Mapping Recent War Fatalities and the Persistence of Current Armed Conflicts

As noted in the previous GeoCurrent post, the civil war in Burma/Myanmar is one of the bloodiest conflicts in the world today. According to a comprehensive Wikipedia table, its death toll thus far in 2023 is 10,790, the fourth highest in the world. It follows only the Ukraine-Russia war (83,637-100,000+), the war in Sudan (11,501), and the multifaceted insurgency in the Maghreb/Sahel (10,868). Given the rapidly mounting number of fatalities in the current war between Israel and Hamas, however, the rankings for 2023 will probably have to be revised. In any event, in 2022 Burma had the third highest death count if one uses the upper range of estimates found in the table (20,206, as opposed to 109,600+ in Ethiopia and 100,000+ in Ukraine).

Burma’s civil war is also extraordinarily long-lasting, dating from 1948. The only on-going wars listed by the Wikipedia as having started earlier are the Kurdish insurgency in Iran (1918), the “Jamaican political conflict” (1943), and the insurgency in Kashmir (1947). The article also lists the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Baloch insurgency (in Pakistan and Iran) as having begun in the same year as Burma’s civil war, 1948. As of October 6, 2023 – when this post was initially written – none of these other armed conflicts had been nearly as deadly over the previous 10 months as that of Burma. On October 6, the Wikipedia table provided the following 2023 death tolls for these persistent conflicts: Kurdish insurgency in Iran, 147; Jamaican political conflict, 295; insurgency in Kashmir, 433; Israeli-Palestinian conflict, 287; and Baloch insurgency, 500. As of today, however, it gives the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a fatality count of 1,827. All told, if one combines recent death tolls and conflict duration, Burma’s civil war and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seem to be the most serious conflicts in the world today.

The Wikipedia article under consideration includes a serviceable map of the “number of combat-related deaths in current or past year” (posted below). It might seem odd to place Mexico in the highest category (more than 10,000 fatalities), but the source includes “drug wars,” an intriguing but questionable move. As the map shows, wars today are concentrated in northern and central Africa, the Middle East, southern Asia, northern South America, Mexico, and Ukraine & Russia. In contrast, East Asia, Central Asia, Europe, southern Africa, southern South America, northern North America, and Oceania (Australia and the Pacific) are nearly free of armed conflicts.

This map, however, as well as the table that was used to generate it, must be regarded as highly approximate. It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to consistently and accurately tabulate deaths in armed conflicts. Although the Wikipedia article does an admirable job, it misses some deadly conflicts. It does not list Papua New Guinea, for example, as having experienced any combat-related fatalities over the past two years. In actuality, so-called tribal wars in New Guinea’s highlands are ubiquitous. According to a recent article in The Guardian, more than 150 people died in clashes in one province (Enga) in August 2023 alone.

To help visualize the severity and persistence of current armed conflicts, I made several maps based on the same data found in the Wikipedia article. The first map below is probably the most effective. Rather than shoehorning the data into discrete country-based categories, I placed size-graded stars indicating the 2022 fatality count on the actual location of each conflict, to the extent that that is possible. But it often isn’t, as in the case of the Islamist insurgency in the Maghreb/Sahel, which is listed as occurring in 15 separate countries. At any rate, this map seems more effective at revealing the “clustering” of current conflict than the Wikipedia’s map (posted above). If drug wars are excluded, deadly conflicts in 2022 were concentrated in the “Greater Horn of Africa” (including Yemen), Burma and adjacent parts of South Asia, the northern Middle East proper, central Africa, Nigeria and environs, Afghanistan & Pakistan, and Ukraine.

The map of the duration of current armed conflicts, based on the data in the same Wikipedia table, depicts southern Asia as the area with the most persistent conflicts, followed by Central Africa. The final map shows total fatalities by country in 2021. Whether these maps do a better job of conveying the spatial patterns found in the Wikipedia table than the Wikipedia’s own map is for the reader to decide.

Mapping Recent War Fatalities and the Persistence of Current Armed Conflicts Read More »

GeoCurrents Outline Maps and Outline-Map Generator

I have often been frustrated when looking for outline political maps to use in teaching and blogging. It is easy enough to find serviceable outline maps of continents and of conventional world regions (such as the Middle East). It is difficult if not impossible, however, to find them for areas of the world that span continental and world-regional boundaries. As a result, I decided to make my own high-resolution world outline map that can be used to generate outline maps centered on any part of the world. I have spent much of the last month working on this project, and I am now ready to begin sharing the fruits of my labor with the public. This post introduces this project. (Note that the maps of Africa in the previous GeoCurrents posted were all made in this manner.)

The generator map used to make the outline map posted below was done in Keynote, the Apple version of PowerPoint. To make it, I traced out every country, major dependency, and sizable island, generating shapes that can be clicked on and manipulated in different ways. Later this week I will make the Keynote file, as well as a PowerPoint version of it, available for download on this website. Before doing so, however, I want to explain how this map can be used to make outline maps for any part of the world. This post covers the simplest level.

To make the outline map posted above from the underlying generator map, I simply deleted the CIA base map, filled the shapes with color (white), copied the shapes, and then inserted them on a light-blue truncated oval. The map of the islands of Southeast Asia posted below was made simply by taking a screen shot of a segment of the map posted above, enlarging it, and then putting a frame around it. As can be seen, the scale of resolution on the resulting Southeast Asia outline map is serviceable but far from ideal. A much sharper image can be made by using the generator map itself. I have demonstrated the scale of resolution available here with the second map below, showing Indonesia and environs. Making the latter map was a little more complicated, in part because each island and country outlines in the generator map had to be clicked on and selected separately.  All of this will be explained in a later post.

I have also made separate Keynote slides with labels for all countries, larger dependencies, and seas and oceans, all of which are all situated in their proper positions. One can thus simply copy the information from one of these label-slides and then insert it on the unlabeled outline map to make an outline map with labels. Using the label slide in the Keynote and PowerPoint files (to be released later), one can easily change the size, font, color, or position of any of these labels. To make a labeled regional map, one can simply selects the appropriate labels and insert them on a segment of the world outline map. Note that higher-resolution map of insular Southeast Asia with labels for seas with the generator map itself; this will be demonstrated in a later post.



As the generator map is based on the CIA world political map, it shows the political vision of the U.S. State Department rather than that of the United Nations; Kosovo is thus depicted as a separate country rather than as a region of Serbia, the Golan Heights is depicted as part of Israel rather than of Syria, and Western Sahara is shown as part of Morocco rather than as a political entity in its own right. I have, however, placed dash lines to show the division between Morocco and Western Sahara and to show the areas of Kashmir that are claimed but not controlled by India. All U.S.-recognized sovereign states are shown (I think!) except Monaco and the Vatican City; oceanic countries (such as Tulavu) that are too small to trace out are depicted with small stars. The Palestinian Territories, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, are outlined but labeled in italics (as “PT”) to indicate that they do not constitute a sovereign state according to The U.S. State Department. For the same reason, Taiwan is also labeled in italics.

I continue to find small errors and slightly misplaced boundaries on the original generator map, and as a result I am continually refining it. But I have reached a point where I think that the map is good enough for public release. If anybody finds any errors or infelicities on this map, please let me know!

I will also be constructing new sets of label overlays for the generator map, including ones of dependencies, capital cities, and large cities. These overlays will be released as they are completed. I am also making similar regional generator maps based on physical maps that show terrain. I find making such maps useful for teaching, as I can highlight the boundaries of a given country and then talk about the physical characteristics of it that are apparent in the base map. The first of these physical-regional generator maps should be available for release within a few weeks.

GeoCurrents Outline Maps and Outline-Map Generator Read More »

The World’s Three Great Archipelagic Realms, and the Difficulties in Determining What Counts as an Island

When lecturing on early modern history to Stanford students the other day, I remarked that there is nothing on the earth like insular Southeast Asia, with its many thousands of islands ranging in size from huge to tiny. In terms of archipelagic scope, only the Caribbean can compare, I noted, although its islands are much smaller and many fewer in number. And Southeast Asia’s island realm becomes much larger still if one were to include the nearby island clusters of Melanesia (the Bismarck Archipelago and the Solomon Islands).

That evening, however, I realized that there is another great archipelagic realm, that of the Canadian Arctic and Greenland. I tend to neglect this region largely because its population is so small. Greenland, almost all of which is ice covered, has only some 56,000 inhabitants, while the many islands of the Canadian Arctic counts only around 23,000. But as can be seen in the table of large islands posted below, insular Southeast Asia and the Arctic Archipelago are of comparable scope, whereas the Caribbean is distinctly smaller.

If one is concerned, however, only with the sheer number of islands, another archipelago arguably occupies the top ranking. These are the islands of southwestern Finland, sometimes called the Turku Archipelago, whose scenic specks of land are scattered across a relatively small span of water called the Archipelago Sea. As noted in the Wikipedia article on this area:

The Archipelago Sea is a part of the Baltic Sea between the Gulf of Bothnia, the Gulf of Finland, and the Sea of Åland, within Finnish territorial waters. By some definitions it contains the largest archipelago in the world by the number of islands, although many of the islands are very small and tightly clustered. … The total surface area is 8,300 square kilometres (3,205 square miles), of which 2,000 square kilometres (772 square miles) is land. … The number of the larger islands of over 1 square kilometre (0.4 sq mi) within the Archipelago Sea is 257, whilst the number of smaller isles of over 0.5 hectares (1.2 acres) is about 17,700. If the number of smallest uninhabitable rocks and skerries is accounted, 50,000 is probably a good estimate. In comparison, the number of islands in the Canadian Arctic archipelago is 36,563. Indonesia has 17,508 islands, according to the Indonesian Naval Hydro-Oceanographic Office. The Philippines has 7,107 islands.


Finland’s archipelago does not look particularly impressive on most maps, owing to the tiny size of most of its islands. But at the level of resolution increases, more and more islands appear almost everywhere one looks. I have illustrated this point with several Google Maps excerpts, posted below.

As the Wikipedia article on the Archipelago Sea indicates, it is difficult to determine the total number of islands in any body of water, as it depends on the size limit used to differentiate an island from a mere rock or other exiguous area of (generally) dry land. This can be a politically charged matter, as the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea grants every country a 200-nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zone around all its islands, but not around all its rocks.

Such definitional complexities can also give rise to some odd headlines. Just this week, several news agencies announced that Japan had “discovered” some 7,000 new islands in its own waters. But this was much less a matter of discovery than a definitional change coupled with precision mapping. As explained by Scripps News:

The country recounted the number of islands in its territory for the first time in nearly four decades, and found it has over 7,000 more than initially believed. Using digital mapping, the Geopolitical Information Authority of Japan determined it had a total of 14,125 islands. That’s 7,273 more than Japan’s Coat Guard counted in 1987. The definition of “island” is based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of Sea, but there isn’t an international agreement on how nations count their islands. Overall, Japan detected more than 120,000 different pieces of land, but only considered the ones that had a circumference over one-tenth of a kilometer — about 328 feet.

By this measure, Japan has more islands than the Philippines. But if the Philippines where to reexamine its own island endowment, I imagine that it could come up with a higher number.

The World’s Three Great Archipelagic Realms, and the Difficulties in Determining What Counts as an Island Read More »

Problems Faced by Countries Directly Rooted in Conquest Empires

Several recent GeoCurrents posts have remarked on Nepal’s relatively low social and economic indicators, especially when compared with other environmentally and culturally similar regions in the southern Himalayas. Explaining why this is the case, however, has not been attempted. Nepal’s chaotic political environment and recent history of conflict no doubt play a major role. But could a deeper reason be lodged in the fact that the modern state of Nepal is directly rooted in the early-modern conquest empire of the Gorkhas? In such an empire, one group of people conquers and imposes its will on many other groups, creating profound resentment. Turning such a polity into a well-functioning nation-state, and especially a democratic one, can be a challenge.

To assess this thesis, it is useful to look at other modern countries similarly founded on relatively recent conquest empires. Although many countries could potentially be placed in such a category, I have limited it to eight states, including Nepal (see the map below). Each will be briefly examined here.

Ethiopia, in its currently geographical bounds, emerged in late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries through the rapid conquests of the Kingdom of Abyssinia, or Ethiopian Empire, dominated by the Christian Amhara people. Although most of Africa was colonized by Europeans, quite a few of its peoples were subjugated by this indigenous empire. Not surprisingly, religiously and linguistically diverse Ethiopia continues to experience pronounced ethnic tensions, and has never successfully transitioned into a fully national state.

Saudi Arabia is a more recently created conquest state, emerging in the early 1900s. In 1902, the domain of the Saud family was limited to a small area near the middle of the Arabian Peninsula. Through a spectacular series of conquests over the next several decades, Ibn Saud had carved an extensive state that became known as Saudi Arabia. Although one could argue that Saudi Arabia was never an empire because its creation involved the conquest of other Arabic-speaking Muslim groups, the actual situation was more complicated. The austere Wahhabi sect that was, and still is, closely linked to the Saudi dynasty, was foreign to most of what is now Saudi Arabia. Especially to Twelver Shi’ites of the Gulf region, Saudi Arabia can still seem like an empire. But it is also true that generous social spending and rapid economic development have more generally transformed Saudi Arabia into a successful nation-state.

Afghanistan is directly rooted in the Durrani Empire, carved out by Ahmad Shah Durrani in the mid 1700s. A Pashtun project, the Durrani Empire forcefully brought many members of other ethnic groups, with different languages and cultures, under its rule. In the twentieth century, Afghanistan sought to transform itself into a national state in several different incarnations, with middling success. But Afghanistan’s continuing tensions and turmoil have some linkages with its imperial formation.

Modern Burma/Myanmar is firmly rooted in the Burmese Konbaung Empire and Dynasty (1752 to 1885). The first Konbaung ruler crushed the wealthy and sophisticated Kingdom of Pegu in southern Burma and subsequently almost wiped its Mon people off the map. Konbaung rulers went on the conquer the Shan states, Arakan, Manipur, and even Assam, severely threatening the British East India Company in Calcutta. Three Anglo-Burmese war followed, eventually reducing the entire empire to British imperial rule. But when Burma was reborn as an independent state in 1948, its leaders sought to reestablish ethnic Burman domination over non-Burman peoples, following Aung San’s pre-war slogan “our race, our language, our religion.” Ethnic rebellions immediately proliferated and continue to this day. Burma has never been able to turn itself into a solid nation state.

Iran has deeper and more complicated roots, but it was essentially formed by the Safavid Dynasty, which conquered the region that is now Iran, and more, in the early sixteenth century. The religiously driven Safavids turned Iran a Twelver Shi’ite country; today it is a Twelver Shi’ite theocracy. The Safavid state was a joint project of Turkic military power and Persian cultural and administrative capability, the combination of which continued to form the backbone of the Iranian state long after the Safavid Dynasty fell from power in 1736. Iran eventually turned itself into a relatively successful national state, but to its mostly Sunni Kurds and Balochs, and to many Iranian Arabs as well, it can still seem like a Persian empire.

Russian arguably became an empire in 1552, when Ivan IV (“the Terrible”) conquered the important Muslim state of Kazan, turning Russia into a multi-confessional, multilinguistic polity. Subsequent expansion brought many other non-Russian peoples under its imperial rule. Although the Bolsheviks rejected the very idea of empire, in many ways the Soviet Union that they created continued to function as an imperial state – as does Russia to this day. Ethnic conflicts, however, are not a major problem today. Crucial factors here include the fact that ethnic Russian form a solid majority (70 to 80 percent of the total population) and the effectiveness of the Kremlin’s political suppression.

China is the most complicated case. Its civilizational roots extend back for millennia, longer even than those of Iran. But the geographical expression of China today stems from the conquests of the Qing Dynasty and Empire in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Taiwan, viewed by Beijing today as an intrinsic part of its territorial domain, had never previously been under Chinese rule. The huge regions of Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, Tibet, and Manchuria all became firmly part of China owing to the power of the Qing. Ironically, the Qing were not themselves an ethnic Chinese but rather Manchus; their success in subjugating the vastly more numerous Han Chinese people resulted in their own demographic swamping and virtual disappearance as a people. Today, China forms a secure national state with relatively minor ethnic conflicts. Such stability stems from the demographic predominance of the Han people (92 percent of the population) and to the country’s rapid economic ascent. But to Uighurs, Tibetans, Mongols, and others, China can still feel like an imperial state.

Many other countries, including the United States, have some imperial roots and are treated as empires by some writers. But for the eight countries mapped above, imperial roots are pronounced. It is probably not coincidental that none of them has a successful history of democratic governance.

Problems Faced by Countries Directly Rooted in Conquest Empires Read More »

Geographical Illiteracy and the U.S. Foreign Policy Establishment

As I have tried to show over the course of many years of writing and teaching, the standard world political map is a misleading and seductive document, depicting global political organization as far more straightforward than it actually is. But the real problem is far more basic: as simplistic as the world map is, students are seldom asked to learn anything about it. The pedagogical consensus seems to be that world geography is unworthy of focused instruction. All that most students learn is that the globe is divided into fundamental units called either countries or nation-states, few of which have much significance. Beyond that, geographical knowledge is considered worthwhile mostly for game shows or trivia nights at local pubs. The result is not merely widespread gaps in public knowledge but rather pervasive geographical illiteracy that has damaging real-world consequences

The evidence of ubiquitous geo-illiteracy in the United States is overwhelming, attested by multiple studies. Suffice it here to provide one telling example. In 2014, just after Russia invaded and annexed Crimea, a Washington Post survey found that only 16 percent of the 2,066 Americans queried could locate Ukraine on a world map.[1]Several dozen respondents placed it in Greenland, around 40 favored Canada, and 15 opted for some part of the United States. The median response was off by about 1,800 miles. Many could not even tell the difference between land and water, putting Ukraine somewhere at sea. Most distressing, the Post discovered in 2014 that the “the less Americans know about Ukraine’s location, the more they want the U.S. to intervene.” As is so often the case, ignorance and arrogance go together.

The extent of our collective geo-witlessness is well understood. Periodic news articles demonstrating its depth gather brief notice and elicit some cringing mirth, yet they never generate any momentum for educational reform. In academia, merely drawing attention to the problem can bring retribution. David Helgren, an assistant professor at the University of Miami, lost his job and was threatened with a lawsuit after he revealed the geographical ignorance of his students, thereby embarrassing school officials.[2] For some educators, the problem is evidently not geographical illiteracy but rather regarding geographical illiteracy a problem worth acknowledging.

Those engaged in high-level international pursuits are of course professionally obligated to learn something about how the world is put together. Many know the political map quite well, and more than a few delve below its surface to discover how power actually plays out on the ground. But to the extent that they gain such knowledge, it is through their own efforts, guided by their personal appreciation of what is important. Unfortunately, not everyone in such positions has such an understanding. As a result, geographical illiteracy extends into the uppermost levels of governmental service.

The dearth of knowledge at the pinnacle of America power is abundantly evident in recent presidential pronouncements. George W. Bush’s geopolitical miscues were legendary, ranging from confusing Slovenia with Slovakia to a gobsmacking characterization of Africa as a nation.[3] Donald Trump’s cluelessness is so extensive that it took a sizable portion of a recent book to document it. As Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig recount in A Very Stable Genius,[4] Trump flabbergasted Indian prime minister Narendra Modi by dismissively telling him that “It’s not like you’ve got China on your border.” (The India-China border stretches over two thousand miles.) Barack Obama’s geographical errors merited an entire article, memorably entitled (with a hat-tip to Sam Cooke) “Don’t Know Much About Geography.”[5] I could go on, but the point has been made.

It might be objected that the global awareness of any American president is of no great importance, as staffers can be expected to carry the weight. But presidential gaffes are deeply embarrassing and can have damaging diplomatic consequences. According to one State Department aide, “the Indians took a step back” in their relations with the United States after Trump denied the existence of their border with China.[6] More to the point, even State Department officials cannot be assumed to have mastered the map, and as a result they sometimes lead their superiors astray. As telling instance comes from the Nixon administration. The president had been prepared for a meeting with the prime minister of Mauretania in northwestern Africa but spoke instead with the leader of Mauritius, located in the Indian Ocean. As Ken Jennings recounts:[7]

President Nixon led off the discussion by suggesting that the Prime Minister of a valued American ally restore diplomatic relations with the United States! That way, he said, he could offer American expertise in dry farming. The flummoxed Mauritian, hailing as he did from a lush jungle nation, had little interest in desert farming, so he tried to change the subject, asking Nixon about a space tracking station that the United States operated in his country. The bewildered Nixon scrawled something down on a yellow legal pad and handed it to [Henry] Kissinger. The note read, “Why the hell do we have a space tracking station in a country with which we don’t have diplomatic relations?”

It is not as if State Department officials are poorly educated. Almost all are graduates of fine universities, and many have been through demanding post-graduate programs in International Relations (IR), International Policy, or related fields. The coursework in these programs is generally multidisciplinary but anchored in political science and economics. Valuable knowledge of international issues and institutions is acquired, as are powerful analytical skills. Graduates of the top-tier IR programs tend to be highly intelligent, hard-working, and adept at networking. Most aim high in the career choices, and, unsurprisingly, many go far.

But for all of that, major knowledge gaps go unaddressed. Although political history is a component of most IR programs, it is seldom required and never emphasized, whereas political geography hardly figures at all. Instead, the received map and model of the world provide the essential framework, conveying a clear-cut geopolitical system that can be taken as given and then by-passed. The system’s knotted history is typically reduced to a few key events, most notably the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Instruction in the actual architecture of political power across the world and its historical development is sidelined if not ignored.

What is reasonably required in most International Relations programs is a deep dive into IR theory. Classes on this topic seek to provide an understanding of how polities interact, usually by contrasting the views of several distinct schools of thought. Simplifying greatly, here one finds “realism,” which emphasizes competition among states, vying against softer-edged “liberalism,” which foregrounds institutional arrangements and non-state actors, as well as “constructivism,” which puts more stress on ideas, values, and cultural conditions. Adherents of critical IR theory, in contrast, critique both the geopolitical status quo and the above-mentioned modes of analyzing it, generally from a leftist perspective. These schools, along with several others, provide useful perspectives and need to be tackled by anyone seeking a deep understanding of the international arena.[8]

But insightful though they may be, none of these schools of thought has been able to generate accurate predictions or even falsifiable explanations of geopolitical change, and thus fail to reach scientific standing. Such theories also fall short because they tend to reflect the political hopes and leanings of those who advocate them. More important, none acknowledges the need for comprehensive global knowledge.

Most top-tier programs in international relations and related fields also require deep grounding in quantitative methods, usually through extensive coursework in economics and statistics. At Stanford University, the Ford Dorsey Master’s program in International Policy – “designed to produce leaders”[9] – stresses the quantitatively rigorous nature of its core curriculum.[10] Its mandatory methodologies, such as “logit and problt regression analysis,”[11] are important for doctoral work in some social-science fields and can yield significant findings. But it is questionable whether they should be required for foreign-policy experts. Professionals in the field seldom use them, and their mastery confers few practical advantages. Supporters sometimes claim that advanced statistics classes must be mandatory so that policy makers can fully understand cutting-edge articles in economics and political science journals that might influence their decisions.[12] I have seen little evidence, however, of that actually happening.

World history and geography, on the other hand, are essentially bypassed in this prestigious program. No coursework in political history is required, and no classes on political geography are offered. When one weights the curriculum’s requirements against its omissions, it is difficult to avoid seeing an insinuation that knowledge of the world is essentially extraneous, whereas complex mathematics holds the key for understanding and effective action. These are dubious ideas, especially when taken together.

History and geography are slighted in IR circles in part because they are regarded as simple subjects that students can easily pick up on their own. This assertion is far from true. For almost all students, prolonged instruction is necessary. And if a few self-motivated and intellectually gifted learners can acquire adequate geo-historical comprehension through their own efforts, the same is true of IR theory, economics, and even advanced statistics.

What the completion of required classes in advanced statistics and econometrics do is signal the quantitative abilities and diligence of those who have mastered them. Anyone who can get through the necessary mathematics must be smart and hardworking, important qualities for any high-level position. But as the iconoclastic economist Bryan Caplan more generally argues,[13] university coursework is an inefficient means of confirming such attributes, much less of ensuring competence on the job. Unfortunately, similarly inefficient means of selecting high-level civil servants have been common in global comparative terms. As David Graeber and David Wengrow note, “qualifications to enter bureaucracies are typically based on some form of knowledge that has virtually nothing to do with actual administration. It’s only important because it is obscure.”[14] This may not be the best way to educate our leaders.

While intelligence and assiduousness may be necessary traits for foreign-policy experts, they are not sufficient. Knowledge of the world is also essential. Yet for some reason it seldom considered important. To be sure, the Foreign Service Officer Test, employed to winnow candidates for diplomatic employment, formerly emphasized general and global knowledge. In 2006, however, most of the pertinent material was eliminated. The New York Times celebrated the change by noting that one no longer needs to be good at “Trivial Pursuits” to pursue a diplomatic career.[15] When knowledge of the world is casually dismissed by America’s “newspaper of record” as mere trivia, it is hardly surprising that global ignorance has become the national norm.

None of this is to suggest that the accumulation of empirical knowledge is of a higher intellectual order than theorization, or that advanced statistical techniques are not necessary in many fields of inquiry. But when it comes to multifaceted issues of human history and social organization, productive theory must rest a massive and constantly changing empirical foundation. These domains are too involved to be pared down to any simple, reductive models, such the one that is reflected in the standard political map of the world. Doing so generates a conceptual straightjacket, often leading to unrealistic expectations and wildly off-target predictions.

[1] “The less Americans know about Ukraine’s location, the more they want U.S. to intervene,” by Kyle Dropp, Joshua D. Kertzer, and Thomas Zeitzoff. Washington Post, April 7, 2014.

[2] Cited in Jennings, Ken. Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks.

  1. Scribner.

[3] “The Case of Bush II,” by Ira Kay. Counterpunch. November 2, 2004.

[4] Rucker, Philip, and Carol Leonnig. A Very Stable Genius: Donald J. Trump’s Testing of America. 2020. Penguin Press.


[5] “Don’t Know Much About Geography,” By Victor Davis Hanson, National Review, August 15, 2013.

[6] Rucker and Leonnig, 2020.

[7] Jennings 2012, p. 37.

[8] As Jack Snyder aptly summarizes, “The study of international relations is supposed to tell us how the world works. It’s a tall order, and even the best theories fall short. But they can puncture illusions. … Even in a radically changing world, the classic theories have a lot to say. “One World, Rival Theories” by Jack Snyder. Foreign Policy, October 26, 2009.

[9] This is from the program’s website:

[10] This is from the description of the program in the Stanford University Bulletin:

[11] Its core sequence, “Research Methods and Policy Applications I and II” considers the “statistical formulation and practical applications of linear regression analysis, the assumptions of OLS models, and how to check and address violations of these assumptions,” while also looking at “models for dichotomous and categorical dependent variables including logit and problt regression.” From the Stanford Bulletin “Explore Courses” website:

[12] I often heard this argument while serving as interim director of Stanford’s program in International Policy Studies in the early 2000s

[13] Caplan, Bryan. The Case against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money. 2019. Princeton University Press. Caplan’s radical arguments entail a significant amount of hyperbole, but nonetheless must be taken seriously.

[14] Graeber, David, and David Wengrow. The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. 2021. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Page 474..

[15] “Rarely Win at Trivial Pursuit? An Embassy Door Opens,” by Tamar Lewis. New York Times, December 17, 2006.


Geographical Illiteracy and the U.S. Foreign Policy Establishment Read More »

Most Moravians Live In Tanzania: The Global Spread of the Moravian and Mennonite Faiths

The Moravian Church has a good claim to being the oldest Protestant denomination, tracing its origin back to the Bohemian Reformation of the early 15th century, closely associated with Jan Huss. “Hussites” were persecuted at the time and eventually defeated in battle, and during the Counter-Reformation, Bohemia and Moravia were brought back into the Roman Catholic fold. In the Czech Republic and Slovakia today, however, some 100,000 to 180,000 people belong to the Czechoslovak Hussite Church, which follows the traditions of the Bohemian Reformation, although it did not break away (again) from the Roman Catholic Church until after World War I. The much larger Moravian Church, with an estimated 750,000 adherents, traces its history more directly to the Bohemian reformers of the early 1400s. In 1722, an underground group of believers, the Bohemian Brethren or “Hidden Seed,” who had been living in northern Moravia in what is now the Czech Republic, accepted an invitation to resettle in upper Saxony, a Protestant stronghold. As they began to proselytize, their sect expanded. One of their acts was to set up a watch of 24-hour-a-day prayer, which supposedly lasted for 100 years.


At roughly the same time as their relocation to Saxony, the Moravians began to send missionaries abroad, first to Scandinavia and then to Greenland, the Caribbean, and indigenous communities in North America. Some of their early converts were eventually transferred to the Lutheran or Presbyterian churches, but elsewhere the Moravian Church established a permanent presence. In 1847 missionary activities commenced among the Miskitu Indians of eastern Nicaragua, who at the time maintained their own kingdom in alliance with Great Britain. Most Miskitus today adhere to the faith, as do members of the neighboring Sumu and Rana indigenous groups. Some 83,000 people in Nicaragua currently belong to the Moravian Church.

Moravian Church GeographyMoravian proselytizers came later to Tanzania, establishing their first mission in 1891. They were quite successful; current figures put the Moravian population in the country at 500,000 (out of a global total of approximately 750,00). I was not able to find the data that would have allowed me to make a world map of Moravian membership, but the Wikipedia chart of the church’s organization, posted here, gives a good indication of the centrality of Tanzania in the faith today.



The Mennonite Faith

The Mennonite Christian tradition traces its origins to the so-called Radical Reformation of the Anabaptists in 16th-Century Europe. Pacifistic beliefs led to resistance against military conscription, which in turn led to persecution and hence migration. A particularly large resettlement movement to the Americas occurred after the Russian Revolution, as Mennonites were targeted by Bolsheviks as “kulaks,” or well-to-do peasants. By the mid 20th century, most Mennonites lived in the Western Hemisphere. Over time, numerous schisms occurred, resulting in a profusion of sects. Many Mennonite groups remain somewhat separated from societies in which they live, and some of them resist various forms of modern technology. As a whole, however, the Mennonite tradition is diverse and decentralized. As noted in the Wikipedia:

For the most part, there is a host of independent Mennonite churches along with a myriad of separate conferences with no particular responsibility to any other group. Independent churches can contain as few as fifty members or as many as 20,000 members. Similar size differences occur among separate conferences. Worship, church discipline and lifestyles vary widely between progressive, moderate, conservative, Old Order and orthodox Mennonites in a vast panoply of distinct, independent, and widely dispersed classifications. For these reasons, no single group of Mennonites anywhere can credibly claim to represent, speak for, or lead all Mennonites worldwide.

Despite this centralization, a number of Mennonite groups have joined together to form the Mennonite World Conference, described by the Wikipedia as “a voluntary community of faith whose decisions are not binding on member churches.” Out of a total global Mennonite population of some 1.7 to 2.1 million, approximately 400,000 belong to churches affiliated with the Mennonite World Conference.

Mennonite World MapAccording to some sources, the largest affiliate of the Mennonite World Conference—and the largest single Mennonite organization—is the Meserete Kristos Church of Ethiopia, which counts “255,462 baptized members and a worship community of over 471,070 persons as of November 2014.” This particular denomination has grown explosively in recent decades; as a result, a current map of global Mennonite membership would depict Ethiopia in a darker shade of blue than that found on the map that I have posted here, derived from 2003 data. As noted in the Wikipedia:

The [Ethiopian Mennonite] church has over 756 congregations and 875 church planting centers scattered in all 18 Administrative Regions of Ethiopia. The denomination’s growth rate in the last decade stands at 37%. … Meserete Kristos grew out of the work of Ethiopian Mennonite Missions in the 1950s. Mennonite missions set up hospitals and schools, eventually starting a church as a result of demand. Growth in early years was rather slow, until 1974, when the Derg took power. At the time, 5,000 Meserete Kristos members went into hiding. Small groups started, and meetings and baptisms were held at night. During this time many Mulu Wongel [an evangelical Pentecostal group] members joined the church, and growth was astronomical.

Mennonites in Congo MapEthiopia is by no means the only African country with a substantial Mennonite presence. In DR Congo, the faith dates back to 1912, when Mennonite missionaries arrived in the West Kasai region. The Mennonite faith seems to have expanded dramatically in the mid and late 1900s. As explained in the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online:

Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) first became involved in Congo in the 1950s, when a few North American conscientious objectors were sent as alternative service volunteers. In the aftermath of political independence (1960), MCC teamed with the Congo Protestant Council to form the Congo Protestant Relief Association (CPRA), which became a channel for relief supplies for various areas where local populations were displaced by political unrest. Known as ZPRA, this cooperative project with Zaire (Congo) mission and church communities continues.

It was also in the 1960s that Congo became one of the areas selected by MCC administrators for service for Pax and Teachers Abroad Program (TAP) personnel. During that decade a steady stream of young people came to Congo, where they served in a wide variety of roles with Mennonite and other missions. MCC eventually moved beyond construction sites and schoolrooms to cooperative efforts with Congo Mennonite churches in various rural development projects.

By the 1980s, MCC collaborated with the three Zaire (Congo) churches in helping to sponsor seminars for pastors on a variety of topics including issues of peace, justice, and development. French-speaking Mennonites from Europe and North America were resource people for these much appreciated sessions.

Mennonites in India mapMennonite missionaries have also been active in India, realizing a degree of success in Hindu-majority regions in which most Christian proselytizing efforts have failed. In recent years, tensions have flared in some of these areas. In 2008, Mennonite and other Christian communities in the Indian state of Odisha (then spelled Orissa) were attacked by Hindu extremists, forcing some 30,000 to 70,000 people to flee their homes. Relations between Mennonites and their Hindu neighbors have more often been relatively good. Mohandas Gandhi reportedly held the pacifistic Mennonite tradition in high repute, writing in 1947 to a Mennonite missionary, “Why worry? I am in the same boat with you.”

The Mennonite community today is roughly divided between “Euro-Mennonites” in Europe and the Americas and Mennonite converts in Africa and Asia. In Latin America, Mennonites are sometimes criticized for their high birth rates and agricultural expansion. As a writer with The Guardian argued in 2010:

What is it with Mennonites? Two weeks ago I wrote a piece from Paraguay on how the vast dry forest known as the Gran Chaco was being felled at an alarming rate mainly by people from this Christian fundamentalist sect.

Having fled from persecution in eastern Europe 80 years ago, they went to one of the most inhospitable places on earth and by the sweat of their brow – and a lot of help from the indigenous peoples on whom they depended – they have survived in the wilderness. But now, it seems they have moved from Biblical exhortations for stewardship of the Earth to outright exploitation and dominion. They have bought up nearly 2m hectares, worth, these days, in the region of $600m (£382m), made themselves fabulously wealthy from a $100m-a-year meat and dairy business, and are now in danger of totally destroying an unique ecosystem, indigenous peoples and all.

The Mennonite response was rather measured. As reported in the Mennonite Creation Care Network:

MCCN exists to support the Church in its green discipleship. We encourage collaboration and networking, and our web site is designed to showcase positive change taking place among Mennonite institutions and families. We typically post hopeful stories about people putting up solar panels, biking to work and planning inspiring events.

On October 4, an article that did not quite fit our categories appeared in The Guardian, a major British newspaper. “Chaco deforestation by Christian sect puts Paraguayan land under threat,” the headline read. The author, John Vidal, is the paper’s environmental editor.

Vidal asserts that Mennonite farmers in the Chaco are “expanding aggressively,” using a style of farming “totally unsuited to the fragile soils of the Chaco” and causing desertification and erosion in one of the world’s most fragile and diverse environments. Within days, a number of other environmental sites had picked up the story. A follow-up, detailing some responses from Paraguay appeared in The Guardian October 22.

The Paraguayan article prompted vigorous discussion among MCCN’s Creation Care Council and raised a number of issues for us at MCCN. Among them:

  • If we are committed to fostering healthy communication around environmental topics in a world given to polarization, how do we handle news that isn’t good?

  • Is it appropriate for a North American organization to report on environmental problems in other countries when most of us know little or nothing about the context?

  • How can we model thoughtful and reflective approaches to conflict?


Most Moravians Live In Tanzania: The Global Spread of the Moravian and Mennonite Faiths Read More »

The Global Spread of Heterodox Christianity

Other Religion Map 1As noted in an earlier post, I regard Scolbert08’s map of world religions as a cartographic masterpiece. I do, however, have some qualms about the categories that it employs. I am particularly dissatisfied with the “other” grouping, which is composed, according to the key, of indigenous/animist Other Religion Map 2faiths, non-Trinitarian Christianity, and Sikhism. These religions, or groups of religions, hardly belong together. The map’s general classification scheme, moreover, reserves three and a third of its nine categories of faith for Christianity, which also hardly seems fair.

As far as the map itself is concerned, the non-Trinitarian Christian component of the “other” category is, as far as I can tell, limited to Mormonism (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints), which encompasses the majority (or plurality) of the population of a sizable portion of the western United States (centered on the state of Utah) as well as that of a few Tongan islands in the Pacific. But although Mormonism is the world’s largest non-Trinitarian Christian List of Non-Trinitarian Christian Sectssect, most non-Trinitarian Christians are not Mormons, as can be seen in the Wikipedia breakdown posted to the left. Only Mormonism shows up on the map—again, as far as I can tell—because only it is spatially concentrated enough to generate local majorities or pluralities.

Separating non-Trinitarian from Trinitarian Christianity does make sense from a historical perspective, as the doctrine of the Trinity has been central to the Christian tradition. In its early centuries, Christianity was convulsed by disputes about the exact nature of the Trinity, with adherents of different sects bitterly opposing each other over minor distinctions, as recounted recently in Charles Freeman’s AD 381: Heretics, Pagans, and the Dawn of the Monotheistic State. Such disputes, however, have long since receded away. As a result, I am not sure that the rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity by a number of modern groups makes that much difference today. The United Pentecostal Church International is non-Trinitarian, for example, but it still seems much closer to Pentecostal Trinitarianism than to other non-Trinitarian Christian denominations, such Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, or Christian Science.

Mormons World MapMormonism, to be sure, is rejected as non-Christian by many evangelical Protestants, but that has more to do with its unique cosmology than its rejection of Trinitarian orthodoxy.* Certain Trinitarian denominations, moreover, veer equally far away from Christian orthodoxy on other essential issues, and thus fit poorly into a unified “Protestant” category. Seventh-Day Adventists, for example, accept the Trinity, but they also deny the immortality of the soul, which seems to me a rather more theologically significant deviation.**

Jehovah's Witnesses World MapConsidering such issues, I think that it is fair to say that three major Christian sects—those with adherents numbering in the millions—diverge so strongly from orthodox theology that they can accurately be described as heterodox. These are as follows: Seventh-Day Adventism, with some 18 million members, Mormonism, with some 15 million members, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, with some 8 million members. Other heterodox sects, such as Christian Science, may be important but simply do not have enough members to make the list. Christian Science, for example, counts fewer than half a million adherents.

Seventh-Day Adventists World MapIntriguingly, all three of these major heterodox faiths originated in the United States but are now are highly international. To illustrate their global spread, I have constructed maps of their membership across the world. Unfortunately, some of the information used to make these maps is out-of-date, as I did not have time to track down more recent data.

The most international of these groups is Seventh-Day Adventism, which in 2004 had more adherents in Brazil than in the United States. This faith is well established across Latin America, and has many followers in both sub-Saharan Africa and the eastern half of Asia (particularly in India and the Philippines). The success of the Seventh-Day Adventist church in gaining adherents is perhaps related to its educational program. As noted in the Wikipedia:

Globally, the Adventist Church operates 7,598 schools, colleges and universities, with a total enrollment of more than 1,545,000 and a total teaching staff of approximately 80,000. It claims to operate “one of the largest church-supported educational systems in the world”. In the United States it operates the largest Protestant educational system, second overall only to that of the Roman Catholic Church. The Adventist educational program strives to be comprehensive, encompassing “mental, physical, social and above all, spiritual health” with “intellectual growth and service to humanity” as its goal.

In the United States, Seventh-Day Adventism has gained considerable attention in recent months owing to the fact that it is the faith of Ben Carson, the current front-runner in the Republican Party for the 2016 presidential contest. Although Carson polls very well among evangelical Christians, who actually form his main base of support, some Protestant pastors have expressed serious misgivings about his heterodox faith.

Religious Diversity ChartThe fact that Ben Carson is both African-American and Seventh-Day Adventist is not unusual. According to a recent Pew survey, Seventh-Day Adventism is the most racially diverse religious sect in the United States, as can be seen in the table posted to the left. It is also interesting, and rather ironic, that the more politically conservative denominations in the United States tend to be more racially diverse that the more liberal denominations. “Mainline” Protestant groups, such as the Episcopalians, Methodists, and Evangelical Lutherans, score particularly low on the racial diversity index.

In terms of racial diversity, Mormonism ranks slightly below average, and thus much lower than either Seventh-Day Adventism or Jehovah’s Witnesses. By the same token, Mormonism’s global reach is somewhat more restricted than those of the other two main heterodox faiths. Sub-Saharan Africa in particular has many fewer Mormons than Adventists or Jehovah’s Witnesses (the Pacific Islands, on the other hand, have more Mormons).

Mormonism’s efforts in Africa were formerly restricted by the fact that the church long retained racist policies, disallowing, for example, ordination into its lay priesthood for men of African background. These policies, however, were abandoned in 1978, due—according to church leaders—to a new revelation from God. Mormon missionaries are now active in a number of sub-Saharan African countries, as parodied in the Broadway musical, “The Book of Mormon.” But break-away Mormon sects do not necessarily accept the change; as noted in the Wikipedia, “Some Mormon fundamentalist sects that split from the LDS Church in the early 1900s continue to teach that the priesthood should be withheld from black people because of their cursed state, and that the LDS Church’s reversal is a sign of its apostasy.” Mormon Fundamentalists, however, count only around 20,000 members; they tend to receive more attention than such numbers would seemingly justify primarily because of their on-going practice of polygamy.

Jehovah's Witnesses Banned MapThe main spatial pattern found in these heterodox Christian denominations is their substantial membership across the Americas. The majority-Catholic countries of Latin America, along with the Philippines, all figure prominently on these maps. These three faiths have all also failed to spread in the Muslim stronghold of North Africa and the Middle East, as would be expected (most of the countries in this region ban the activities of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.) It is also notable that Seventh-Day Adventism and the Jehovah’s Witnesses have gained considerable success across much of sub-Saharan Africa. Intriguingly, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have been more successful than the others in gaining converts in Europe.

*As explained in the Wikipedia: “Mormon cosmology presents a unique view of God and the universe, and places a high importance on human agency. In Mormonism, life on earth is just a short part of an eternal existence. Mormons believe that in the beginning all people existed as spirits or “intelligences,” in the presence of God. In this state, God proposed a plan of salvation whereby they could progress and “have a privilege to advance like himself.” The spirits were free to accept or reject this plan, and a “third” of them, led by Satan rejected it. The rest accepted the plan, coming to earth and receiving bodies with an understanding that they would experience sin and suffering.”


** As explained in the Wikipedia, Seventh-Day Adventist beliefs include: “ Wholistic human nature (fundamental beliefs 7, 26)—Humans are an indivisible unity of body, mind, and spirit. They do not possess an immortal soul and there is no consciousness after death (commonly referred to as “soul sleep”).) Conditional immortality (fundamental belief 27)—The wicked will not suffer eternal torment in hell, but instead will be permanently destroyed.)”


The Global Spread of Heterodox Christianity Read More »

Innovative Wikipedia Maps of World Religion

As mentioned in the previous post, a number of innovative world maps of religion have recently appeared on the internet. Several of these are posted at the bottom of the Wikipedia article on “Major Religious Groups” in a section labeled “Maps of self-reported adherence.” Today’s post will focus on three of the maps found here.

Christianity and Islam World MapThe first map reproduced here shows only two religions, Christianity and Islam. It does so, however, in an unusual manner, mapping not merely adherents of these two faiths but also those who are neither Muslim nor Christian (whether they follow other religions or are irreligious). Unfortunately, the map has little in the way of a key and lacks explanatory notes, but it is easy to understand how it works, at least in theory. A county that is nearly 100 percent Muslim is thus depicted in bright green, a country that is nearly 100 Christian is depicted in bright red, a country that has almost no adherents of either faith is depicted in white, and a country of mixed faith is accorded a mixed color. Countries and dependencies that are not measured are portrayed in black, as is French Guiana, which should be the same color as the rest of France.

Although the idea behind this map is powerful, I am not sure that it works out as well in practice. To begin with, the color scheme does not make intuitive sense. At first glance—to me at any rate—darker green countries such as Syria, Egypt, and especially Lebanon would appear to have a higher percentage of Muslims than lighter green countries such as Algeria and Afghanistan, but the opposite is true. Countries that are fairly evenly divided between Muslims and Christians, such as Nigeria, would logically be depicted in brown, but here Nigeria looks much more green, and hence much more Muslim than Christian. The same is true for Eritrea, which according to some sources is evenly split between the two faiths, although the Pew Research Center claims that it is actually about two-thirds Christian. Only Ethiopia looks truly brown to me, but it has a clear Christian majority according to almost all sources. Bosnia, mapped in a pale green shade looks like it is divided between Muslims and people who follow neither Christianity nor Islam, but according to most sources the country is almost half Christian.

Abrahamic and Indian Religions World MapIn the end, I commend the author for making such an innovative map, but I do think that it could benefit from some major adjustments. I am more positively inclined toward another map made by the same author, that comparing the prevalence of “Abrahamic” and “Indian” religions. Most world religions can be grouped together in such a manner, although they rarely are. The most striking feature of this map is the global prevalence of the Abrahamic faiths, with those of Indian derivation mostly confined to East, South, and Mainland Southeast Asia. Bangladesh is a striking exception to this pattern. The only “orange” countries, heavily mixed between these two traditions, are the Guyanas, Malaysia, South Korea, and Mauritius, although Fiji and Trinidad & Tobago should be placed in this category as well, while French Guiana should be mapped along with the rest of France. South Korea is appropriately depicted in a light orange, as almost half of its residents profess no religious faith.

Religions of the World MapThe final map, by Arseny Khakhalin, makes a three-fold division between Islam, Christianity, and an odd and unjustifiable category of Hinduism, Buddhism, Chinese religions, and indigenous religions. It also maps Judaism separately with an equal mixture of cyan and magenta, colors that are used map Islam and Christianity respectively. I find this maneuver confusing, as it would seem that a country evenly divided between Muslims and Christians, such as Nigeria, should be mapped in the same manner. The most striking feature of this map is its division of a number of large countries into their constituent units. This strategy reveals a number of important and interesting features, such as the prevalence of Islam in Kashmir and Xinjiang, and the unusual religious nature of Russia’s Republic of Kalmykia (which is heavily Buddhist). The small Christian states of eastern India also stand out, although I suspect that they should be mapped in a deeper shade of magenta, as Nagaland is reportedly 90 percent Baptist. It also seems that some countries (such as those of Scandinavia) and some regions (such as the provinces of Argentina) are depicted as too Christian, as they have high percentages of non-believers.  This  issue, however, concerns the data sources, not the cartography.

Several other world religions maps have recently been posted on-line that break many other countries down into their constituent units. I hope to put up a post about these maps later this week, although writing and grading mid-term examinations may force me to delay this until next week.


Innovative Wikipedia Maps of World Religion Read More »

The Pitfalls and Promises of Mapping World Religion

I have long been dissatisfied with world religion maps, especially those that are available on the internet. To be sure, mapping religion is an inherently difficult task. Many areas contain multiple faiths, just as different places often vary tremendously in regard religiosity itself. Changes in the religious landscape, moreover, are often difficult to capture. Most of Europe, for example, is appropriately mapped as Christian when it comes to its religious heritage, but in the 21st century such a depiction is no longer completely accurate. Over much of Europe, nonbelievers now greatly outnumber believers, and in quite a few places practicing Muslims outstrip practicing Christians. Some reports go so far as to claim that in terms of actual practice, France is now more Muslim than Christian,* although this assertion is probably exaggerated.

Religious “mixture,” moreover, can characterize not just regions but also individuals. An anthropologist friend of mine once characterized the West African country of Guinea as “90 percent Muslim and 90 percent animist,” which could well be true. But animism and so-called tribal religions more generally usually get short shrift in world religion maps. The same is true for syncretic faiths such as Candomblé, which might be the dominant faith in parts of northeastern Brazil, although only around five percent of Brazilians overall report themselves to be adherents. But such numbers are themselves suspect, as it is often difficult to enumerate religious adherents. Polling and census data are partial or non-existent over much of the world, and people often fail to be forthcoming about matters of faith when asked. As a GodWeb post argues, “To put it bluntly, when asked about religious belief and practice, ordinary citizens lie. And they lie about their faith to a greater degree then they lie about their sex life, or political activity.”

World Religion Map 1Another common problem in the mapping of religions is the inconsistent division of major faiths into their constituent branches. If Christianity is divided into its Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox branches, as it often is (see the map posted to the left), then by the same token Buddhism should be broken down into its Mahayana and Theravada forms, just as Islam should be divided into its Sunni, Shia, and Ibadi branches. Making such divisions, moreover, should be done in a rigorous manner. The so-called Oriental Orthodox Christian churches, such as the World Religion Map 3Armenian Apostolic Church and the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, for example, should not be mapped with the Eastern Orthodox branch, as they often are (see, for example, “World Religions Map 2006” posted here) for the simple reason that they do not belong. As the Armenian Apostolic Church and the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church reject Branches of Christianitythe Creed of Chalcedon that was adopted by the Christian mainstream in A.D. 451, they stand apart from Eastern Orthodoxy as well as Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. But as the diagram posted here shows, this situation is complicated by a number of subsequent unions of theologically disparate Christian branches.

But if the mapping of religion is inherently problematic, that does not mean that all maps of world religions are of equal value—or lack of value. Some basic maps are, of course, much better than others. Recently, moreover, a number of highly innovative and extremely detailed world maps of religion have appeared on the internet. Several GeoCurrents posts next week will examine these maps in some detail. Before doing so, however, I cannot resist pointing out how amusingly bad World Religion Map 2maps of religion can be. I would be tempted to nominate the one posted to the left for the booby prize of the worst world map on the internet.

To begin with, the map deeply distorts basic patterns of both physical and political geography. Note the seaway between North and South America, the misplacement of New Zealand, the division of North Korea into two World Religion Map detailcountries, and so on. A detail of the map’s depiction of central southeastern Europe reveals how laughable it is. But more to the point, consider its portrayal of religion: Guatemala and Costa Rica are non-Christian; Jordan is Jewish: Armenia, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Lake Victoria are Muslim, as is Taiwan; Japan is Christian; both North Koreas are “Chinese”; and Sri Lanka is Hindu. Interestingly, the site on which it is posted, which includes some fine maps of religion, merely notes that it “is a much more generalized map of world religions.” In actuality, this map verges on intellectual malpractice.

*According to a 2012 report by the Gatestone Institute:

Although 64% of the French population (or 41.6 million of France’s 65 million inhabitants) identifies itself as Roman Catholic, only 4.5% (or 1.9 million) of those actually are practicing Catholics, according to the French Institute of Public Opinion (or Ifop, as it is usually called).

By way of comparison, 75% (or 4.5 million) of the estimated 6 million mostly ethnic North African and sub-Saharan Muslims in France identify themselves as “believers” and 41% (or 2.5 million) say they are “practicing” Muslims, according to an in-depth research report on Islam in France published by Ifop.

Taken together, the research data provides empirical evidence that Islam is well on its way to overtaking Roman Catholicism as the dominant religion in France.

In Britain, Islam has overtaken Anglicanism as the dominant religion as more people attend mosques than the Church of England. According to one survey, 930,000 Muslims attend a place of worship at least once a week, whereas only 916,000 Anglicans do the same.


The Pitfalls and Promises of Mapping World Religion Read More »

Is the Earth Greening? If So, Where and Where Not

Greening Earth Map 1Several important studies, based mostly on remote sensing, indicate that the world is gaining vegetation. According to Jesse H. Ausubel, director of the Program for the Human Environment at Rockefeller University, such “global greening” is “the most important ecological trend on Earth today. The biosphere on land is getting bigger, year by year, by 2 billion tons or even more.”

Such global greening runs counter to common concerns about global warming, which stress the probable increase in drought, as well as the fact that higher temperatures mean increased evapotranspiration, which, all other things being equal, hampers plant growth in arid and semiarid lands. But over the world as a whole, a warmer world will also be also a wetter world, due to increased evaporation over the oceans, resulting in enhanced plant growth in many areas. Higher temperatures in cold-limited arctic and sub-arctic environments can also generate greener conditions. Higher concentrations of carbon dioxide, moreover, can bolster vegetation almost everywhere. As explained in the Wikipedia:

Plants can grow as much as 50 percent faster in concentrations of 1,000 ppm CO2 when compared with ambient conditions, though this assumes no change in climate and no limitation on other nutrients. Elevated CO2 levels cause increased growth reflected in the harvestable yield of crops, with wheat, rice and soybean all showing increases in yield of 12–14% under elevated CO2 in FACE experiments.

Increased atmospheric CO2 concentrations result in fewer stomata developing on plants which leads to reduced water usage and increased water-use efficiency.


Although some writers argue that such global greening means that we need not fear climate change, most specialists take a more cautious stance. At a certain temperature level, any such benefits will be cancelled out. Increasing concentration of carbon dioxide is also linked to ocean acidification, which carries huge dangers of its own.

It is also essential to note that not all parts of the world have seen enhanced plant growth. Maps showing changes in primary production over the past several decades indicate that some areas have instead seen significant vegetative decline. The first map posted here, for example, shows significant “browning” in eastern Mongolia and adjacent parts of northern China, southeastern Australia, much of northwestern India, and especially the Chaco region of Paraguay and Argentina. It is not clear why these areas would run counter to the global norm, although drought is a likely culprit. In the Chaco, land clearing for agriculture might seem a possible factor, but other parts of South America that have seen similar land-use transformations are not mapped as having experienced a drop in primary productivity; agriculture, after all, can be quite productive.

Greening Earth Map 2As I have been intrigued by such maps of the “greening Earth” for some time, I decided to run a simple test by comparing a number of such maps to see if they show the same patterns. My effort here is highly preliminary and certainly not up to scientific standards: all that I had time to do was locate six Greening Earth Map 3such maps by a simple internet search of “greening Earth,” without checking the original sources. These maps are not fully comparable by any means, as they cover slightly different periods of time and are based on somewhat different measurements. But that said, they are still roughly Greening Earth Map 4comparably.

As it turns out, even the simplest comparison of these maps reveals major inconsistencies. Compare, for example, the depiction of south-central Africa Greening Earth Map 5in maps 1 and 6. In Map 1, which covers the period from 1990 to 2011, this area is shown as having experienced some of the world’s most intensive greening. In Map 6, on the other hand, which covers the period from 1980 to 2003, the same areas is shown as having experienced substantial “de-greening.” Hypothetically, the vegetative decline shown in Greening Earth Map 6Map 6 could have occurred in the 1980s, while much of the increase shown in Map 1 could have happened after 2003. Such a scenario, however, seems rather unlikely.

Bowning Earth MapOverall, these six maps depict quite different patterns of greening and browning. To highlight the inconsistencies, I have crudely indicated all the various areas shown as having experienced primary productivity declines on a single map, color-coding them according to the map on which they are so depicted. As can be seen, substantial overlap occurs in only a few parts of the world.

As a result of this little “experiment,” my confidence in the idea that the Earth is generally greening has been shaken. If these measurements are accurate, should not we expect widespread agreement? My own investigation, however, is admittedly crude, conducted over the course of a single afternoon. Perhaps some of these maps are reasonably accurate while others are deeply flawed. Surely further investigation would be warranted.

If the world were to “green” so extensively that large expanses of what are now barren deserts ended up being covered with vegetation, the results would be mixed. Local productivity would soar, but the oceans could suffer – and so too could distant tropical rainforests. Many of the nutrients that fertilize plankton originate from dust storms over the Bodélé DepressionSahara and other extreme deserts. Even the Amazon benefits from Saharan dust. The largest source of such nutrients is the former lakebed in northern Chad called the Bodélé Depression. New research, however, indicates that Lake Chad extended into this depression as recently as 1,000 years ago, raising questions about Amazonian fertilization in earlier times. As was recently reported in ScienceDaily:

“The Amazon tropical forest is like a giant hanging basket,” explains Dr Simon Armitage from the Department of Geography at Royal Holloway. “In a hanging basket, daily watering quickly washes soluble nutrients out of the soil, and these need to be replaced using fertiliser if the plants are to survive. Similarly, heavy washout of soluble minerals from the Amazon basin means that an external source of nutrients must be maintaining soil fertility. As the World’s most vigorous dust source, the Bodélé depression has often been cited as a likely source of these nutrients, but our findings indicate that this can only be true for the last 1,000 years,” he added.


Is the Earth Greening? If So, Where and Where Not Read More »

The Flawed Standard Model of Geopolitics

(Note to Readers: GeoCurrents is now resuming publication after its winter hiatus. Over the next 10 weeks, posts will be oriented toward a weekly lecture course that I am teaching on the history and geography of current global events. The first lecture, given on March 31, examined an overarching issue that is essential for understanding many pressing events of the day: the fraying standard geopolitical model of the world. This taken-for-granted model posits mutually recognized sovereign states as the fundamental building blocks of the global order. Many of these basic units, however, are highly fragile and a number have collapsed altogether. As a result, the next several posts will consider, and critique, the conventional state-based vision of the world.

The second lecture for the course, to be given on April 7, will examine the situation in Yemen. As a result, next week’s posts will be focused on that country. Subsequent lectures and posts will be determined later as global events unfold. As always, informed comments and questions are welcome.)

World Politcal MapAs long-term GeoCurrents readers are probably aware, I am skeptical of the standard “nation-state” model of global politics, as I think that it conceals as much as it reveals about current-day geopolitical realities. This model, evident on any world political map, rests on the idea that that the terrestrial world is divided into a set number of theoretically equivalent sovereign states. Each state is supposed to hold ultimate power over the full extent of its territory, possessing a monopoly over the legitimate use of force and coercion. Such states, it turn, are supposed to recognize each other’s existence, and in so doing buttress a global order in which political legitimacy derives in part from such mutual recognition. The territories of such states are theoretically separated by clearly demarcated boundary lines, which are further solidified by international consensus, without overlap or other forms of spatial ambiguity. Ideally, national territories are contiguous and can thus be easily mapped as single units, rather than scattered across the map in widely separated pockets, as was characteristic of premodern geopolitical systems based on feudalism and dynastic authority.

The standard geopolitical model is explicitly territorial, equating the state (government, in essence) with the area that it rules (the country). As a result, the terms “sovereign state” and “independent county” are fully synonymous. But the model takes a further step by linking in as well the concept of the nation. A nation, as strictly defined on political grounds, is a group of people with common feelings of belonging to a single political community, ideally rooted in cultural commonalities, that either exercises, or aspires to exercise, self-rule. In earlier historical periods, most states made no pretense of being nations, and were instead organized as multi-national empires, subnational city-states, or dynastic kingdoms that ruled over but did not represent their varied human subjects. But with the rise and spread of nationalism in the 19th and 20th centuries, the ideal political form came to be the nation-state, one in which the state bolstered its legitimacy by claiming to represent its given nation. In the post-WWII era, it came to be assumed that all sovereign states either already were nation-states or would soon gain that status through the process of “nation-building.”

This new model of global political geography was formalized and institutionalized with the creation of the United Nations in 1945. As the very name of the organization makes clear, the fundamental unit of geopolitics was now defined as the nation, taken to be exactly the same thing as the sovereign state or the independent country. In the U.N. General Assembly, each member is an equal participant and hence an equivalent unit. All are taken to be self-governing units with full sovereignty that represent distinct nations, occupy clearly demarcated territories, and recognize the legitimacy and territorial integrity of each other. On these grounds, the United Nations is supposed to promote international cooperation and work toward global concord.

U.N. Member States MapAs this standard model of global politics has triumphed in the public imagination, the map of the member states of the U.N. has come to mirror the world political map. In the Wikipedia map posted here, only one territory— Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara—appears on first glance to occupy an anomalous position. Closer inspection, however, reveals two smaller non-U.N. areas, mapped as grey circles: the Vatican City and the Palestinian territories. (Countries too small to be easily visible on the map are mapped as circles, thus ensuring that all are represented.) Overall, the show a nearly solid expanse of distinct blue units, members of the U.N. that are also sovereign national powers.

But does it really? Taiwan is not a member of the United Nations, yet it is seemingly mapped here as if it were. Such a misleading portrayal is done in deference to the government of China, which views Taiwan a renegade province that will eventually be united with the mainland, even though it is actually a fully independent country. Similarly, Kosovo is mapped as if it were part of Serbia, even though it is also sovereign state, and one that is recognized as such by 108 out of 193 U.N. members. Equally problematic, a number of non-sovereign but self-governing territories that are not themselves members of the U.N. are nonetheless mapped as if they were, marked by distinct blue circles. Examples here include the “Crown dependencies”—the Isle of Man and the bailiwicks of Guernsey, and Jersey—anomalous territories that fall under the sovereignty of the United Kingdom yet are neither parts of it nor colonies of it. More troubling is the fact that the map also seemingly classifies as members of the United Nations (again, as indicated by their distinct blue circle) a number of territories that U.N. itself has placed on its list of non-self-governing territories, such as Gibraltar, French Polynesia, and Bermuda. According to the U.N., these are colonized throwbacks to an earlier era that should be granted independence, given full and formalized self-rule, or subsumed within the territory of an existing U.N member state.

Although it is easy to criticize this map for such infelicities, devising a more accurate portrayal would be no simple matter, as the actual geopolitical situation of the world is considerably more complex than the picture conveyed by the standard model. Many territories occupy inherently ambiguous positions in regard to such crucial characteristics as “sovereignty,” “independence,” and “international recognition,” and hence cannot be mapped in a straightforward manner.

The crucial flaw of the standard model is that it is based on a prescriptive rather than a descriptive view of the world yet never acknowledges that fact. What it shows, in other words, is how certain political actors and entities think that that world should be politically organized rather than how it actually is organized. Most world political maps thus show a country called “Western Sahara” even though there has never been a sovereign state of that name occupying that territory. Such “actors and entities” refer in general to the governments of the U.N.’s constituent members, which have a vested interest in the perpetuation of the existing system. But even here profound disagreements persist, as can be seen in regard to the debates over the political standing of such places as Taiwan, Kosovo, Israel, and the Palestinian Territories.

How Many Countries Are There?As a result of such complications, it is impossible to answer such a seemingly simple question as “how many countries are there in the world today?” As the image posted here show, answers vary according to how the term is defined and whose particular viewpoints are taken into account. A degree of ambiguity and uncertainly is thus acknowledged – but only a degree. Standard reference works allow only slight variation in how the world’s sovereign states are enumerated, with accepted figures generally ranging from 189 to 197.

By the same token, other irregularities in the standard geopolitical model are also widely recognized, such as the presence of hotly contested borders and the existence of complex arrays of exclaves and enclaves in which small pieces of one country are wholly surrounded by the territory of another. But such features are generally regarded as minor exceptions to a general pattern that still holds firm.

In the decades following the formation of the United Nations, the actual political map of the world seemingly came into ever closer accord with the standard model, as decolonization progressed and as numerous newly independent states made progress in inculcating a degree of national solidarity among their citizens. But more recently, the model has begun to unravel, as previously solid-seeming states collapse and as state-like organizations and unrecognized but effectively sovereign entities proliferate. Somalia has been something of a ghost state since 1991, and more recently Syria, Yemen, and Libya have ceased to function as coherent countries, yet they still remain firmly ensconced on our political maps, unlike such effectively independent but unrecognized entities as Iraqi Kurdistan and Somaliland. Recognizing the reality of this current geopolitical predicament is essential for dealing with it successfully. If one remains beholden to the exhausted model, one risks disengaging from reality in preference for a fantasy world increasingly divorced from actual circumstances.

Some evidence suggests that serious problems have already been generated by undue faith in the standard geopolitical model. When the United States and its partners invaded Iraq in 2003, planners assumed that Iraq was a solid nation-state firmly united by a sense of common Iraqi identity, and that as a result the country could be easily transformed into a democratic state though imposed regime change followed by the institution of free elections, the rule of law, and other trappings of democracy. But as division of Iraq Mapsevents showed, Iraq was actually nothing of the kind. To be sure, a sense of Iraqi identity had emerged among many segments of its populace, but when push came to shove, it quickly became apparent that such national solidarity was relatively superficial, overridden by regional, sectarian, linguistic, and other forms of identity. International policy is still based on the idea of the intrinsic national unity of Iraq, but such a vision increasingly seems illusory. I doubt that Iraq will ever be reassembled into anything approaching a functional state, let alone a coherent nation-state. To the extent that it continues to exist on our maps, it will likely be little more than a mirage.

Standard Model Political MapTo demonstrate the frailty of the standard geopolitical model, the next few GeoCurrents posts will illustrate its inconsistencies and anomalies through a series of maps depicting the current geopolitical situation in a sizable region focused on the so-called Middle East. Rather than using the conventional world region of that designation, I have outlined a circular area centered in northern Saudi Arabia. I have pursued this strategy in order to accommodate as much disorder as possible within a circumscribed area, one that encompasses troubled areas ranging northeastern Nigeria to eastern Ukraine to the borderlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Within this broad zone, as we shall see, the standard geopolitical model fails repeatedly to convey existing realities.

The Flawed Standard Model of Geopolitics Read More »

Intriguing Features on the Oxford Map of the English Wikipedia

Wikipedia MapAs a habitual Wikipedia reader, I am particularly intrigued by the map and article entitled “Mapping English Wikipedia” found at Information Geographies (at the Oxford Internet Institute). Here, almost 700,000 dots have been placed on a world map to show the locations of geotagged articles in the English-language Wikipedia. As the authors explain:

Not all articles are geotagged, but almost all articles about events and places tend to be. The data in this map were all taken from November 2011 Wikipedia data dumps. Our project team wrote a script to search for coordinate representations in every article (taking into the varying ways in which geo-coordinates are expressed). We improved the quality of our coordinates by doing things like eliminating or fixing erroneous coordinates, grabbing coordinates (where sensible) from not just structured infoboxes, and making sure to remove irrelevant coordinates (Wikipedia actually contains a lot of coordinates for extra-terrestrial entities like lunar craters!).

The results are interesting. As the authors understatedly note, “there is clearly a lot of unevenness in the amount of content about places, and large parts of our planet are still invisible from these digital augmentations…” The unevenness of coverage is indeed conspicuous, but much of that is to be expected. It is hardly surprising, for example, that vast reaches of sparsely populated land in northern Siberia would be largely by-passed by the Wikipedia. I am more perplexed, however, by the fact that a few uninhabited and remote places, such as South Georgia Island, would be fully covered by yellow dots, whereas some densely populated and easily accessible areas, such as China’s Shandong Peninsula, would be mostly unmarked. (I suspect that the attention given to South Georgia stems in part from popular interest in the survival story of the Shackleton Expedition.) But regardless of this South Georgia oddity, the relative paucity of coverage of China is surely one of the map’s more striking features.

Wikipedia Map West AfricaIndia is much more heavily covered in the English Wikipedia than China, as might be expected, considering the widespread use of English in India along with the British colonial legacy. But colonial legacies as well as the geographies of language are in general not easily seen on the map. Consider, for example, its portrayal of West Africa, visible in the first set of detailed maps. Here the Gambia can be made out, but otherwise political borders are not discernable, even though several of them separate Anglophone from Francophone countries. I have roughly outlined Ghana to emphasize this point. Notice as well the concentrated clusters of dots in Burkina Faso to the north of Ghana. As Burkina Faso is a poor, somewhat marginal, Francophone country, its prominence in the English Wikipedia is noteworthy.

Wikipedia Map Eastern EuropeOnly in a few parts of the world are political boundaries visible on the map. The clearest example is Eastern Europe; here Poland stands out in sharp contrast to Ukraine and Belarus. The heavy English Wikipedia coverage of Poland is intriguing, as is that of Estonia and Moldova. Estonia is noted for its tech-savvy population, and hence its standing in the encyclopedia is not too surprising, but I am mystified by the blanket coverage of Moldova, Europe’s poorest country.

Wikipedia Map Southern AsiaEqually mysterious to me are the patches of concentrated Wikipedia coverage in upper Burma. As the set of maps showing southern Asia indicates, Wikipedia reporting on India and across much of Southeast Asia matches population distribution relatively well. In southwestern China, however, this connection collapses; sparsely populated Tibet receives roughly the same coverage as densely populated Sichuan. I find it remarkable that one cannot even pick out the major metropolitan areas of Chengdu and Chongqing, both of which stand out very clearly on earth-at-night satellite images.

Wikipedia Map Middle EastPolitical boundaries are evident in several other parts of the world. Armenia and Azerbaijan, for example, are easily discernable, although the “blob of yellow” that covers both countries also oddly extends into Iran, a pattern that is only partially explicable on the basis of population density. Second-order political boundaries are vaguely evident in the Midwest of the United States, where the western and southern boundaries of Minnesota can be distinguished, as can the state boundaries along the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. In the Great Plains of the United States and Wikipedia Map MidwestCanada, linear features on the map correspond to roads and railways. This feature is particularly evident in northern Ontario and Manitoba, where two rail lines appear as long lines of yellow dots.

If any readers have any ideas about the usual features found on this map, I would be very interested to hear them.

Intriguing Features on the Oxford Map of the English Wikipedia Read More »

Eco-Authoritarian Catastrophism: The Dismal and Deluded Vision of Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway

(Note: The following post strays from the usual geopolitical concerns of GeoCurrents into the realm of environmental politics. It also deviates from the norm in being a polemical review of a particular book. Regular posts will resume shortly.)

UnknownAs with so many other hot-button debates, the climate change controversy leaves me repelled by the clamoring extremists on both sides. Global-warming denialists, as some are aptly called, regard the scientific establishment with such contempt that they abandon the realm of reason. In comment after comment posted on on-line articles and blogs, self-styled skeptics insist that carbon dioxide is such a scant component of the atmosphere that it could not possibly play any climatic role, while castigating mainstream climatologists as malevolent conspirators dedicated to destroying civilization. Yet on the equally aptly named alarmist side of the divide, reasonable concerns often yield to dismal fantasies of the type so elegantly described by Pascal Bruckner in The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse, upheld by exaggeration to the point of absurdity. More alarmingly, climate activism seems to be veering in an unabashedly authoritarian direction. In such a heated atmosphere, evenhanded positions are at the risk of being flooded out by a rising sea of mutual invective and misinformation.

This essay addresses only one side of this spectrum, that of the doomsayers who think we must forsake democracy and throttle our freedoms if we are to avoid a planetary catastrophe. Although it may seem paradoxical, my focus on the green extreme stems precisely from my conviction that anthropogenic climate change is a huge problem that demands determined action. Yet a sizable contingent of eco-radicals, I am convinced, consistently discredit this cause. By insisting that devastating climate change is only a few years away, they will probably undermine the movement’s public support, given the vastly more likely chance that warming will be gradual and punctuated. By engaging in mendacious reporting and misleading argumentation, they provide ample ammunition for their conspiracy-minded opponents. And by championing illiberal politics, they betray the public good that they ostensibly champion. It is a sad day indeed when an icon of liberalism such as Robert Kennedy Jr. can plausibly be deemed an “aspiring tyrant” for wanting to punish global-warming deniers.

A few off-hand comments by the flighty scion of an illustrious political family, however, are hardly enough to substantiate my admittedly harsh charges. But more damning examples of eco-authoritarianism are not difficult to find. For the present essay, I will limit my attention to one crucial text, Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway’s 2014 The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future. Idiosyncratic though this book may be, its significance is undeniable. Its authors are widely noted experts in the politics and intellectual history of the climate change controversy, have previously co-written a seminal work, Merchants of Doubt. They teach, respectively, at Harvard University and the Cal Tech, and the book in question was published by Columbia University Press, one of the world’s most esteemed academic presses. Such widely respected public figures as Elizabeth Kolbert and Timothy E. Wirth provide effusive endorsements on the back cover. Kolbert goes so far at to claim that the book should be “required reading for anyone who works—or hopes to—in Washington.” Wirth tells us that unless we heed Oreskes and Conway’s warnings, we will have no chance of avoiding their “dire predictions.” The noted science-fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson chimes in as well, telling us that the book’s prognostications are “all too plausible.”

Before delving into Oreskes and Conway’s dismal predictions and authoritarian proposals, a few words about the structure and contents of their unusual book are in order. As the authors explain in their first two sentences, The Collapse of Western Civilization aims to “blend the two genres” of science fiction and history in order to “understand the present.” In actuality, virtually nothing that is recognizable as either science fiction or history is found between its covers. Instead, one encounters a brief text (52 pages*) that purports to be a straightforward account of the planetary catastrophes of the 21st century, written by a fictional historian living in the Second People’s Republic of China three hundred years after the final collapse of “Western Civilization” in 2093. This imagined author informs us that that Western Civilization was destroyed by its obsession with free markets and devotion to a “carbon-combustion complex,” which is contrasted with the authoritarian system of China that allowed it to survive and eventually help restabilize the global climate.

Global Warming Temperatures Map 2As the book claims to outline the “not only predictable but predicted” (p. 1) consequences of a fossil-fuel-based energy system, I will begin by examining the author’s actual foretelling. As it turns out, most of it is hyperbolic, going far behind even the most extreme warnings provided by climatologists. Consider, for example, Oreskes and Conway’s most grimly amusing nightmare: the mass die-off of dogs and cats in the early 2020s. Lest one conclude that I am exaggerating here, a direct quotation should suffice:

 [B]ut in 2023, the infamous “year of perpetual summer,” lived up to its name, taking 500,000 lives worldwide and costing nearly $500 billion in losses due to fires, crop failures, and the deaths of livestock and companion animals. The loss of pet cats and dogs garnered particular attention among wealthy Westerners, but what was anomalous in 2023 soon became the new normal (p. 8-9).

Global Warming Temperatures Map 1Within a mere nine years, global warning could produce temperature spikes so elevated as to generate massive cat mortality? The idea is so ludicrous that I hardly know where to begin. Domestic cats, as anyone who has spent any time around them surely understands, are heat-seeking creatures; native to the Middle East and North Africa, they thrive in the world’s hottest environments. Yet Oreskes and Conway expect us to believe that within a few decades “normal” temperatures across much of “the West” will exceed the tolerance threshold of the house cat? If they really think that such a scenario is plausible, one must wonder why they delay the collapse until the late 21st century and excluded China from destruction, as it would seem that we will all be cooked well before then. (One might also wonder why wealthy Westerners would not allow their beloved companions to remain within their air-conditioned homes during the death-dealing heat waves of the 2020s, but that is a different matter altogether.)

The great cat catastrophe of 2023 is by no means the only instance of risible fear-mongering found in the book. It would seem that there is no limit to the horrors that global warming will spawn, including a resurgence of bubonic plague (p. 30) and the creation of “viral and retroviral agents never before seen” (p. 25). Even typhus is predicted to make a major comeback owing to “explosive increases in insect populations” (p. 25); although it is reasonable to imagine some insect species proliferating in a warmer world, I have a difficult time seeing a massive revival of body lice generating a typhus epidemic that could easily be forestalled by antibiotics. Or consider the authors’ overall depiction of the global scene in the late 21st century:

 [S]urvivors in northern regions of Europe, Asia, and North America, as well as inland and high-altitude regions of South America, were able to begin to regroup and rebuild. The human populations of Australia and Africa, of course, were wiped out (p.33).

Australia Maximum Temperatures MapWhy yes, of course; how could anyone be expected to survive global warming on continents as hot as Australia and Africa? The only problem with this assertion is the inconvenient fact that vast areas of both landmasses are not particularly warm. In Melbourne, Australia the average January (summer) high temperature is 78° F (26° C), only slightly above that of July in Paris. Hobart, a city of more than 200,000 inhabitants, posts summer temperatures virtually identical to those of Stockholm. ** Nor is Africa climatically extreme; most of South Africa is World Average Annual Temperature Maptemperate, and the mountains of Algeria and Morocco are cooler still. Throughout eastern and southern Africa, high elevations ensure equable conditions. Contrary to Oreskes and Conway’s warnings, inland Africa is generally less vulnerable to climate change than most parts of inland South America, owing mainly to its higher elevation. Currently, the average high temperature in the warmest month in Asunción, Paraguay is a whopping 10 degrees Celsius (19 degrees Fahrenheit) higher than that of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The same gap, moreover, is found in regard to the highest temperatures ever recorded in both locations.

Such temperature contrasts, however, are not the main issue. Rather, it is the fact that even the most extreme scientific predictions of possible global warming over the next century do not posit conditions that would preclude human life over vast expanses of the world. People can live quite well in hot climes, and can even do so without air conditioning. Perhaps Chicago will eventually become as warm as Dallas, which currently has an average July high temperature of 96° F (35.6° C), and perhaps Dallas could become as hot as Las Vegas, with its average July high of 104° F (40° C). But even with such a development, neither town would reach the current conditions of Kuwait City, with its average July high of 116° F (46.7° C) and sultry average July low of 87° F (30.7° C).

But perhaps Oreskes and Conway do not foresee all Australians and Africans perishing directly from heat, but rather as dying off from droughts, massive storms, and other climatic disasters—along with new heat-spawned viral diseases and sundry other mega-misfortunes. For the North American agricultural heartland, they seem to mainly fear devastating dry spells. Imagining conditions in the 2050s, they write:

As the Great North American Desert surged north and east, consuming the High Plains and destroying some of the world’s most productive farmland, the U.S. Government declared martial law to prevent food riots and looting (p. 25).

Africa 2060 Drought MapIt is true that many climate models indicate increasingly aridity over the Great Plains and the Corn Belt, which would certainly harm U.S. food production. But at the global scale, such thinking does not pan out, as a warmer world will almost certainly be a wetter world, enhancing agricultural potential in many dry areas—even if more precipitation does come in the form of torrential downpours. If some parts of Africa will lose their food-production potential, others may see it enhanced. Much of East Africa is shown in some models as acquiring a less drought-prone climate, as can be seen in the map posted here. And as is currently the case, most of Africa will remain immune from hurricanes and tornados, the increased intensity of which, moreover, is not assured. (The equatorial belt will always be cyclone-free, as the twisting Coriolis effect diminishes to nothing at latitude zero.) It must also be acknowledged that higher levels of carbon dioxide are to an uncertain extent associated with enhanced vegetative growth. Some evidence even indicates that elevated CO2 Tropical Cyclones Track Mapallows plants to better withstand aridity, as their gas-exchanging leaf pores (stomata) do not need to open as widely under such conditions, reducing transpiration and hence water loss. The mere mention of any such possible positive consequences of climate change, however, is widely regarded as intolerable heresy, and hence would never appear in a book like The Collapse of Western Civilization. I hesitate here as well, as I do not want to imply that the gains of climate change could somehow cancel the losses. In the end, however, honest disclosure of the existing evidence is an obligation of all serious scholars.

Regardless of whether climate change will undercut food production, Oreskes and Conway’s own prescription for dealing with the crisis would only intensify the problem. They strongly support, for example, biodiesel and other forms of biologically derived fuel, viewing “liquid biofuels for aviation” as nothing less than “crucial” (pp. 21, 24). Channeling biological production into the energy system, however, either diminishes the human food stream, raising the price and reducing the availability of staples, or detracts from natural ecosystems, diminishing the scope of non-human life. As Will Boisvert has devastatingly demonstrated, there is nothing at all green about biofuels.

Oreskes and Conway’s support of biofuels is linked to their dismissal of natural gas. They reserve particular contempt for the idea that gas could act as an environmentally beneficial “bridge to renewables.” Most of their arguments against gas are familiar, focused on such issues as the “fugitive emissions” that occur when carbon dioxide and methane “escape from wellheads into the atmosphere.” (p. 23). Such leakage is a genuine problem, but most experts think that it can be solved by technical means. Some of their other objections, however, are novel, such as the idea that natural gas will replace near-zero-emission nuclear energy and hydropower, especially in countries such as Canada (p. 23). Why such a substitution would occur is not specified, even though the possibility that it would is extraordinarily low. The costs of hydropower in particular are almost completely upfront; once a dam has been constructed and the turbines installed, the resulting power is cheap and hence not vulnerable to replacement by natural gas. The only reason why Canada might be tempted to dismantle its hydroelectric and nuclear facilities would be political pressure from environmental activists. Would Oreskes and Conway be among those urging the end these extremely low-carbon sources of power? One cannot tell from the book in question, but in other writings (here and here) Oreskes rebuffs nuclear power, due mainly to “difficulties inherent to the technology and its management.” It would thus appear that this particular objection to natural gas is self-cancelling.

Oreskes and Conway’s focus on the supposed sins of Western Civilization also demands further scrutiny. It is not merely the energy-hungry United States that they portray as essentially doomed, but also many of the world’s most environmentally oriented countries, which happen to be located in the European heartland of the West. The ultimate problem, they imply, is not the environmental policies of particular states, but rather the deeper cultural predilections of the Western world. Such “cultural practices” center around an “ideological fixation on ‘free’ markets” (p. ix) but also include such features as “excessively stringent standards for accepting [truth] claims.”

Such arguments are difficult to take seriously. Can one really claim that Germany suffers from an “ideological fixation on ‘free’ markets,” considering its fat subsidies for renewable energy as well as the recent collapse of the Free Democrats, the country’s only political party that embraces classical economic liberalism? Could France possibly be regarded as possessing such an obsession? One of the stumbling blocks here is the authors’ failure to define what they mean by “Western Civilization.” Although they never specify its geographical contours or seriously delve into its cultural content, they do give it oddly precise temporal boundaries: 1540-2093. How the initiation date of 1540 was selected is anyone’s guess. If anything civilizationally momentous occurred in this year, it has evidently escaped our historical accounts. Ironically, however, 1540 does occupy an intriguing position in climate history. According to the historical geographer Jan Buisman:

[T]he year 1540 was one with an even more severe summer than 2003. All over Europe, the heat wave lasted, off and on, for seven months, with parched fields and dried up rivers, such as the Rhine. People in Paris, France could walk on the riverbed of the Seine without getting their feet wet.

Dating the emergence of “Western Civilization” may be a relatively trivial matter, but the same cannot be said about Oreskes and Conway’s dismissal of “excessively stringent standards for accepting [truth] claims.” Here we encounter one of the book’s deeper paradoxes. The climate movement relies on its defense of science, leveling the charge of “science denialism” against its opponents whenever possible, yet here we find Oreskes and Conway attacking the very epistemological foundations of the entire endeavor. Nor is this their only instance of rejecting the standard practices of science. “Statistical significance,” they claim, is an outmoded concept that will someday be regarded as “archaic” (p. 61). In several passages, they lather contempt on “physical scientists,” those benighted practitioners, “overwhelmingly male,” who:

[E]mphasized study of the world’s physical constituents and processes … to the neglect of biological and social realms and focused on reductionist methodologies that impeded understanding of the crucial interactions between physical, biological, and social realms (p. 60).

Oreskes and Conway embrace “interaction” to such as extent that they even regard “environment” as another concept that will eventually be dismissed as archaic, as it supposedly entails “separating humans from the rest of the world” (p. 55). In actuality, most people use the term “environment” precisely to highlight connections among humans and the rest of nature. But according to the authors, it was not until the coming of “radical thinkers such as Paul Ehrlich and Dennis and Donella Meadows” in the late 20th century that anyone “recognized that humans are part of the environment and dependent upon it” (p. 56). Such claims are preposterous, as the history of Western thought thoroughly demonstrates. To appreciate the historical depth of such recognition, I would recommend Clarence Glacken’s magisterial, Traces on the Rhodian Shore: Nature and Culture in Western Thought from Ancient Times to the End of the Eighteenth Century.

Although many of the key scientific questions of the day do indeed demand, as Oreskes and Conway write, an “understanding of the crucial interactions between physical, biological, and social realms,” it is equally imperative to recognize that most do not. Most of the issues addressed by chemists, physicists, and geologists have nothing to do with the social realm, and must be examined through a “reductionistic” lens if they are to be approached scientifically. To insist instead that they must be framed in a socio-biological context is to reject the methods of science at a fundamental level. Such a tactic risks reviving the intellectual atmosphere that led the Soviet Union to the disaster of ideologically contaminated research known as Lysenkoism. In the final analysis, the denial of science encountered in The Collapse of Western Civilization thus runs much deeper than that found among even the most determined climate-change skeptics, as it pivots on much more basic epistemological and methodological issues.

Not just science by also logic suffers at the hands of the author. They argue, for example, that it is a logical fallacy to contend that natural gas could serve as a “bridge to renewables,” due to the fact that analyses of the effects of natural-gas combustion on the atmosphere have been “incomplete” (p. 53-54). In actuality, this is an empirical issue, not one of logic per se.

The most troubling aspect of Oreskes and Conway’s book, however, is not its scare-tactics, its sloppy depictions of climatic patterns, or its attack on scientific standards. What is truly frightening is its embrace of authoritarian politics, coupled with its denigration of liberty and democracy. This is a tricky issue, however, as the authors’ pseudo-science-fictional narrative strategy provides an easy out, making it appear as if the authors actually value liberty and reject despotism. Oreskes contends in the interview that comes at the end of the book that the preservation of any freedoms that we still enjoy demands immediate and thoroughgoing action, as “delay increases the risk that authoritarian forms of government will come out ahead in the end” (p. 70). It is rather, the authors contend, supporters of the status quo who are undermining freedom by their failure to embrace the alarmist position. As they write:

And so the development that neo-liberals most dreaded—centralized government and loss of personal choice—was rendered essential by the very policies that they had put in place (p. 49).

This tactic, however, is disingenuous. No evidence is provided, for example, to indicate that autocratic governments respond more effectively to environmental crises than democratic ones. Rather, this thesis is merely assumed, despite the large body of evidence that points in the opposite direction. It is, moreover, an unfortunate fact that global carbon-dioxide emissions will continue to rise for some time regardless of any minuscule effect that the publication The Collapse of Western Civilization and similar books may have on public opinion. India, for example, has recently announced that it will prioritize economic development over climatic stabilization. The governments of many other countries concur, all but guaranteeing increasing emissions. As result, Oreskes and Conway may claim that they do not personally embrace authoritarianism, but their larger arguments hold that it is nonetheless necessary if civilization is to survive in any form. Finally, given their own predictions of shattering disruptions across the world, China’s geographical position ensures that it would suffer vastly more than Western Europe, the historical core of the supposedly doomed Western Civilization. In imagining China’s unlikely survival against the thrust of their own arguments, they evidently find something deeply compelling about its political system.

China’s intense vulnerability to the kind of climate change foreseen by Oreskes and Conway is undeniable. To begin with, most of the densely settled, agricultural productive areas of the country already experience pronounced summer heat. The huge metropolis of Chongqing, for example, has an average August high temperature of 92.5° F (33.6° C) as well as a sultry average low in the same month of 76.5° F (24.7° C), which makes it distinctly warmer than almost the entire expanse of southern Europe. Even the far northern Chinese city of Harbin post a warm daily mean July temperature of 73.4° F (23° C), which is virtually identical to that of Italy’s Milan (73.6° F/23.1° C). To be sure, the vast Tibetan Plateau of southwestern China has a cool climate, but most of it is too high, and hence Oreskes and Conway's Vision Maptoo oxygen deprived, to serve as a refuge for those fleeing climate disturbances. Only the Yunnan Plateau and few portions of the extreme north would be suitable resettlement zones in a world so hot as to depopulate (most of) Australia. (To illustrate the larger argument here, I have juxtaposed map details of southeastern China and southeastern Australia, extraced from several of the maps posted above.)

Global Warming Natural Disasters MapHigh temperatures, moreover, are by no means the only problems that China would face in the world imaged by Oreskes and Conway. The country is already highly susceptible to drought, especially its densely populated North China Plain. Massive engineering projects are now being constructed to alleviate water shortages in this region, although many experts doubt that they will be adequate. Desertification, likewise, is much more extreme in China today than in North America, let alone Europe. The same story is encountered in regard to flooding; it is no coincidence that most of the world’s truly devastating floods have occurred in China. And it goes without saying that the surge in tropical mega-storms predicted by the authors would have a vastly greater impact on China than on Europe. The same is true in regard to the terrifying northward surge of tropical diseases that the authors envisage. Finally, even specific calamities imagined by Oreskes and Conway, such as the failure of the Asian monsoon—generated it their view not by global warming but rather by geo-engineering efforts to forestall it (p. 27)—would devastate China but spare Europe. As a result of such considerations, it is odd indeed that the authors imagine China surviving while the Western Civilization of Europe perishes.

In a few passages, Oreskes and Conway seem to indicate that China will be able to meet the challenge of climate change with relative success due to its foresighted environmental policies. Considering China’s environmental record to date, this is a most curious argument. Although China does subsidize renewable energy—as do most Western countries—it continues to spew carbon dioxide with abandon. More important, it unquestionably prioritizes economic growth over environmental protection. The most recent figures show that China’s per capita carbon dioxide emissions have just surpassed those of the European Union, which is an extraordinary development considering the fact that the EU is much more prosperous than China.

Oreskes and Conway’s depictions of China’s environmental advantages over the West, moreover, are far from convincing. Consider, for example, the following passage:

China, for instance, took steps to control its population and convert its economy to non-carbon-based energy sources. These efforts were little noticed and less emulated in the West, in part because Westerners viewed Chinese population control efforts as immoral … (p. 6).

In actuality, certain Western countries have made greater efforts than China to move to a non-carbon-based economy, albeit with checkered success.*** But any such accomplishments will have no impact on any particular country’s vulnerability to climate change, as greenhouse-gas emissions are a global rather than local matter. What is truly bizarre in this passage, however, is the idea that Western countries have failed to “emulate” China’s population-control policies. At present, virtually all Western countries, no matter how “the West” is defined, have birthrates below the replacement level. Many of them, moreover, post fertility-rate figures well below that of China, including Germany, Poland, Italy and Spain. Yet for all of this, Oreskes and Conway still think that it necessary to scold the West for its failure to enact coercive population control measures.

In other passages as well, Oreskes and Conway ardently support China’s one-child policy, imagining that by the 2040s it will, by necessity, be “widely implemented” across the world (p 24). Yet in actuality, it is not merely Western countries that have seen their fertility rates plunge well below the replacement level. Brazil, Iran, and Thailand fall into this category, as do all the states of southern India. Yet in all of these examples, birth-rate declines have occurred on a strictly voluntary basis, without the human-rights abuses that have accompanied the Chinese program. The drivers of such declining fertility are reasonably well understood, including broad-based economic and social development, mass public education (especially of girls), and even the availability of televised “soap operas” than model small but happy middle-class families. Evidently, the authors find such a gentle and accommodating path to demographic stability much less appealing the strong-arm approach of the Chinese government

In the end, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Oreskes and Conway’s vision of China’s survival is rooted not in the country’s potential for enacting beneficial environmental policies, but rather in its current authoritarianism. Indeed, Erik Conway admits as much in the interview at the end of the book: “authoritarian states may well find it easier to make the changes necessary to survive rapid climate change” (p. 70). The despotic Chinese regime, in other words, is regarded as possessing the ability to force adaptive change on its population, unlike the liberty-besotted West. The authors imagine, for example, that China would be able to effectively arrange mass transfers of people away from inundated coastal plains and other eco-disaster zones. Admittedly, China does has some experience with such relocation programs, having expelled more that a million people from their homes when it began to fill the reservoir behind the Three Gorges Dam. Human-rights advocates, however, generally see such displacements as catastrophic in their own right, but such considerations seem to matter little to Oreskes and Conway.

Former U.S. senator Timothy Worth’s avidly blurbs The Collapse of Western Civilization, describing the scenario outlined by Oreskes and Conway as “chilling.” On that I would certainly agree, but what chills me are not their overwrought depictions of the coming global crisis, but rather their totalitarian response. On the final page of their text, their fictional mouthpiece tells us that three hundred years after the collapse of Western Civilization, “decentralization and redemocratization may be considered.” “May,” however,” turns out to be the operative term, as the passage goes on to note that, “others consider that outcome wishful, in light of the dreadful events of the past.”

Oreskes and Conway’s authoritarian inclinations are seemingly linked to their contempt for the West, which they identify with a dangerous devotion to personal freedom. The most telling passage to this effect is found in the authors’ interview, where Erik Conway states:

 To me, [The Collapse of Western Civilization] is hopeful. There will be a future for humanity, even if one no longer dominated by “Western Culture.”

No matter that Oreskes and Conway see every last person in Africa perishing, they still apparently find such a scenario promising as long as Western Culture perishes in the process.

As noted at the beginning of this essay, tens of millions of people have reached the conclusion that anthropogenic climate change is a giant hoax perpetuated by corrupt scientific and journalistic establishments. In their previous book, Merchants of Doubt, Oreskes and Conway attribute such benighted views to the money and machinations of oil companies and other organizations with financial interests in the status quo. While I would not deny that such factors play a role, they do not provide a full account. Of particular significance are the writings of green extremists such as Oreskes and Conway themselves. By putting forth grotesque exaggerations, by engaging in misleading reportage, and by embracing authoritarian if not totalitarian politics, they discredit their own cause. The Collapse of Western Civilization, in short, reads as if it were part of a great conspiracy, one that that seemingly rests on an insincere approach to evidence and argumentation.

The Collapse of Western Civilization is, of course, merely one thin book, and as such it must be asked whether it can be regarded as representative of even the extremist fringe of the climate movement. But in the final analysis it is not the book itself that disturbs me so much as its reception by the broader green community. Judging from published reviews and on-line comments, it would appear that acclamation has been the most common response. Such acclaim, however, is deeply ironic. Environmentalists generally regard themselves, and are regarded by others, as politically liberal. But when self-styled liberals embrace a work that is not merely illiberal but ostentatiously anti-liberal, I must wonder whether the mainstream environmental movement has any future at all.

*A “glossary of archaic terms,” and an interview with the authors, and a set of scholarly notes, bring the page count up to 89.

** It is true that the record high temperature of Hobart (107° F/42° C) exceeds that of both Paris (105° F/40.4° C) and Stockholm (97° F/36° C), but it is still well below the record high temperature of most cities in the U.S. Midwest. The figure for Saint Louis, for example, is 115° F (46° C).

*** Germany has probably gone farther than any other country in pushing renewable energy, but its success has been limited. Owning to its dismantling of nuclear reactors, it has been forced to increase its coal and biomass combustion, despite its surging solar and wind energy production. As a result, carbon dioxide emissions have increased, deforestation has accelerated, and energy prices have risen, placing a heavy burden on the poor.

Eco-Authoritarian Catastrophism: The Dismal and Deluded Vision of Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway Read More »

Is There an Arc of Instability?

Larger African Arc of InstabilityIn grappling with the geography of geopolitical conflict, many journalists, politicians, and military strategists use the term “arc of instability,” implying that the world’s troubled countries are arrayed along a curve. But different sources have very different ideas about how such an “arc” is configured. A recent The Wall Street Journal article (“Obama Contends With Arc of Instability Unseen Since ’70s”) expansively describes the zone of unstable countries as “playing out around the globe, from the Palestinian territories and Iraq to Ukraine and the South China Sea…” NATO’s Secretary General, on the other hand, looks at a somewhat offset region, contending that, “An arc of instability threatens states from the African Arc of InstabilityMiddle East to North Africa and the Sahel…” A statement from the U.N. Security Council puts only “Africa’s Sahara and Sahel region” under this rubric. Yet according to political commentator Juan Cole, the term was used by the second Bush administration to refer to a region that pushes “deep into Central Asia.” Other writers, moreover, describe completely different “arcs of instability,” including one that is confined to Eastern Europe. The Wikipedia article on “Arc of Pacific Arc of InstabilityInstability,” however, tells us that the term “has traditionally been accepted to include South-East Asian and Oceanic nations such as Papua New Guinea, The Solomon Islands, East Timor, Indonesia and Fiji.” Evidently, the “arc of instability” is an extremely vague concept.

Large Arc of InstabilitySeveral sources attribute the genesis of the term to the National Intelligence Council. This organization’s 2008 report, Global Trends 2025, states (p. 61) that it had previously used the term “great arc of instability” to refer to an area “stretching from Sub-Saharan Africa through North Africa, into the Middle East, the Balkans, the Caucasus, and South and Central Asia, and parts of Southeast Asia.” This area is large indeed, but some maps show an even larger “arc,” such as the one posted to the left. This “mega-arc” stems from the idea of a “non-Non-Integrating Gap mapintegrating gap,” proposed by Thomas Barnett in his 2004 book, The Pentagon’s New Map: War and Peace in the Twenty-First Century.

Does the concept of an “arc of instability” have any merit? Certainly the most enlarged versions of such a zone are of little use, as they include such relatively stable countries as Singapore, Malaysia, Mauritius, Romania, Costa Rica, and Panama. (By the same token, these and other supposedly “non-integrating countries” are actually highly integrated into the global economy.) Classifying half of the world as “unstable” is simply too crude to be helpful. But that said, political instability is geographically clustered, and has become increasing clustered in recent years.

But before outlining the configuration of any such a zone, it would be useful to specify what exactly is meant by “instability.” In particular, we should differentiate a more superficial form of governmental instability from deeper geopolitical instability. Thailand, for example, certainly has an unstable government, but its existence as a state is not thereby threatened (notwithstanding the intractable insurgency in Thailand’s far south). Similarly, Venezuela is both governmentally and economically unstable, but no groups are demanding its dissolution or threatening to annex large chunks of its territory. The threats faced by such truly geopolitically unstable countries as Yemen and Libya, on the other hand, are much more extreme, as they are existential in nature. It is far from certain that Libya, let alone Somalia, will be reconstituted as a coherent state.

Geopolitically Unstable States mapWith this distinction in mind, I have tentatively mapped a zone of genuine geopolitical instability. The countries in dark blue are deeply threatened and in some cases hardly exist as real geopolitical units. Lighter blue countries are geopolitically challenged in one way or another, generally by serious separatist movements or from territorially encroachments by neighboring states. Making such a map entails tricky judgment calls; as a result, suggestions for revisions are welcome. Should Pakistan be included? Does Sudan really belong? Such questions are not easy to answer.

The basic patterns of the map are clear, however. Geopolitical instability is concentrated in a zone stretching from Central Africa through North Africa and the Middle East and extending into the former Soviet region. The Americas and Southeast Asia are much more geopolitically stable, despite their depiction to the contrary on many maps. Geopolitical stability, moreover, has increased in recent years in such countries as Colombia, Peru, Burma, and Indonesia, while decreasing in much of North Africa and the Middle East.


Is There an Arc of Instability? Read More »

Can We Map State Instability?

The previous post showed that the Fragile States Index did not capture the fragility of Syria and Libya on the eve of the so-called Arab Spring. The question is then raised about the performance of other indices of state weakness in this this regard. As it turns out, they did little better.

World Bank 2010 Political Stability MapConsider, for example, the World Bank’s 2010 map of political instability (which, unfortunately, simultaneously assesses “absence of violence/terrorism,” a somewhat different issue). On purely cartographic grounds, the map is a disaster: employing an inappropriate Mercator projection, it makes Greenland appear to be the global core of political stability, while its incomplete labeling system is misleading at best. But our concern here is with its categorization scheme, which is also problematic. Note that it placed Libya in the same category of stability as Spain and Brazil, while slotting Syria in the same group as Turkey, China, Russia, and India. What really seems odd, however, is the placement of South Korea, Germany, the UK, and the US in the same category as Mozambique, Benin, and Turkmenistan.

Economist Political Instablity MapThe Economist Intelligence Unit’s Political Instability Index for 2009-2010 was little better. It put Libya in the same “moderate risk” category as France, the Netherlands, and South Korea. It also depicted Syria as more stable than Cambodia, Ecuador, or the Dominican Republic.

In comparing the various political instability indices from 2010, some intriguing discrepancies stand out. Note that the Economist Intelligence Unit depicted Ethiopia as relatively stable, whereas the World Bank placed it in the most unstable category, as did the Fragile States Index (see the previous post). Different criteria are obviously being used to assess instability.

World Bank 2012 Political Instablity MapIn regard to more recent maps, the World Bank’s 2012 assessment (its latest) does a somewhat better job, capturing the extreme instability of Syria and Libya. This map does, however, seem to stumble in other parts of the world; note that it depicts South Sudan as more stable that Iran or Colombia. A related 2012 World World Bank Government Effectiveness MapBank Map, this one purporting to measure “government effectiveness,” is less explicable. It classifies Syria as having a more “effective government” than North Korea. Brutal as the North Korean government is, it does at least govern the entire country, unlike the collapsing Syrian government of 2012.

Maplecroft Political Risk MapMaplecroft’s 2014 Dynamic Political Risk map makes more intuitive sense than most of its competitors. Still, it seems as if a number of countries are rated as more stable then they actually are, including Ukraine, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands. Burma (Myanmar), on the other hand, is probably more stable than the map indicates. Maplecroft, a private British “global risk analytics firm,” takes a step beyond most of its competitors by making concrete predictions. As its webpage states:

Maplecroft predicts that the situation in Syria (2nd), Libya (8th) and Egypt (15th) is now so bad that these countries will be mired in exceptionally high levels of dynamic political risk for years to come. This ‘vicious circle’ reflects the self-reinforcing impact of extremely poor governance, conflict, high levels of corruption, persistent regime instability and societal dissent and protest. Illustrating this point, seven of the worst countries for political risk – Somalia (1st), Afghanistan (3rd), Sudan (4th), DR Congo (5th), Central African Republic (6th), South Sudan (9th) and Iraq (10th) – have stayed among the bottom 10 in the Political Risk Atlas for the last six years.

Such predictions seem reasonable. Still, I do wonder if one needs to conduct the detailed and expensive analyses that Maplecroft carries out in order to reach such conclusions.

Wikipedia Dispute Index MapA completely different method of assessing political instability is found in the Wikipedia Dispute Index Map, which, as it name implies, simply measures disputes in regard to Wikipedia articles pertaining to each country. This map derives from a 2011 PLOS article entitled “Content Disputes in Wikipedia Reflect Geopolitical Instability,” by Gordana Apic, Matthew Betts, and Robert B. Russell. The authors contend that the patterns that they uncovered correlate well with other measurement of geopolitical instability. As they contend:

It is remarkable that so simple a metric can agree so well with more complex measures of political and economic stability. We do not mean to suggest that this indicator could replace existing metrics since the issues mentioned above related to sparse data and language currently preclude this possibility. However, this work does demonstrate that information contained within resources like Wikipedia can be used in interesting and useful new ways that can ultimately complement more arduous metrics.

Although the Wikipedia Dispute Index Map is intriguing, as are the methods used to generate it, I have my doubts about its usefulness. Do the many disputes about Wikipedia articles on Saudi Arabia actually indicate that the country is severely unstable? That seems unlikely. On the other hand, I suspect that Saudi Arabia is more fragile in the long run than its depictions on the other maps of global instability would indicate.

Can We Map State Instability? Read More »