Geographical determinism

Robert Kaplan’s Problematic Theory of Pakistan’s Geographical Destiny

In a recent Foreign Policy article, Robert Kaplan argues that Pakistan’s problems—and its destiny—are rooted in its physical landscape: “Pakistan’s present and future, for better or worse, are still best understood through its geography.” Kaplan’s article is important and insightful in many respects, and I would urge all interested parties to read it carefully. But as a geographer, I am wary of arguments that too strongly link historical processes and political developments to geographical patterns: geographers once argued that the physical landscape determined just about everything, an overweening claim that crippled the discipline. Careful securitization of Kaplan’s claims thus seems in order.

Kaplan’s geographical arguments are much more sophisticated than those of the crude geographical determinism of yesteryear. He does not link pervasive insecurity and violence to rugged topography, a common and simplistic maneuver, and he explicitly rejects the commonplace thesis that Pakistan is an artificially constructed state with no geographical rationale that is therefore bound to flounder. Instead he contends that the country does indeed have a specific geographical logic—one that shapes its politics and guides its development. That logic is founded on possession of the Indus Valley and (most of) the fertile plains of the Punjab, areas that, he claims, automatically tie in with the adjacent western uplands and hence to the vital trade routes of Central Asia and the Middle East. Polities based on this geographical space, he argues, were a staple feature of South Asian history: “This entire middle region — not quite the subcontinent, not quite Central Asia — was more than a frontier zone or a bold line on a map: It was a fluid cultural organism and the center of many civilizations in their own right.” Such a territorial foundation, he further contends, became all the more important with the advent of Islam in the subcontinent: “Pakistan is the very geographical and national embodiment of all the Muslim invasions that have swept down into India throughout its history.”

Kaplan contrasts this naturally constituted Indus-based state with another geographically determined locus of state formation further to the east: “the Indian subcontinent has two principal geographical regions: the Indus Valley with its tributaries, and the Ganges Valley with its tributaries.” The key to the current geopolitical tussle for Afghanistan, he contends, is the unprecedented attempt by a Ganges-based state (India) to leapfrog an Indus-based state (Pakistan) by gaining influence over South Asia’s crucial northwestern borderlands (Afghanistan): “Today’s political geography is historically unique, however: an Indus Valley state, Pakistan, and a powerful Ganges Valley state, India, both fighting for control of an independent and semi-chaotic Central Asian near abroad — Afghanistan.”

Although Kapan’s reasoning is subtle and his marshalling of historical evidence impressive, his general scheme is a bit too neat and tidy. To begin with, reducing India to the Ganges Basin is simplistic—and sure to generate offense in the rest of the country. The Ganges Valley can be viewed as India’s most important cultural-historical core zone, but other cores, such as the plains of Tamil Nadu in the extreme south, have been vitally important for millennia.  In today’s India, moreover, the Ganges Basin is generally regarded as the poorest and most backward part of the country, with the centers of dynamism mostly located well to the south.

Historically as well, it is questionable to link the physical-geographical substrate to the generation (and regeneration) of particular, territorially bounded states. At one level, Kaplan recognizes the fluctuating nature of pre-modern polities, arguing that the “past belonged to a world not of fixed borders, but rather of perpetually moving spheres of control as determined by the movements of armies.” Yet at the same time, he repeatedly refers to Indus-based and Ganges-based states as forming the geo-political core zones of South Asia. In actuality, many historical kingdoms ruled over areas not fixed by the region’s riverine topography.  Consider, for example, the situations circa 300 CE, 1000 CE, and 1500 CE, as represented in Thomas Lessman’s superb political-historical atlas. Note in these maps the division of the Indus Valley into competing states, as well as the significance of Indian kingdoms located outside of the Indo-Ganges lowlands. If one picks particular historical episodes, one can indeed make it seem as if there is a natural connection between particular territories and powerful states, but if one picks other periods, different patterns are revealed. Geography, in other words, is not exactly destiny.

Finally, Kaplan’s very subtitle is doubly problematic: “Why geography — unfortunately — is destiny for South Asia’s troubled heartland.” How Pakistan could possibly be considered South Asia’s “heartland” is beyond my understanding.






Geographic Environment, Cultural Diversity, and Liberalism in the Eastern Mediterranean

Map of topography and religious minorities in Syria and Lebanon“The power of mountains to protect makes them asylums of refuge for displaced peoples.” Ellen Churchill Semple, 1911, Influences of Geographic Environment, Chapter 16.

“Great fertility in a narrow coastal belt barred from the interior serves to concentrate and energize the maritime activities of the nation. The 20-mile wide plain stretching along the foot of the Lebanon range from Antioch to Cape Carmel is even now the garden of Syria.” Ellen Churchill Semple, 1911, Influences of Geographic Environment, Chapter, Chapter 8.

In examining the spatial patterns of the eastern Mediterranean, many observers have been struck by the close correlation between mountainous areas and religious diversity. The heartland of the Druze sect is the aptly named Jabal al-Druze, a volcanic cluster of peaks that arises abruptly from the arid plains of southern Syria; other Druze communities are found in the mountains of central Lebanon and in the Golan Heights. The largest Christian population in the region, the Maronites, are concentrated in the Mount Lebanon area; the Alawite community is focused in the An-Nusayriyah Mountains of coastal Syria; and the main Yezidi population is found on and around Sinjar Mountain in the northeast.

The notion of a link between mountainous topography and minority populations was once a widely accepted principle of geography, put forth most eloquently by Ellen Churchill Semple. Since her day, geographers became so wary of environmental determinism that they ceased writing about such linkages. But whatever its causes, the correlation cannot be denied. Consider the language variety of the Caucasus—dubbed by medieval Arab geographers the “mountain of languages”—or of the central highlands of New Guinea. Such diversity does not always stem from “displacement,” as the quote above might indicate. But Semple was correct in noting the “refuge” often afforded by rough terrain. Up to this day, governments have a difficult time controlling, and imposing orthodoxy on, mountainous regions. By the same token, insurgencies often prove more intracatable in highlands than in lowlands. One cannot understand the geography of the Levant without grasping the connection between cultural diversity and upland topography.

Ellen Semple also stressed the cosmopolitan nature of coastal zones that engage in extensive commerce with foreign lands, highlighting Lebanon in the regard. Although Lebanon has its share of religious extremism and animosity, public opinion surveys indicate that Lebanon ranks alongside Turkey as the most socially and politically liberal Muslim-majority country. According to the indispensible Pew Research Center, of the Lebanese Muslims who see a struggle between Islamic modernizers and fundamentalists, eighty-four percent identify with the modernizers; in Egypt, by contrast, fifty-nine percent identify with the fundamentalists. Lebanese Muslims are also more supportive of democracy than are Muslims elsewhere in the world, even in Turkey. Another Pew survey showed that forty-nine percent of Lebanese Muslims consider it a good thing that Islam plays a small role in their country’s political life, whereas in Turkey only twenty-six percent of Muslims agreed, and in Egypt only two percent did so. And whereas eighty-four percent of Egyptian Muslims and eighty-six percent of Jordanian Muslims voiced support for the death penalty for those who leave Islam, in Lebanon only six percent of the Muslim population did so. Likewise, while only thirteen percent of Lebanese Muslims indicated support for whipping or amputation to punish theft and robbery, seventy-seven percent of Egyptian Muslims did so. (Support for the radical Shi’ite party Hezbollah, however, is much higher in Lebanon, where it is based, than in neighboring countries.) In short, the coastal, moutainous strip of territory along the eastern Mediterranean remains a highly distinctive land, set apart in several regards from the rest of the region in which it is located.

None of this is to argue that Lebanon’s coastal orientation determines the beliefs of its inhabitants, or that mountainous locations are necessarily culturally diverse. This is merely a question of tendencies, and tendencies can certainly be overriden by other factors. Semple herself entitled her magum opus Influences of Geographic Environment, not Determinents of Geographic Environment. When examining contemporary geopolitics, we would do well to keep such influences in mind.

Environmental Determinism, Ellsworth Huntington, and the Decline of Geography

Geography is defined as “the study of the earth and its features.” Derived from the Greek for “earth writings,” geography traditionally focused on the world as a whole; investigations of smaller regions were a distinct if related branch of learning. For centuries, the main focus of geographical research was filling in the unknown portions of the world map. But as that task came to an end in the late 1800s and early 1900s, new research frontiers were sought. Many geographers turned to what was then a hot topic in social science: the racial differentiation of humankind. Others attempted to distill geographical laws from the age-old theory of environmental determinism, seeking global correlations among climate, soils, and landforms, on the one hand, and social, political, and cultural forms, on the other.

By the 1910s and ‘20s, environmental determinism was the reigning paradigm of geographical studies in the United States. Its leading theorists were Ellsworth Huntington and Ellen Churchill Semple. Ellen Churchill Semple, as we shall see in a forthcoming post, was the more impressive scholar of the two. Huntington’s arguments were often crude, and his central thesis was frankly without merit. If he wielded more influence, it was largely thanks to his connections and position at Yale University, as well as his gender.

Ellsworth Huntington was nothing is not prolific, writing on topics ranging from the global environment to business geography to Palestine. Yet he returned repeatedly to his pet theory, the idea that “climatic energy” determined human accomplishments. “Civilization,” in his view, could thrive only where allowed by climate. The ideal environment was a temperate one: free from extremes of heat or cold, yet blessed with a bracing seasonal contrast between winter and summer. Rainfall should be spread throughout the year, as prolonged dry seasons sapped both human health and mental acuity. Short-term alternations between wet and dry, on the other hand, were regarded as a positive force, refreshing the mind and spirit. Huntington translated these favorable conditions into numbers and then mapped them across the world. As seen in the map reproduced above, he concluded that climatic energy peaked in western Europe and northeastern North America. New Haven, Connecticut, where he made his home, was in the ideal range, making Huntington a lucky man indeed. Huntington next compared the map to one showing the “level of civilization.” Lo and behold, the two maps correlated nicely, supposedly substantiating the thesis.

In essence, Ellsworth Huntington’s took his own favorite climate to be the driving force of human history. But he allowed that climate did not determine everything. To begin with, the two maps did not correlate perfectly; some areas of “high climatic energy,” such as Patagonia, figured low on the civilizational chart, while some areas of poor climate, such as northern India, had achieved at least a modicum of accomplishment. And such discrepancies would have been more pronounced prior to the migration of Europeans to North America. The northeastern quadrant of the United States may have been climatically blessed, but it would not civilize until the right kind of people moved in. Race, in other words, mattered too.

Huntington ultimately sought to harmonize environmental and racial determinism, arguing that racial differences arose through natural selection propelled by climatic disparities and climate change. He often hedged his racial arguments, however, unlike those based on environmental features. Huntington also avoided the more virulent forms of racism common at the time. He did not in fact put his own Anglo-Saxons at the top of the hierarchy, speculating instead that:

The Jews are probably the greatest of all races. Has any other so persistently produced an almost endless string of great men for three or four thousand years? Has any other produced so many great men in proportion to its number? Certainly no other, unless it be the Chinese, has so consistently maintained a prominent position for millennium after millennium (The Pulse of Progress, 1926, p. 174).

Although environmental and racial theories dominated much academic discourse through the 1920s, they were increasingly challenged, denounced as both prejudicial and reductionistic. One of the most withering critiques came from Franz Boas, a German-born scholar who had switched from physics to geography after receiving his doctorate. Conducting field research on the environmental determinants of Inuit (Eskimo) culture on Baffin Island, Boas underwent an intellectual transformation. He now came to think that culture had to be understood in its own terms rather than in those of nature, and that tribal people were in no way intellectually inferior to others. Faced with poor job prospects as a geographer in Germany, and despairing at his country’s growing nationalism and anti-Semitism, Boas decamped for the United States near the turn of the century. He also changed disciplines again, in the process essentially founding the field of American cultural anthropology. Boasian anthropology, based on cultural relativism and particularism, was effectively a direct rebuttal to Huntingtonian geography. By the 1940s, the intellectual tenor of the academy swung decisively in Boas’s favor. As cultural anthropology expanded in the United States, human geography began to contract.

To be sure, environmental determinism encountered other obstacles as well. Where Huntington and like-minded geographers had stressed the limitations imposed by nature, such constraints seemed antiquated in the technologically optimistic post-WWII era. Air-conditioning alone seemed to many to go a long way to erase the burdens imposed by enervating climates. All societies could achieve economic and social development, the new thinking proclaimed, if only they could adopt the correct policies and accumulate adequate capital. To insist that climate or soil, let alone race, precluded progress over much of the world now seemed bigoted, unimaginative, and unduly pessimistic.

Academic geographers responded to this changing intellectual environment, but not always in an effective way. The field as a whole jettisoned geographical determinism so thoroughly that anything hinting of the doctrine came to be regarded as an intellectual sin. Geographers turned on their own forebears and cut off their own roots. Huntington was cast aside, but so too were far more able scholars of his generation, including the formidable Ellen Churchill Semple.