Geography and Science Fiction: the Creation of Realistic Alternative Worlds

Map of Imaginary Planet, Earth 2(Note to readers: As GeoCurrents is technically on vacation, it seems like a good time to explore an issue that falls outside of the blog’s basic field of concern. For the next week, posts will focus on speculative fiction, culminating with the free release of my own science fiction novel, Terranova: The Black Petaltail, on this website. Regular GeoCurrents posts on matters of geography and history will begin again in the second week of January.)

Fantasy can be an entryway into serious geographical and historical thought. While preparing several GeoCurrents posts, I have come across deeply informed discussions of obscure historical topics in game-players’ discussion boards. Map-making is also taken seriously by authors and fans of science fiction and fantasy literature. Those who base their stories or games on alternative worlds are especially drawn to cartographic depiction and historical timelines. Such efforts sometimes go well beyond the mere limning of lands and waters, showing such deeper structures as tectonic plates.

Several websites offer tools and advice for building one’s own imaginary planet. The Fractal Worldmap Generator, for example, allows the easy construction of realistic fantasy cartography in several projections; all one has to do is specify what percentages of a sphere should be covered with water and ice. The Elfwood site, advertised as “The World’s Largest SciFi and Fantasy Community,” provides detailed geographical advice for would-be world-makers, even providing elementary instruction in climatology. The Wikipedia article on “world-building” also offers basic lessons, informing readers, for example, that “a forest will typically form in locations with higher levels of rainfall. Where the prevailing winds cross a mountainous rise, the forest will appear on the windward side where moisture tends to be deposited.”

Map of Imaginary Planet with Environmental ZonesWhether such remedial education is adequate to the task is another matter. To truly construct a realistic Earth-like world requires the kind of knowledge provided by a college-level course in physical geography; not a few enthusiasts have created handsome worlds that embody glaring geographical contradictions. Consider, for example, the maps posted here. In Earth 2, the brown areas, presumably deserts or semi-deserts, are mostly situated in such necessarily humid areas as the equatorial zone, the upper-mid latitudes on the west side of the largest continent, and the subtropics on the east side of the same landmass. The second map (“Environmental Zones of the Three Continents”), depicting a different imaginary world, does a better job. Note, however, the equatorial desert in the west, as well as the woodlands to its north at around twenty degrees, an area that ought to be desert.* For such patterns to exist, the basic parameters of physics would have to be changed, putting us not merely in an alternative world but in an alternative universe.

Such quibbles may seem pedantic—they certainly do to my own children. Perhaps it would be better to stress how far the genre has advanced over the past several decades. In earlier years, most Earth-like planets in science fiction were not just geographically incorrect, but positively simpleminded. Human- (or humanoid-) inhabited globes were routinely imagined not as richly variegated worlds but as simple, uniform places. These kinds of planets represent not alter-worlds so much as samples of our own terrestrial sphere, the geographical equivalents of one-dimensional human characters embodying particular traits. Such failings have been strikingly pronounced in the two largest science fiction franchises, Star Trek and Star Wars. Both series are richly imaginative and consistently thought-provoking, and I have enjoyed them for decades. In terms of basic geography, however, Star Trek and Star Wars leave much to be desired.

Star Trek, Gamma Trianguli VI In the original Star Trek television series, which aired from 1966 to 1969, entire planets were portrayed as individual neighborhoods. In almost every episode, the show’s protagonists could stroll to all significant places on a given world once they had beamed down from their spaceship. Such a narrow scope, admittedly, was all but dictated by the series’ restricted budget and special-effects limitations. Yet the much more lavishly produced second Star Trek series, The Next Generation, was little different. Indeed, its world-building capabilities sometimes seem to have declined. Compare, for example, the planet Gamma Trianguli VI from “The Apple” (1968) with the world that lent its name to the episode entitled “Angel One” (1988). Although the view of Gamma Trianguli VI from the deck of the starship Enterprise gets the cloud patterns wrong (no mid-latitude spiral bands, no thunderheads of an inter-tropical convergence zone), the planet’s topography looks reasonably Earth-like. Angel One, on the other hand, appears more like Neptune: one glance tells you that this is not a place where a mammal from Earth would be able to breathe. Yet when the crew beams down, they encounter nothing alien whatsoever—other than the fact that the women of Angel One physically dominate the men.

Star Trek, Angel One In the Star Wars franchise, planets tend to be far more fully realized. Rather then being reducible to intimate locales that can be effectively covered on foot, they form expansive spaces that demand mechanized transport. Yet few are depicted as having Earth-like complexity and variation. Instead, they tend to form single environments: if some are completely desertic, others are wholly forested. The films also feature grassland planets, swamp planets, ocean planets, and even a completely urbanized planet packed with a trillion inhabitants. Some worlds are described as entirely temperate, others (impossibly) as completely tropical.** Most of the planets of Star Wars, in other words, are not worlds at all, but rather expanded stand-ins for particular ecotypes on Earth.

Star Wars, Hoth and Tauntauns Some of the environmentally restricted Star Wars planets are more realistically imagined than others. An ice-covered, perennially frozen sphere, for example, remains within the realm of plausibility. In our universe, such a planet would not be capable of supporting macroscopic life of the kind found on Earth. In the Star Wars galaxy, however, Hoth is fully ice-bound, yet supports massive mammalian species. What could such large herbivores as tauntauns possibly eat? Such niceties were ignored in the original film, but Star Wars “Expanded Universe” sources attempt to provide answers. Hoth, we are told, is replete with “under-ice caves containing large lichen fields … on which Tauntauns feed.” Interesting idea, but physically impossible; ice is not stable enough to support long-lasting, light-filled caves of the size necessary to support such ecosystems.

Some authors of SciFi and fantasy have elaborated complex geographical patterns, creating what seem to be fully realized alter-worlds. But complexity does not guarantee geographical accuracy, as we shall see in the next GeoCurrents post.

*On Earth, deserts are found on the west sides of continents between around 18 and 30 degrees of latitude, and in continental interiors, especially where mountains block prevailing winds. (Note that Afro-Eurasia forms a single continent in this regard.) The exceptions that do exist are generally explainable by oceanic currents, which in turn can be deduced from the basic patterns of land and sea.

** “The tropics” is by definition a restricted latitudinal belt: the zone where the sun is directly overhead at noon once a year (twice at the Equator). A planet whose axis is tiled 90 degrees relative to its orbit around its sun would in this sense be entirely “tropical,” as all areas would experience a mid-day sun angle of 90 degrees. But it would by no means possess a uniformly “tropical” climate, as most areas would experience prolonged periods of the year with little or no sunlight. Even at the equator of such a planet, the sun would not rise above the horizon on the two solstices.


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Demic Atlas Visualization and Geospatial Data

Visualization of the Demic AtlasAn interactive visualization of the Demic Atlas is now available on the website of the Stanford Spatial History Project, thanks to the unceasing efforts of Anne Fredell and Jake Coolidge. By clicking on the grey boxes on the page, one can toggle back and forth between demic and state-based world maps of per capita GDP and HDI. A link to the geospatial database used to construct these maps can be found at the same site. Click here to go directly to the database, located at geocommons.

The Stanford Spatial History website contains a number of interesting articles, maps, and visualizations, and I would urge readers to explore the site. Stanford University is deeply committed to the “digital humanities,” developing technologically mediated methods of exploring the traditional concerns of history and the arts. I would especially recommend the projects developed by the faculty leaders of the Spatial History Lab, Richard White and Zephyr Frank. Professor White’s venture, “Shaping the West,” focuses largely on railroads in the western United States, but delves into a number of related issues. Professor Frank’s work on Rio de Janeiro, “The Terrain of History,” includes a number of particularly intriguing and innovative visualizations.


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The Human Development Index (HDI) in the State-Based and Demic Frameworks

World Map of Human Development Index, Demic FrameworkThe Human Development Index (HDI) is the most widely used method of assessing the overall level of human wellbeing across the planet. Today’s post examines HDI rankings in the demic and state-based frameworks. As is the case in regard to GDP measurements, the demic map portrays broad regional patterns of development relatively well, while missing a number of local particularities captured by the conventional map. But the state-based framework also misses local distinctions, those found at the sub-national level.

State-based Map of the Human Development Index The HDI is composite statistic that takes into account longevity, educational attainment, and standard of living. The calculations used to construct the index are involved, as several separate measurements and sub-indexes are employed.* Whether the results adequately reflect “human development” is an open issue; like all other social indexes, the HDI has notable limitations and omissions. It treats “standard of living,” for example, as reducible to per capita GDP (PPP), which is simply not the case. The HDI also ignores gender equity and environmental cleanliness, which many observers regard as significant aspects of wellbeing. But all told, the HDI is still the most comprehensive and widely used measurement of human development, and therefore deserves extended consideration.

Map Comparing HDI and GDP, State-Based Framework In general, global HDI maps track GDP maps relatively closely, as can be seen in the pair of state-based maps to the left. Wealthy countries, not surprisingly, tend to have high HDI numbers, whereas poor countries generally post low numbers.  Exception to this general rule can be instructive. On the quantile-based maps posted here, some oil-rich countries (Qatar, Equatorial Guinea) end up in significantly lower color categories in regard to HDI than they do in regard to GDP, reflecting the unbalanced nature of their development. A number of other countries, ranging from Kenya to Cambodia to Cuba to North Korea, on the other hand, fall into higher categories on the HDI map, reflecting in part successful educational programs. North Korea’s elevated HDI position, however, may point to statistical shortcomings and perhaps governmental manipulation of the data; certainly if a “malnutrition and food insecurity” component were added to the index, the position of North Korea would drop sharply.

As the demic HDI map posted above shows, exceptional areas also appear at the sub-national level. The most strikingly of such distinctions is found in southern South Asia. The region composed of Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and the Indian states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala ranks much higher in terms of human development than it does in regard to GDP. Sri Lanka and Kerala have long been noted for near universal literacy and impressive levels of public health, achievements realized despite meager economic resources. More recently, Tamil Nadu has made rapid progress in these same areas. Whereas in strictly economic terms, western India has the advantage, in terms of overall social development, southern India comes out ahead. North-central India, in contrast, lags well back in both domains.

In terms of human development, China appears much better off on the demic map than on the state-based map. As expected, coastal China scores higher than the rest of the country, but even the poorest interior regions come out relatively well.  Note that the region composed of Shanghai and Jiangsu falls into the highest color category on this map. But the position of China on the two HDI maps also reveals a problem with the underlying data. All regions of China fall into higher color categories on the demic map than China as a whole does on the state-based map. As the two maps apply the same numerical ranges to the same color categories, such results are a statistically impossible.** What this seeming error indicates is that data collected at the state and the sub-state levels are not necessarily comparable.

In global terms, the most important take-home message from the demic HDI map is the low standing of tropical Africa. Whereas virtually all parts of tropical Africa fall into the bottom two color categories, only one region outside of Africa does the same, that composed of Nepal and the Indian state of Bihar. The state-based map also captures the low level of human development in tropical Africa, but not so clearly. In terms of health and education, much of tropical Africa posts figures lower than what might be expected on the basis of per capita GDP. The HIV epidemic plays a significant role here, as does under-investment in education.

Finally, the demic HDI map reveals an unexpected pattern in Latin America. In the GDP maps, the region composed of Colombia, Venezuela, Panama, Costa Rica and Ecuador comes out ahead of its neighbor to the south, the region composed largely of northern Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, and Paraguay. On the HDI map, the positions are reversed. As the state-based map shows, the relatively high position of Peru in human development is a significant factor here. Intriguingly, Peru’s new government is emphasizing human development, arguing that the previous administration put economic growth above broader developmental considerations.

* In 2010, the UN revised its method of calculating HDI, broadening the educational sub-index. The current post uses the earlier for of the index, as new figures for most sub-national entities are not yet available.

** If anything, the average HDI figures for the demic regions of China should be slightly lower than the figure for China as a whole, as the Chinese provincial data used to make the demic map are from 2008 (the most recent we could find), whereas the figure for China as a whole is from 2009. As China posts slight developmental improvement annually, the overall figure for 2009 should be slightly higher than that from 2008.

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Per Capita GDP (Nominal) in the Demic and State-Based Frameworks

Map of Nominal Per Capita GDP By Demic Regions
Nominal Per Capita GDP By Demic Regions, 2009, US$

The Demic Atlas provides an alternative to standard state-based maps of global development, designed for broad comparative purposes. As several GeoCurrents commentators have noted, the demic framework is not suitable for all forms of comparison. Studies aimed at determining the relationship between governmental action and economic development, for example, must rely on the state-based framework, as it is sovereign states and their subdivisions that generate and implement official policies. The current project aims instead for a generalized overview that can reveal expansive global patterns obscured in standard maps. Based on the principle of demographic egalitarianism, the demic maps portray heavily populated countries at a much higher level of resolution than do standard depictions, while representing lightly populated countries at a lower level of resolution. The goal is to render the world as a whole with broad but relatively even brush strokes. To see whether the demic framework successfully serves such a purpose, the current post contrasts a world map of per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) constructed on its terms with a conventional, country-based map of the same indicator.

Before comparing the two maps, it is important to note the limitations encountered when assessing economic development through GDP. GDP measurements, which ostensibly tally the total value of goods and services produced in a given year within a particular territory, are not as comprehensive as they might seem. Nominal GDP, calculated on the basis of official exchange rates, fails to take into account the different quantities of goods and services that can be purchased with the same amount of money in different parts of the world. As a result, GDP is increasingly measured in purchasing power parity (PPP) terms. Consequently, a separate GeoCurrents post will compare GDP as calculated in PPP. More troublesome is the fact that GDP figures tell us nothing about the distribution of wealth, and hence cannot always indicate whether a given region is, in general terms, wealthy or impoverished. Equatorial Guinea, for example, appears to be a fairly rich little country, with a nominal per capita GDP assessed at US $24,400 by the CIA in 2010 (although the World Bank comes up a figure of only 11,033 for the same year, a sure sign of data irregularities). Yet Equatorial Guinea remains a poor and underdeveloped country, as the vast bulk of its wealth flows into very few hands. Finally, GDP measurements ignore goods and services produced on a subsistence basis, or that are exchanged through barter outside of the formal economy. As a result, an utterly impoverished, desperately malnourished area dominated by market exchange might appear more prosperous than a subsistence-oriented area in which most people are relatively well fed and well housed.

Map of Nominal Per Capita GDP by States, 2009
Nominal Per Capita GDP by States, 2009, US$

Despite such limitations, per capita GDP remains the most common metric of economic development, and it is therefore employed on our first set of maps. For purposes of immediate comparison, the two maps use the same color scheme and divide the data into the same number of categories, based in both cases on quantiles (dividing the data set at regular intervals to yield subsets of equal size). Note that the numbers associated with the color categories on the two maps do not match. This is partly a matter of the greater level of aggregation found in the demic map, which employs fewer spatial units and therefore reduces the level of economic differentiation across the world. The demic map also skews toward lower numerical values for the same color categories. Note how the second highest category in the state-based maps extends down to $14,239 and the third down to $6,636, whereas on the demic map the comparable figures are $8,395 and $4,466. This disparity reflects the fact that many wealthy countries, especially those of Europe, have small populations, inflating the number of units in the high-end group. Another consequence is to push large areas of the world into higher color categories on the demic map; compare, for example, the coloration of southwestern Africa on the two maps. (Both data sets can yield strikingly different maps depending on how many categories are used and where the breaks between them are placed; such issues will be explored in subsequent posts.)

The most conspicuous differences between the two maps are found in their depictions of South and East Asia. In the conventional state-based map, China is uniformly shown as a moderately poor country; in the demic map, China as a whole appears much more economically productive, while the substantial gaps between its prosperous coastal zone and its lagging periphery are revealed. Such changes, we believe, more accurately reflect actual conditions in the region. South Asia is also much more finely differentiated on the demic map. The standard view shows India and Pakistan as evenly falling into the second lowest economic category, while placing the smaller countries of the region in either the lowest slot (Nepal, Bangladesh) or the next highest category (Sri Lanka, Bhutan). In the demic map, a wide swath of north-central India falls in the bottommost grouping, whereas much of western India is placed significantly higher. Put differently, the standard map locates the poorest parts of Asia outside of India, whereas the demic map largely places them within that country. The actual differentials found within India, moreover, are greater than even the demic map indicates. The yellowish area of elevated economic standing in the western part of the country is composed of rapidly growing Gujarat and western Maharashtra, the latter area encompassing Mumbai, India’s economic core. Although western Maharashtra has a substantially higher per capita GDP than the eastern part of the state, such differences are not reflected in the data, as we were not able to locate up-to-date information at the district level for India; as a result, we had to treat each India state as a uniform entity. (Such expedients, we hope, can be avoided in later iterations of the atlas.)

Latin America is also mapped quite differently in the two schemes. As the region as a whole is relatively lightly populated, the conventional map depicts most of it with a higher degree of resolution than does the demic map. But Brazil and Mexico, Latin America’s two most populous countries, are exceptions, and as such are portrayed more precisely on the demic map. As that map indicates, southeastern Brazil is much more economically productive than the north, whereas southern Mexico is much less productive than the country’s northern and central areas. As a result, Latin America takes on a zonal aspect in the demic map, characterized by distinct latitudinal belts. Here one sees relatively high levels of economic development in the far north and south, with moderately low levels in the middle belt interrupted by a mid-income grouping in northern South America and southern Central America. Which of the two maps more accurately depicts the region is an open question. The demic map, in our opinion, best captures broad differences, whereas the standard map better illustrates a number of important local distinctions (the particularly low rankings of Haiti and Nicaragua, for example). Yet the standard map can also be misleading one this score; not how it exaggerates the economic standing of French Guiana, which, as an integral part of the country, is mapped at the same level as metropolitan France.

Africa appears in similar form in both maps. To be sure, the demic version reduces the standings of wealthy but lightly populated Gabon, Libya, and especially Equatorial Guinea, while elevating the position of the larger oil-rich region around the Bight of Benin and the Bight of Bonny in west-central Africa. As was the case in India, the economic differential in this area would have been accentuated if we had had access to comparable economic data for all the states of Nigeria. Lacking such information, we treated all Nigerian states the same, even though the southern part of the country, owing largely to its oil resources, is vastly more economically productive than the north. Elsewhere in Africa, the lower level of resolution found in the demic map causes it to miss some significant distinctions, such as the elevated standings of Kenya and Zambia vis-à-vis their neighbors.

Owing to the small size of most of its constituent units, Europe is depicted much more precisely in the conventional map. Note how the demic depiction slots all of Western Europe into the highest GDP category, whereas in the state-based map its southern reaches (Spain, Portugal, and Italy) are ranked slightly lower, reflecting that map’s finer level of differentiation at the upper end of the scale. In southeastern Europe, the state-based map again better captures local differences, such as the low standing of Moldova. Yet in the broadest comparative terms, one could argue that the small population of Moldova (3.5 million) renders it undeserving of such focused attention.

The demic framework functions most poorly in the Middle East (Southwest Asia), a region characterized by profound economic diversity. Here one finds both the world’s richest country according to most measurements (Qatar), as well as one of the poorest states outside sub-Saharan Africa (Yemen). As a result, some countries in the region are unduly elevated on the demic map. This flaw is especially notable in regard to Iraq, which is classified with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, and Syria, which is placed in the same region as much wealthier Turkey, Cyprus, and Greece. The position of Yemen, on the other hand, is unduly demoted on the demic map, due to its classification with Ethiopia, Somalia, and Eritrea.

Degree of Per Capita GDP Change, State-Baseed and Demic Frameworks The final map shows the degree of difference found between the two maps, as reflected in all of the constituent units of the demic framework. As is immediately apparent, some of the greatest changes are found in the poorer parts of large countries that are abstracted from their usual national positions (north-central India, interior China, northern Brazil). Perhaps most interesting is this map’s depiction of North America. Whereas Canada and the United States appear in identical form in the first two maps, this map shows that the actual numbers associated with different parts of both countries have changed considerably.  Canada comes out with a higher figure on the demic map, due its classifications with western and northeastern United States. Southeastern US, on the other hand, ends up with a significantly lower figure, due to its separation from the more economically productive parts of the country.

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Demic Atlas Preface, Part III

As the past several GeoCurrents posts have explained, sovereign states make poor units of socio-economic comparison due to their vast size disparities. But issues of scale are not the only reasons for considering an alternative scheme of division. In the standard model of global affairs, countries are the all-purpose and essential units of human organization. According to this view, independent states are neatly demarcated geo-bodies administered over their entire expanses by globally recognized, fully autonomous governments, their inhabitants bound together by common sentiments of national solidarity. Yet the nation-state ideal is seldom fully realized. The world is replete with nationless states, stateless nations, contested nationalities, vacuums of sovereignty, and so on. As Jim Wilson perceptively pointed out in a GeoCurrents comment, such geopolitical “anomalies” are too common to be considered anomalous. The political structure of the world, in short, is far too complex for the reigning model. As a result, the global representation found on country-based political maps is simplistic at best and misleading at worst. On a world map, Somalia has the full appearance of a sovereign state; in actuality it has virtually none of the substance.

Over-reliance on a flawed world model results in more than intellectual mischief. In the early years of this century, U.S. military and political planners had little doubt that Afghanistan and Iraq could be quickly and cheaply stabilized and democratized, as it was assumed that they were coherent nation-states, their people tied together by bonds of common affiliation, and hence willing to work together to achieve national aspirations. A decade on, trillions of dollars and many thousands of lives have not proven adequate in either case. As the United States lurches through its second economic crisis in three years, its financial resources stretched near the breaking point, those billions upon billions of dollars that have flowed into nation-building endeavors in Iraq and especially Afghanistan increasingly seem like poor investments. Had we been less beholden to a normative geopolitical model, perhaps such inordinately optimistic policies would not have been pursued.

The goal of the Demic Atlas is to denaturalize the state-based picture by viewing the world through an alternative lens. It is not to argue that states are passé or unimportant in any way, much less that the standard political map should be abandoned. The contention is rather that countries should not be the only units used for depicting the socio-economic differentiation of the human community. Different modes of division can show different patterns and, we believe, yield new insights.

The classification scheme employed in the Demic Atlas will seem odd to most viewers, and shocking to some. The standard world map and model are so ubiquitous, so taken-for-granted, that any alternative is bound to appear perverse. Many if not most educated people have also been so schooled in nationalism that their own countries at least seem inviolable, forming natural units of not just political power but also of social and economic organization. Quick previews of the demic world map—which will be posted here next Tuesday or Wednesday—provoked quick objections, as viewers found it wrong to see their own countries sundered and then re-aggregated with pieces of other states. But this is precisely the purpose of the exercise: to unsettle conventional notions of global geographical organization by challenging the essentialism of the sovereign state.

Modified Map of Europe  from 1751As instinctive as it has become for us to divide the world along geopolitical lines, it is not a particularly long-standing maneuver. Old maps reveal that before the 1800s, European cartographers typically deployed a hybrid system of terrestrial division. In the early modern period (1500-1800), they typically began by splitting the world into continents, and then carving each of the resulting landmasses into a handful of major divisions. Some of these sub-continental entities were geopolitically delimited kingdoms, empires and the like, such as France, Russia, Persia, and China. Others were former sovereign powers that had long lost that standing, such as Hungary and the German (or Holy Roman) Empire, while others were (at the time) mere regions with no political coherence (Italy, Arabia, and India, for example).* Such units were by no means of equal size, as those of Asia dwarfed those of Europe, reflecting the Eurocentrism of European cartographers. But within each continental frame, all the constituent “countries” were roughly comparable. It would have struck an 18th century cartographer as absurd to elevate the pocket states of northern Italy, let alone those of western Germany, to the same level as France or Spain on their basic maps. Early modern cartographers did occasionally depict the small polities of Italy and the Holy Roman Empire, but only when they were explicitly illustrating the geopolitical order. Maps devised for general purposes relied instead on a hybrid divisional scheme.

A somewhat similar situation obtained in early modern Japan. Before the Meiji Restoration of 1868, Japan was a semi-unified state; the Tokugawa Shogunate exercised hegemony over the main islands, but over 200 feudal lords maintained autonomy within their own domains, many of which were spatially dispersed. Tokugawa cartographers by and large ignored the complexly fractured political order that resulted, and instead mapped the archipelago in accordance with the provinces of classical Japan—units that had no political significance at the time. The continued use of a system of defunct subdivisions in basic maps has struck many observers as a quirky anachronism, but as Kären Wigen has shown in her recent book, A Malleable Map, the strategy had its own compelling logic. The provinces of Tokugawa Japan were observational rather than administrative units, providing spatial containers for place-specific information. Provinces served this purpose well because they were deeply rooted in historical memory, were no longer politically charged, and were spatially stable. Also, unlike the domainal territories of Tokugawa Japan, they were relatively compact and of roughly similar size.

Like the provinces of Tokugawa Japan, the spatial divisions in the Demic Atlas are designed for observational purposes: to serve as politically neutral containers for marshalling socio-economic data. Unlike the old Japanese provinces, of course, they are nakedly artificial constructs without historical precedent. Whether or not such manufactured units prove useful is for readers to decide.

*Intriguingly, mapmakers of the time sometimes claimed to base their divisions on geopolitical criteria, yet in practice they did not exactly do so. Consider Thomas Kitchin’s 1787 map, “Europe Divided into its Empires, Kingdoms, States, Republics, Etc.,” published in London by Robert Sayer. As actually mapped, the “principal parts” of Europe included such non-sovereign entities (at the time) as Italy, Germany, Ireland, and Hungary. The accompanying text notes that “Germany is full of sovereign princes and counts …, every one of which is more free and absolute than several crowned heads.” A 1742 version of Guillaume Delisle’s Atlas Nouveau (published in Amsterdam) likewise contains a map purporting to show Asia “accurately divided into Empires, Kingdoms, States, and Peoples,” yet it depicts all of mainland Southeast Asia as one entity, and all of central and northern Asia as another (“Tartary”). These kinds of maneuvers were typical of the time.

Enlightenment-era views on the geopolitical division of space are perhaps best represented in the Encyclopédie Méthodique par Ordre des Matières (“Methodical Encyclopedia by Order of Subject Matter”), a 200-plus-volume reference work published by Charles-Joseph Panckoucke, designed to follow the more famous encyclopedia of Denis Diderot. Here the Europe entry (vol. 2, page 574) details the division of the landmass into three empires (Russia, Germany, and Turkey-in-Europe), twelve kingdoms, one great ecclesiastical realm (the papal state), one archduchy, one grand duchy, four great republics, and four less powerful republics. Not all of Europe, however, was classifiable in this scheme, with northern Italy presenting particular challenges. In another entry, the encyclopedia describes Italy as “a great country of Europe,” noting that it has too many political divisions to report (vol. 1, page 94). The work also notes that the kingdoms and duchies of Europe are not all ruled by their own sovereigns. Although Hungary is listed as a kingdom (joined with that of Bohemia), the author allows that it is currently “under the House of Austria” (vol. 94, page 2).

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Non-State-Based Atlas Preface, Part II

Wikipedia map of nominal per capita GDP, 2007Maps and text from the forthcoming non-state-based (or “demic”) atlas will begin appearing in GeoCurrents next week. This week, the blog is presenting the work’s preface.

As noted in the previous post, countries are incomparable units, due to their vast variation in scale. Yet in tables and charts, Nauru, with ten thousand inhabitants living on eight square miles (twenty-one square kilometers), counts the same as China, with 1.3 billion inhabitants living on 3.7 million square miles (9.6 million square kilometers). Cartographic depictions are inherently less distorting, as they are spatially scaled. On most maps, small countries are appropriately small, although only those using equal-area projections maintain strict size proportionality. Miniscule states such as Nauru and Monaco thus tend to vanish from view. Unfortunately, mapmakers seem to be increasingly depicting micro-states with large circles, again privileging diplomatic pretense over geographical reality. Curiously, the Wikipedia GDP map posted here balloons Europe’s feudal remnants by several orders of magnitude, yet does not provide any information about them.

Although spatial imbalances are minimized on most maps, demographic disparities remain concealed. True, tiny countries usually have tiny populations, just as large ones tend to have many inhabitants, but the correlation is not strong. Confined to 268 square miles (694 square kilometers), Singapore’s five million inhabitants have little presence on standard maps, whereas Mongolia’s 2.8 million residents figure large in their 603,909 square-mile homeland (1,564,115 square kilometers). Unless one has a good sense of the distribution of human settlement across the world, maps of socio-economic development tend to mislead. On a world map of per capita GDP, wealthy Australia and Canada far overshadow India, even though India’s population is twenty-five times greater than that of the other two countries combined. In Africa, areas of relatively high per capita GDP are not as significant as they appear. Botswana, Namibia, and Gabon are sizable countries that boast elevated economic figures, but together they contain five and a half million people, roughly half the population of the destitute metropolis of Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Cartogram of World Population Mapmakers have devised a number of innovative techniques for depicting data in a more proportional manner. In demographic cartograms, the areas of geographically defined entities are expanded or reduced according to their populations. GDP figures are also well suited to cartogramic treatment, as both total economic output and output per capita can be depicted by a combination of size and color. The resulting image posted below nicely illustrates the concentration of economic power in a few parts of the world, as well as its near absence over a large swath of central Africa.

Cartogram of GDPBut for all of their powers of presentation, global cartograms conceal as much as they reveal. Areas with low numerical values in regard to whatever feature is being mapped tend to shrink into invisibility. On the example posted here, the Democratic Republic of Congo, a massive country of more than seventy million, can hardly be discerned. More to the point, cartograms of global development are almost always structured around sovereign states, and thus treat massive and highly differentiated countries as uniform entities. Note that this cartogram portrays Taiwan as if it really were part of China, rather than as the de facto sovereign state that it is; as a result, Taiwan appears smaller than Sri Lanka, even though its economy is almost an order of magnitude larger. (Why the cartographer depicts uninhabited Antarctica as having an economy roughly the size of Canada’s at a per capita level similar to that of India is anyone’s guess.)

Map of GDP densityAnother method of addressing disparities of scale when mapping economic production is encountered in the GDP density map, analyzed earlier in this blog by Andrew Lindford. Portraying “GDP per square kilometer” is an intriguing idea, but the effort fails, as the cartographer treats countries as undifferentiated wholes in regard to economic but not demographic data. The result is merely a map of settlement density in which the populations of wealthy countries are weighed more heavily than those of poor countries. Treating countries as economic uniformities again results in nonsense. Note how China’s Sichuan basin is shown as more economically productive per unit of area than its lower Yangtze region; observe how India’s impoverished lower Ganges Valley is depicted as more “economically dense” than its bustling greater Mumbai area.

The root problem is clear: basic patterns of social and economic development do not necessarily track the contours of political geography. To be sure, the immediate gap across national boundaries can be profound. When one moves from the U.S. state of New Mexico to the Mexican state of Chihuahua, per capita GDP drops three-fold, from $36,000 to $12,300. Yet the economic gaps within Mexico are more substantial than the chasm along its northern border. The southern Mexican state of Chiapas posts a per capita GDP figure (in PPP) of only $3,700, whereas Nuevo León in the north comes in at $16,300 and the central Federal District reaches $23,000, the latter figure not out of line with Mississippi’s $32,000. Similarly discrepant patterns are apparent across much the world. In socio-economic terms, southern Brazil is much more similar to Argentina than it is to northeastern Brazil, just as northern Italy is more akin to Switzerland than to southern Italy. A state-based system of comparison obscures all such internal differentiation.

If we are to devise more appropriate methods of portraying global social and economic disparities, we must move beyond the default framework of sovereign states and their dependent territories. This is not to claim that the governments and policies of independent countries are insignificant in determining which areas of the world are more prosperous or healthier than others. Nor is it to argue that conventional country-based maps of socio-economic development should be jettisoned, as they do serve a significant purpose. It is rather merely to insist that sovereign states are not the all-important, all-purpose units of global geography that they ubiquitously taken to be. As a result, the standard state-based map should be complemented by other modes of presentation. The current project is a first step in that direction.

Non-State-Based Atlas Preface, Part II Read More »

The Demic Atlas Project: Toward a Non-State-Based Approach to Mapping Global Economic and Social Development, by Martin W. Lewis, Jake Coolidge, and Anne Fredell

GeoCurrents has taken a summer hiatus to create a new cartographic framework for analyzing socio-economic development. This project is a collaborative effort involving three team-members: Jake Coolidge, a geospatial historian at Stanford University’s Spatial History Lab; Anne Fredell, a Stanford University undergraduate; and myself. The Spatial History Lab at Stanford, which has provided extensive technical assistance, will eventually publish the maps as an on-line document. GeoCurrents will also post maps from the project, as well as commentary on the process. Beginning today, I will discuss both the intellectual rationale for such an atlas and the problems that we have encountered in creating it.

The Non-Comparability of Sovereign States 

Global economic and social comparisons are almost always made within the framework of sovereign states. Countries are numerically ranked against each other on such measurements as per capita GDP, literacy, and longevity, much as students are tallied together on a class grade sheet. If one wants to know what part of the world is the richest, healthiest, or best educated—or the opposite—the answer will generally come in the form of a national name. Whether on maps, tables, or charts, the country is the category that counts.

Our atlas starts from the premise that, while sovereign states are certainly the essential units of the geopolitical order, they are not necessarily appropriate units of socio-economic comparison. In actuality, countries are ill suited for such purposes. For starters, they are simply not comparable entities, varying enormously in both area and population. We know this, but we rarely let it truly sink in. Consider the discrepancy between China, with 1.3 billion inhabitants, and Tuvalu, with ten thousand. Comparing these two independent states is like weighing a single person against a city of 130,000. To appreciate the absurdity of such an exercise, consider what it would mean to compare either with a hypothetical entity equally far removed in the opposite direction. A country as small relative to Tuvalu as Tuvalu is to China would be inhabited by one twelfth of a person, while a country as large relative to China as China is to Tuvalu would be a galactic polity of 160 trillion inhabitants. No serious study would ever make such a comparison, spanning more than five orders of magnitude. Yet when it comes to assessing the economic and social conditions of the world, making such gargantuan leaps in scale is the price we pay for using country-based data.

Relying on an inappropriate geopolitical framework for social and economic analysis can quickly leads one astray. Consider the CIA World Factbook’s list of countries by average longevity (a list that is replicated in Wikipedia). Surprisingly, one country stands well above all others: Monaco. Whereas twenty-four entries are crowded in the eighty- to eighty-four year life-expectancy range, miniscule Monaco reaches almost ninety (89.7). Intriguingly, the third and fourth places are also occupied by European microstates: San Marino and Andorra. As it turns out, most of the top positions on the CIA list are taken by small, tiny, and smaller-than-tiny polities located in Europe, eastern Asia, and the Caribbean. As a result, some of the seemingly healthiest and wealthiest major countries do not rank particularly high on the longevity index. Germany comes in 32nd out of 223, the United Kingdom is 36th, and the United States trails well back at 50th. A quick glance at the table might make it seem as if the U.S. were bested in life expectancy by almost a quarter of the world. In actuality, the total population of the forty-nine top entries is less than ten per cent of the global sum. That is not exactly a stellar showing for the U.S., especially considering the fact that it is bested by several much poorer countries, including Jordan and Bosnia. Still, the fiftieth-place position indicated by the Factbook is misleadingly low.

The preponderance of microstates in the upper reaches of the longevity list could easily lead to erroneous deductions about country size and public health. The correlation, after all, is striking: sixteen of the top fifty entries on the list have fewer than 100,000 people, while none of the bottom fifty do. One might reasonably conclude that small polities are somehow better able to meet the health needs of their citizens than their more populous neighbors. Could political devolution enhance longevity?

Any such conclusion would be nonsensical. The people of Andorra, a feudal remnant in the Pyrenees sandwiched between France and Spain, may live longer than the average residents of neighboring countries, but they do not out-live the inhabitants of adjacent French and Spanish districts. Put differently, if all Europe were divided into states the size of Monaco (population 36,000), Monaco’s sizable advantage would instantly vanish, as other tiny, wealthy enclaves located in salubrious environments would boast similar longevity figures.

In the end, the CIA rankings are compromised by comparing incommensurable entities. But it is not just the World Factbook that is at fault here. Virtually all numerical assessments of global development shoehorn socio-economic data into the same geopolitical categories, where size means nothing. In the world of international statecraft, to be sure, all sovereign countries are treated as theoretically equivalent individuals, regardless of their population or power. Such pretense may be necessary in the halls of diplomacy, but it does not help anyone grasp the complex patterns of social and economic disparity found across the surface of the earth.

While most global comparisons are made strictly within the framework of sovereign states, which number slightly fewer than 200, the CIA World Factbook employs an expanded list, noting 223 “countries” in its longevity chart. The additional entries are actually dependent territories, most of which boast impressive life-expectancy figures (Cayman Islands, Bermuda, Gibraltar, the Isle of Man, etc.). Such an inclusive approach is beginning to be followed by other major data sources as well, no doubt from a desire to be fair and comprehensive. Just because Greenland and Guernsey lack full independence is no reason to consign them to statistical oblivion. In the process, however, the problem of incomparability is compounded. While all of the world’s independent countries (barring the anomalous Vatican City) have at least 10,000 inhabitants, many dependencies are much smaller. Wikipedia’s inclusive “list of countries by population” bottoms out with 224th-place Pitcairn, which boasts all of fifty residents at last count. Although Pitcairn does not make the CIA’s longevity table, a number of other miniscule dependencies do. Adding these micro-units clutters the list while providing little information of value.

The biggest distortion that results from using states or quasi-states as all-encompassing spatial containers for socio-economic comparison is that lightly populated areas might receive precise scrutiny, while some of the world’s most populous places are subjected to extraordinarily crude aggregation. As a consequence, the residents of small countries literally count for more than do the residents of large ones. An equal appraisal of individual polities, in other words, results in an intrinsically unfair weighting of the individual persons within those polities. In the World Factbook’s tabulation, the average inhabitant of the British dependency of Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha (population 5,660) is inadvertently deemed twenty-six million times more attention-worthy than the average resident of China.

China and India, the world’s demographic giants, are particularly ill-served by being treated as singularities. Not only do these two countries have huge populations—more than a third of the global total between them—but both are characterized by vast regional disparities. As a result, numbers given for China and India as a whole are almost worthless. When overall per capita GDP is calculated in terms of purchasing power parity, China’s $7,500 figure ranks well below the global average of $11,100. But the commercial core areas of eastern China, increasingly vital drivers of the world economy, evince per capita GDP figures well above the world average, reaching $13,000 in Jiangsu, $18,500 in Shanghai, and $46,000 in Hong Kong. In contrast, Guizhou in China’s south-central interior produced only $3,400 worth of goods and services per person in 2010, a figure comparable to that of war-ravaged Iraq. In global comparative terms, China spans the gap between the rich and poor worlds. Grasping such regional differences is essential for understanding the economy of China, and hence that of the world. Yet in the standard method of tabulating and portraying global economic data, such disparities remain invisible.*

The depiction of the world as divided into supposedly comparable individual geopolitical entities reaches its extreme form in a number of almanacs and children’s atlases in which each country is accorded its own map and page or two of text. In such cases, China typically receives a bit more attention than Tuvalu—but not much. The genre is nicely parodied in Our Dumb World: The Onion’s Atlas of the Planet Earth. Its mocking caption for San Marino, whose 32,000 people inhabit twenty-four square miles, reads, “These A**holes Don’t Belong In An Atlas,” while the text focuses on the absurdity of elevating such an insignificant piece of territory to the same level as that of major countries. A sidebar, entitled “A Marino You Should Care About,” claims that “Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino achieved more during his 17-year Hall of Fame career than the ‘nation’ of San Marino has managed to accomplish since A.D. 301.” In actuality, the history of the little state is rather more illustrious than that; in early modern Europe, San Marino was often highlighted by geographers because of the fact that it was a rare republic (officially, “the most serene republic”) during a period of monarchical dominance. But the humorists at The Onion have a point; putting San Marino at the same level as Italy, let alone India, is an exercise in absurdity.

How might such absurdity be avoided? This is a complex issue that will occupy the pages of GeoCurrents over the next several weeks.


* Hong Kong, a Special Administrative Region of China, with its own laws and currency, is usually tabulated separately from the rest of the country

The Demic Atlas Project: Toward a Non-State-Based Approach to Mapping Global Economic and Social Development, by Martin W. Lewis, Jake Coolidge, and Anne Fredell Read More »

GeoCurrents Master Map

Sample of GeoCurrents Master MapThanks to the skill and effort of GeoCurrents technical expert Kevin Morton, an interactive map linking to previous blog postings is now available. You can access the GeoCurrents Master Map here, or by clicking the banner at the top of each page for future convenience. Pins have been placed on a Google world map to indicate the locations of specific posts. If one hovers over a pin, the opening section of the relevant post will appear on the screen. The full post can be opened by clicking on the pin. Some pins are keyed to multiple posts, samples of which will appear if the pin is clicked. Posts of global scope are pinned  to Stanford University near Palo Alto, California, the home of GeoCurrents. In some places pins are too clustered to discern, but the map can be easily enlarged to spread them out. Although the Google base-map uses a Mercator projection that severely exaggerates the extent of high latitude areas, it is a fully scalable map, allowing one to zoom in on highly specific locations. Such a feature is very valuable in a map of this kind.

The master map immediately shows which parts of the world have been covered extensively in the blog and which have been slighted. As can be immediately seen if one opens the map, northern Eurasia has few posts and southern Africa has none at all. South America has also received relatively little coverage. I was not fully aware of this geographical imbalance until I saw the finished map. As GeoCurrents aims for global coverage, a number of posts will turn to these neglected areas when intensive blogging of current events resumes in September.

GeoCurrents Master Map Read More »

Clickable GeoCurrents Base Maps Available for Free Download

Free Download of GeoCurrents Base-MapsDear Readers,

GeoCurrents has been inactive recently, as I have been working on a non-state-based atlas of economic and social development that will appear on the blog later this summer. This project has been demanding, in part because all the information necessary to construct the maps is gathered by, and organized around, states! The new maps will also be much more sophisticated than the maps previously used on GeoCurrents, as they will be based on GIS (geographical information systems) techniques. Previously, all original GeoCurrents maps have been made by hand in Keynote, the Apple presentation program that competes with PowerPoint. Making such maps involves the laborious process of outlining the shapes of geopolitical units on basic maps held in the public domain. Once the outlines have been made, the resulting country-shapes can be easily manipulated through a few simple clicks, allowing one to instantly change country color, boundary color and thickness, and so on.  Keynote’s “shape” feature allows one to easily draw on the maps to show additional features.

Several of these GeoCurrents base maps are now available for free download here: 

Keynote Base Maps (2961 downloads )

If one has an Apple computer and the Keynote program, the maps are remarkably easy to use: just click on a country (or US state) to change it as you see fit. Keynote’s transparency feature is quite useful as well. Country shapes can also be dragged out of place and then placed back where they belong (to place shapes precisely, make sure that the “guidelines” are turned off). The download includes maps of the world, Europe, Asia, Africa, the United States, and a part of the Middle East. Feel free to use these maps as you like.

If you carefully examine these maps, you will see that that the boundary lines are not necessarily of uniform thickness, as the boundaries of adjacent states are not always perfectly traced over each other. One can improve the fit, however, by clicking twice on a given country, focusing in on a segment of its boundary-zone, and then dragging the circles that form the outline to align them more closely with the outline of a neighboring state. It may sound complicated, but Keynote is relatively easy to use, as most of its steps are intuitive.

Clickable GeoCurrents Base Maps Available for Free Download Read More »

Key to Map of Geopolitical Anomalies

Map of a Selection of Geopolitical Anomalies

Map of a Selection of Geopolitical AnomaliesAs the title indicates, only a selection of geopolitical anomalies are indicated on the map. Many more are ignored, including the Basque nationalist movement, the Catalan nationality seeking status as a nation, the British bastion of Gibraltar, and the Spanish North African exclaves of Ceuta and Melilla—and that is merely for Spain and environs. In regard to colonial remnants, those of France are emphasized, as they are particularly extensive, scattered, and of diverse geopolitical status. A comprehensive map would have to be so involved as to be virtually unreadable. As noted below, some places, marked with #’s, are so geopolitically complex as to defy labels.

Many of the selected places have been analyzed in GeoCurrents, as linked to below (note: links are functional only through the letter “s”).  The other, I hope, will the subjects of future posts.


# (Particularly Complex Anomalies): Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq, and Israel/Palestinian Territories indicated. Here one finds multiple irregularities and challenges to the ideals of the nation-state and indeed the territorial state itself.

Armed “Cease-Fire” Statelet: The United Wa State in northern Burma (Myanmar) indicated. The United Wa State is a well-armed narco-statelet, that had long been an a cease-fire relationship with the Burmese government. That relationship is now in doubt. Ethnic militias abound around the peripheries of Burma, some of which have signed similar cease-fire agreements with the government.

Autonomous Country: Faroe Islands indicated. The Faroe Islands, like Greenland, form an autonomous country within the Kingdom of Denmark. Despite being under the sovereignty of Demark, and despite being in Europe, they are not part of the European Union.

Autonomy & Insurgency: Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao in the Philippines indicated. A section of Mindanao and most of the Sulu Archipelago have been granted limited autonomy within the Philippines, but that has not stopped the Muslim insurgency in the region, in part because of the autonomous region’s restricted boundaries. State-sanctioned private militias have also played a role, undermining the notion that the state itself has a monopoly on the “legitimate” use of violence.


Barely Recognized Puppet State: Abkhazia indicated. Abkhazia is a de facto independent state that the international community regards as part of Georgia. Many consider it to be a Russian puppet state. Recognized as a legitimate state by Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Nauru, and, as of June 7, 2011, Vanuatu.  Nauru reportedly sold its recognition to Russia for $50 million. Many consider Abkhazia, to be a Russian puppet state. The situation is similar in regard to nearby South Ossetia.

Bifurcating Country?: Nigeria indicated. The split between northern and southern Nigeria is intensifying, bringing into question the future integrity of the country.

Bipolar Country, Currently Split: Libya indicated. Libya formed a relatively coherent country until recently, but it was always deeply split east from west. It is currently divided largely along those lines.

British Territory claimed by Argentina: Falkland Islands/Malvinas, South George, etc. indicated. The Falkland/Malvinas controversy makes for a particularly tense territorial dispute that seems to be heating up again. Discussions in the news almost invariably leave out South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.

City State: Singapore indicated. Strictly speaking, city-states are not nation-states, as they lack an adequate territorial extent. Following the standard world model, most observers predicted economic disaster for Singapore when it gained independence in 1965. They were spectacularly wrong. Singapore’s military requires agreements with other Southeast Asian countries to give it adequate room in which to train.


Collapsed State: Somalia indicated. Somalia ceased to be a functioning state and a coherent country in 1991, yet it continues to be mapped as sold and sovereign state. The territory controlled by its internationally recognized government continues to fluctuate, but it often encompasses little more than a few neighborhoods of Mogadishu. That government is always described as “transitional,” but it is far from clear what it is “transitioning” from and to.

Composite Country of Four Nations: United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland indicated.  The U.K. is the sovereign entity that is officially composed of four nations (England, Scotland, Wales, and (Northern) Ireland. For several athletic purposes, Ireland as a whole is a nation once again.


Contested Borders: India/China border indicated, as well as Chile/Bolivia border. Contested border are scattered across much of the world, but the conflict between India and China, which entails Pakistan as well, is particularly intricate and problematic. The dispute between Chile and Bolivia is of long-standing and is seemingly irresolvable.

Contested Islands: Southernmost Kuril Islands, Dokdo/Takeshima, Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands indicated. Some of the world’s most intense territorial disputes concern islands in East Asian waters. Japan, Russia, South Korea, China, and Taiwan are parties to the various disputes indicated here.

Crown Colony Financial Refuge: Isle of Man indicated. Crown colonies have an anomalous position; they are not part of the UK, although they remain under its sovereign umbrella. As they have their own financial laws, they have become globally important centers of the dubious “off-shore banking industry.”  The Channel Islands are in the same category.

Country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands: Curaçao indicated. Like several other former Dutch colonies in the Caribbean, Curaçao is now officially a constituent country with the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Hence it is a country without sovereignty.


Defeated Insurgent State: Northern Sri Lanka indicated. Northern and part of eastern Sri Lanka formed an insurgent state for decades until defeated in 2009. According to some reports, the area is now treated essentially as an occupied territory. It will take some time to see whether Sri Lanka can become an coherent state. Nation-state status seems out of the question for the time being, considering the high levels of antipathy between the Tamil minority and the Sinhalese majority.

Divided State: Cyprus indicated. Cyprus is supposedly a single-island country, but in actuality it is divided into three sovereign entities. The Republic of Cyprus occupies most of the southern portion of the island. The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, recognized as a sovereign state only by Turkey, occupies most of the north. A buffer zone separates the two states. In addition, the U.K. maintains sovereign control over two military bases, Akrotiri and Dhekelia, on the island.

Dutch Municipality: Saba indicated. When the Netherlands Antilles was disbanded in 2010, several of its constituent islands became constituent countries within the Dutch kingdom. Others, such as Saba, became special Dutch municipalities—so special that they use the US dollar as their currency and employ English as the medium of instruction in their schools.

Encapsulated State: Lesotho indicated. The oddity of Lesotho, a country completely surrounded by another (South Africa), is often overlooked. Such encapsulation compromises Lesotho’s sovereign integrity. The world’s only other encapsulated countries are micro-states (San Marino and the Vatican City).


Exclave in Rebellion: Cabinda indicated. Cabinda, an oil-rich exclave of Angola, has been in rebellion for some time.

Federation: United Arab Emirates (UAE) indicated. The UAE is a relatively loose federal state; as a result, it cannot be regarded as a nation-state. Its largest constituent emirates, Abu Dhabi and Dubai, are often treated in the media as if they were independent countries.

Feudal Remnant: Andorra indicated. The Principality of Andorra, like several other European micro-states, is essentially a remnant of the European pre-modern “feudal” order of parcellized sovereignty. Officially a “co-principality,” Andorra has two heads of state, both of whom are foreigners: the president of France and the Spanish Bishop of Urgell. The president of France is thus a reigning monarch, albeit not of France.

France: Réunion and French Guiana indicated. Réunion and French Guiana, like Martinique and Guadeloupe in the Caribbean, are integral parts of France and hence of the European Union as well. France is thus (in part) a South American country, just as the EU is a South American organization.

French Territory: Kerguelen and other French Sub-Antarctic islands indicated, as well as Saint Pierre and Miquelon Islands off the coast of Canada. Saint Pierre and Miquelon form a remnant of France’s once vast North American empire. France also controls the sizable (2,800 square miles/7,200 square kilometers) Kerguelen archipelago in the south Indian Ocean.

Global Commons?/Overlapping Wedges: Antarctica indicated. Antarctica is often regarded as a global commons, but seven countries maintain partially overlapping, wedge-shaped claims to the ice-bound continent.

Hollow State: Democratic Republic of Congo indicated. The DR Congo barely functions as a state, its government effectively controlling a relatively a relatively small part of its territory.


Incongruous Commonwealth: Puerto Rico indicated. Puerto Rico, like the Northern Mariana Islands, occupies an incongruous geopolitical position. It is not fully part of the US, but neither is it a mere dependency (as are Guam, American Samoa, etc). Puerto Rica is instead officially classified as a “commonwealth.” Four U.S. states (Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts) also have official “commonwealth” status. There is no connection between the two kinds of commonwealths. In fact, in neither instance does the term “commonwealth” have any real meaning at all.

Kingdom of Multiple Countries: Netherlands indicated. Several former Dutch colonies in the Caribbean are now classified as constituent countries of the Kingdom the Netherlands. Denmark is also a kingdom of multiple countries.

Legal Buffer: Zone of Excision: Sea-space around northern Australia indicated. Australia maintains a large oceanic buffer for the purposes of keeping out illegal immigrants. Australian islands within this zone occupy an anomalous geopolitical position.

Legal Autonomy: Aceh in northern Sumatra indicated. Aceh’s seemingly interminable insurgency came to an end in 2005 when the it was granted substantial autonomy as a Special Region of Indonesia. It enjoys legal as well as political autonomy, and has broadly and controversially instituted Sharia (Islamic law).

Looted Lands: Northeast DR Congo and environs indicated. Vast areas here are not under the effective control of any state; rival militias often loot and plunder with virtual impunity, despite the presence of U.N. “peacekeepers.” The vicious Lord’s Resistance Army continues to operate out of its stronghold in Garamba National Park in northeastern DR Congo.

Maoist Lands: Upland Areas of Eastern India Indicated.  Vast tracks of land in eastern India are not effectively controlled by the Indian government, due to the presence of Maoist insurgents.

Mostly Claimed by Neighboring State: Guyana indicated. Venezuela claims more than half of Guyana’s territory.

Mostly Unrecognized State: Taiwan indicated.  Taiwan is a de facto independent country, but it only recognized as such by twenty-three sovereign states, mostly located in the Pacific and Caribbean regions. In general, it has to pay for the recognition that it does receive. As a result, Taiwan must rely on euphemistic tags in international forums, where it is generally called “Chinese Taipei.” Taiwan itself claims not just all of China, but all of Mongolia as well as pieces of a number of other countries.

Multinational Federation, Multiple Republics: Russian Federation (Russia) indicated. Russia is officially a multinational federation rather than a nation state. As a result, many of its citizens are not Russian in terms of nationality.

Multiple Enclaves/Exclaves: The India/Bangladesh, Kyrgyzstan/Uzbekistan, and Belgium/Netherlands borders are indicated. These boundaries between these countries cannot de drawn as straight lines, as exclave/enclaves abound.

Multiple Kingdoms within a Country: Uganda indicated. Uganda contain several indigenous kingdoms that retain strong symbolic positions that sometimes influence national politics.


Multiple State Claims: Spratly Islands indicated. All or part of the Spratly Islands are claimed by China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines, resulting in pronounced international tension.

Narco-Territories: Scattered areas in northern Mexico indicated. To the extent that the Mexican government is fighting a real war against narcotics traffickers in its own territory, its sovereignty over the lands in question is severely compromised.

Nation Larger Than State: Tajikistan indicated. Tajikistan, as its name indicates, is nationally based on the Tajik ethnic group, yet many more Tajiks live outside of Tajikistan than within it. A number of other countries, including Laos, Azerbaijan, and Mongolia, are in the same category.

National Division?: Zulia region of Venezuela indicated. A non-Venezuelan sense of national identity seems to be growing the Zulia region around Lake Maracaibo in northwestern Venezuela. Zulia has long been in cultural opposition to the rest of the country; brands that sell well in Caracas generally don’t sell in Zulia, and vice versa.

New State?: Southern Sudan indicated. Southern Sudan is scheduled to become a new, internationally recognized state this summer. Its future and its border with Sudan remain in doubt.


Non-Administered Tribal Areas: The Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan indicated. The Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan are not actually “federally administered.” In fact, they are really not really administered at all, as they remain tribally autonomous.

Non-Autonomous Autonomous Areas: Xinjiang, and Tibet in China indicated. Several large areas of China have been designated as “autonomous areas” due to the presence of large, indigenous non-Han Chinese populations; little if any real, autonomy, however, has ever been granted. Movements for independence, or at least real autonomy, are active in both areas. Tibet in particular has a large “virtual” movement for independence, found on the internet.


Non-Congruent Borders/Administration: Egypt/Sudan border indicated. The administrative border here does not coincide with the official border. The Hala’ib Triangle is claimed by Sudan but administered by Egypt; the nearby Bir Tawil triangle (which is not triangularly shaped) is claimed by neither state. As a result, Bir Tawil is officially terra nullius, claimed by no state. The only other land in the same category is Marie Byrd Land in Antarctica.

Non-National State: Belgium indicated. Any sense of Belgium nationality is extraordinarily weak; even as a state, Belgium is tottering. But that is of little account, as both the regional governments of Belgium and the supra-state European Union are of more significance than the “national” government of the country.

Non-Sovereign County: Greenland indicated. Greenland is now officially a constituent country within the kingdom of Denmark.

Non-Sovereign Sovereign States: The United States of America indicated. A number of the constituent states of the United States of America have officially declared their sovereignty. But the sovereignty that they have declared is far from genuine sovereignty as the term is generally understood.

Non-Territorial Sovereign Entities: Rome indicated. The Vatican City is an widely recognized sovereign state, but its realm consists of a cluster of buildings—an area hardly large enough to constitute a genuine territorial state. The Sovereign Military Order of Malta (Knights of Malta), recognized as sovereign by 104 states, is also headquartered in Rome. Its sovereignty might be said to extend over two buildings.

One Country, Numerous “First Nations”: Canada indicated. The indigenous peoples of Canada are officially designated as “first nations.” Considering as well Quebecoise separatism, Canada can hardly be considered a nation-state.

One Nation, Two States: Korea indicated. The Koreans in general have an extremely strong sense of national identity, but the nation has been split between two antagonistic states for decades.

Permanently Leased Sovereignty: Guantanamo Bay in Cuba indicated. Guantanamo Bay is officially part of Cuba, but the United States controls it, and exercises effective sovereignty over it, through an unbreakable lease. The minimal annual payments made by the U.S. government are never redeemed by Cuba.

Plurinational State: Bolivia indicated. Bolivia is constitutionally a “plurinational state” composed of several nations. Hence it is by definition not a nation-state.

Proclaimed but Non-Existent States: Communitarian Republic of Moskitia and Republic of Hau Pakumoto indicated. In both cases, indigenous groups demanding independence have declared their own sovereignty, but such declarations have little meaning, and are essentially ceremonial.

Proclaimed Virtual State Entity. The northern Caucasus republics of Russia indicated.  The Russian republics of the northern Caucasus, including mostly Christan North Ossetia, have been deemed by Islamist forces to form the Caucasus Emirate, a “self-proclaimed virtual state entity.”

Protectorate: Bosnia and Herzegovina indicated. Bosnia and Herzegovina is recognized as a sovereign state, but it does not function as one, being split between a “Serb Republic” (Republika Srpska) and a barely functional “Bosniak-Croat Federation” (Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina). Ultimate authority for the country as a whole is in the hands of the European Union’s High Representative, making Bosnia and Herzegovina something of an EU protectorate. The division between “Bosnia” and “Herzegovina,” moreover, is largely historical and has no bearing on the country’s actual divisions.

Protracted Insurgency: Indonesian portion of New Guinea indicated. Western New Guinea was incorporated into Indonesia in the 1960s through a process that most international observers regard as underhanded. A smoldering but widespread insurrection has been going on ever since. Similar problems have occurred elsewhere in eastern Indonesia.

Quasi-Colonial Financial Refuge: Cayman Islands indicated. The Cayman Islands, like several other islands and island groups in the Caribbean, are legally autonomous British dependencies, which allows them to engage in shady and highly profitable financial dealings.


Quasi-Sovereign Reservations: Four-corners area of the United States indicated.American Indian reservations are regarded as having tribal sovereignty, but such sovereignty is a far cry from true sovereignty.


Quasi-State Special Administrative Regions: Hong Kong and Macao indicated. Hong Kong and Macao are officially part of China, but they have their governments, legal codes, and border controls. When it comes to international statistics, they are often tallied as if they were independent countries.


Rebellious Panhandle: Caprivi Strip of Namibia indicated. Countries ideally have compact shapes, but not all do. Namibia’s narrow Caprivi Strip gives the country a particularly aberrant form, which it acquired from the German imperial drive to obtain a access to the Zambezi River for its the colony of Southwest Africa. The Caprivi Strip has long been the site of insurgent activities.

Real but Unrecognized State: Somaliland indicatedSomaliland is a functional and relatively well-run state within the official boundaries of the collapsed state of Somalia. Although it has declared its own statehood, it lacks, international recognition. Ethiopia, however, unofficially recognizes it.

Recognized State in “Free Association” with Another: Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) indicated. FSM is internationally recognized as independent and is a member of the UN. Yet it remains tightly linked to and essentially dependent on the United States. The Marshall Islands and Palau fall in the same category.


Reunited Country?: Ivory Coast (Côte d’Ivoire) indicated. From 2003 to 2010, Ivory Coast was a divided country. It remains to be seen whether its recent reunion will hold.


Self-Declared State: Ambazonia indicated. Ambazonia, the former British, Anglophone part of Cameroon, has “declared” independence from the Francophone core of the country.

Smugglers’ Lands: Parts of Eastern Paraguay indicated. Paraguay’s control over many of its border districts remains minimal, as these areas have long been under the effective control of smuggling operations.

State Lacking Legitimate Monopoly on Violence: Lebanon indicated. The Shiite Organization Hezbollah is a legitimate part of the Lebanese government, yet it retains its own separate militia which is more powerful than the national military.

Stateless Nations: Greater Balochistan, Kurdistan, and Oromia indicated. A number of relatively coherent nations—groups of people with a common political identity aspiring to independence—have no state of their own. Among the largest of these so-called stateless nations are Kurdistan, partitioned among Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria, Balochistan, divided among Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan, and Oromia, a region of Ethiopia.

Stateless People: The Rohingya area of western Burma (Myanmar) indicated. Most Rohingya people have been denied Burmese citizenship/nationality, a situation that has generated a human-rights catastrophe.

Sui Generis Collectivity. New Caledonia indicated. New Caledonia is a possession of France; its geopolitical position is so anomalous that it is officially designated as “Sui Generis Collectivity.” (geocurrents.info/geopolitics/new-caledonias-unique-troubles)

Tax Haven. Norfolk Island indicatedNorfolk Island is a geopolitically anomalous part of Australia, allowing it to function as an international tax haven.

Theatrical Insurgency. Chiapas Mexico indicated. The Zapatista Army of National Liberation has declared “war” on Mexico, but its struggle is in large part theatrical.

Tribal Wars: Papua New Guinea indicated. With hundreds ethnic groups, Papua New Guinea (PNG) lacks effective control over much of its territory, where small-scale tribal wars are common. A more organized and protracted insurgency has long smoldered in the mineral-rich island of Bouganville, part of PNG politically, but physically joined to the Solomon Islands. The Solomon Islands are another unstable country, plagued by conflict between the residents of the islands of Guadalcanal and Malaita. Much of Melanesia forms an “arc of instability” that has required periodic intervention by Australia and other countries. (geocurrents.info/geopolitics/tribal-war-and-natural-gas-in-papua-new-guinea; geocurrents.info/geopolitics/ethnic-strife-and-cultural-solidarity-in-melanesia).

Unclaimed Insurgency. Southern Thailand indicated. The brutal insurgency in Southern Thailand, a largely Muslim, Malay-speaking area, has made no over political claims. Some observers think that it is propelled in part by thre drug kratom. (geocurrents.info/geopolitics/southern-thailand-a-kratom-fueled-insurgency).

Uncontrolled Lands: Central, southern Sahara indicated. Vast stretches of the Sahara Desert are not under the effective control of any government, regardless what our maps tell us. Tribal groups and Islamist militants vie for control in many areas.


Unrecognized Dependent State. Nagorno-Karabakh indicated. Nagorno-Karabakh styles itself an independent state, but in actuality it is joined with Armenia.  According to the international community, it is part of Azerbaijan.

Unrecognized Puppet State: Transnistria (Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic) indicated. Transnistria is a de facto independent state that the international community regards as part of Moldova. Many consider it to be a Russian puppet state.

Unrecognized State in “Free Association” With Another: Cook Islands indicated. The Cook Islands are in “free association” with New Zealand, just as the Federated States of Micronesia are in “free association” with the United States. But the Cook Islands, unlike FSM, is not counted as an independent country by the international community.

Vanquished Areas. Darfur indicated. The insurgency in Darfur has largely been broken, but that does not mean that the region has been reintegrated in a meaningful sense into the state of Sudan, let alone the nation.

Vast French Sea-Space: French Polynesia indicated. France, like several other countries, has a number of far-flung dependencies and exclaves, many of which are archipelagic. As countries are granted 200-nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zones around each island that they control, France in effect retains a vast oceanic realm.

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About GeoCurrents

Map of a Selection of Geopolitical Anomalies

GeoCurrents is a map-illustrated forum dedicated to exploring global geography. Most posts link to current events, supplying historical background, spatial analysis, and political and intellectual context. Events both major (rebellion in Libya) and minor (protests in Tripura, India) are covered, provided they bear on larger issues and have a clear geographic expression. Whenever possible, local perspectives and divergent views are incorporated and analyzed; comments and criticism from informed readers are always welcome.

GeoCurrents is particularly interested in the cultural dimensions of geopolitical complexity. Many posts describe the ways in which religion, language, and regionalism influence intra- and international disputes, emphasizing the linkage between specific conflicts and particular places. In most cases, this approach reveals a considerably more intricate spatial relations than conventional reportage conveys. Ivory Coast, for example, turns out to be divided not just along north-south lines, as conventional wisdom has it, but in a more complex three-way split separating the north from both south and center. Likewise, while mainstream media reports are content to note that Syria’s embattled government is dominated by the Alawite minority, members of a Shiite-derived sect, GeoCurrents delves deeper. It outlines Alawite beliefs, maps where most Alawites live and explains why that matters, and describes the ways in which Syria’s history of sectarian division has shaped its political evolution.

Above all, GeoCurrents is devoted to mapping. Almost all posts rely heavily on maps, many made expressly for the blog. Some entries center on cartography itself, as well as other forms of geographical depiction. Misleading maps in the media and reference works are periodically critiqued, as is the deceptive marshalling of statistical information. Attention is also occasionally drawn to innovative, useful, or elegant maps. The blog further seeks to devise alternative methods of mapping the world. During the summer of 2011, most posts will be devoted to the construction of a non-state-based atlas of global social and economic development, attempting to improve on the familiar division of the world into sovereign countries—an issue that lies at the core of GeoCurrents’ conceptual concerns.

GeoCurrents ultimately rests on the conviction that the conventional state-based model of the world, manifest in the basic political map posted here, provides an inadequate framework for global comprehension. Its signal flaw is its partitioning of the world’s landmasses into absolute and formally equivalent political units. These entities are regarded as exercising complete power over precisely delineated, compact territories. They are conceptualized as political individuals, entities of the same kind, occupying the same level in the spatial hierarchy of political power. These foundational units are variably called sovereign states, countries, nations, and nation-states, terms of once-distinct meaning that have come to function broadly as synonyms. In the process of terminological convergence, a particular view of geopolitical organization is unthinkingly advanced: one that takes sovereignty, territory, and national cohesion to be necessarily congruent. In the standard world model, sovereign states are nations by default, their people assumed to be bound together in identification with their countries. Such sovereign totalities in turn validate each other’s claims to lands and peoples as the components of the so-called international community, mirrored almost exactly by the membership roll of the U.N.

As anyone who follows the news is bound to discover on a daily basis, however, global political geography is a vastly more complex and interesting affair. Whereas the standard world model is based on ideal types, GeoCurrents reveals messiness and ambiguity. As the blog’s posts lay out in detail, the world we inhabit abounds in geopolitical anomalies: imaginary states, stateless nations, nationless states, officially non-national states, partially recognized and fully unrecognized sovereign entities, non-sovereign sovereign states and tribes, proclaimed but non-existent states, insurgent states, non-sovereign countries, countries containing several nations, kingdoms composed of multiple countries, countries containing multiple kingdoms, and so on. (One widely recognized sovereign entity has no territory or territorial claims whatsoever, its domain limited to two buildings.) The number of sovereign states, moreover, is impossible to peg, just as the boundaries between countries cannot always be reduced to simple lines. Finally, whatever form they take, countries are not necessarily comparable entities. They differ in both their spatial and demographic dimensions by more than five orders of magnitude—a more massive jump in scale than we commonly realize. To put Nauru in the same category with China is like comparing a one-mile stroll with walking around the Earth four times.

Indeed, the closer one looks, the more slippery all the key terms of the standard model appear. The concept of sovereignty, for example, might seem straightforward: countries are sovereign if they are independent. In practice, though, “sovereignty” has a number of meanings, which do not necessarily coincide on the ground. As Stephen Krasner argues, the concept ultimately amounts to nothing less than “organized hypocrisy” (the title of his penetrating book on the subject).* As Krasner contends,

Most observers and analysts of international relations have treated sovereign states as an analytic assumption or as a well-institutionalized if not taken-for-granted structure. The bundle of properties associated with sovereignty—territory, recognition, autonomy, and control—have been understood, often implicitly, to characterize states in the international system. In fact, however, only a few states have possessed all of these attributes.

The defects of the standard view are of more than academic significance. Reliance on a global model based on diplomatic pretense often generates blunders, sometimes with tragic results. Nowhere is such failure more evident than in US-led policy in Afghanistan and Iraq. Efforts that were supposed to spread democracy, peace, and prosperity instead sapped Western influence, generated chaos in the target countries, endangered local Christian communities, and energized radical Islam. The United States and its allies continue to bleed money and lives on seemingly unwinnable conflicts—and cannot figure out how to escape. It is impossible to know, of course, what would have happened in Afghanistan and Iraq had the military incursions never been carried out, or had different policies been pursued after the toppling of the old regimes. But it is clear that the predictions made by U.S. government officials and their supporters about the cost and duration of the wars, as well as those focused on post-war reconstruction, were staggeringly incorrect.

Given the quagmires that followed, the origins of the Afghan and Iraqi regime-change gambits call for extended examination. Hubris on the part of war-planners has often been highlighted, but it is the contention of GeoCurrents that deeper conceptual failures lay at the root. Afghanistan and Iraq, simply put, were misconstrued as coherent nation-states. As a result, it was assumed that their people were united enough to make the compromises necessary to run democratic governments. By the same token, the ethnic and religious divisions found in both countries were thought to be contained within broader nationalisms. Regarded as nation-states, Afghanistan and Iraq were expected to function as nation-states. All that was needed was a change in regimes, followed by an inexpensive round of “nation-building”** focused on institutions and infrastructure.

In actuality, neither Iraq nor Afghanistan have ever been genuine nation-states. In both countries, the state was imposed on a variegated populace for whom the bonds of ethnicity and sect, if not those of clan, tribe, and community, have remained much stronger than those of the putative nation. Where national unity is little more than a façade, the state can easily be torn down by a strong external force, as was the case in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. But neither could be readily reassembled, for the social adhesive necessary for regeneration was simply not present. Had American and British leaders realized that both countries lacked solid national foundations, perhaps they would never have entertained the fantasy that toppling their regimes to install elected governments would be a cheap and easy route to regional stability.

Critics may note that public opinion surveys often indicate the opposite, showing relatively high levels of national identity across most of the world. When polled on the matter, most educated residents of country “X” will indeed affirm an “Xian” nationality. Yet these identities are often too shallow to be of much consequence. Most weakly consolidated countries have long engaged in “nation-building” projects to instill a common sense of identity, hammering the message home through schools and the media. Such efforts have generally proved superficially successful. What matters in the end, however, is not abstract responses on surveys, but whether people behave in a manner congruent with national sentiments. Even vehement expressions of mass patriotism do not necessarily indicate genuine national bonds. Most residents of Pakistan, for example, fiercely proclaim their Pakistani status, but they do so largely in opposition to India, Israel, and the United States. In domestic affairs, the country is rent by such deep ethnic, regional, and religious divisions that its integrity as a state, let alone a nation, is severely challenged. The negative nationalism found in Pakistan and several other countries has so far proven inadequate for the construction of a functional nation-state.

Rather than taking proclamations of national identity at face value, GeoCurrents seeks to measure national consolidation in more subtle ways. For democratic countries, voting patterns provide one of the best metrics. Where individual parties and candidates compete across a given country’s territory, successfully appealing to voters living in different regions and belonging to divergent ethnic groups, a high degree of national cohesion is indicated. In contrast, weak to non-existent national bonds are indicated where certain parties consistently achieve overwhelming victories in some regions while suffering overwhelming defeats in others. Chile is a good example of a country in the former category, while Ukraine and Nigeria exemplify the latter.

Finally, it is worth noting that GeoCurrents aims to be instructive rather than polemical. Controversial issues are often discussed, but the goal is to approach each new issue on its own terms, without an overarching theoretical commitment or predetermined position. While many voices are aired, seldom is a particular perspective endorsed. In practice, of course, maintaining a completely disinterested attitude to ongoing global conflicts is not possible, but fair-mindedness and impartiality remain the guiding ideal.

* Stephen D. Krasner, Sovereignty: Organized Hypocrisy. Princeton University Press, 1999, page 220.

**As the idea of the nation was stripped of its original meanings in order to fit the standard world model, so too the concept of nation-building was transformed. Originally referring to efforts to generate a sense of national belonging, nation-building came to denote the construction of effective governmental institutions—state-building, in essence. In the wreckage of Iraq and Afghanistan, the term is being downgraded again, this time to focus more narrowly on physical infrastructure. In an August 31, 2010 op-ed piece in the New York Times, David Brooks declared nation-building in Iraq a relative success, noting that the country had acquired many more internet connections and telephones than it had had under Saddam Hussein, little matter that Iraq cannot form a stable and effective government, no matter that its constituent communities remain at each other’s throats, unable to establish trust across religious, linguistic, and tribal lines.

>>>See the key to the GeoCurrents map of geopolitical anomalies.>>>

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Last Insights into Global Economic Inequality

Calculations of economic development are usually separated from considerations of population and physical geography. The map above, which introduces the concept of GDP Density. This approach shows how much economic value is generated per unit of land. The map clearly displays not only which areas are the most economically productive, but it also shows that areas of extremely low population density produce relatively little, even if they are wealthy in per capita terms. Northern Canada and Alaska as well as the Australian Outback are thus mapped as having extremely low levels of GDP density. Although Africa overall is shown as having a low level of GDP density, several of its more densely populated regions are depicted as fairly productive. Other trends also stand out, such as the coastal focus of economic activity in South America. Finally, even though China and India are still relatively poor ”developing countries,” their huge populations help generate high levels of GDP density.

The map does, however, have a number of drawbacks and limitations. The data on which it is based are themselves problematic. GDP is calculated on a country-by-country basis, which leaves out regional inequalities within sovereign states. In India especially, huge economic disparities are ignored, which makes it appear as if Bihar were more economically productive than western Maharashtra just because it is more densely populated. Also, the level of resolution vastly varies across the map. For example, the United States is mapped largely at the county level, which provides a fairly detailed portrayal, whereas Russia is divided into much larger areas, mostly oblasts. As a result, Russia’s Arctic coastline is depicted as having much higher levels of economic activity than is justified. Finally, low-population areas that have highly productive mineral economies are left off the map. The mining zones of northwestern Australia, for example, produce a significant portion of the country’s wealth, yet one would never know this from the map.

This is my last post for Geocurrents, as my independent study on the geography of economic disparities has come to an end. While examining numerically calculated measurements of inequality, I concluded that although indexes can provide broad comparative insight about unequality among countries, it is very challenging to compare inequality between countries of different levels of economic development. In focusing on global inequality trends, I showed how the increasing prosperity of countries such as China is not evenly distributed; as a result, inequality within countries is becoming just as important as inequality between countries. However, as discussed by the Brookings Institution, although many countries are becoming richer and less egalitarian, failed states remain mired in relatively equally distributed poverty. Finally, I took a closer look at intra-nation inequality, specifically in Japan, South Africa, and the United States. All of these countries are characterized by different types of economic disparity, which interact with each other. In particular, I looked at three specific layers: regional disparities, the rural-urban divide, as well as the intricacies of wealth in urban areas. These layers exist everywhere, demonstrating the complexity and depth of economic inequality.

Although most of my Geocurrents entries delved into issues of economic inequality, I also took up two unrelated issues: the uprisings in the Middle East as foreseen by the Economist’s “Shoe-Thrower’s Index,” and national anthems and what they can tell us about their respective countries.

Finally, before signing off, I want to thank Professor Martin Lewis for his time and for being an enormous knowledge resource.

Andrew Linford, 2011


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GeoCurrents Summer Schedule

Dear Readers,

As the academic year is coming to an end at Stanford University, I am currently faced with a large stack of student papers and exams. As a result, blogging will be delayed this week. When I do resume posting, I will focus initially on the blog itself. As you may have noticed, the “About GeoCurrents” section of the blog is essentially empty. My next goal is to provide such a description, which will begin as a regular post before being transferred to the “about” section of the blog .

Beginning next week, I will be gearing up for my summer project, which will entail the construction of a non-state-based atlas of economic and social development. I will post maps from the project on GeoCurrents as they are completed, but it is difficult to determine the production schedule, as I will be learning new cartographic techniques as the project unfolds. At some time next week, however, I will describe the atlas project on this site in more detail, and I will provide some preliminary maps of alternative (non-state-based) ways of dividing the world for such purposes. From June 23rd to July 5th, the website will be inactive, as I will be traveling.  Through the rest of the summer, posts will focus on the atlas project, although if time permits I will also occasionally comment on geographical issues encountered in news reports.

When the new academic year begins in late September, GeoCurrents will again focus on providing map-illusrated analyses of current events.

GeoCurrents Summer Schedule Read More »

Glimpses of Inequality in the United States

Inequality in the United States is a surprisingly complex issue. Although most Americans are aware at some level that major inequalities exist in their country, a substantial gap separates believed comprehension and the actual facts. This entry will explore inequality in the United States primarily through three lenses: regional differences, the rural-urban divide, and inequality within urban areas. Although these lenses are not all-inclusive, they do provide insight into the complexity of inequality in the United States.

Compared to other countries, the United States has relatively high—and growing—levels of inequality, as measured by the Gini coefficient. Although surpassed by the notoriously unequal developing countries of Brazil and South Africa (indexes of 56 and 65 respectively), America’s Gini index is significantly higher than that of most other countries at similar levels of economic development. For example, the Nordic countries have very low Gini indexes, with Sweden as low as 23, but the European Union as a whole is more reflective of developing countries with a coefficient of 31. Historically, the US has had high but fluctuating Gini measurements. In 1929 it was estimated to be 45, but it had declined to 38.6 in 1968, during the height of the Great Society. Since the 1980s it has again increased, reaching 46.8 in 2009.

On the map of GDP per capita by U.S. state, several overarching regional trends are noticeable. The greater Northeast, extending from New Hampshire to Virginia, makes up the wealthiest part of the country. In contrast, the Southeast tends to be much worse off, especially Arkansas and Mississippi. Most states in the Midwest rank near the middle, while the interior West tends to be slightly poorer. The Pacific coastal region, like the northeast, is economically above average. Such generalizations are, of course, very broad, and thus need to be qualified. A close examination of inequality in the United States reveals that the phenomenon is too complex to be considered merely on a state-by-state basis.

More specific patterns are visible in the map of household income by county, at the top of the page. Here Appalachia stands out clearly. The region from West Virginia through the eastern half of Kentucky into Tennessee is one of the poorest areas in the United States. And as can be clearly differentiated in the map to the right, eastern Kentucky clearly stands out as the poorest section of Appalachia.

The county-based map reveals other patterns hidden by the state-level map. Although the Northeast corridor stands out for its prosperity, not all of its counties share equally in the wealth. Marked differences within states are clearly visible, especially the distinction between eastern and western Pennsylvania and upstate versus downstate New York. Also notable is the fact that many areas in the generally poor South, such as Atlanta, do quite well.

Several additional patterns are evident in the map indicating counties of “persistent poverty” (defined as having over 20% of the population under the poverty line for the last four censuses). In particular, as can be explored with these interactive New York Times maps, all of these regions have clear racial correlations. Eastern Kentucky is noteworthy for being the main zone of persistent poverty with a White majority. More striking is the Southern “Black Belt,” which stretches from the Mississippi River to South Carolina. Not only is it the largest area of entrenched poverty, but it is also the only large area in the United States with an African-American majority. Similarly, Latinos heavily populate the persistent poverty areas of southern Texas. Finally, most of the other counties of persistent poverty contain Native American reservations. The largest of these areas is the Four Corners region, especially northwest New Mexico, but scattered reservations in North and South Dakota as well as Alaska also stand out.

The rural-urban divide is also clearly seen on the county-by-county map. Metropolitan regions such as Chicago, Houston, and Denver are substantially richer than their rural peripheries. In general, cities and their suburbs have many more economic opportunities than rural areas. Although not all cities are equally prosperous, and not all stand out clearly from their environs, the rural-urban divide in the United States is plainly evident.

Even though metropolitan areas tend to be more affluent than surrounding areas, cities themselves contain high levels of inequality. Such complexities can be appreciated by examining more localized household income maps of metropolitan Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Oakland:

In all three cities, significant income differences are found at the neighborhood level. Downtown areas generally have significantly lower income levels than peripheral neighborhoods, which is the general pattern in American cities. These maps also undermine several stereotypes, such as the notion that San Francisco is wealthy and Oakland poor. Although the average San Franciscan is indeed better off than the average resident of Oakland, tremendous spatial variation is found in both cities. San Francisco contains a number of poor areas, including much of the central business district. The so-called Tenderloin in particular is infamous for its poverty and homelessness. In contrast,  the eastern Oakland hills are roughly as affluent as the wealthiest neighborhoods of San Francisco. As all three maps demonstrate, geographic economic disparities are most extreme within cities. The broader and more generalized maps are, the more they tend to oversimplify.

The Theil index calculates how much various counties add to or subtract from the overall level of inequality in the United States. As can be seen on the map, the Theil index shows that urban areas tend to add the most inequality, whereas poor rural areas, especially those discussed previously, lower overall inequality. The general similarities between this map and the one at the top of the post are notable, especially as more prosperous counties tend to contribute much more to higher level of inequality than poorer countries.  Taken together, these maps indicate some of the challenges of measuring inequality.

In general, the three geographic lenses discussed – regional differences, the rural-urban divide, and inequality within urban areas –provide insight into the complexity of inequality in the United States, but they do not give the full picture. For example, issues of immigration and race, only briefly touched upon, also play an important role in determining levels of inequality.

Americans are generally aware of inequality in their country, but they tend to vastly underestimate it, as shown in the chart to the right. As the recent study of attitudes about inequalities demonstrates, most Americans significantly under-estimate the actual level of inequality found in their country.  Moreover, they would prefer to see levels of equality even greater than their generous over-estimate. Indeed, many pundits discuss the effects of an economically uneven society, but with looming budget deficits, there is little serious consideration of reversing the tide of increasing inequality.

Glimpses of Inequality in the United States Read More »

Inequality Trends in South Africa

GDP by province

GDP per capita by province, South Africa

According to the Gini coefficient, as well as other inequality measurements, South Africa ranks as one of the most unequal countries in the world. Of course, measuring inequality is multidimensional, which particularly applies to South Africa. In discussions of South Africa, severe economic disparities are often highlighted. Much of the country’s inequality stems from apartheid’s effect on different races, but other factors also play important roles.

Three basic forms of geographic inequalities outlined in a previous post also exist in South Africa, namely: regional disparities, a rural-urban divide, and an urban underclass. As can be seen from the map at the top, significant differences mark off South Africa’s regions. The poorer provinces tend to be along the southeastern coast and in the north, whereas the Johannesburg region and the southwest tend to be wealthier (this is also reflected in the map below). The most striking regional disparity is that between the relatively prosperous Western Cape province (which includes Cape Town) and the impoverished Eastern Cape province. This contrast encourages substantial internal migration towards the economic opportunity in Cape Town and away from the poverty of the Eastern Cape.

In South Africa and its main cities
Darker green indicates higher levels of poverty

The maps to the left show the “headcount index,” which measures the proportion of the population living below the poverty line; darker shades of green signify higher levels of impoverishment. As can be clearly seen in the maps, urban centers have relatively few people below the welfare line, especially as compared with rural areas. The rural-urban divide is also detectable on the provincial map at the top, as the two most economically important cities, Johannesburg and Cape Town, are in the two wealthiest regions.

South Africa exemplifies economic differences within urban areas, as it contains some of the most unequal cities in the world. For example, in Cape Town, most migrants from the Eastern Cape live in segregated neighborhoods, separate from the professional areas in central Cape Town. All of these areas, however, are part of one city.

Levels of Inequality in South Africa and its cities
Darker red indicates higher levels of inequality

As can be seen in the maps of “generalized entropy” of inequality (where darker red indicates more unequal conditions), many neighborhoods in the centers of the cities are relatively equal. However, the neighborhoods are very segregated and tend to be equally wealthy or impoverished, but the map does not reflect average income levels

Inequality in South Africa is highly correlated with race. The system of apartheid, instituted from 1948-1994, determined economic possibilities and expectations based on race, contributing deeply to the unequal society that exists today. However, as the book Race, Class, and Inequality in South Africa* shows, apartheid did not have only the effect of increasing general inequality. For example, during early apartheid, the government was able to successfully decrease intra-race disparities. Furthermore, the overall levels of inequality remained fairly consistent, even through apartheid.

The National Party instituted apartheid in South Africa starting in 1948. It codified laws mandating racial categorization and exclusion. In particular, all non-whites were excluded not only from the political system, but also from most respectable jobs and good education. Specifically, apartheid aimed to physically separate the races, which was difficult to carry out in practice. Furthermore, the apartheid government concerned itself greatly with the welfare of the white population, hoping to improve the standing of poor whites As a result, poor people of European background greatly benefited from apartheid, as they were able to move into higher classes, bypassing well-educated non-whites.

Gini coefficients for the distribution of incomeAs can be seen in the table to the left (taken from Race, Class, and Inequality in South Africa), the Gini coefficient for the white population in 1975 stood at a relatively low .36, signifying the success of the apartheid government in bolstering the position of the poorer members of the white community. An essential component of this program was the reservation of well-paying jobs for the white population. Furthermore, when taking into account welfare expenditures and educational opportunities, the white population actually had greater equality than the Gini index shows.

Of course, this leveling of the economic differences within the white population was dependent on the widening gap between white South Africans and everyone else, especially the black Africans. Because the apartheid government restricted the professions that blacks could choose, blacks were basically limited to lower-level jobs.  In fact, this upper limit also facilitated an increase in equality within the black population, as even the well-educated blacks could not find well-paying jobs.

Intra-race inequality vs. inter-race inequalityAfter 1975, the tendency toward increasing intra-racial equality reversed. As can been seen in the table to the right (also from Race, Class, and Inequality in South Africa), recent decades have seen a dramatic increase in inequality within racial groups. In the mid 1970s, the apartheid regime began to loosen its restrictions, allowing some educated non-whites to take higher-level jobs. Also important was the shifting labor market. Jobs requiring little education, particularly in mining, began to diminish after 1975. Without jobs or a solid education to use in the evolving labor force, many non-whites were left without work. These factors, among others, allowed for the increase of inequality within races, even as overall disparities in South Africa remained similar to what they had been.

With the end of apartheid in 1994, the chances for mobility increased. As a result, levels of inequality within all racial groups are slowly beginning to reflect the national average. Indeed, the end of apartheid has given many educated non-whites the opportunity (through dismantling apartheid laws) and assistance (through affirmative action) to obtain professional jobs. However, the vast majority of the black population still suffers severely from lack of marketable skills. Such discrepancies will continue to be felt in the next generation, as levels of education vary tremendously among social classes.

Change of sources of income post-apatheidOne of the main post-apartheid changes to income distribution has come about through governmental redistribution of income through a progressive tax system, along with the creation of social programs to aid the poor.  As the graphs demonstrate, the South African government is continuing to expand its role as a primary income source for much of the country’s impoverished population. Indeed, when government transfers are taken into account, the Gini index of South Africa is significantly reduced. As Race, Class, and Inequality in South Africa states, the Gini coefficient drops to about 0.50 when taxes and cash transfers are taken into account, and are reduced even further, to about 0.44 (a figure similar to that of the United States), when public social spending is added.

As much as the current South African government has been active in promoting income redistribution, the success of the earlier apartheid regime in promoting prosperity and equality among whites has intertwined socioeconomic status and race. In particular, the apartheid government successfully provided an excellent education for the white population, which enabled many whites to retain professional jobs even after the end of mandated segregation. The white population, as well as the newly wealthy non-white population, utilized their economic position to send their children to high-quality schools. As a result, highly unequal levels of education will continue to be reflected by an extremely varied pattern of income distribution.

* Race, Class, and Inequality in South Africa, 2005, Yale University Press, by Jeremy Seekings and Nicoli Nattrass


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