‘Lake Plain Sham.” Soon afterward, Congress revised the designation, demoting Lake Champlain while retaining the funding opportunities.


From a scientific perspective, however, there are good reasons to add a few other lakes to the list, all of which are located along the same great arc and all of which were created by similar geological processes. This idea is admirably explored in a YouTube video by Signore Galilei entitled “North America’s OTHER Forgotten ‘Great Lakes.’” Some of the lakes on Galilei’s list are large indeed: Canada’s Great Bear Lake and Great Slave Lake are both larger than Lake Erie and Lake Ontario and it’s lake Winnipeg is larger than Lake Ontario.


I have depicted this great arc of lakes – the Greater Great Lakes of North America, if you will – on the map posted below.  Political boundaries have been removed to highlight the lakes themselves. To further defamiliarize the Great Lakes concept, I have rotated the frame, putting northeast at the top. As can easily be seen, this is indeed a great chain of lakes. It is also much more a feature of Canada than of the United States. Only one of lakes – Michigan – is wholly located in the United States. Five are shared between the two countries (Superior, Huron, Erie, Ontario, and Lake of the Woods). All the rest are entirely within Canada.



Mapping the Greater Great Lakes of North America Read More »

Mapping Tobacco Use Now and in 1500

Tobacco use is plummeting over most of the world. This decline is easily seen on a map showing the change in the percentage of the adult population that uses tobacco from 2000 to 2020. If the World Health Organization data used to make this map are accurate, only five reporting countries saw an increase in tobacco users during this period: Croatia, Jordan, Oman, Republic of Congo, and Indonesia. Several countries, most notably China and France, reported small drops. But most saw major declines; in Bolivia, the percentage of adult tobacco users went from 37.1 to 12.7.


The regional patterns found on this map are intriguing. Tobacco use declined sharply over most of Africa, which already had relatively low rates of consumption. The increase in the Republic of Congo is therefore anomalous. Most of Latin America also saw a major decline in tobacco use. The patterns in Europe are more mixed, with sharp drops characterizing the north but with more modest declines elsewhere –  and a surprising increase in Croatia. Substantial drops are also evident in South Asia, particularly India. The same pattern is found in Southeast Asia, with the notable exception of Indonesia. In contrast, most of the Middle East and North Africa reported more modest declines, or, in the case of Jordan and Oman, small increases.

As the second map shows, many countries had high rates of tobacco use in 2000, with quite a few exceeding 50% of the adult population. Because tobacco consumption tends to be gender biased, in some countries substantial majorities of men were users at this time, Burma (Myanmar) most notably. South Asia also reported high rates of tobacco consumption a quarter century ago. Central and Eastern Europe was another area of widespread consumption, focused on the Balkans. Latin America reported more variable patterns, with low rates of use in Guatemala, Colombia, and Ecuador but with much higher rates in Chile and Cuba. In Africa the relatively high figure posted for Sierra Leone seems odd. Madagascar, a country of mixed African and Southeast Asian ancestry, intriguingly groups more with Southeast Asia than it does with Africa in regard to tobacco use.


As the third map shows, the regional patterns of tobacco use found in 2020 are roughly similar to those found on the map of 2000, albeit at lower levels almost across the board. Several countries stand out for their persistently high levels of consumption, including Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Burma, and Greece.


In the year 1500, tobacco use was largely confined to the Western Hemisphere. In the Eastern Hemisphere, it was found only in Australia. Indigenous Australians over a large portion of the continent chewed the leaves of several plants in the Nicotiana genus, as well as those of a related nicotine-containing plant, Duboisia hopwoodii. These leaves, mixed with ash, are called pituri.


In the Western Hemisphere in 1500 tobacco use was ubiquitous, found almost everywhere except the high Arctic. Several species of the genus Nicotiana were widely cultivated and traded and served vital ritual, cultural, social, and even political functions. Some supposedly non-agricultural hunting and gathering societies grew tobacco, and others gathered wild tobacco leaves. The widely consumed species Nicotiana rustica was noted for its potency, with up to nine times more nicotine than N. tabacum as well as hallucinogenic harmala alkaloids. As a result, N. rustica was often used by shamans for religious experiences. Tobacco was also widely employed for medical purposes by indigenous peoples of North and South America. Such practices persist in some communities to this day. Despite its dangers, tobacco does have analgesic properties and several other demonstrable medical uses.

The geography of tobacco will be further explored in several forthcoming GeoCurrents posts.

Mapping Tobacco Use Now and in 1500 Read More »

Coffee World Vs Tea World: Mapping the Consumption of Hot, Caffeinated Drinks

Although both tea and coffee are consumed over most of the world, there is little overlap in the lists of the top tea and coffee consuming countries. This pattern is easily seen on the map posted below, which shows the world’s 16 top tea and coffee consuming countries on a per capita basis. Only the Netherlands makes both lists.


The top tea consuming countries are more geographically dispersed than the top coffee consuming countries. High levels of coffee consumption are found primarily in Europe, particularly in the Nordic countries. Outside of Europe, only Brazil and Canada make the list, and only Canada ranks in the top 10 (coming in at 10th place). The United States occupies the 25th slot, a sharp drop from its position a century ago. In 1900, the U.S. took in roughly half the world’s coffee exports. Its coffee consumption peaked around 1945 and subsequently began a slow but steady decline until about 1995. This drop is usually attributed to the marked increase in soft-drink consumption.

High levels of tea consumption, unlike those of coffee, are geographically dispersed. Countries in the top-sixteen list are in Europe, the Middle East, South Asia, East Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Oceania. China – where tea drinking originated – ranks in the 21st position. Intriguingly several countries that were once noted for their coffee culture largely switched to tea, Turkey most prominently. After World War I, the new Turkish Republic encouraged tea growing and drinking, partly to reduce imports. Coffee, unlike tea, cannot be grown in the country.

At the dawn of the early modern era five hundred years ago, tea and coffee were regional drinks. Both beverages subsequently underwent globalization, a process that accelerated in the mid-17th century. The two maps posted below show the approximate areas of tea and coffee origination, as well as the main areas of consumption around the year 1500. As it is difficult to find reliable information for many areas, these maps should be regarded as provisional approximations.



The main cultivation zones of both tea and coffee have also experienced profound shifts over the centuries. The final map shows some of the major geographical changes in coffee production. Initially, wild beans were gathered in the southern highlands of Ethiopia. By 1500, coffee growing was well established in the highlands of Yemen across the Red Sea. Problems with supply prompted European imperial powers to establish coffee plantations in their own domains by the early 1700s. Slave-grown coffee from the Caribbean, particularly Haiti, came to dominate the export market. After the successful Haitian rebellion (1791-1804), the main area of coffee production shifted to Asia, particularly to the British-controlled island of Sri Lanka and the Dutch-controlled island of Java. The fungal disease called coffee leaf rust, however, devastated Asian coffee plantations after 1860. Most were abandoned, with plantation owners in in Sri Lanka quickly switching to tea. The main coffee-production zone then shifted to Latin America, which long remained free of rust. By 1900, roughly 75% of the world’s coffee crop was grown in Brazil. But although Brazil remained the global leader, by the 1920s superior coffee was being produced in Colombia and Central America. Meanwhile, extensive coffee cultivation returned to Asia with the introduction of hardier but lower-quality robusta coffee (Coffea canephora). After reunification, Vietnam emphasized coffee cultivation, and by 1999 surpassed Colombia to become the world’s second largest producer. Meanwhile, many other countries became significant growers and exporters. Ethiopia, coffee’s homeland, now ranks in the sixth position, following Brazil, Vietnam, Colombia, Indonesia, and Honduras.


Coffee World Vs Tea World: Mapping the Consumption of Hot, Caffeinated Drinks Read More »

Mapping Yerba Mate Consumption and That of Its Cousin, Ilex vomitoria (Yaupon)

Almost all data sources rank Turkey (Türkiye) as the world’s top tea-drinking country, and by a considerable margin. According to Wikipedia’s article on the subject, annual per capita tea consumption in Turley is 3.16 kg (6.96 lb), far overshadowing second-place Ireland’s 2.19 kg (4.83 lb). Yet according to a World Population Review article that lists 2024 tea consumption by country, the people of southern South America drink much more tea than those Turkey. Here the per capita tea consumption of Argentina is mapped as seven times greater than that of Turkey. What gives?


The answer to this seeming mystery is that the writers at World Population Review have confused yerba mate with tea. Although producing a caffeine-rich beverage superficially similar to tea, yerba mate (a species of holly; Ilex paraguariensis), has no relationship with tea (a species of camelia; Camellia sinensis). Evidently, mate is consumed in much greater quantities in mate-drinking cultures than tea in consumed in tea-drinking cultures.

Although yerba mate is now globalizing, consumption is still focused in four South American countries: Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Brazil. Maps of mate-drinking that highlight these countries are somewhat misleading, however, as most of Brazil falls outside the mate zone, as seen in the second map below. Consumption in Brazil is heavily concentrated in the far south, particular in the state of Rio Grande do Sol. This pattern is not surprising, as Rio Grande do Sol was long contested by the Portuguese and Spanish colonial empires, and later by Brazil and its Spanish-speaking neighbors to the south. As a result, its culture has some affinities with those of Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay. In Brazil, the people of the state are often called gaúchos, which would be equivalent to calling Texans “cowboys.” Actual gaúchos tend to drink a lot of yerba mate, just as American cowboys have historically consumed a lot of coffee.



The people Rio Grande do Sol generally embrace their gaúcho designation. As Ruben George Oliven explains in a 2006 Nations and Nationalism article:

From the 1930s, Brazil experienced a growing national centralisation and the construction of Brasilidade (Brazilianness). The military regime (1964–85) deepened centralisation and emphasised national identity, little space being left for regional identities. With the political opening and the redemocratisation of Brazil, starting at the end of the 1970s, the stress was on differences in a period in which Brazil had already achieved a high degree of integration. Identities were re-created, among them that of Rio Grande do Sul, the southernmost state of Brazil, where a strong revival of gaúcho culture took place. The 1980s and 1990s were marked by a growing development of activities and disputes linked to the gaúcho tradition. In spite of the fact that Rio Grande do Sul is predominantly urban and industrialised, this process reached out to the state’s rural past and the equestrian figure of the gaúcho.

Intriguingly, the world’s three main hot, caffeinated drinks – coffee, tea, and mate – all have religious roots. Coffee was popularized in Yemen by Sufi mystics who found it useful for keeping awake during all-night chanting sessions. Tea was first popularized in China by Buddhist monks who found it useful for keeping awake during all-night meditation sessions. The story of mate is different, but it too has religious aspects. In pre-colonial times, mate consumption was evidently limited to two relatively small subgroups of the Guaraní people. The Jesuits subsequently united the Guaraní people of Paraguay under a theocratic state. They encouraged mate consumption and effectively domesticated the plant. Mate eventually became the national beverage of Paraguay, and later expanded into Argentina, Uruguay, and southern Brazil.

Yeba mate is closely related to another caffeine plant, Yaupon, which grows in the southeastern lowlands of the United States. Indigenous peoples drank Yaupon tea, sometimes to excess. The plant’s scientific name, Ilex vomitoria, “comes from an observation by early Europeans that the ingestion of the plant was followed by vomiting in certain ceremonies[;]… the vomiting may have resulted from the great quantities in which they drank the beverage, coupled with fasting.”  Such a fasting and (caffeine-) feasting regime also probably had spiritual roots.


Yaupon is now undergoing something of a comeback in the U.S., grown by people who want a “healthy coffee alternative” and who value its beauty and the food that it provides for wildlife. As Lily Anderson Messec writes:

Pollinators flock to its masses of tiny white flowers in spring, and birds eat the berries that follow the flowers. Most importantly, our native insects feed on these plants they have evolved with, providing protein rich meals (in the form of themselves) for birds and other wildlife.

The wildlife, however, are not the only ones eating it. The prime reason I planted my Yaupon was for its caffeine rich leaves. By weight, the leaves contain more caffeine than both coffee beans and green tea —the highest caffeine content of any plant native to North America. Yaupon holly is also high in antioxidants and less bitter than green tea. It is a close cousin of the South American yerba maté (Ilex paraguariensis) and its tea is similar in flavor and quality.

Mapping Yerba Mate Consumption and That of Its Cousin, Ilex vomitoria (Yaupon) Read More »

Alcohol & Religiosity in the United States, and the West Virginia Exception

Maps of alcohol consumption in the United States reveal several regions with very low drinking rates. The most prominent is the LDS (Mormon) cultural region focused on Utah and eastern Idaho. The so-called Bible Belt of the southeastern and south-central states is also clearly visible, although most of its coastal counties are excluded. More surprising are several heavily Native American counties in the northern Great Plains and Southwest. Many tribal governments restrict alcohol sales, but actual consumption rates may be higher than the map indicates. Comparing the maps posted here, several indigenous-dominated counties in South Dakota are shown as having low rates of alcohol drinking but relatively high rates of heaving drinking.



In general, high rates of adherence to religious demoninations that oppose alcohol consumption are associated with low rates of drinking. Lyman Stone, in a fantastic, map-rich post called “Mapping American Churches,” makes this point by juxtaposing a map of “anti-alcohol religious attendance rate” with one showing the prevalence of heavy drinking. As he bluntly notes, “Turns out religious opposition to drinking reduces drinking. Surprise.”


But although this correlation is striking if unsurprising, interesting – and surprising – exceptions can be found. The most prominent is the central Appalachian region, focused on West Virginia. West Virginia reports very low rates of alcohol consumption and abuse – lower than those of any other state except Utah according to some sources. Yet West Virginia has only a middling level of membership in anti-alcohol churches. It also has a very low rate of overall religious adherence (according to data from 2000).




Several explanations have been offered for West Virginia’s official rate of alcohol consumption. One is the state’s high level of opioid abuse, as revealed by a 2015 map of overdose deaths.  Another is the prevalence of illicit and untaxed alcohol (“moonshine”) that escapes tabulation.


A 2019 article in the Exponent Telegram (Clarksburg, WV) expressed some doubt about the state’s reported level of alcohol use. While acknowledging that West Virginia “ranks the lowest in the nation for adult prevalence of both heavy drinking and binge drinking …[and] has been either the lowest or second lowest for many years,” the article went on to note that:

In the period from 2003 to 2012, the most recent data available, 1,092 people died in West Virginia due to crashes involving a driver with a blood alcohol content of 0.08 or higher. That rate, 12.9 per 100,000 population, is well above the national average rate of 6.7 for the same time period.

Although I doubt that West Virginia has one of the lowest alcohol-consumption rates in the United States, it would seem to be lower than one might expect given the state’s history, economic conditions, and relatively low rates of membership in anti-alcohol churches.

Alcohol & Religiosity in the United States, and the West Virginia Exception Read More »

Mapping the Historical Distribution of Alcohol Consumption Circa 1500

I am currently teaching a class for Stanford University’s Continuing Studies Program on the history and geography of natural psychoactive substances. Over the next nine weeks, I will be posting GeoCurrents articles derived from these lectures.

I have mapped the global distribution of each substance under consideration at the beginning of the early modern era (circa 1500). Creating these maps was tricky, and I cannot vouch for their accuracy. In many cases, the only information I was able to find was through ChatGPT. The responses that I received from the chatbot the were often too vague to be of much use. For example, when I asked, “Did the indigenous peoples of the Bismarck Archipelago have alcohol?” ChatGPT told me that “The indigenous peoples of the Bismarck Archipelago, located in the western Pacific Ocean, did not have traditional alcoholic beverages in the same way as some other cultures did. Alcohol consumption in these communities was not widespread before the arrival of European colonial powers.” I also know from experience that ChatGPT sometimes provides nonsensical answers, and a few of its responses to my alcohol-distribution questions are contradicted by other sources. As a result, these maps must be taken with a grain of salt. Note that I have put question marks in areas where the information that I found is conflicting.


The first map in this series, posted above, shows the distribution of alcohol (ethanol) consumption circa 1500 CE. Alcohol was at the time the world’s most widely distributed psychoactive substance used for “recreational” purposes. It was known almost everywhere in Africa and Eurasia. Much of the Eurasian Arctic, however, was an exception owing largely to its lack of fermentable substances. Alcohol was not traditionally consumed over most of the Pacific. Some coastal populations in New Guinea made alcoholic beverages from abundant and easily fermented palm sap, but ethanol was apparently not known in the more densely populated central highlands. In Polynesia and most of Micronesia and Melanesia, alcohol was unknown, but kava (Piper methysticum) served a similar function in many areas.

Alcohol was widely used almost everywhere in South America and Mesoamerica. This “drinking zone” extended into some parts of what is now the southwestern United States, particularly among the so-called Pueblo Indians. Over the rest of North America, however, ethanol consumption was either unknown or very rare. There are reports that indigenous groups in what is now the southeastern United States sometimes made alcohol and some sources claim that Iroquoian peoples in the northeast fermented maple syrup. Overall, however, it is something of a mystery why alcohol was either unknown or little-used over most of North America.

Although alcohol was the most widely used psychoactive substance at the beginning of the early modern era, it was also subjected to the most widespread prohibitions, as the second map shows. In the Islamic world, alcohol was religiously prohibited, although some lax interpretations of the Quran held that only the consumption of wine was banned. And even though wine was forbidden in all interpretations of Islamic law, it was still widely consumed, especially in the Persian-speaking region. In the Hindu communities of India, traditional prohibitions of alcohol were largely based on caste membership. In general, high-caste Brahmins (“priests”) and Vaishyas (“merchants”) were not permitted to drink, although high-caste Kshatriyas (“warriors” and “rulers”) were. Low-ranking Dalits (“untouchables”) could drink. Customs varied among the middling Shudra groups, although the general rule was that a rejection of alcohol enhanced a group’s purity. Alcohol consumption was strongly discouraged by Theravada Buddhism, the dominant sect of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. Ethanol was certainly consumed in these lands in the early modern period, but a degree of stigma surrounded its use.


It is intriguing that the zone of widespread alcohol prohibition is essentially located in the center of the region of historical alcohol consumption. Although Egypt and Iraq today have very low drinking rates, in ancient times alcohol had important religious implications in both lands. In Sumer (southern Iraq), usually regarded as the world’s first civilization, beer was viewed as an essential attribute of civilization. In Gilgamesh, the world’s first epic, the wild man Enkidu was domesticated by, among other things, the consumption of beer.



Sumerian beer was so thick and porridge-like that it had to be consumed through special straws that could filter out the solids, as is seen on many images from the era. Today, curious brewers are reproducing Sumerian beer and drinking it in the same manner.


Mapping the Historical Distribution of Alcohol Consumption Circa 1500 Read More »

Comments Disabled; Reply to Pete Morris

Dear Readers,

After much consideration, I have decided to disable the comments section (Disqus) on GeoCurrents. Relatively few constructive and engaging comments are received, minimizing the utility of the function. I also find the occasional insults from offended readers quite dispiriting, especially when they focus on something that I have merely quoted rather than advocated. Readers who want to engage in serious discussion about GeoCurrents posts are welcome to email me at

Just before disabling Disqus, however, I received a constructive comment from Pete Morris, which deserves a response. His comments are in italics, and my answers follow.

  1. What is the status of your other book project on geopolitics and the idea of the nation-state? I very much enjoyed the early excerpts you published here.

Unfortunately, this is another abandoned project. The more I worked on it, the larger it became, and eventually the whole project was out of control. The topic is so large, and the relevant scholarly literature so vast, that I lost motivation. I have also lost my desire to write anything that requires payment to read and that necessitates dealing with editors and publishers. I have realized that I like preparing and giving lectures much more than writing texts. As I am now retired, I am going to focus on what I most enjoy doing. That includes some blog-writing but more in the way of lectures – as well as vegetable gardening, traveling, and playing with my grandchildren!

  1. On the subject of environmental politics, what do you see as the promise of, and limitations of, ecomodernism? And how should we understand the work of Vaclav Smil, a geographer who seems to be on the margins of academic Geography, and an eternal skeptic when it comes to stories of ecomodernist optimism? I read Smil, and he seems almost Malthusian at times–not because he’s particularly worried about population growth but because he seems to embody geography as the new “dismal science”. To Smil’s credit, though, he also is skeptical toward today’s popular attitudes of eco-catastrophism, where the truly dismal, neo-Malthusian ideas about degrowth come from. Perhaps these are addressed in your essays, but I’m curious to hear your thoughts.

Excellent points and questions. I recount my disillusionment with ecomodernism in the second essay that I have posted on this website. I still find it preferably to any other form of environmental philosophy, but I do have some serious misgivings about “modernism.” I did not address Vaclav Smil directly in either of these essays. I greatly value and respect his work – although he does seem at times a little too skeptical. But it has been a while since I have read any of his works, and perhaps I should revisit them.  Many thanks for your comments!

Comments Disabled; Reply to Pete Morris Read More »

Middle Path Environmentalism

Dear Readers,

I have posted two essays on environmental philosophy and politics under the “Featured Essays” drop-down menu located above and to the right of this post. They were initially designed to be the introduction and first chapter of a book that would be called Middle Path Environmentalism: Taking Climate Change and Other Environmental Problems Seriously without Crushing the Working Class and Undermining Rural Life. But after circulating these essays among a group of friends and colleagues and receiving almost no encouragement [1], I decided to put the project on indefinite hold. Written from a perspective best deemed radical centrism [2], Middle Path Environmentalism has proved distasteful for readers with strongly partisan views. In the academic environment that I inhabit, almost everyone I know is an ardent Democrat – and those who aren’t are radical leftists. From their perspectives, my centrist arguments are seen as potentially providing fodder for a Republican opposition that they consider extremely dangerous.

Ironically, most of the positions found in these essays would have been considered solidly left-liberal not long ago. But liberalism, as formally defined [3], was roundly rejected by the Marxian New Left in the late 1960s. Their views gradually spread across the political left, accelerating after the 2016 election. Today, such cornerstones of liberalism as individual rights and freedom of speech are viewed with suspicion by most leftists. But what constitutes the “political left” has also come into to question. The standard definition [4] focuses on the left’s desire to reduce economic inequality and social hierarchy by upholding the interest of the working and middle classes – positions that I strongly endorse. Today, however, identity politics override class politics over most of the self-proclaimed left. As a result, working-class support for the Democratic Party is plummeting, partially replaced by support from affluent, suburban professionals who formerly favored Republican candidates. To be sure, the Democrats still count many leftists and even radical leftists among their ranks, but the party’s center of gravity is now solidly establishmentarian. Both main parties now represent cross-class alliances – but in the end both primarily uphold elite interests.

In my own controversial view, national healing requires a middle path between establishmentarianism and populism, as well as between modernism and traditionalism. Such a path, I believe, must be strongly democratic, which by its very nature inclines to the political center while steadfastly opposing oligarchy. Although unpopular in my own professional circles, this stance does have growing support among the electorate at large. But in our hyper-polarized political environment, I have reluctantly concluded that championing it is a futile effort. As a result, I have decided to abandon the “Middle Path Environmentalism” project, at least for the time being.

Dropping this project will allow me to focus on the much more rewarding and enjoyable endeavor of non-political educational outreach. I am currently planning a series of geography and history lecture courses, which will be freely available on this website and on YouTube. Information on these prospective courses will be posted on this website soon.

  1. The only person who encouraged me to continue working on this project is Ryder Wooten, a well-informed Mendocino-county cannabis grower noted for his devotion to carbon-neutral, regenerative farming (see this High Times article). A number of my current political positions have been derived through extended conversations with Wooten.

  2. According to Wikipedia’s serviceable definition, “Liberalism is a political and moral philosophy based on the rights of the individual, liberty, consent of the governed, political equality, right to private property, and equality before the law.

Middle Path Environmentalism Read More »

GeoCurrents Reorientation

Dear Readers, 

GeoCurrents has been on hiatus for the past two months as I have redirected most of my efforts to writing a book on environmental philosophy, politics, and policies. This work is tentatively titled Middle Path EnvironmentalismTaking Climate Change and Other Environmental Problems Seriously without Crushing the Working Class and Undermining Rural Life. I have finished writing drafts of the introduction and the first chapter, which I intend to post on this blog later this week or early next week. These writings will be put up as regular posts, even though they are based on my opinions and will prove controversial. They will also placed on this site under the “featured essays” tab.  

Starting this summer, I hope to reorient GeoCurrents around illustrated video lectures. These lectures will be on many topics, but most will be organized as college-level courses covering such subject matters as world political geography, the geography of religion, population geography, and so on. The first of these GeoCurrents lectures, however, will cover materials that I have not been able to include in my current Stanford University Continuing Studies class on “The Making of the Modern World: 1200-1800.” These include biological globalization, the Little Ice Age, and the Crisis of the Seventeenth Century. I also hope to record and post several lectures this summer on the world-historical role of the Black Sea region from the Neolithic to the current day.  

I eventually hope to return to writing regular GeoCurrents posts, but this may take some time. My current priorities are working on Middle Path Environmentalism and preparing for my new spring-quarter Stanford University Continuing Studies course (Geography 14; see below) on the history and geography of natural mind-altering substances. 

GeoCurrents Reorientation Read More »

Mapping the Current State of Cannabis Legality in the U.S.

Cannabis legalization at the state level in the U.S. continues to gain ground, even though federal law still classifies “marijuana” as a Schedule One drug, meaning that it is absolutely banned and has “no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.” The resulting discrepancy between state and federal law presents a highly curious situation. It makes a mockery of the supposedly fundamental principle that federal law trumps the state law, with ultimate sovereignty vested in the United States rather than in the individual states. How could a substance possibly have “no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States” if 76 percent of those states have declared by law that is does?

The two best maps that I have found of the legal status of cannabis in the United States at the beginning of 2024 are reproduced below, one of which is from Wikipedia and the other from the political journal The Hill.  As can be seen, they portray the situation of quite differently, finding agreement only regarding states in which cannabis is fully legal (mapped as “legal for recreational use” on the Wikipedia map and “recreational and medical” on the one from The Hill.)

The discrepancies between the two maps indicates the complexities of the “gray zone” of partial legalization. In Nebraska and North Carolina, for example, cannabis is fully illegal but decriminalized, meaning that no one will go to jail for possessing it, at least on first offence. Several states allow “medical marijuana” only if its THC content is so low that one cannot experience an altered state of consciousness by ingesting it. In Texas, for example, only CDB oil can be used, and it cannot contain more than one percent THC. Yet as the Wikipedia article on the legal status of cannabis in the United States notes, it is “de facto legal” in Austin, the capital of Texas, as the municipal police will not arrest anyone in possession of less than four ounces, a considerable quantity. Utah, in contrast, allows the ingestion of potent cannabis, but only if one is terminally ill. On all the maps posted here, Oklahoma is placed in the same category as Utah, that of allowing medical but not general use, but the contrast between the two could hardly be more extreme. Medical dispensation is easy to get in Oklahoma, and the state’s cultivation regulations are extraordinarily relaxed. As the New York Times noted in a 2021 article entitled “How Oklahoma Became a Marijuana Boom State”:

Ever since the state legalized medical marijuana three years ago, Oklahoma has become one of the easiest places in the United States to launch a weed business. The state now boasts more retail cannabis stores than Colorado, Oregon and Washington combined. In October, it eclipsed California as the state with the largest number of licensed cannabis farms, which now number more than 9,000, despite a population only a tenth of California’s.

Tribal sovereignty adds another layer of complexity. Cannabis may be completely illegal North Carolina, but it is fully legal in its lands that fall under the authority Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians. South Dakota allows only medical sales, but on two of its Native American reservations cannabis fully legal.

The complexities of cannabis legality in the U.S. are too large to be captured in any single map. The two maps posted above do a reasonably good job, but the categories that they use might be confusing for some readers. I have therefore remapped the data that they use to try to convey the situation in a more straightforward manner. In both cases, I employ a demographic cartogram, in which each state is sized according to its population, rather than a conventional map. (Unfortunately, the base map that I used excludes Alaska and Hawaii). Using a such a cartogram allows one to visualize the number of people affected by the different legal regimes.

The first of these maps (above)  follows the depiction by The Hill but reduces the categories to three: complete legality, complete illegality, and partial legality. As can be seen, cannabis is fully legal for most people living the northern half and western quarter of the United States. But the only three states that follow U.S. federal law by completely banning cannabis use – Idaho, Nebraska, and Kansas – are located in this same general region of the country. Such clear regional differences, however, are not so apparent in my remapping of the Wikipedia data, which uses five categories and focuses not on cannabis per se but rather on cannabis that contains enough THC to be psychoactive (below). This map better captures the diversity of legal regimes found in the South and across the Great Plains.

Mapping the Current State of Cannabis Legality in the U.S. Read More »

Does High-Rise Housing Contribute to Ultra-Low Fertility Rates?

The Antiplanner blogsite recently ran an interesting and controversial post arguing that South Korea’s extraordinarily low fertility rate is linked to its prevalence of high-rise housing. As the author put it:

South Korea’s high-rise housing and low birthrates are closely related. People don’t have children if they don’t have room for them. High rises are expensive to build so living space is at a premium. Birth rates are declining throughout the developed world, but they have declined the most in countries like South Korea, Russia, and China that have tried to house most of their people in high rises.

The post elicited pushback, with one commenter stating that she saw “not a shred of evidence other than his bald assertion that people in Korea have no room for kids.” Evidence is indeed necessary to support such a claim, but is it available? It is true that some other countries noted for their high-rise housing, most notably Brazil, have also experienced plummeting fertility. But in both Brazil and South Korea, low fertility is also characteristic of rural areas and small towns that are not dominated by high-rise housing, albeit not to the same degree as in large cities covered with apartment towers.

My immediate reaction to this article was to try to devise a geographical test, one that would allow direct comparisons of housing types and fertility rates. Unfortunately, I was not able to find a relevant data source in the time that I allotted myself for the task. The best information that I could find is a list of European countries by people living in detached and semi-detached housing. People not living in such dwellings can generally be assumed to live in apartment (or condominium) blocks, which can be low-rise, mid-rise, or high-rise. Although this would therefore be a poor test of the Antiplanner’s thesis, it nevertheless seemed worth pursuing.

As can be seen in the paired maps below, the correlation between multifamily housing and fertility levels in Europe is weak. It is true that most countries with extremely low fertility have little detached or semi-detached housing, including Greece, Italy, and Spain. By the same token, some countries that have abundant detached or semi-detached housing have relatively high fertility, such as Ireland. But note the exceptions. North Macedonia, for example, has extremely low fertility but a high percentage of people living in detached or semi-detached housing, whereas Estonia shows the opposite pattern.

Since the Antiplanner claims that high-rise housing generates low fertility primarily because of inadequate room for child rearing, a better measurement would be to compare TFR with average living-space per household. I have not, however, been able to find an adequate data set to assess this assertion. A Eurostat graph showing “average number of rooms per person 2021” (size unspecified), however, does not indicate a significant correlation. According to this graph, Malta has the most capacious housing in Europe, with 2.3 rooms per person, yet its TFR, 1.13, is one of the lowest in the world. The same source also indicates that ultra-low fertility Spain has much more spacious housing (2 rooms per person) than relatively high-fertility Romania (1.1 rooms per person).

Culturally informed views about the amount of room necessary to rear a child vary significantly from country to country. In general, the wealthier the society, the more space is considered necessary. Such calculations also vary with employment conditions. I have been told by several young couples that more room is necessary for child rearing than before COVID, as one bedroom must now be reserved for an office that can be devoted to at-home work through Zoom. That belief could be dismissed, however, as a mere rationalization for not having children.

The most interesting finding from the data on detached and semi-detached housing in Europe concerns the geographical differences between these two categories. As the second set of paired maps shows, a few countries that have relatively little detached housing have an abundance of semi-detached housing, particularly the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.

Does High-Rise Housing Contribute to Ultra-Low Fertility Rates? Read More »

Is Confucianism Responsible for South Korea’s Demographic Collapse? Or Could It Be Modernity Itself?

In the United States, fertility rates increasingly correlate with religiosity. Those who regularly attend religious services have more children than those who irregularly attend, who, in turn, have more than nonreligious people (see the graph below). Does this generalization hold for South Korea, a predominantly secular country with substantial Christian and Buddhist minorities? (A 2021 Gallup Korea poll found that 60 percent of South Koreans have no religion, with 16 percent following Mahayana Buddhism, 17 percent Protestant Christianity, 6 percent Roman Catholic Christianity, and 1 percent other religions.) Apparently, it does so only to a slight degree. According to a study published in Demographic Research in 2021, the Total Fertility Rate by faith in South Korea in 2015 was as follows: no religion, 1.13; Buddhist, 1.33;  Catholic, 1.16; Protestant, 1.28; and “other religion,” 1.20.

A number of scholars, however, have linked South Korea’s ultra-low fertility rate to Confucianism, a largely secular philosophical system with religious undertones. In the Joseon period (1393-1894), Confucianism was the dominant belief system of the Korean elite. Confucian ideas and practices still pervade South Korean society, probably to a greater extent than any other country. Intriguingly, other countries of Confucian heritage also have low (North Korea, Vietnam) or ultra-low (Japan, China, Taiwan) fertility levels (although that of Vietnam is just under replacement level and is currently holding steady). Japan and China are also, like South Korea, afflicted with high rates of withdrawal from marriage and the work-force by disaffected young people, a phenomenon known in China as the “lying flat” movement (tang ping).

Scholars who have posited a link between Confucianism and ultra-low fertility in South Korea have generally focused on women, highlighting the increasing numbers of whom are intentionally foregoing marriage and childbearing. Standard Confucianism is decidedly patriarchal, with wives placed in a subservient position to their husbands. Family solidarity is highly valued, with mothers expected to devote themselves to their children. As a result, pursuing a career is often deemed incompatible with childbearing and rearing. Faced with such a dilemma, increasing numbers of young Korean women are choosing career development over marriage and motherhood.

In an interesting article called “Ultralow Fertility in East Asia: Confucianism and Its Discontents,” Yen-hsin Alice Cheng argues that the East Asia has a unique fertility regime characterized by male-skewed sex ratios at birth (due to son preference), low rates of non-marital birth, rising prevalence of bridal pregnancy, and low rates of cohabitation. These attributes, she argues, are “closely linked to a patriarchal structure based on family lineage through sons, strong parental authority, and emphasis on women’s chastity (i.e. sanctions for premarital sex and ‘illegitimate’ births outside of marriage) and the belief that women are obliged to bear sons to continue the patrilineal bloodline” (p. 98-99). Faced with such expectations, she argues, many young women are simply opting out.

Although the connection between low fertility and Confucian patriarchy has been made by many others, Cheng also links it to Confucian-inspired “credentialism.” Here she focuses on the legacy of the highly prestigious imperial civil service examinations that selected elite bureaucrats based on their exam performances. This heritage has resulted, she argues, in a “low regard for vocational education and craftsmanship in Confucian societies,” with “academic success in the educational system considered a life goal that is of paramount importance …, with parents doing their best to make sure their children advance as far as possible academically” (p. 102). Today, academic success translates into coveted positions in South Korea’s world-class corporations and allows entry into prestigious professions. Such jobs, however, are limited, relegating even some of the most diligent students to non-prestigious jobs that are regarded as humiliating. Faced with such pressures, many young people prefer social withdrawal.

Scholarly attitudes toward Confucianism in the West have oscillated from condemnation to commendation, depending in part on economic and political conditions in East Asia. In the eighteenth century, when Qing China was the world’s most powerful country, Enlightenment philosophers celebrated the rationalism, secularism, and meritocracy of Confucianism, marveling at a society in which elite status was determined more by exam performance than by aristocratic birth and in which the military was subservient to civil society. Some writers even claim that Confucius was the “patron saint of the Enlightenment.” But as China declined in the nineteenth century while the West advanced, attitudes changed. It eventually came to be argued that the inherent conservatism of Confucianism, marked by undue submission to authority and rigidly hierarchical lines of power, prevented innovation, adaptation, and modernization in East Asia. But the mindset shifted again in the second half of the twentieth century as Confucian societies underwent extraordinarily rapid economic growth and modernization. It then came to be argued that Confucianism’s profound respect for education propelled economic development while its emphasis on family cohesion ensured social stability. But now the tables are again turning, with Confucian patriarchy and credentialism blamed for South Korea’s demographic collapse and the concomitant crisis of disaffected young people abandoning social expectations and dropping out.

None of these interpretations are either “correct” or “incorrect,” and all probably contain an element of truth. A belief system as comprehensive as Confucianism has many different aspects and pulls in different directions. It influences social structures but does not determine them, and thus provides partial explanations at best. A significant amount of evidence, moreover, suggests that today’s supposedly Confucian-generated social pathologies are not limited to East Asia. Ultra-low fertility, for example, is found elsewhere, including much of Europe. But here too historically patriarchal social structures seem to play a role, as Europe’s more gender equalitarian societies now have higher fertility levels than those with traditionally stronger gender roles; compare, for example, the TFR charts of Sweden and Italy posted below.

The most important issue is probably the extent to which the social withdrawal phenomenon is unique to South Korea and other countries of Confucian heritage. Similar although less extreme developments do seem to be occurring in the United States and Europe, as is noted in the Wikipedia article on South Korea’s Sampo (“Giving Up”) Generation. Rates of depression, anxiety, and social isolation among young people in the U.S., moreover, are also surging. Although many explanations have been offered and debated, this phenomenon is complex and pervasive, leading some to suspect that modernity itself is the ultimate culprit. By this interpretation, modern societies are much better at generating goods and technologies than meaning and real social connections, yet meaning and real social connections remain essential for psychological health. Jon Haidt has been arguing for some time that social media, particularly Instagram and TikTok, are responsible for much of the mental-health crisis among American girls; he now argues that the much more gradual psychological decline found among boys began decades earlier with the arrival of computerized gaming, which pulled them out of real-world encounters and into simulated environments. In some regards, South Korea is the most technophilic and modernistic country in the world, and, by this reasoning, it would be expected to be at the leading edge of a modernity-generated social crisis.

Is Confucianism Responsible for South Korea’s Demographic Collapse? Or Could It Be Modernity Itself? Read More »

“Hell Joseon”:  The Paradoxes of South Korean Development

The paradoxes of South Korean development are profound indeed. On the one hand, the country’s rise from crushing poverty to glittering prosperity over the past 60 years has been nothing less than astounding. In 1960, South Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world, with a per capita gross national income of a miserable $120; today it is one of the wealthiest, with a median household income above those of France, the United Kingdom, and Japan. It has triumphed in the cultural sphere as well, with its music, films, and television shows gaining a huge global audience. Yet for all this success, there is a widespread mood of despondency among many South Koreans, signaled, some argue, by their unwillingness to reproduce. The country’s Total Fertility Rate (TFR) has recently plummeted to 0.7 children per woman, by far the lowest rate in the world. If this trend persists, the South Korean nation will soon begin to rapidly contract. Although mass migration could slow the decline, it faces substantial opposition on cultural grounds. It thus seems to many that South Korea faces a singularly bleak future of national decline.

One can argue, however, that that there is nothing particularly paradoxical about South Korea’s situation, given that all other highly developed countries, bar Israel, have below-replacement levels of fertility. But the broader paradox remains: can seemingly successful socio-economic development really be considered successful if it proves to be demographically unsustainable, dependent on continuing migration streams from less-developed countries whose own birthrates are declining, and which are increasingly opposed by populist-inclining, anti-immigration electorates?

But as many writers have argued, concerns about the current birth dearth may be no more firmly grounded than the earlier fears about a “population explosion” that would supposedly generate mass starvation across the world by the late twentieth century. Indefinitely extrapolating almost any trend can indicate impending calamity, but few persist long enough to reach that point. South Korea’s fertility rate could certainly rebound. And, as many argue, if one considers the fact that South Korea is one of the world’s most densely settled countries, population reduction should not necessarily be considered a negative outcome. Some would also contend that by foregoing childbearing, South Korea’s young adults are better able to enjoy the fruits of their country’s extraordinary economic ascent. Despite its paucity of children, South Korea can therefore still be regarded as a resounding success. As the noted economist and public intellectual Tyler Cowen has recently quipped, “South Korea in 1960 was as poor as Central Africa. Today, it’s a very nice, pretty wonderful country.”

The problem with such thinking, however, is that large proportion of young South Koreans strongly disagree, regarding their country as anything but “nice [and] pretty wonderful.” Since 2016, many of them have been denigrating it as “Hell Joseon” (“Joseon” being the name of early modern Korea, a poor, class-bound, and rigidly hierarchical society.) They have concluded that they have no worthwhile future to anticipate regardless of how hard they work. According to a Wikipedia article, “by 2019, the phrase [Hell Joseon] had been superseded by a new term, ‘Tal-Jo,’ a portmanteau comprising ‘leave’ and ‘Joseon,’ which might be best be translated as ‘Escape Hell.’” To do so, many are simply opting out, giving up on marriage, family, children, and more. Some evidence indicates that this trend is intensifying, propelled by the COVID pandemic but remaining firmly ensconced in its uncertain aftermath. According to one interpretation, many discouraged young adults are now abandoning all hope (see thetable below).

Those who have “given up,” however, represent a small minority of South Korea’s youth, with many more soldiering on through their country’s grueling educational and career-advancement systems. But the problems that the disaffected young have identified afflict the entire country and partially underlie its fertility collapse. These problems, it is essential to note, are not unique to South Korea. They are also found in Japan, China, and Taiwan, and are thus characteristic of East Asia as a whole. But they are more extreme in South Korea, where they have apparently generated an immediate demographic threat.

Ironically, the same trait that allowed South Korea’s breathtaking rise is now contributing to its pending decline: extraordinarily hard work from childhood until retirement. For a compelling fictionalized account of the grueling nature of South Korea’s educational system, I recommend the “Pied Piper” episode of the acclaimed television show Extraordinary Attorney Woo (season 1, episode 9). According to one poll, a lower percentage of South Korean children reported being “happy at school” than those of any other country. Exhausting schedules are also typical of the workplace. As reported in an insightful Washington Post article:

In this working culture, 14-hour days are the norm. In 2012, a left-leaning presidential candidate ran on the slogan: “A life with evenings.” Most frustrating of all, many young people say, is that their parents, who worked long hours to build the “Korean dream,” think the answer is just to put in more effort.

It is not just the long hours that that dishearten young adults, but also the conviction that they will not be able to succeed no matter how hard they work, feeling that the system is rigged against them. Although South Korea purports to be a meritocratic country in which anyone can get ahead by dint of diligence and intelligence, inherited class position, family and school connections, and even place of birth still matter a great deal. But for most parents, the belief in, and the desire for, upward class mobility for their children remains paramount, leading to huge investments in after-school schools and other forms of educational enrichment. The required expenditures are so large that having a second child often becomes financially impossible. This combination of financially stressed and educationally obsessed parents and emotionally stressed and deeply disillusioned children contributes to a yawning generational gap, undermining the cohesion of South Korean society.

As is the case in many other wealthy countries, the high cost of housing is another factor in South Korea’s declining birth rate. Many young couples cannot afford an apartment, let alone a house, large enough to accommodate more than one child. The lack of affordable housing in a country that is beginning to experience population decline might seem surprising, but it has been propelled several factors, including the continuing aggregation of people in a few major cities. Roughly half of the nation now lives in the greater Seoul metropolitan area. The country’s rural population, moreover, continues to shrink, although it is now so small (4.15 percent) that the pace of decline has slackened. Governmental policy, however, is probably more important – and far more perverse. As reported in a 2021 article in Foreign Policy:

The average price of an apartment in Seoul has doubled in the past five years under the current government’s misguided policies on mortgage rules and tax penalties. Four years ago, it would have taken 11 years’ worth of South Korea’s median annual household income to buy an apartment in Seoul. Now, it costs more than 18 years’ worth of income. Rents have shot up, leaving young people with limited savings and without a shelter.

Some observers have linked South Korea’s fertility implosion to its Confucian heritage, which will be the focus of the next GeoCurrents post.

“Hell Joseon”:  The Paradoxes of South Korean Development Read More »