Editorial

Editorial posts by Martin W. Lewis

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. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2014/04/07/the-less-americans-know-about-ukraines-location-the-more-they-want-u-s-to-intervene/

[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. https://www.counterpunch.org/2004/11/02/the-case-of-bush-ii/

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

2021

[5] “Don’t Know Much About Geography,” By Victor Davis Hanson, National Review, August 15, 2013. https://www.nationalreview.com/2013/08/dont-know-much-about-geography-victor-davis-hanson/

[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. https://foreignpolicy.com/2009/10/26/one-world-rival-theories/

[9] This is from the program’s website: https://fsi.stanford.edu/masters-degree/content/ips-home

[10] This is from the description of the program in the Stanford University Bulletin: https://bulletin.stanford.edu/departments/INTLPOLICY/overview#text

[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: https://explorecourses.stanford.edu/search?view=catalog&filter-coursestatus-Active=on&page=0&catalog=&academicYear=&q=INTLPOL+301b&collapse=

[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. https://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/17/weekinreview/17lewin.html

 

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Why Mapping Sovereignty Matters: IR Theory, Realism, John Mearsheimer, and the Failure of U.S. Foreign Policy

(Note: today’s post is an edited version of a talk that I recently gave at a conference called Re-Mapping Sovereignty: Representing Geopolitical Complexity, held at Stanford University’s David Rumsey map on May 26 and 27, 2022.  I am categorizing it as an editorial essay, as it has more opinion content that standard GeoCurrents posts. At the conference, the talk was illustrated with 88 sides; I have included only the most important ones here. All the conference talks are available on YouTube at:

https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLo6c8cw3_QTHZYxQedpDCqRgzkuEyefLa

 

It would be an understatement to say that U.S. foreign policy over the past few decades has fallen short of its aim. Failures of both prediction and program have been recurrent. Most recently, the consensus was that Russia would crush Ukraine in 48 to 96 hours.[1] Vanishingly few anticipated a successful defense of Kiev, let alone a prolonged conflict. A few months earlier, experts erred in the opposite direction, confident that Kabul would withstand the Taliban for a prolonged period. No one anticipated the rapid collapse of the Afghan army and government, and no one prepared for the evacuation of American personnel before the military withdrew.

Much more damaging was a string of U.S. led or aided regime-change gambits and other military ventures in the early 2000s. These efforts backfired spectacularly. After two decades of bloodletting and institution-building in Afghanistan, the Taliban emerged much stronger than it had been before 9/11, able now to easily overrun the previously impregnable Panjshir Valley. Iraq was turned into a militia-riven country partially aligned with Iran. Libya was shattered for years, becoming a hub of weapons smuggling, and human trafficking, and worse. U.S.-supported efforts to overthrow Syria’s Assad regime fostered a resurgence of radical Islamism and allowed Russia to gain officially permanent control of a major airbase and port facility. U.S.-backed military intervention by Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Yemen resulted in a deadly stalemate and a human-rights catastrophe.

Over the same period, the rise of authoritarian China, globally ambitious and increasingly unfriendly toward the United States, likewise defied confident predictions. The Washington consensus was that an enriching China would steadily veer into liberalism and democracy, its participation in global trade networks tightening the bonds of an increasingly peaceable post-Cold War order. Many foreign policy experts welcomed the growing entanglement of the American and Chinese economies, seeing “Chimerica”[2] as an economically stabilizing force that guaranteed cheap, inflation-busting imports. Warnings of a possible totalitarian resurgence in the one-party People’s Republic were given little credence.

It is all too easy, to be sure, to use hindsight to castigate policy decisions and intelligence omissions, or to assume that different paths would have necessarily led to better outcomes. Given the complexities and contingencies of geopolitics, miscues are unavoidable. It is also easy to overlook foreign-policy successes, as the human mind foregrounds the negative over the positive.[3] That said, there is a disconcerting pattern of error. When costly choices repeatedly yield the opposite of what had been intended, inquiry into the deeper roots of the problem would seem to be in order.

The Realist Critique – and Limits

Despite widespread concurrence in Washington, many critics warned against the regime-change gambit. Although the most concerted opposition came from the political left, in academic foreign-policy circles it was most closely associated with the anti-liberal “realist” school of International Relations (IR). Although realists tend to uphold liberal principles in the domestic sphere, they hotly oppose trying to impose them elsewhere. According to John Mearsheimer, dean of this informal school, the post-Cold War effort of the United States to “remake the world in its own image” was based on a “great delusion” of liberal hegemony.[4] In his view, self-interested nationalism is far more potent than either humanitarianism or the desire for liberty. Accordingly, sovereign states are expected to doggedly pursue their interests regardless of whatever laudable schemes are embraced by progressive intellectuals or advanced by the international community. “Realists,” in this view, are those who acknowledge this reality and act accordingly, upholding balance-of-power rivalries even where they run roughshod over human rights and responsibilities.

After both the overwhelming failures of intervention in the Middle East and the authoritarian surge in China, many observers have inclined more in a “realist” direction, although it is a grotesque exaggeration to say, as some do, that “we are all realists now.”[5] Liberal internationalism is still the dominant establishment position, but it is now a chastened version of what had been a more muscular creed. Mearsheimer and his fellow realists have been proven prescient and thus deserve credit for their warnings.

But if realism illuminates some key problems in U.S. foreign policy, its own shortcomings are equally apparent. Fundamental failures to comprehend the geopolitical order are evident in Mearsheimer’s influential 2014 essay, “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault: The Liberal Delusions That Provoked Putin.”[6] Here he argued that Moscow was the aggrieved party in the 2014 war, owing to NATO’s push into its legitimate sphere of influence. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and hiving-off of the two Donbass “People’s Republics,” in other words, were defensive acts. Mearsheimer insisted that Putin is a conventional geopolitical figure – a realist himself[7] – who acts like almost any leader of a great power would if faced with similar threats. He thus confidently predicted that Russia’s aims would remain strictly limited: “Putin surely understands that trying to subdue Ukraine would be like swallowing a porcupine.”[8]

In early 2022, Russia did indeed try to subdue Ukraine, invalidating Mearsheimer’s prediction and calling into question his ability to discern Putin’s motivations based on realist assumptions. But as the massive invasion commenced, Mearsheimer doubled down, employing the same porcupine simile and giving the same assurances of limited aims.[9] “It does seem apparent that [Putin is] not touching western Ukraine,”[10] he opined just a few days before Moscow launched a missile attack on Lviv in far western Ukraine, the first of many such strikes.  A few months later, he forcefully reiterated his position,[11] arguing that the United States was principally responsible for the war by leading Ukraine “down the primrose path.” He further claimed that Putin recognized the legitimacy of Ukrainian statehood before the war began and was “not interested in making Ukraine part of Russia.”

In Mearsheimer’s understanding at the time of the invasion, Putin would never attempt to subdue Ukraine because doing so would be too expensive and destructive, weakening Russia. Following a clear-cut theory, he expected Putin to coldly calculate his maneuvers, acting in a manner deemed rational by the tenets of realism. As Jan Smoleńskiand Jan Dutkiewicz aptly framed it, “John Mearsheimer and other foreign policy figures [were] treating Russia’s invasion of Ukraine like a game of Risk.”[12] Realist analysis paid little heed to Putin’s own justifications, which he spelled out before the invasion.[13] Given Putin’s craving to extend Russian hegemony over its “Near Abroad,” compounded with the widespread Russian belief in the redemptive power of mass suffering, it is not surprising that he would pursue a self-damaging course. Contrary to realist theorizing, geopolitical myths and ideologies can be tremendously important, and they not infrequently lead in destructive directions. If one imbibes enough hyper-nationalist fables, even the world’s largest porcupine can be a tempting target, as the world learned in June 1941.

It is difficult to make sense of the 2022 Russia-Ukraine war in Mearsheimer’s framework. If it reflected reality, Russia would have continued bullying Kyiv and jockeying for geopolitical advantage rather than launching an outright invasion. Ukraine, for its part, should have complied with Russian demands. As a minor power on a flat landscape, it supposedly had no chance of withstanding its great-power neighbor, fated instead to be a defanged buffer country at best or a Russian puppet state at worst.

Ukraine, Nationalism, and the Failure of Realism

As Mearsheimer rightly emphasizes, the Russia-Ukraine conflict is embedded in national sentiments. Understanding how nationalism functions, however, requires making distinctions between different forms of the phenomenon. Following Hans Kohn, many scholars have differentiated ethnic from civic nationalism.[14] The former is premised on the emotionally charged belief in descent from a locally rooted ancestral population that remains bound together by a common language and cultural practices; the latter is based on allegiance to political ideals. Mearsheimer scoffs at this distinction.[15] In his view, civic ties are too vague and cerebral to be meaningful. Instead, nationalism needs to be cemented by an emotional belief in the “sacred” nature of the national territory if people are “to fight and die for it.”[16] This interpretation accords with those of ethnonational theorist Yoram Hazony and pundit Rich Lowry, who argue that genuine national solidarity must rest on ethnic pillars.[17] These influential authors reject the traditional bipartisan civic nationalism of the United States, which is lodged in loyalty to a liberal republican political creed.

While there are problems with the ethnic/civic distinction,[18] it is nonetheless essential for understanding the Russia-Ukraine conflict. The ideology underwriting Putin’s invasion is one of ethnic essentialism, fixated on the world historical destiny of the Russian people, spiritually entwined with the Russian Orthodox Church. It deviates from garden-variety ethnonationalism by its imperial pretensions. Although Russia is a highly centralized country, Putin’s Eurasianist[19] perspective frames it not as a singular nation-state but rather as the core of a multinational domain; one structured around internal ethnic republics, external unrecognized client states, buffer countries, and an expansive sphere of influence. Russia is constitutionally designated as a multinational federation, with sovereignty officially vested in its various ethno-nationally distinct peoples.[20] While there is no doubt that the Russian ethno-nation forms its core, many others are recognized and granted cultural space; the very existence of the Ukrainian nation, by contrast, is denied, as Ukrainians are said to be a mere local variant of the greater Russian ethnos.[21]

Mearsheimer’s realism overlooks both the pathologies of ethnonationalism and the potentialities of civic nationalism. These pathologies are sadly familiar: national stories tend to be mythologized, leading to damaging historical falsification. Imperial versions, such as Russia’s, foster delusions of destiny that often end in violent imperial overreach. When false narratives are enshrined, moreover, truth-telling becomes subversive and repression follows. Minority groups are typically excluded from the national core and often from the nation itself. Should they become disgruntled enough to rebel, the state is weakened.

The dismissal of civic nationalism by both Mearsheimer and rightwing populists is also unsupportable, as again demonstrated by recent events in Ukraine. Although a sense of common belonging and desire for independence have long been evident across Ukraine, national identity was poorly consolidated before the Russian assault of 2014. To be sure, ethnonational bonds were firm across the north and west, often taking an extreme form in the far west. In and around Lviv, the Svoboda Party – intensely anti-Russian, anti-Communist, and anti-Semitic – routinely gained up to 30 percent of the vote. Eastern and Southern Ukraine, however, strongly favored candidates like Victor Yanukovych who downplayed language and ethnicity, sought closer relations with Russia, and advocated decentralization.[22] Election after election revealed a sharp bifurcation, with candidates who received more than 90 percent of the vote on one end of the country getting less than 10 percent on the other. Such an electoral disjunction, seen most starkly in Nigeria, signals a poorly gelled nation.

Ukraine’s national rift, however, began to heal over after the Russian assaults of 2014. The most pro-Russia areas, Crimea and the eastern Donbass, were excised from the country, while Putin’s brutal actions undermined the pro-Moscow position. More important, a new version of Ukrainian solidarity was put forward by the most unlikely candidate, the comedian Volodymyr Zelensky. As a Russian-speaking Jew who defended the public use of his mother tongue, Zelensky does not even count as Ukrainian in the more hidebound versions of his country’s ethnonational creed. By urging respect for Russian-language institutions, he provoked hostility from extremists.[23] Zelensky’s brand of nationalism had little room for emotional zealotry, religious inflection, or mythologizing the greatness of the Ukrainian past. Instead, he grounded his electoral campaign on a quintessentially civic issue: an anti-corruption drive.

Zelensky first gained traction in Ukraine’s formerly Russia-friendly east and south. In the final voting round, however, he triumphed handily almost everywhere. The only exception was the far west, but even there support for the semi-fascist Svoboda Party had essentially evaporated.[24] Zelensky’s civic nationalism had apparently consolidated the nation, at least temporarily. And when push came to shove, Ukrainians stunned the world with their willingness to fight and die for their land and state. Civically fortified and militarily tested, Ukrainian national consolidation now looks secure.

 

The Standard World Model

Although Mearsheimer blames the ill-fated regime-change maneuvers undertaken or supported by the United States on a naïve liberal drive to refashion the world, the failure of his own theorizing to make sense of the Russia-Ukraine conflict shows that the underlying problem runs deeper. Again and again, realists and interventionists alike fail to anticipate the consequences of their policies. Why? I argue that their common flaw is to accept without question a simplistic world model and map. According to this all-but universal schema, the world is cleanly divided into a set number of sovereign states. These entities are regarded as fundamental, vastly more important than either their own subdivisions or any supranational entities, cross-cutting political organizations, or intersecting networks. Their significance is all-encompassing, extending well beyond geopolitics. They literally form the base map on which almost all global spatial information in inscribed. In the process, they are inevitably naturalized. As Bill Rankin has written, borders separating countries “become part of a neutral landscape with an almost timeless presence, and they’re conspicuously disconnected from the dynamic,  contingent, human knowledge layered on top. It’s a deceptively simple trick, and its simplicity is what makes it so powerful.”[25]

While not all-important, states certainly are of enormous significance. To comprehend them, one needs to understand their geohistory, asking where, when, and how they originated and in what manner this form of political organization spread across globe. Although no consensus has been reached in the vast literature on the topic, most IR scholars agree that the modern state arose in western Europe in the early modern period.[26] In the larger IR narrative, European states gained the key attributes of full sovereignty and complete territorialization with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. The sovereign territorial state then gradually spread, through imposition and emulation, across the world. Tribal and nomadic peoples, such as those of Inner Asia, were among the last to be encompassed within its bounds. By the late twentieth century, the system was globalized, with sovereign states forming the puzzle pieces of the master jigsaw map of the planet.[27]

According to the standard world model, these fundamental units are not just fully sovereign polities governing cleanly demarcated territories. They are also seen as nation-states, implying that the state is fully congruent with the nation – the people – falling under its rule. This equation is encoded in the very term “International Relations.” The correspondence is assumed to be so strong that “state,” “nation,” and “country” have become interchangeable. According to Mearsheimer, nations themselves “tend to be tightly integrated permanent entities separated by clear boundaries.”[28] These platonic entities,[29] as they are called by Nassim Taleb, are presumed to be the world’s essential actors. In international law, they are reduced to singular “persons” who, in concert, constitute a cozy international community.

Real World Dis/Order

The standard world model is concise and convenient, but it is also largely wrong. Reducing the past to a few key events, it is essentially ahistorical; locating all crucial developments on Eurasia’s western fringe, it is inherently Eurocentric. As Munkh-Erdene has demonstrated,[30] pastoral peoples of Central Asia built powerful states with key territorial aspects many centuries ago. State emergence was a prolonged process, with the fully modern form – Charles Maier’s “Leviathan 2.0”not appearing until the second half of the nineteenth century. Jordan Branch more daringly yet convincingly argues that “the state” per se has no time or place of origin, as it is a composite institution whose various components all have their own histories and geographies.[31]

Geopolitical reality is and has always been vastly more complex and chaotic than the world model allows. Across the globe, sovereignty has always been fractionated, nesting, diffuse, and disputed. Borders are often contested and are not infrequently more notional than real. Effectively stateless areas abound, as do counter-states and militarily potent “states within states.” National identity is often questioned and never uniform; states and nations rarely line up with any exactitude. And contemporary sovereign states are certainly not polities of the same sort. For starters, it matters that they differ in size by orders of magnitude. But even countries with comparable populations vary so much in their capacity and infrastructure as to be different kinds of entities. Composite constructions that exist simultaneously in the realms of ideas, infrastructures, and representations, as Jordan Branch argues, states are nothing like persons.

What this means is that we have misconstrued the map. The standard world political map does not depict the world as-it-is; it represents the ideals of the diplomatic community. In the rarified realm of diplomacy, resorting to simplification is reasonable and even desirable. But when the goal is understanding the world and the motives of its actors, the model does more harm than good. If we are to devise effective policies, we need to grapple with the world in its full complexity. Relying on such an idealized image to guide policies and generate forecasts will only lead to more dismay and disappointment.

As Franck Bille[32] emphasizes, mainstream geopolitical scholarship frames deviation as exception, dismissing any challenge to the underlying scheme. In the contemporary world, nation-state uniformity is assumed to have overridden the premodern order of parcelized sovereignty and layered and overlapping political identity, bringing about, in Mearsheimer’s word,[33]  “an extraordinary change from a heterogenous world system to a homogenous one.” But in actuality, divergence from the geopolitical norm is less the exception than the substance of the global political architecture. The more one looks, the more one finds. As Bruno Latour insisted in a different context, “we have never been modern.”[34] We fool ourselves in thinking otherwise.

Moving beyond the game-board view to grapple with the actual configurations of political power can be extraordinarily difficult. Trying to map something as spatially amorphous as the millet system of confessional legal autonomy in the Ottoman Empire challenges the cartographic imagination. But that doesn’t mean that we should give up on visualization altogether. If anything, it makes the mapping of political authority more crucial, if only because the effort to get it right exposes just how slippery and intricate sovereignty can be. Grappling with these intricacies has pushed cartographers to further hone their craft, as Luca Scholz[35] and others here have demonstrated.

Nation-States, Regime Removal, and Country Collapse

The failed regime-change gambits of the early 21st century with which I began this essay are substantially rooted in the standard world model. Having naturalized the state, we can’t help expecting it to be more secure than it often is. We thus imagined that the imagined communities that we call Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Libya would withstand the shock of imposed new regimes, even if done so though foreign aggression. Japan, after all, had no problem staying in one piece after its devasting defeat and occupation in 1945.

Yet the regime-change gambits of the early century saw instead the crumpling of the targeted states and the breaking of their nations followed by prolonged conflict. Libya and Afghanistan may have been tentatively reconstituted, but they remain precarious. Iraq persists as something of a sham state, surviving only at the insistence of the international community; its self-governing and self-defended Kurdish Regional Government would opt out in a heartbeat if it could.[36] In Yemen, the nation was revealed to have been largely a figment. Prior to the regime-toppling operations, it was less national solidarity than the raw power of their governments that held any of these countries together. All, moreover, have been challenged by powerful countervailing ideologies, ranging from radical Islamism, to Arab nationalism and associated ideologies, to conflicted Kurdish nationalism, to anarcho-libertarian socialism, to Pashtun ethno-imperialism.

 

 

 

 

This is not to say that these countries completely lack unifying sentiments. Like other states without ethnonational or civic foundations, they developed some measure of common identity through other means. Mearsheimer emphasizes the solidarity-boosting struggle for independence from colonial powers.[37] But while significant, anti-colonialism itself was insufficient to generate enduring solidarity. More important have been state-run schools, a nation-focused press,[38] and the simple experience of living under a single government. But although public-opinion polling usually shows widespread acceptance of the nation-state, that does not mean that the message is taken to heart. When crisis hits, regional, ethnic, and clan-based affinity can quickly trump nation-state loyalty. The world’s “youngest nation,” South Sudan (2011), cohered well enough when fighting for independence but collapsed almost immediately upon receiving it, as the highest allegiance of most of its people remained with the Nuer, Dinka, and other ethnic groups.[39]

The world would probably be much more stable and peaceful if it accorded with the nation-state model. But just as confusing “is” for “ought” can lead to mindless conservatism, as David Hume warned long ago, confusing “ought” for “is” can lead to senseless naivete. A truly realist perspective would deal with the world as it is constituted, not as it is imagined. Such genuine realism, however, faces resistance, as it can be construed as threatening the institutions that underwrite what little geopolitical stability actually exists. If we were all to quit pretending, such thinking has it, everything could collapse, as political cohesion ultimate rests on legitimacy in the public imagination. Although rarely expressed overtly, this concern sometime makes its presence felt. I was recently chided by a senior colleague for arguing that the Peace of Westphalia, contrary to IR theory, did not create anything like a system of individuated sovereign states. He did not fault my evidence or arguments; what bothered him was their implications. But if the devastating failures of U.S. foreign policy are any indication, what is more dangerous is devising policies under the guidance of an illusion.

The Experimental Failure of Geopolitical Theory and Expertise

International Relations scholarship is concerned with both theory and practice. But theory comes first. As Mearsheimer specifies, theory “is indispensable for understanding how the world works.”[40] In one profound sense, he is not wrong. Theorizing of some sort is necessary to understand anything. But experimentally unfalsifiable theories are best held as provisional interpretations that can shift or be abandoned as new developments unfold. In the sciences, competing theories are routinely put to the test, and those that fail are winnowed out. That is not the case, however, in geopolitics.

As it turns out, a trove of relevant experimental data has been collected on the conceptualization of geopolitically significant events. A robust IR theory ought to facilitate forecasting near-term developments. The available evidence, however, suggests otherwise. For decades, Philip Tetlock has been running massive tournaments in which individuals and teams compete to see who can best forecast the likelihood of such events as North Korea launching another missile or Argentina defaulting on its bonds. The results are not good PR for IR. In one study, according to Tetlock, experts performed on average at the level of a “dart-throwing chimpanzee.”[41] The scholars and pundits whose predictions fare worst are those who are animated by a single “Big Idea.” Tetlock paints those most susceptible to this bias as “theory-poisoned.”[42]

By contrast, a few people are “superforecasters” who have far better track records. Intriguingly, those with the knack turn out to be generalists, not specialists. They typically follow a modest strategy, gathering as much information as possible and adjusting their predictions as they go along.[43] Superforecasters tend to regard theories as hypotheses. Driven by curiosity, they have high levels of general knowledge.[44] They are the kind of people, Tetlock tells us, who can “find Kazakhstan on a map.”[45]

The Geo-Historical Alternative

Tetlock’s research confirms my doubts about the standard approach to sovereignty that dominates geopolitical analysis. Given as well the dismal recent record of U.S. foreign policy, a new paradigm is surely called for. The most promising alternative, I would argue, is based on learning the spatial complexities of political power on the ground, and analyzing how they are imagined, represented, legitimated, and contested. Doing so reveals a richly variegated, multidimensional landscape that cannot be reduced to a single model, much less reflected on a single map. This alternative approach relies heavily on cartography to depict, interpret, and appreciate that landscape, but it always puts multiple maps in dialogue with each other and with textual accounts.[46] It also sees maps as laden propositions, not mirrors of reality.

Rescuing history from the nation, as Prasenjit Duara framed it a quarter-century ago,[47] is a well-advanced project by now in the humanities. But recognition in one corner of the university does not mean acknowledgement across the disciplines, much less in the public sphere. Much more than the study of history needs to be rescued from the nation – and from the state, from blanket sovereignty, and from all the other trappings of the standard world model. Or, to put it another way, we might say that it is the practice of statecraft that need to be rescued by the study of history – and of geography.

Conclusion

Perhaps John Mearsheimer would be open to some aspects of this assessment. He too has warned of the dangers of geographical illiteracy. In the early twenty-first century, he lamented “The United States was intervening in countries it knew astonishingly little about – few government officials even … knew that Sunni and Shi’a were different branches of Islam … .”[48] If officials had known such things, and if they had understood that “Iraq” is not permanent puzzle-piece on a stable world map but a tenuous construction conjured into existence by Winston Churchill,[49] Gertrude Bell[50] and other imperial functionaries following the United Kingdom’s betrayal its Arab allies during World War I, perhaps a less destructive path would have been taken in 2003.

[1] “We Assumed Small States Were Pushovers. Ukraine Proved Us Wrong,” by Alexander Clarkson. World Political Review, April 13, 2022. https://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/articles/30466/after-russia-invasion-ukraine-shows-that-small-states-can-fight-back.

[2] The term “Chimerica” was coined by Niall Ferguson and Moritz Schularick. Ferguson contended that the single Chimerican economy accounted for a third of the world’s gross domestic product in 2009, further arguing that the relationship between the two states was, “for a time,” a “symbiotic relationship that seemed like a marriage made in heaven.” But Ferguson further argued that the economic relationship between the two countries eventually became toxic, as revealed by the financial meltdown of 2008. See “What ‘Chimerica’ Hath Wrought,” by Niall Ferguson, The American Interest Online, January-February 2009 Issue. https://web.archive.org/web/20090721015335/http://www.the-american-interest.com/article.cfm?piece=533

[3] For a popular review of the psychological literature on this subject, see The Power of Bad: How the Negativity Effect Rules Us and How We Can Rule It, by John Tierney and Roy F. Baumeister. Penguin Books, 2019.

[4] John J. Mearsheimer, The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities. 2018. Yale University Press. Quotation from page viii.

[5] “We Are All Realists Now,” by Curt Mills, The National Interest, February 22, 2019.

[6] Published in Foreign Affairs, Vol. 93, No. 5 (SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2014), pp. 77-84, 85-89.

[7] Mearsheimer explicitly depicted Putin as “thinking and acting like a realist” in The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities (2018) on page 178.

[8] Mearsheimer 2014, page 85.

[9] “John Mearsheimer on why the West is principally responsible for the Ukrainian crisis,” by John Mearsheimer. The Economist, March 19, 2022. https://www.economist.com/by-invitation/2022/03/11/john-mearsheimer-on-why-the-west-is-principally-responsible-for-the-ukrainian-crisis

[10] The quotation is from Isaac Chotiner’s interview of Mearsheimer: “Why John Mearsheimer Blames the U.S. for the Crisis in Ukraine.” The New Yorker, March 1, 2022.  https://www.newyorker.com/news/q-and-a/why-john-mearsheimer-blames-the-us-for-the-crisis-in-ukraine

March 1, 2022

[11] See “The Causes and Consequences of the Ukraine War,” by John J. Mearsheimer. Russia Matters, June 23, 2021.

https://www.russiamatters.org/analysis/causes-and-consequences-ukraine-war

[12] “The American Pundits Who Can’t Resist “Westsplaining” Ukraine: John Mearsheimer and other foreign policy figures are treating Russia’s invasion of Ukraine like a game of Risk,” by Jan Smoleński and Jan Dutkiewicz. The New Republic, March 4, 2022. https://newrepublic.com/article/165603/carlson-russia-ukraine-imperialism-nato

[13] “‘Modern Ukraine entirely created by Russia’ — read full text of Vladimir Putin’s speech.” The Print, February 23, 2022. https://theprint.in/world/modern-ukraine-entirely-created-by-russia-read-full-text-of-vladimir-putins-speech/843801/

[14] Hans Kohn, The Idea of Nationalism. 1944. Collier.

[15] Mearsheimer 2018, Pp. 105-106.

[16] Mearsheimer 2018, Pp. 103.

[17] Yoram Hazony. The Virtue of Nationalism. 2018. New York: Basic Books. Rich Lowry, The Case for Nationalism: How It Made Us Powerful, United and Free. 2019. Broadside Books.

[18] The ethnic-civic national distinction is often exaggerated, and it forms less a dichotomy than a continuum. A common history and culture, moreover, can generate firm national bonds without any substantial ethnic or civic foundations; the ethnically diverse nation of Brazil is not exactly united around devotion to “progress and order,” its official civic creed.

[19] See “The Grand Theory Driving Putin to War,” by Jane Burbank, The New York Times, March 22, 2022.https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/22/opinion/russia-ukraine-putin-eurasianism.html

[20] Article 3, Section 1 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation reads: “The bearer of sovereignty and the only source of power in the Russian Federation shall be its multinational people.”  http://www.constitution.ru/en/10003000-02.htm

[21] “‘Modern Ukraine entirely created by Russia’ — read full text of Vladimir Putin’s speech.” The, February 23, 2022. https://theprint.in/world/modern-ukraine-entirely-created-by-russia-read-full-text-of-vladimir-putins-speech/843801/

[22] See the superb map collections of Electoral Geography 2.0:  https://www.electoralgeography.com/new/en/

[23] As the Wikipedia article on the president of Ukraine notes, “In August 2014, Zelenskyy spoke out against the intention of the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture to ban Russian artists from Ukraine. Since 2015, Ukraine has banned Russian artists and other Russian works of culture from entering Ukraine. In 2018, romantic comedy Love in the Big City 2 starring Zelenskyy was banned in Ukraine.”

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Volodymyr_Zelenskyy

[24]  See the map collections of Electoral Geography 2.0https://www.electoralgeography.com/new/en/

[25] William Rankin, Radical Cartography, Forthcoming. Chapter 2, Page 3.

[26] In Mearsheimer’s view, however, the state itself emerged in England, Spain, and France in the early sixteenth century See Mearsheimer, 2018, p. 96

[27] Although all major schools of IR thought rely on the standard model, their understandings of its contours vary. Liberal theorists have a more capacious view than realists, moving beyond the state, for example, to take seriously the roles of international organizations, international law, and global norms. As individuals, moreover, many IR scholars of all orientations escape the model’s fetters to firmly grasp the nuances of the geopolitical order.

[28] Mearsheimer 2018, p. 86; emphasis added. As Mearsheimer frames the standard model in particularly stark form in The Great Delusion, further quotations are useful in outlining his vision. We live, he avers, in “homogenous world system” (p. 145) structured around nation-states, all based on shared sentiments of hard-edged nationalism (p. 84). As nationalism is “in sync with human nature” (8), a person’s “highest loyalty is almost always to his nation (p. 87).” Members of each nation “mostly speak the same language” (p. 94) and “tend to think and act in similar ways” (p. 87).  Mearsheimer depicts nations as having minds collective minds: “each nation-state tends to think that it is superior to others” (p. 201). This is because “nationalism [is] all about privileging one’s own group over others” (p. 111). The states conjoined with these nations have well defined borders (p. 96)) and can “break or discipline the individuals and groups living within those borders.” Their decision-making power is always “concentrated at the center.” Mearsheimer see the highest expression of such power in armed might. Not only is “the military an integral part” of every state (p. 72), but so too is “offensive military capacity” (p. 131). Ideally, each nation-state is also fully sovereign, suffering no interference in domestic matters by other powers. But Mearsheimer argues that while this preferred condition was approached in the late 1980s, it was soon undermined as “the United States took to interfering with the politics of other countries” (p. 160).

None of these assertions can withstand scrutiny. Even the most seemingly commonsensical ones are simply not true. Every country has an offensive military capacity? States as large and successful as Costa Rica manage well enough with no military force whatsoever, and to imagine Nauru, Tuvalu, Monaco, or San Marino launching a campaign of aggression against some other country is rank fantasy.

[29] On the “platonic” nature of the nation-state construct, see Nassim Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (2007, New York: Random House). As Taleb puts it, “What I call Platonicity, after the ideas (and personality) of the philosopher Plato, is our tendency to mistake the map for the territory, to focus on pure and well-defines “forms,” whether objects, like triangles, or social notions, like utopias …, even nationalities. When these ideas and crisp constructs inhabit our minds, we privilege them over other less elegant objects, those with messier and less tractable structures… .”  P. xxv.

[30] Lhamsuren Munkh-Erdene, The Taiji Government and the Rise of the Warrior State The Formation of the Qing Imperial Constitution. 2021. Brill.

[31] Jordan Branch, “Reconceptualizing the State and its Alternatives: Ideas, infrastructures, representations.” Talk given at Stanford University’s Rumsey Map Center, Conference on “Remapping Sovereignty,” May 26-27, 2022.

[32] Franck Bille, “Scattered, Distorted, Voluminous: On Cartographic Representation in Political Geography.” Talk given at Stanford University’s Rumsey Map Center, Conference on “Remapping Sovereignty,” May 26-27, 2022.

[33] Mearsheimer 2018, 145.

[34] Bruno Latour. We Have Never Been Modern. 1993. Harvard University Press.

[35] Luca Scholz, “Condominium: Mapping Joint Dominion in the Holy Roman Empire.” Talk given at Stanford University’s Rumsey Map Center, Conference on “Remapping Sovereignty,” May 26-27, 2022.

[36] As Nicola Degli Espositi explains, “In September 2017, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq held a referendum for independence in which Kurdish voters overwhelmingly – over 93% – chose to secede from Iraq. However, the virtually unanimous opposition of the international community prevented Kurdish president Masoud Barzani from proclaiming independence. The United States, the principal ally of the Iraqi Kurds, refused to back the referendum, prioritising the territorial integrity of Iraq. Baghdad deemed the referendum illegal, and neighbouring Turkey and Iran, worried about the repercussions on their own Kurdish minorities, strongly opposed Kurdish independence. In this context, the prospect of a landlocked Kurdish mini-state looked like a geopolitical nightmare. In the aftermath of the referendum, the KRG was subject to heavy retaliation from Ankara and Tehran, which shut their borders and closed their airspace. The Iraqi army moved towards Kurdish positions and, in a few weeks, took over a vast swathe of territory historically disputed by Baghdad and Erbil, including the oil-rich and highly symbolic city of Kirkuk.” This quotation is from “The 2017 Independence Referendum and the Political Economy of Kurdish Nationalism in Iraq,” by Nicola Degli Espositi. Third World Quarterly, 42(10), 2317-2333, page 2317.

[37] Mearsheimer 2018, p. 99.

[38] Benedict Anderson. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. 1983. Verso.

[39] Although South Sudan was tentative patched back together, the future looks dim: “Diplomats Fear a Collapse of South Sudan’s Latest Peace Deal: Even as they publicly support the pact, many privately think it is built on a house of cards and will be pulled down by the country’s bloody past,” by Justin Lynch, Foreign Policy, March 5, 2020. https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/03/05/south-sudan-peace-deal-diplomats-fear-collapse/

[40] Mearsheimer 2018, viii.

[41] Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner, Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction. 2015. Crown Publishers. p. 68.

[42] Tetlock and Gardner p. 244. The authors are opining here on the fictional character Hamlet, who they describe as “The typical academic, theory-poisoned and indecisive…”

This finding may seem counter-intuitive, but understanding it is not difficult. When one commits to any speculative theory, one tends to see the world from its perspective, passing over discordant information. As confirmation bias is intrinsic to the human mind, concerted effort is necessary to avoid its disabling effects. For a popular overview of the psychological literature on human cognitive biases and heuristics, see Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman (2013, Farrar. Straus and Giroux).

[43] Tetlock and Gardner 2015.

[44] Tetlock and Gardner 2015, Pp. 106-110.

[45] Tetlock and Gardner 201, p. 92.

[46] As Matthew Edney insists, each cartographic act takes shape “within a web of texts that provide the map with different shades of meaning. See Matthew Edney, Cartography: The Ideal and Its History. 2019, University of Chicago Press. P. 12, 40.

[47] Prasenjit Duara, Rescuing History from the Nation: Questioning Narratives of Modern China. 1995. University of Chicago Press.

[48] Mearsheimer 2018, P. 169.

[49] Christopher Catherwood, Churchill’s Folly: How Winston Churchill Created Modern Iraq. 2005. Basic Books.

[50] Liora Lukitz. A Quest in the Middle East: Gertrude Bell and the Making of Modern Iraq. 2006. I.B. Tauris.

 

Why Mapping Sovereignty Matters: IR Theory, Realism, John Mearsheimer, and the Failure of U.S. Foreign Policy Read More »

GeoCurrents Editorial: Recognition for Iraqi Kurdistan and Somaliland

(Note: GeoCurrents is a non-partisan blog devoted to providing geographical information, particularly in reference to current global events. On rare occasions, however, opinion pieces are posted on the site. This is one of those occasions. As I regard this issue as extremely important, this post will remain at the top of the GeoCurrents page for at least the next week.)

Now that Joe Biden is a possible candidate for the 2016 U.S. presidential election, attention is again falling on a 2006 editorial in which he and Leslie Gelb advocated dividing Iraq into three ethnically based regions. At the time of its publication, the Biden-Gelb essay was widely misinterpreted as a call for dismantling Iraq altogether and replacing it with independent Sunni Arab, Shia Arab, and Kurdish states. But Biden, Gelb and their defenders were quick to insist that their intention was actually that of saving Iraq by restructuring it as a federation, giving substantial autonomy but not outright independence to these three regions.

 

As this controversy made clear, any proposal for the actual dismemberment of Iraq was essentially unthinkable at the time for the U.S. foreign-policy establishment. The existing geopolitical order had to be maintained, such thinking had it, in order to preserve stability. If the Kurds of Iraq were to acquire their own country, what would prevent countless other disgruntled ethnic groups from demanding the same? If the international community were to consent to Kurdish desires and recognize their independence, anarchy could spread across the region and eventually, perhaps, the entire world. As a result, the mere mention of partition was generally dismissed out if hand.

Kurdistan Independence InevitableMore recently, this inflexible consensus seems to be yielding, although in an understated manner, with little discussion of underlying principles. Major media sources are now wondering whether the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan is not inevitable, regardless of the warnings of international-relations experts. Some writers have taken a step further, advocating the immediate recognition of Kurdish sovereignty in northern Iraq. Consider for example, Andrew Stuttaford’s offhand remark in a recent National Review essay on the ISIS threat: “The Kurds (independence and enhanced military support for them already, please) are the only benign, and reasonably effective, fighting forces in the region, but they are unlikely to want to stray too far from Kurdish territory.”

But despite such rumblings, most foreign-policy analysts still shudder at the thought of breaking up Iraq. Certainly the current U.S. administration remains committed to the country’s unity. As the indispensable Kurdish news agency Rudaw reported on August 1, 2015: “The White House has reconfirmed its position on maintaining a unified Iraq in a firm rebuttal to a 100,000-strong petition asking the United States to support Kurdish independence Tuesday.”

http://rudaw.net/english/world/01082015

geopolitical anomalies map 10Fusing Iraq back together would require considerable force and would probably result in massive bloodshed, as well as the suspension of the dream of democratic governance. Can we reasonably imagine that the Peshmerga would be willingly folded into the Iraqi military, as would be demanded if a truly unified state were to reemerge? Does anyone who understands the actual situation think that the Iraqi Kurds would voluntarily submit to Baghdad and allow the dismantling of the essentially sovereign state that they have struggled so hard to create? By the same token, is it reasonable to assume that the Sunni Arabs of the northwest would acquiesce to a united, democratic Iraq in which the Shia majority holds electoral sway? The events of the past 12 years certainly indicate otherwise. I, for one, would be willing to bet a considerable amount of money, and at unfavorable odds, that Iraqi unification will not occur within the next 10 years — or any other time period that one might specify.

The Bosnia & Herzegovina Option

Bosnia and Herzegovina MapThe best hope for rebuilding some kind of state within Iraqi’s recognized boundaries would be something on the order of the Biden-Gelb plan, allowing the three main regions to enjoy de facto but not de jure sovereignty, sharing little more than membership in international organizations. The result would be a largely fictional country, similar to Bosnia and Herzegovina, in which the main groups maintain largely peaceful relations mostly by limiting their interactions. But any such arrangement would be viewed by most Iraqi Kurds as a temporary expedient, a mere a way-station on the route to actual independence.

Bosnia and Herzegovina, moreover, does not make a good exemplar, as it is more a sliced-up protectorate than a real country. As GeoCurrents reader Vatroslav Herceg writes, “In Bosnia and Herzegovina you have coffee bars that are for Croats, coffee bars that are for Bosnians, and coffee bars that are for Serbs in the same city.” Given this situation, Herceg foresees the return of political violence:

I am not a nationalist, but if Bosnia and Herzegovina is left like this there will be another war in the Balkans. I don’t want another war, my family already suffered in the 1990s war. Just look at the artificial flag* of Bosnia and Herzegovina, [which] shows that this entity is a EU and USA protectorate.

 

Put differently, the diplomatic charade embodied in the creation of an artificial federation that forces mutually hostile groups into the same “country” might buy time, but it will not solve the underlying issues. This is not to argue, it is essential to note, that there was anything historically inevitable about the mutual antipathy found among Croats, Serbs, and Bosniaks in Bosnia and Herzegovina (or, for that matter, among Iraq’s Sunnis Arabs, Shia Arabs, and Kurds.) Given different historical circumstances, a sense of Yugoslav identity might have prevailed, leading to the perpetuation of Yugoslavia. But that did not happen, and the events of the past quarter-century cannot be wished away. Yugoslavia is gone for good, and Bosnia and Herzegovina appears to be headed in the same direction. A curiously vegetative state, Bosnia and Herzegovina is kept alive only by the artificial life-support system of the international community. Should we wish the same for Iraq?

The Delusion of Reunification

Iraq and Syria Political Situation MapThe insistence on maintaining the superficially existing geopolitical framework flows from an exhausted doctrine that has itself become a major obstacle to peace. Recent events have made a mockery of the idea that the partition of Iraq could be dangerously destabilizing, as complete destabilization—and far worse—has already occurred. The terror state of ISIS that has spread its tentacles over a vast swath of Syria and Iraq draws much of its strength from the international community’s insistence that these imperially imposed entities remain inviolate regardless of the desires of their residents or the realities on the ground. The break-away state of Iraqi Kurdistan, on the other hand, is a refuge of stability and effective governance, not the font of insecurity imagined by those who sanctify preexisting borders. The idea that rewarding such success with diplomatic recognition would somehow prove disruptive to some imaginary Iraqi peace process is laughable.

Somalia Political Situation MapNor is Iraq the only country in the larger region that has collapsed beyond the point of reconstitution. Yemen and Libya might remerge as coherent states, as their fall was recent, but I would not count on it. Syrian reunification is even more of a long shot, as its national unity is too weak and its mutual antipathies too entrenched. And what of Somalia? Like Iraq, Somalia ceased functioning as real country nearly a quarter-century ago. Since then, its geopolitical contours have remained in flux, with territories passing among its weak provisional government, Islamist forces, and autonomous warlords. But Somalia also contains, like Iraq, one relatively well-run, stable government that acts as a sovereign power despite its lack of international recognition: Somaliland. The reunification of Somalia, difficult as that is to imagine, would probably require the crushing of Somaliland, as Hargeisa (Somaliland’s capital) would be no more willing to submit to Mogadishu than Erbil (Hewler, in Kurdish) would be willing to give in to Baghdad. Attempting to revive the moribund states of Iraq and Somalia would, in all likelihood, prove far more disruptive than acknowledging the functioning states of Iraqi Kurdistan and Somaliland.

World Political Map ProblemsIn the end, I cannot avoid the conclusion that the dream of reunifying Iraq and Somalia is deadly delusion, a mirage generated by viewing global political geography not as it actually is, but rather as the diplomatic establishment thinks it should be. Such a blinkered worldview is unfortunately ubiquitous, encoded in our basic world-political maps. In the United States, these ideologically laden documents not only show a country that collapsed decades ago (Somalia), but even depict a country that has never existed, other than in the imaginations of diplomats and insurgents (Western Sahara). How many years—how many decades—have to pass before we can acknowledge reality and drop our geopolitical illusions? Abandoning pretense and facing the truth is a necessary precondition for achieving peace and stability.

The Matter of Precedent

Those who fear the recognition of Somaliland and Iraqi Kurdistan usually invoke precedent. If a precedent is set by the division of officially recognized countries, they ask, where will the process end? As dozens of countries are plagued by secession movements, they dread the opening of a veritable Pandora’s box of anarchy and rebellion.

The precedent argument, however, fails from the outset. It greatly exaggerates the power of the international order while ignoring key events of the past thirty years. In that period, newly independent countries have sprouted over much of the world, while a number of states dissolved completely when their constituent divisions all gained independence. The USSR, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia no longer exist; Eritrea, East Timor, Kosovo, and South Sudan have successfully detached themselves from the countries to which they formerly belonged. Other new states could easily emerge in the near future; as has been made clear, both Scotland and Quebec will be allowed to gain sovereignty if a majority of their voters so decide. If these occurrences somehow inspired militant secession movements, resulting in an uptick of violence and anarchy across the globe, it somehow escaped notice.

Yet as it so happens, a precedent has been established: the partition of countries is perfectly acceptable provided that it occurs in a certain manner. The general conditions are that the government of the country slated for losing a particular territory must agree to it, while the people of the seceding region must voice their support, preferably through the ballot box.** But as South Sudan clearly shows, violent resistance to the existing geopolitical framework can be the precipitating process. South Sudan gained independence largely though warfare, grinding down resistance in both Khartoum and the international community through decades of struggle. Gaining sovereignty in such a manner may have set a bad precedent, but set it was, with no way of being erased. That precedent, moreover, was largely created by the same foreign-policy establishment of the United States that vigorously opposes the independence of Somaliland and Iraqi Kurdistan. As The New York Times reported in 2014, “South Sudan is in many ways an American creation, carved out of war-torn Sudan in a referendum largely orchestrated by the United States, its fragile institutions nurtured with billions of dollars in American aid.”

 

But South Sudan makes a fraught example, as its independence has hardly been successful. Indeed, the Fund for Peace currently ranks South Sudan as the world’s most “fragile state,” considerably more fragile than even Syria. Although this particular claim is difficult to take seriously, given that Syria has been shattered beyond recognition, it does indicate the severity of South Sudan’s challenges. One might therefore conclude that independence was a major mistake, and perhaps even extrapolate this insight to the rest of the world, reckoning that it is best to maintain the world political map exactly as it is, discounting any possible benefits that might result from the partition of failed states.

Many solid reasons, however, can be found for dismissing any conclusions drawn from the debacle of South Sudan. I retain some hope that the “world’s youngest country” can repair its cleavages and begin to heal and develop. I am also relieved that its unfortunate people are no longer under the thumb of the Khartoum government, unlike those of Darfur and South Kordofan (the Nuba Hills), who still suffer attacks of almost genocidal intensity. But regardless of its dire predicament, South Sudan makes a poor comparison with either Somaliland or Iraqi Kurdistan. The people of South Sudan made their case for independence on the basis of the oppression that they had long endured along with their tenacious military resistance. They had no experience, however, in running an effective government, holding elections, establishing an independent judiciary, and so on, all of which have been accomplished with some success by both Somaliland and Iraqi Kurdistan. Both of these entities have successfully built their own states over the past several decades, doing so in a chaotic regional environment and with little help from international developmental agencies. In the case of Somaliland, Peter J. Schraeder, persuasively argued years ago that such accomplishments merited the recognition of sovereignty. In the intervening years, little has changed.

Problems Behind, Problems Ahead

1995 Divided Iraqi Kurdistan MapIn constructing their own unrecognized state, the people of Iraqi Kurdistan have had to overcome deep divisions within their own society. In the mid-1990s, the region’s two main political groups, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), mostly representing the Kurmanji-speaking north, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), mostly representing the Sorani-speaking south, fought a brief war. But although regional tensions in Iraqi Kurdistan persist, civil strife is no longer a threat. On both sides of the linguistic/political divide, most people have concluded that Kurdish identity and secular governance trump more parochial considerations. In the intervening years, the Kurdish Regional Government has managed to construct a reasonably united, secure, and democratic order. Much the same, moreover, can be said of the government of Somaliland. Such achievements deserve acknowledgment, ideally by the recognition of full independence.

The recognition Somaliland and Iraqi Kurdistan would, of course, generate its own diplomatic complications. The African Union would take quick offense at any country offering formal ties with Somaliland, while Turkey would be furious at any state proposing to do the same with Iraqi Kurdistan. If such a newly independent country were to include any of the Kurdish territories of northern Syria (Rojava), Turkey might even threaten war. But no major foreign-policy initiatives are ever risk free, and all necessarily generate irritation and anger among some interested parties. Considering the horrific and seemingly interminable conflict that has chewed up Iraq, Syria, and much of the Horn of Africa—generating a refugee crisis of global scope—a new approach is required, even if it carries risks of its own. I would suggest that such a new policy begin by abandoning the fantasy map of the foreign-policy establishment and instead recognize the global geopolitical framework as it actually is. Unlike the internationally recognized but non-functional country of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Somaliland and Iraqi Kurdistan are genuine states, taking orders from no other power and running their own affairs as they see fit — and doing so with more capability and liberality than most of their neighbors. As such, they deserve immediate recognition.

Flag of Bosnia*As noted in the Wikipedia article on the flag: “The three points of the triangle are understood to stand for the three constituent peoples of Bosnia and Herzegovina: Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs.[2] It is also seen to represent the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina which is shaped like a triangle. The stars, representing Europe, are meant to be infinite in number and thus they continue from top to bottom. The flag features colors often associated with neutrality and peace – white, blue, and yellow. The colors yellow and blue are also seen to be taken from the flag of Europe; the color blue was originally based on the flag of the United Nations. The present scheme is being used by both the Council of Europe which owns the flag and the European Union which adopted the Council of Europe’s flag in 1985.”

** Exceptions exist, as the first condition was not met in the case of Kosovo. As a result, many countries do not recognize the Kosovo’s independence.

 

 

GeoCurrents Editorial: Recognition for Iraqi Kurdistan and Somaliland 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.

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My Error on Ukraine’s Political Divisions

Ukraine Political Regions 1Several months ago, I posted an article and a map on GeoCurrents in which I divided Ukraine into a “nationalist” region and a “Russian-oriented” region. In retrospect, it seems that most of the area that I had designated as “Russian-Oriented Ukraine” does not actually fit that category. Despite the fact that a few pro-Russian demonstrations have occurred in a number of cities in this region, the bulk of it has remained calm and shows no signs of giving substantial to support pro-Russian separatists. A recent Harvard study indicates as much:

A new study conducted at Harvard University suggests that Russian-speaking Ukrainians may be significantly more supportive of Kyiv’s standoff against Moscow and the pro-Russian separatists than has previously been reported. …

What was surprising, “very surprising” [Bruce] Etling said, was the portion of Russian-language content coming specifically from within Ukraine that was backing the Euromaidan protests. “In Ukraine, among Russian-speakers, 74 percent were supportive of the protests, and only a quarter were opposed,” he said.

Ukraine 2004 election mapI had based my idea of a “Russian-Oriented Ukraine” not so much on linguistic geography as on electoral geography. The area that I had so designated had consistently supported candidates oriented more to Russia than to Europe and more in favor of decentralization than of a strong, unitary state. But evidently it was one thing to vote for a Ukrainian party that leaned toward Moscow and eschewed strong Ukrainian nationalism and quite another to want to see the break-up Ukraine Political Regions 2of Ukraine and the establishment of pro-Russian “statelets”. As a consequence, I have redrafted the map. In its new form, only Lugansk and Donetsk—much of whose territories now form two unrecognized, pro-Moscow “People’s Republics”—are deemed “Russian-Oriented.” (Crimea is still designated as “Russian-Occupied.”) The rest of southeastern Ukraine has been relabeled as “ambivalent,” which is probably not the best term.

New Novorossiya mapI am hardly the only one to have made this error. Many Russian nationalists, for example, openly refer to the entire expanse of southeastern Ukraine as “Novorossiya,” or “New Russia.” (As this term Novorossiya Map 2dates back to the conquest of this region from the Ottoman Empire in the late 1700s, “Novorossiya” now seems to connote to such people something on the order of “New Old New Russia.”)

Major threats to Ukraine’s national integrity, of course, still exist—and not just in the far east and Crimea. Last night’s ultranationalist protests in Kiev (Kyiv) were discussed in a blog-post today by Walter Russell Mead under the heading “Prelude to Dismemberment?” Such an assessment, however, seems rather extreme to me.

Ukraine Language MapLanguage maps showing the Russian- and Ukrainian-speaking regions of the country are themselves fascinating, as they tend to vary greatly in their depictions. I have posted here two extremes. The first is a recent Wikipedia map, derived from 2001 census data, that shows almost the entire country as strongly Ukrainian-speaking. The second, which also relies on information from the 2001 census (albeit aggregated in a different manner), shows the Ukrainian language as limited Ukraine Language Map 2to the far west; it also indicates that the entire southeast, and much more of the country as well, is actually Russian speaking. Most intriguingly, it depicts the core north-central region of the country as “Surzhyk speaking,” Surzhyk being an informal Russian-Ukrainian hybrid, described by the Wikipedia as:

a range of mixed (macaronic) sociolects of Ukrainian and Russian languages used in certain regions of Ukraine and adjacent lands. There is no unifying set of characteristics; the term is used for ‘norm-breaking, non-obedience to or nonawareness of the rules of the Ukrainian and Russian standard languages.’

 

The linguistic situation here is obviously highly complex. Rather than wade into these murky waters myself, I would refer readers to an excellent recent post on this issue by Asya Pereltsvaig in her website Language of the World.

 

 

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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 »

GeoCurrents Editorial: The Genocide of the Yezidis Begins, and the United States is Complicit

(Note: GeoCurrents is still technically on summer vacation, allowing me time to catch up with other obligations that I have neglected. My recent essays on eco-modernism, written for the Breakthrough Institute, can be found here and here. I am interrupting this GeoCurrents hiatus, however, to address a highly disturbing and significant development. This post also violates the GeoCurrents policy on political editorializing. In general, this website strives to be as politically neutral as possible, but exceptions are made. One reason for my reluctance to express opinion is the fact that many of my views are somewhat extreme, although they come from the unusual position of radical centrism, one based on an equal distaste for the right and the left.)

SinjarIt is increasingly clear that the situation faced by the Yezidis of the Sinjar region in northern Iraq can only be described as genocidal. Thousands have been slaughtered and tens of thousands are facing death from starvation and thirst, if not from the bullets of the so-called Islamic State (or ISIS, as it conventionally designated), as they hide in remote reaches of Sinjar Mountain. Christians and members of other religious minorities are also at a heightened risk of extermination in the expanding ISIS-controlled territory. Thus far, the government of the United States has conducted a few humanitarian air-drops for the Yezidis, although reports are now circulating that that has begun or is at least considering military strikes against ISIS, actions that the Pentagon currently denies. But more to the point, by having previously thwarted the ability of the Kurdish Peshmerga to defend its territory and fight the militants, the government of the United States bears some responsibility for these horrific developments. Such U.S. actions and inactions stem largely from its vain insistence on trying to revive the moribund Iraqi state, which in turn is rooted in the discredited ideal of intrinsic nation-state integrity.

Melek TausMost reports on the Yezidis mention the unusual nature of their religion, but often do so in a misleading manner. The Yezidi faith is typically described as a blend of beliefs and practices stemming from ancient Persian Zoroastrianism and other distant sources. Such an assessment may be reasonable, but one could just as easily depict Christianity as mere mélange of Jewish, Zoroastrian, and neo-Platonic ideas. In actuality, Yezidism is very much its own faith, although it does have close affinities with other belief systems, such as that of the Shabak people. The specific nature of the Yezidi religion, more importantly, makes its practitioners especially vulnerable to extremist interpretations of Islamic law. The Yezidis follow what is sometimes called a “cult of angels.” To them, God is a remote entity who has entrusted creation to seven spiritual being, the most important of whom is Melek Taus, the Peacock Angel. Melek Taus, however, is often identified with the fallen angel of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions, Satan (or Shaytan), leading to pejorative descriptions of Yezidis as “devil worshipers.” In actuality, Yezidism has nothing to do with Satanism in any form; to followers of the faith, Melek Taus is a benevolent being who repented his refusal to submit to Adam and was hence restored to his rightful place. Yezidism is in actuality a profoundly non-dualistic and generally peaceful faith. Yezidis do not proselytize or accept converts, and they largely keep to themselves. One of the more intriguing aspects of the faith is its spiritual abhorrence of lettuce.

Yezidis mapI showcase the Yezidis when I lecture on religion in the Middle East for two reasons. First, the existence of this faith, like that of many others, demonstrates the historically deep level of religious diversity found in the area that is often called the Fertile Crescent and is sometimes deemed the Heterodox Zone. Second, it shows that the realm of Islam was in general historical terms more religiously tolerant than Christendom. I cannot imagine a group like the Yezidis having survived in late medieval or early modern Europe: crusaders and inquisitors, such as the grotesquely misnamed Pope Innocent III, would not have allowed it. But as the rampages of ISIS and related groups thoroughly demonstrate, the situation has changed drastically. Today, this same region is marked by the world’s most extreme level of religious intolerance and persecution.

ISIS MapSome reports claim that ISIS leaders have given the Yezidis the same three-fold ultimatum thrown at the Christians of Mosul: either immediate conversion to Islam, or acceptance of subordinate dhimmi status and payment of the jizya tax, or face death. The middle option, however, is hardly assured: hyper-fundamentalist interpretations of Islamic law demand dhimmi status for the “peoples of the book” (Jews, Christians, and few others), but those regarded as full-fledged idolaters, much less “devil worshippers,” are not necessarily accorded the same “respect.” But even when it comes to Christians, ISIS demands for the acceptance of dhimmi status appear to be largely pro forma, as the goal is apparently the complete cleansing from their would-be state of everyone who is not a Sunni fundamentalist.

After suffering for years, the Yezidis are at long last getting some attention. But mainstream media outlets still tend to downplay their plight, devoting vastly more attention to other far more familiar and less newsworthy matters. Other deeply persecuted Iraqi religious minorities, such as the Mandaeans who have suffered at the hands of Shia militias, receive even less attention. The destruction of Assyrian and other Christian communities gets a little more press, but it too has failed to spark widespread public outrage.

I have some difficulty understanding why such horrors are so widely disregarded. Ignorance is surely at play, but so too is partisan politics. I suspect that in the United States, many Republicans prefer to look away because the situation reflects poorly on the Bush administration’s Iraq policies, just as many Democrats do the same because it reflects equally poorly on the Obama administration. Other observers wrongly and spinelessly conclude that genocide in this region is simply none of our business. In regard to the Assyrians, several pundits have argued that they are “too Christian” for the left to care about and “too foreign” to concern the right. When it comes to the Yezidis, several sources have stressed the “tiny” size of the group, as if scant numbers somehow make persecution less objectionable. Yet in actuality the Yezidis are a substantial group, with roughly the same number of adherents as the population of Boston, Massachusetts (some 600,000-700,000). Can one imagine the dismissal of Boston on the grounds that its population is “tiny,” not even amounting to a million souls?

Unfortunately, American actions have hindered the ability of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) to protect the beleaguered minorities of northern Iraq, and the KRG is the only organization that can offer any effective protection. In the tussle between the impotent “national” Iraqi government and the Kurds, Washington has sided firmly with Baghdad, unwilling to do anything that could potentially undermine the fictional integrity of Iraq. The American government has even tried to prevent the Kurds from selling their oil on the open market, as this goes against the wishes of Nouri al-Maliki and company. Deeply strapped for money, the KRG has been unable to provision its troops defending such places as Sinjar, thus forcing it to pull back, placing hundreds of thousands of people at the risk of mass murder. The more recent rapprochement between the KRG and the Iraqi state is indeed a hopeful development, but for tens of thousands of Yezidis it is too late and too little.

In defending the territorial integrity of Iraq, the United States is trying to prop up a corpse, as the country so depicted on our maps no longer exists. As a nation, it never did. As is well known, Iraq was imposed by British colonial authorities, and the state that they created never enjoyed genuine emotional resonance with the majority of its inhabitants. Iraqi national identity has always been superficial at best, thus requiring brutal dictatorial force to ensure state coherence. When that force was removed with the ouster of Saddam Hussein and free elections were eventually held, the disintegration of the country accelerated. The notion that diplomacy, patient nation-building, another regime change, or any other imaginable political process could somehow heal the wounds and allow the reconstitution of Iraq as a functioning nation-state is little more than fantasy. Basing American policy on such wishful thinking indicates an appalling abnegation of both intellectual and moral responsibility.

American policy in Iraq does not merely threaten major populations with genocide, but also works directly against the national interest of the United States. It is no secret that the current leaders of the Baghdad government are more closely aligned with Iran than they are with the United States, or that most people of Iraq are deeply suspicious of—if not actively hostile toward—American power. But both the Kurdish Regional Government and the people of Iraqi Kurdistan remain relatively pro-American, despite the shabby treatment that they have received from Washington. It almost seems as if the U.S. administration has decided that this situation is intolerable and that a few acts of betrayal are necessary to prevent the solidification of a regime that is genuinely friendly toward the United States. It sometimes appears as if the U.S. foreign policy establishment is more comfortable with “frenemies,” such as those in power in Baghdad and Riyadh, than it is with actual friends. Meanwhile, ISIS steadily gains power, innocents are slaughtered wholesale, and the rest of the world sits by. (France, however, has called for an emergency U.N. meeting to address the crisis and has pledged aid for those fighting against ISIS.)

Such self-destructive behavior on the part of the U.S. government has all the indications of lunacy. But such madness is seldom recognized, as it is far too deeply entrenched to attract attention. The same policies, after all, have been followed by all recent Republican and Democratic administrations, just as they are relentlessly pursued by virtually every national government the world over. The world’s sovereign states form a club and hence act in a stereotypically clubbish manner. Carcass states such as Iraq and Somalia remain members in good standing despite their abject failure, while highly functional non-members, such as Iraqi Kurdistan and Somaliland, do not belong and are therefore shunned, treated as if they do not exist. In a brilliant book, Stanford political scientist Stephen Krasner refers to the resulting international system of mutually recognized sovereignty as “organized hypocrisy.” To the extent that it propels such events as the genocide of the Yezidis, it might be better described as organized psychosis.

The international diplomatic system shows symptoms of insanity because it is based on a figment of the imagination: the nation-state. A few sovereign countries do indeed approach the nation-state ideal, in which a self-conscious political community strongly identifies with a particular state across its entire territorial extent, but—as GeoCurrents has noted on numerous occasions—most fall far short of this model. Yet the fundamental premise of the international system is the permanent reality of this mere ideal across the world. To be sure, it is widely recognized that many countries have been artificially created and thus had no preexisting national integrity, but they are all supposed to have seamlessly “constructed” national solidarity through education, economic development, and political inclusion. In actuality, many never have, and quite a few never will.

The fallacy of the nation-state provides a powerful explanation for the debacle of the U.S.-led campaigns to reformulate and rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan in the early 2000s. It was widely assumed by many leading experts that Afghanistan and especially Iraq would present easy wars followed by undemanding and self-financing processes of democratic reconstruction. Both countries were assumed to be coherent nation-states that merely needed a change of regime and a little nation-building assistance to emerge as stable, self-determining U.S. allies. Although the initial battles were far less challenging than the anti-war movement had anticipated, the subsequent occupations proved vastly more difficult than what the neo-conservative war-supporters had imagined. Nation-building was doomed to fail in these cases because neither country has ever approached nation-state status.

The obsession with preserving the existing international order of ostensible nation-states derives from a concern for geopolitical stability. Abandoning the idea of the intrinsic unity of a country such as Iraq or Somalia by acknowledging instead the reality of Iraqi Kurdistan or Somaliland, such reasoning has it, would potentially destabilize the global world order. It would do so by encouraging other disgruntled ethnic, religious, or regional groups to seek their own independence, thus fostering secession, rebellion, and warfare. This argument, however, fails from the onset by assuming a degree of international stability that simply does not exist. In actuality, Iraqi Kurdistan and Somaliland are islands of relative order in seas of chaos. More fundamentally, the unwillingness to deal with such unrecognized states in deference to the established (dis)order invokes a “slippery slope” argument that can be used to justify any aspect of the status quo, regardless of how non-functional or maladaptive it has become. Iraqi Kurdistan and Somaliland deserve to be dealt with as actual states not merely because of their leaders’ desires, but rather because they have created relatively stable and reasonably representative governments with acceptable levels of human freedom out of the fractured territories of internationally recognized states that are in reality hyper-unstable and deeply repressive. As the same cannot be said for the vast majority of the world’s myriad separatist movements, no dangerous precedent would thereby be set.

Yet in actuality, just such a dangerous precedent has indeed been set by the same international community in regard to South Sudan. South Sudan was allowed to emerge as a recognized sovereign state not because its leaders had built effective institutions and demonstrated a sustained capacity for self-rule, but rather because they had waged a interminable war of independence against the Khartoum government that finally exhausted the patience of many world leaders. At the time, I fully supported the independence of South Sudan, owing largely to the atrocities that had been committed against its people by the government of Sudan. But the hideous civil war that has subsequently undermined “the world’s youngest country” calls into question the wisdom of this maneuver. Successfully fighting against a common enemy by no means ensures the ability to construct a viable state once that war dies down.

Significantly, Iraqi Kurdistan could have gone the way of South Sudan. Tensions between its Kurmanji- and Sorani-speaking areas (by linguistic criteria, Kurdish is a not a language but a group of languages) have been pronounced, contributing to a brief armed struggle between the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party in the 1990s. But although friction remains, the Kurdish people have been able to surmount their problems and construct an effective state. Yet now the United States insists that they scale back their ambitions and instead accept subordination within the decaying geobody of Iraq. No amount of successful nation- and state-building will ever do, they are effectively told by the U.S. government, and as such they will never be granted a state of their own on such a basis. If, on the other hand, they were to reject such efforts and instead focus their attention on actively making war against the Baghdad regime, then perhaps they may follow South Sudan and eventually be awarded their own recognized state. I do not see how such a policy can be regarded as anything but delusional.

The Clinton Administration was widely accused of complicity in genocide for its lack of action as the Tutsis of Rwanda were massacred in the 1990s. Preventing this instance of genocide, however, would have been very difficult. Preventing the slaughter of the Yezidis, however, would have been very easy, as all that would have been necessary was the provisioning of a little military assistance to the Kurdish Peshmerga, a force that, quite unlike Iraq’s “national” army, is willing and eager to defend the people of the region. The Obama administration’s refusal to do so in obeisance to the illusion of Iraqi national unity is a disgrace, indicating both moral cowardice and abject unwillingness to see the world as it actually is. What really leads me to despair, however, are my doubts that any other American administration would have acted any differently, as the paralyzing delusion of the nation-state is too deeply embedded to be dislodged by mere reality, no matter how blood-drenched that reality turns out to be.

 

GeoCurrents Editorial: The Genocide of the Yezidis Begins, and the United States is Complicit Read More »

India’s Plummeting Birthrate: A Television-Induced Transformation?

(Note: As can be seen, GeoCurrents has a new, more streamlined appearance. The “GeoNotes” feature has been replaced by section that highlights “featured posts,” as we found it increasingly difficult to differentiate regular posts from “notes.” We also hope that the new format will make it easier for readers to access older posts.

To initiate the new format, today’s post is longer and more map-intensive than most. It also deviates from the norm in another important aspect. In general, GeoCurrents avoids making policy recommendations: this post, however, breaks the rule.)

 

World Fertility Rate MapAs Stanford University, like many others, is advocating interactive approaches to teaching, I have been experimenting with a software system (Top Hat Monocle) that lets me quiz students as I lecture. In so doing, I can assess levels of knowledge and adjust my lectures accordingly. Overall, the experiment has proved useful, revealing that some issues are already understood, whereas others most definitely are not.

India TFR GraphThe one question that stymied almost all of my students concerned India’s birthrate. As their in-class answers revealed, most believed that India’s total fertility rate (TFR) was roughly twice that of the United States, imagining that the average Indian woman could be expected to bear at least four children. Informal queries among colleagues and friends produced similar results. Most well-educated Americans, it would appear, are under the impression that India is still characterized by high fertility.

In actuality, India’s TFR is only 2.5—and falling steadily. This figure barely exceeds that of the United States. In 2011, the US fertility rate was estimated at 2.1, essentially the replacement level; a more recent study now pegs it at 1.93. Still, from a global perspective, India and the US fall in the same general fertility category, as can be seen in the map posted here.

TFR Selected Gountries GraphIn today’s world, high fertility rates are increasingly confined to tropical Africa. Birth rates in most so-called Third World countries have dropped precipitously, and some are now well below the replacement rate. Chile (1.85), Brazil (1.81), and Thailand (1.56) now have lower birth rates than France (2.0), Norway (1.95), and Sweden (1.98). To be sure, moderately elevated fertility is still a problem in several densely populated countries of Asia and Latin America, such as the Philippines (3.1) and Guatemala (3.92). But as the Google Public Data chart posted here shows, even the Philippines has been experiencing a steady fall in TFR. The same is true of Afghanistan, the most fecund country outside of Africa, at least for the past 15 years. As can also be seen, TFR declines have been much more modest in such African countries as Niger and Tanzania. It must be acknowledged, however, that reductions in fertility are not necessarily permanent. As the New York Times recently reported, the decline of family planning services has already ticked up the birthrate in Egypt, threatening that country’s already tight demographic squeeze.

TFR African Countries GraphI find it extraordinary that the massive global drop in human fertility has been so little noticed by the media, escaping the attention of even highly educated Americans. The outdated idea that Mexico has a crushingly high birthrate continues to inform many discussions of immigration reform in the United States, even though Mexico’s TFR (2.32 in 2010) is only slightly above that of the United States. It almost seems as though we have collectively decided to ignore this momentous transformation of human behavior. Scholars and journalists alike continue to warn that global population is spiraling out of control. A recent LiveScience article, for example, quotes a co-author of an April 2013 Science report who argues that “the poorest nations are caught in a downward spiral that will deplete resources and cause a population explosion.” The article goes on to argue that “with the world population slated to hit 9 billion by the year 2050, many scientists and others worry that unchecked population growth and increasing consumption of natural resources will cause dire problems in the future.” Although the LiveScience article notes that the original report focused on sub-Saharan Africa, it does not mention the fact that high birth rates are in fact increasingly confined to that part of the world, or that fertility rates are persistently declining in almost every country in Africa, albeit slowly. Many African states, moreover, are still sparsely settled and can accommodate significantly larger populations. The Central African Republic, for example, has a population of less than 4.5 million in an area almost the size of France.

India is an instructive place for investigating fertility decline. Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich* began his pivotal 1968 book The Population Bomb with a vignette of teeming New Delhi and the disasters it portended. Warning that overpopulation would soon spread massive famines across continents, Ehrlich advocated coercion: the “sterilization of all Indian males with three or more children” (Ehrlich, 1971 edition, p. 151). Responding in part to such dire prophesies and advice, India enacted a population campaign in the 1970s tilted toward forced sterilization. This widely despised program was quickly dismantled with little appreciable effect on India’s TFR, which continued along its steady downward path.

India Fertility MapIt can be deceptive, however, to view India as an undivided whole. As shown on the map posted here, fertility figures for half of India are actually below replacement level. Were it not for the Hindi-speaking heartland, India would already be looking at population stabilization and even decline. All the states of southern India post TFR figures below 1.9. A number of states in the far north and the northeast boast similarly low fertility levels, including West Bengal, noted for its swarming metropolis of Calcutta (Kolkata).

India’s geographical birthrate disparities, coupled with the country’s admirable ability to collect socio-economic data, allow us to carefully examine ideas about fertility decline. The remainder of this post will do so through cartography, comparing the Indian fertility-rate map with maps of other social and economic indicators. Where spatial correlations are strong, underlying causes may be indicated. Such a technique is admittedly suggestive rather than conclusive, and it does not take into account institutional variables, such as family planning efforts. Still, some of the implications are intriguing.

India fertility literacy MapSeveral scholars have linked birthrate decline to female education. Educated women, they reason, generally prefer smaller families, allowing them to pursue their own interests while investing more resources and time in each child. As it turns out, the map of female literacy in India does exhibit striking similarities with the map of fertility. States with educated women, such as Kerala and Goa, have smaller families than those with widespread female illiteracy, such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. But this correlation, although strong, is of limited explanatory power, since Kerala and Goa rank high on every social indicator, just as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh rank low. A number of exceptions, moreover, are evident. Andhra Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir, for example, combine low female literacy with low fertility, whereas in Meghalaya and Nagaland the pattern is reversed. Thus while the education of women is no doubt significant in reducing fertility levels, it is not the only factor at play.

India Fertility GDP MapGeneral levels of economic development, as reflected in per capita GDP, also fail to fully explain India’s fertility patterns. Again, map comparisons reveal congruences in some places but deviations in others. Low-fertility Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal are not, by Indian terms, prosperous states. Gujarat in western India is well ahead of them economically, yet its fertility rate remains higher, slightly above the replacement level.

 

India Urbanization Fertility MapUrbanization often correlates with reduced fertility, and the rapid growth of India’s cities is probably linked to its declining birthrate. India as a whole, however, remains a predominantly rural country, so urbanization itself cannot be the answer. Note also that low-fertility Kerala and especially Himachal Pradesh have low urbanization levels, whereas in Mizoram the opposite situation prevails.

 

India HDI Fertility MapThe general level of social development makes another interesting comparison. The somewhat dated Human Development index map, from the Wikipedia, again deviates from the fertility map, especially in regard to low-HDI-ranking Andhra Pradesh and Odisha (Orissa), and high-ranking Nagaland and Manipur. The mapping of life expectancy, a major social indicator, again reveals both common features and anomalies. States with high life expectancies tend to have low India Longevity Fertility Mapbirthrates (Kerala, yet again), whereas those with low life expectancies tend to have high birthrates (Madhya Pradesh, especially). Yet while Odisha lags behind even Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in terms of longevity, its TFR (2.2) is close to replacement, lower even than that of Gujarat.

 

India Fertility Electrification MapTechnological modernization is also worth examining. Here we use electrification as a proxy. The extent of electricity use varies tremendously across the country. All of southern and far northern India are now almost fully electrified, whereas in impoverished Bihar fewer than 20 percent of households have electric lights. Overall, the general pattern holds here as on the other maps, with interesting exceptions. Nagaland and Chhattisgarh, for example, have relatively high levels of electrification, yet are marked by elevated birthrates.

Some scholars have argued that recent fertility decreases in India and elsewhere in the Third World are more specifically linked to one technological innovation: television. The TV hypothesis is well-known in the field, discussed, for example, in the LiveScience article on the African population explosion mentioned above. In regard to India, Robert Jensen and Emily Oster argue persuasively that television works this magic mostly by enhancing the social position of women. As they state in their abstract:

This paper explores the effect of the introduction of cable television on women’s status in rural India. Using a three-year, individual-level panel dataset, we find that the introduction of cable television is associated with significant decreases in the reported acceptability of domestic violence towards women and son preference, as well as increases in women’s autonomy and decreases in fertility. We also find suggestive evidence that exposure to cable increases school enrollment for younger children, perhaps through increased participation of women in household decision-making. We argue that the results are not driven by pre-existing differential trends.

India Fertility TV Ownership MapAs it turns out, the map of television ownership in India does bear a particularly close resemblance to the fertility map. Two anomalously low-fertility states with low levels of female education, Andhra Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir, score relatively high on TV penetration, as does West Bengal, which lags on several other important socio-economic indicators. The correlation is far from perfect: Mizoram ranks higher on the TV chart than its fertility figures would indicate, whereas Odisha and Assam rank lower. Odisha and Assam turn out to be a bit less exceptional in a related but broader and more gender-focused metric, that of “female exposure to media.” These figures, which include a television component, seem to provide the best overall correlation with the spatial patterns of Indian fertility.

India Fertility Media MapI suspect that the rapid drop in fertility in such countries as India and Brazil, as well as its association with television, has been missed in mainstream US commentary in part because it flies in the face of deeply ingrained expectations. That television viewing would help generate demographic stabilization would have come as a shock to those who warned of the ticking global population bomb in the 1960s. Many of these same critics regarded television as inauthentic, mind-numbing, and thought-controlling, and feared that by inculcating consumerism it would hasten environmental destruction. Jerry Mander’s 1978 book, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, was widely embraced by the green movement, and is still approvingly cited in such places as the “primitivist” blog Challenging Civilization. Mander argued not only that television singularly lacks democratic potential, but that it functions to enhance autocratic control.

Mander currently sits on the board of directors of the San Francisco-based International Forum on Globalization alongside Vandana Shiva, India’s most prominent environmental activist. Shiva, best known for her campaigns against genetically modified crops, is deeply opposed to most aspects of modernity, calling for a return not just to organic farming but to a broadly traditional way of life, albeit without patriarchy and class (and caste) oppression. She gained global attention earlier this year when she responded to a prominent environmentalist advocating genetic engineering with the following tweet: “Mark Lynas saying farmers shd be free to grow GMOs which can contaminate organic farms is like saying rapists shd have freedom to rape.”

Despite Vandana Shiva’s insistence to the contrary, most experts doubt that India could feed itself through non-modern farming. The “progressive contrarian” blogger Bernie Mooney concludes that Shiva is nothing less than “an elitist, anti-progress menace” whose program, if enacted, would not “help the poor of the world, [but would] only keep them at a subsistence level and more importantly, in their place.” Although Mooney’s assessment is harsh, it does seem likely that a return to traditional lifestyles would bring back high fertility levels, resulting in truly unsustainable population growth.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the transition to a low fertility regime, deemed necessary by almost all environmentalists, requires substantial modernization, particularly in the socio-cultural realm. Television depresses fertility because many of its offerings provide a model of middle-class families successfully grappling with the transition from tradition to modernity, helped by the fact that they have few children to support. In a study of declining fertility and television in Brazil, Eliana La Ferrara, Alberto Chong, and Suzanne Duryea point in particular to the role of soap operas (telenovelas):

We focus on fertility choices in Brazil, a country where soap operas (novelas) portray families that are much smaller than in reality. We exploit differences in the timing of entry into different markets of Rede Globo, the network that has an effective monopoly on novelas production in this country. Using Census data for the period 1970-1991, we find that women living in areas covered by the Globo signal have significantly lower fertility. The effect is strongest for women of lower socioeconomic status and for women in the central and late phases of their fertility cycle, consistent with stopping behavior.  … Finally, we provide suggestive evidence that novelas, and not just television, affected individual choices.

If it is true that soap operas have played a critical role in Brazil’s spectacular fertility decline—its TFR dropped from 6.25 in 1960 to 1.81 in 2011—the policy implications are momentous. But it will take a fundamental change in the way we talk about technology, population, and environment for this point to come across. As Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger (2007, page 130) argue, old-school environmentalists typically prefer to “wrap the latest scientific research about an ecological calamity in a tragic narrative that conjures nostalgia for Nature while prophesying even worse disasters to come unless human societies repent for their sins against Nature and work for a return to a harmonious relationship with the natural world.” The data presented here confirm that it is time for a new mode of environmental rhetoric.

To return to our first map, fertility rates remain stubbornly high across tropical Africa. The analysis presented here would suggest that the best way to bring them down would be a three-pronged effort: female education, broad-based economic and social development, and mass electrification followed by the dissemination of soap-opera-heavy television. As it is, Africa’s television market is growing rapidly, but much of the programming so far has been heavily oriented toward sports. One can only hope that Nollywood (Nigeria’s Hollywood) and other African entertainment centers can provide the women-focused, locally appealing telenovelas that have been so strongly associated elsewhere with fertility reduction.

*Ehrlich is also one of the co-authors of the Science article referred to above.

Paul Ehrlich. 1968 (revised edition 1971). The Population Bomb. Sierra Club/Ballantine.

Jerry Mander. 1978. Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. HarperCollins.

Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger. 2007. Breakthrough: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility. Houghton Miflin.

India’s Plummeting Birthrate: A Television-Induced Transformation? Read More »

Pleistocene Re-Wilding: Environmental Restoration or Ecological Heresy?

The Pleistocene Park project envisaged by Sergei Zimov and his colleagues calls for an extraordinary transformation of the tundra and tundra-forest transition zones of Siberia. By restocking the region with large herbivores, an ecosystemic shift would theoretically occur, breaking down the current pattern of vegetation and establishing a new equilibrium. The basic idea is to transform waterlogged landscapes, currently dominated by mosses and lichens, into much drier and far more productive grasslands. Doing so, proponents contend, would reduce the threat of global warming by increasing the reflectivity (albedo) of a large segment of the Earth’s surface, bouncing much of the incoming solar energy back into space (albedo is largely a matter of mere color; lighter colored steppe vegetation reflects more solar radiation than darker colored forest or tundra).*

The saturated soils of the tundra zone tend to be infertile, incapable of producing nutritious fodder that can sustain substantial numbers of large animals. According to research carried out by Zimov and his colleagues, the waterlogged nature of the tundra is not a direct result of the local climate, which is still relatively dry: most of northeastern Siberia receives less than 250 mm (10 inches) of precipitation a year. The culprit, they argue, is the blanketing cover of moss. Non-vascular mosses have no roots, and thus do not pull water out of the soil. A thick moss layer is also highly insulating. As a result, both evaporation and transpiration are minimal, maintaining saturation over vast areas during the brief summer when the upper soil layer thaws.

The key to drying out the soil, according to the Pleistocene Park advocates, is breaking up the moss layer. This is best done physically by the presence of concentrated herds of large animals for limited time periods, as their hooves effective cut through the fragile moss carpet. If the moss layer is adequately disturbed, grasses can gain a foothold. It is essential, however, to maintain grazing pressure; otherwise, dead grass stems and leaves will accumulate, insulating the soil and thus reestablishing conditions of saturation. Grasses are highly adapted to grazing pressure, having co-evolved with large herbivores over the past 25 million years, since the beginning of the Miocene epoch.  Grazing, in turn, effectively recycles nutrients, as animal droppings form effective fertilizers, sustaining rapid grass regeneration. Over vast areas of central and northeastern Siberia, moreover, potentially fertile loess soils abounds, enhancing the region’s potential for supporting large herds of herbivores. Overgrazing is of course a prospective problem, which is precisely why Zimov wants eventually to reintroduce lions, tigers, leopards, and hyenas to the park.

Waterlogged soils are also widespread in the taiga belt, although not as common as they are in the tundra. In the boreal forests, thick tree coverage presents another obstacle to the establishment of a diverse megafauna, as the mostly coniferous trees provide little food for large mammals. But once again, the cause/effect relationship is muddled. The presence of large mammals, particularly proboscideans (elephants and their ilk), reduces tree coverage; as we know from studies in Africa, as elephant numbers increase, forests tend to be replaced by open savannahs. Such parkland environments, in turn, are able to support much greater numbers of large mammals than forests. In Siberia’s taiga and especially in the forest-tundra transition zone, large mammals would trample tree seedlings and saplings, thus pushing the ecosystem as a whole toward more open, grassy conditions.

The Siberian Pleistocene Park project is by no means the only proposal for reestablishing vanished ecosystems by releasing descendants of the lost megafauna, or their closest surviving ecological equivalents. Proponents of “Pleistocene rewilding” would like to do the same thing over large areas of North America, even to the extent of releasing elephants into the American southwest. Yet as the Wikipedia blandly puts it, “As of 2011 there are no active plans to reintroduce more exotic megafauna such as elephants, cheetahs or lions due to the controversial nature of these reintroductions.”

Controversial indeed. I find the “Pleistocene rewilding” idea fascinating in part because it reveals deep fissures in environmental thinking, separating those who focus on timeless ecological balance from those who stress evolutionary development. In the United States, such a divide comes into play over the feral horse controversy. To those in the former camp, wild equids (mustangs and burros) are an unnatural Eurasian presence in the North American landscape, descendents of domestic animals brought across the Atlantic by European colonists. Wild horses and burros compete for forage with native mammals, such as bighorn sheep, and maintain heavy grazing pressure on many native plant species; as a result, critics contend, they should be greatly reduced in number if not eliminated altogether. Those in the “evolutionary” camp argue to the contrary that equids are actually among the most native of all large mammals, as the horse family largely evolved in North America. Horses, by this line of reasoning, disappeared from the continent very recently, and probably because of human activity. The reintroduction of mustangs and burros, they argue, thus represents ecological restoration, not degradation.**

Underlying the debate are fundamentally different perspectives on time. Environmentalist opponents of “Pleistocene rewilding” take as their base-line the recent past, the period immediately before humankind began its modern transformation of the Earth. Premodern ecosystems, they generally contend, remained in equilibrium, allowing the perpetuation of the magnificent diversity of life, each species remaining in its proper niche. By the same token, pre-industrial (or, in some version, pre-agricultural) peoples are thought to have remained in harmonious balance with their environments; deeply respecting nature, and firmly ensconced within its intricate webs, they were incapable of causing substantial damage. All of that was to change, however, as modern societies grew estranged from nature, and hence began to engage in destructive practices. Such devastating activities included the transfer of animals and plants from their proper habitats to new locales, place in which they simply did not belong. Exotic species, defined as those that did not live in a particular area within historical time, are thus taken to be unnatural threats to nature’s balance.

Those who follow the ecological balance perspective do not deny the fact that entirely different equilibriums pertained during the Pleistocene epoch, but they generally argue that such deeply geo-historical matters have little bearing on contemporary environments. As the author of the Wikipedia article on “Pleistocene rewilding” puts it:

Opponents argue that there has been more than enough time for communities to evolve in the absence of mega-fauna, and thus the reintroduction of large mammals could thwart ecosystem dynamics and possibly cause collapse. Under this argument, the prospective taxa for reintroduction are considered exotic and could potentially harm natives of North America through invasion, disease, or other factors.

Rewilding opponents also tend to be skeptical of the idea that humans could have been responsible for the megafaunal extinctions, owning to the belief that primordial peoples lived in perfect balance with nature. If the Quaternary extinction event was a purely natural occurrence, such reasoning has it, then attempting to restock the lost animals would constitute unwarranted human intrusion into fully natural processes.

Re-wilding proponents have a different perspective on time. 12,000 years, they argue, is but a moment compared with the 25 million years over which large mammalian herbivores co-evolved with grassy vegetation over most of the Earth’s land surface. Their opponents’ focus on the historical time period, and on maintaining the balance of pristine nature, seems to them misconstrued if not simply perverse. From the perspective of evolutionary time, perturbation and change are the norm; species come and go, continually moving from one landmass to another, retreating in some areas, while advancing in others. And even in the short time scale of mere hundreds or even dozens of years, nature’s harmonies tend to be more discordant rather than perfectly tuned, able to accommodate change—such as the introduction of new species—with little threat of systemic collapse. Yet through all of those transformations, what had remained constant—to the end of the Pleistocene epoch—was the presence of diverse assemblages of large animals on all continental landmasses. Restoring nature, they therefore contend, necessitates restocking those forms of life to the greatest extent possible.

It is essential to realize that the “timeless balance” approach forms the dominant strain of environmental thinking, whereas the “rewilding” school represents a radical if not heretical departure. Most American environmentalists, for example, would be aghast at the prospect of releasing elephants in the Everglades, camels in Death Valley, or tapirs in coastal California, but that is exactly what Pleistocene enthusiasts would like to do. Or consider the attitudes of the two schools to a mossy, wet tundra landscape in northern Siberia or Alaska. To most environmentalists, such an environment is a precious survival of pristine nature in a human-wracked world, intricate in its balance, and highly vulnerable to human-generated disturbances. To ardent re-wilders, the same habitat is seen more as a biologically impoverished wound on nature generated by an episode of mass-extinction—humanity’s original sin. Best to lance such a sore with the hooves of herbivores, trucked in by the contrite descendents of the Pleistocene megafauna’s exterminators.

*Climate change issue can also be used to argue against such a proposal, as the draining of saturated soils would result in the oxidation of peat, releasing carbon dioxide. Discussions of the climatic ramifications of potential landscape change in Siberia quickly become highly technical, focused on the fate of yedoma, organic-rich Pleistocene loess permafrost deposits, which are thought to sequester a massive amount of carbon (500 Gt).

**Admittedly, much of the debate over mustangs has nothing to do with these positions. Ranchers often want to eliminate wild horse because they compete with cattle for forage, while many mustang enthusiasts are simply horse lovers and animal protection advocates unconcerned with ecological and evolutionary arguments.

 

Pleistocene Re-Wilding: Environmental Restoration or Ecological Heresy? Read More »

The Political Contradictions of Anti-Urban NIMBY Activism in California

This final entry on Northern California will conclude the series by elaborating on the previously stated thesis that the local drive to protect urban and inner suburban neighborhoods from development is self-contradictory. Although anti-development activists incline to the left, their land-use policies are actually conservative, undermining their own larger agenda. Earlier posts looked at environmental sustainability and class divergence, contending that NIMBY (“Not in My Backyard”) hostility to urbanization thwarts the transition to a lower-carbon economy and places extraordinary burdens on middle- and working-class people, especially young ones. This post will consider the effects of the movement on the broader political orientation of the United States. The argument, simply put, is that by obstructing development in urban cores of the Bay Area and other Democratic-voting metropolitan areas of the country, local preservationists push growth into more development-friendly parts of the country, which tend to be much more conservative. Such dynamics enhance the economic and political power of those places, and thus nudge the United States as a whole in a more conservative direction.

I must stress that such claims are intended to be politically neutral, in accordance with the non-ideological stance of GeoCurrents. I am not arguing, in other words, that enhancing the political power of right-leaning portions of the U.S. is bad, as this blog is concerned with empirical issues of “what is,” not with what ethical issues of “what ought to be.” Admittedly, several recent posts have violated this principle, openly advocating urban intensification. Neutrality is often difficult to maintain, and I let myself get carried away by personal concerns about climate change, economic stagnation, and the widening class divide in the U.S. The same posts do, however, rest on an empirical basis, outlining the contradictions between stated goals and the consequences of actions undertaken. It is a fact that most people in Palo Alto and similar communities want to reduce green-house gas emissions and lessen the gap between the “haves” and the “have nots”; it is also a fact—or so I hope to have demonstrated—that opposition to urban intensification in these same communities actually has the opposite effects. Such an argument should be assessable by readers of any political persuasion. One could, for example, regard global warming as a hoax, welcome suburban expansion along metropolitan outskirts, and celebrate the glowing class disparity in the U.S. and still accept the thesis.

By preventing development in urban and old-suburban areas of the San Francisco metropolitan area, local activists shunt it elsewhere. Previous posts emphasized the Bay Area’s own exurban fringe in the northern San Joaquin Valley, but growth is also pushed into other parts of the country. States that gain from this process, Texas most notably, tend to be much more conservative than California. Such dynamics are experienced across the country, enhancing population and economic growth in Republic-voting areas and discouraging it in Democratic-voting ones. Partly as a result, the balance of power in the U.S. House of Representatives is shifting toward the more conservative parts of the country. Other factors, of course, contribute to this process, but it is difficult to deny the paradoxical consequences of supposedly left-wing NIMBY activism.

A number of conservative writers in the U.S. have noted the same general process, delighting in the diverging fortunes of the country’s two most populous states, contrasting the economic health of Texas with California’s distress. A March 14 post in the National Review Online is typical of the genre. Here Chuck DeVore, former Republican member of the California State legislature, blames California’s fiscal crisis on its high tax rates, powerful unions, obstructing bureaucrats, environmental regulations, litigious legal system, and “subsidization of poverty.” As an example of the difficulty of doing business in California and the ease of conducting it in Texas, DeVore cites Apple’s decision to build a new $304 million campus in Austin rather than in the Bay Area (more recent reports, however, claim that the project may actually go to Arizona). California’s impending fiscal catastrophe, conservative writers like DeVore stress, will probably result in yet another round of tax increases, which will drive away more businesses and people, potentially sending the state into a downward spiral.

Such charges may have some merit. California’s tax rates are high and will probably increase, discouraging investors and wage earners alike. But overall, the Bay Area remains a very attractive place in which to live and to do business, as is reflected in its land values and rents, both commercial and residential. (The same situation holds in much of Southern California as well.) Silicon Valley is again booming; according to a recent report, “Office occupancy in the region rose by 2.7 million square feet last year, the most since 2000, and rents may advance 11 percent to an average $36 a square foot in 2012.” Many people want desperately to live in communities such as Palo Alto, otherwise they would not be willing to spend $800,000 for small condos in undistinguished buildings or $1,200,000 for modest, mass-constructed tract houses from the 1960s. The real drag on local business is not California’s somewhat excessive taxation rates or its slightly more powerful unions than those found elsewhere, but rather its outrageous land and housing costs and its exasperating obstacles to new urban developments. Apple currently wants to build a gargantuan 2.8 million square-feet corporate headquarters in Santa Clara County, which would dwarf its planned Texas project; gaining permission to do so will prove a challenge, to say the least. Apple’s proposed “space-ship” building can be criticized on both aesthetic and environmental grounds; encompassing 5.7 million square feet of landscaping, the behemoth would not be pedestrian-friendly. But the mere fact that that it is being pursued runs counter to the thesis that businesses and people are being driven out of California by the state’s left-wing policies.

Liberal and conservative commentators alike tend to by-pass NIMBY opposition to urban development when discussing California’s economic crisis. Right-wing writers prefer to focus on taxation, unionization, regulation, and the legal environment, as these issues allow them to score points in national-level debates. Left-wing writers are often reluctant to confront contradictions within their own political camp, and hence try to place all blame on their conservative opponents.

A March 17 article in the San Francisco Chronicle, “Seeking Growth Without Sprawl,” presents a perfect example of such liberal blinders on the urbanization issue. The article touts an “ambitious new regional plan” that would steer new developments towards existing cities and public transportation corridors, based on the new urban intensification paradigm. So far, so good. But when examining opposition to the plan, the article mentions only criticisms put forward by conservative activists. Some right-wingers have attacked the proposal for supposedly ignoring consumer desires, as “future workers and their families will want an environment of single family subdivisions.” That such an objection ignores market realities, supposedly the touchstone of contemporary conservatism, is not mentioned. The article goes on to highlight critics on the extreme right, those who view the entire urbanization scheme as part of a nefarious United Nations plot to extinguish American freedom and establish global governance.

Emphasizing such opposition is an easy course for the San Francisco Chronicle to take, as it fits well with the left-leaning proclivities of most of its readers. But it is also misleading. When actual plans for urbanization projects are put on the table, meaningful resistance comes not from the tiny cadre of U.N conspiracy theorists, but rather from superficially liberal activists who do not oppose urban intensification per se, but certainly do not want it impinging on their own communities. Pointing out such a contradiction could be editorially imprudent, potentially alienating an influential part of the newspaper’s readership. As a result, the real issues are left unmentioned.

 

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Anti-Urbanization and Economic Irrationality in Silicon Valley

The previous post noted that opposition to urban intensification has negative economic as well as environmental repercussions. Such consequences, are experienced in and around all of the thriving cities of the United States, but nowhere more than in the San Francisco Bay Area. Here, the economic and technological marvel of Silicon Valley is fettered by outrageous housing costs that are driven by a combination of thriving companies and suffocating development restrictions. Such local restraints have much broader consequences. The California economy, like that of the U.S. at large, is anemic at best, in good part because the housing sector lags. Yet it could be surging, at least in Silicon Valley. Although housing demand collapsed in 2008 on the exurban fringe, it has remained strong in the core Bay Area. Green developments of the type imagined by such visionaries as James S. Russell would sell very well in this ecologically aware area, compounding economic gains with ecological benefits. The anti-urbanization movement is thus both hindering economic recovery and thwarting the transition to a low-carbon future.

In the heart of Silicon Valley, the real estate market remained healthy throughout the recent recession. Palo Alto experienced nothing but a lull in the ever-upward progression of prices. The figures are again surging. A back-cover map on the March 9th Palo Alto Weekly shows the change in value of housing sales between 2010 and 2011 in several local neighborhoods, and all are sharply up. Prices, notably, have increased not just for single-family homes, but also for the few high-density units that actually exist. A 1,117 square-foot (105 square meters) condo in a non-descript building in Palo Alto’s subsidiary business district is now on the market for $825,000.

Silicon Valley presents many opportunities for educated and entrepreneurial people, and it continues to generate high-quality jobs. Job seekers are attracted by the entrepreneurial culture as well as the natural and cultural amenities of the area. But even those who land well-paying tech jobs usually face a housing nightmare. Shortages often force long commutes over clogged freeways, reducing the appeal of the region. Teachers and other workers of modest salary face greater obstacles. Many tire of their daily ordeals and eventually move to places where purchasing a home is possible. Palo Alto’s anti-urbanists are well aware of this dilemma, but their characteristic response is ineffectual: reserving a set numbers of units in the token high-density complexes that are allowed for below-market sales to those with moderate incomes. Such a policy may be symbolically potent and guilt assuaging, but it does almost nothing to solve the underlying problem of inadequate housing.

Silicon Valley housing costs place a major burden on local employers. Stanford University would hardly be ably to recruit faculty but for the fact that it is so richly endowed that it can provide huge subsidies, including sizable zero-percent loans. Private firms have to pay significantly higher salaries than competitors located elsewhere to attract talent. And even with pay bumps, those recruited to firms like Google must often settle for small quarters and long commutes. Many come nonetheless, but others decline, shocked by the staggeringly high cost of living. As a result, the nation’s premier innovation center finds itself hampered, its own potential pulled down by its artificially mandated housing dearth.

In the mystique of Silicon Valley, the tiny start-up that turns into a huge company looms large. One of the most prominent historical landmarks in Palo Alto is the modest garage where William Hewlett and Dave Packard started their company, Hewlett-Packard, in the 1930s. Many current Stanford students would like nothing more than to follow in their footsteps—and many have the ability. That path, however, is closing down. A few of the best can secure the backing of venture capitalists and begin with adequate funds, but most either have to abandon their dreams or move elsewhere. Certainly the idea of starting a company in a garage in Palo Alto today is laughable, as the city would never allow it. Palo Alto watches over its residents’ use of their property assiduously. Zoning violations are policed with vigor, and the infamous “Palo Alto process” means that even minor changes to an existing building require months, sometimes years, of wading through intense bureaucratic thickets.

The obvious solution to this bind is urban intensification, focused on high-density housing in existing downtowns and along public transit routes. An adequate response would entail large-scale construction. At present, a new apartment complex with fourteen units in central Palo Alto is considered inordinately ambitious, but what is actually needed are projects of 140 or even 1400 units. If convenience-oriented, pseudo-environmental objections and demands could be eliminated, such developments could go up quickly and at reasonable costs, relieving rents, freeing workers from horrific commutes, and allowing ambitious and highly skilled young people to remain in the area. The gains would be manifold.

Critics will no doubt contend that few Americans really want to live in high-density housing. The American ideal, they would remind us, is based on owning a detached, single-family house with a yard. Many residents of this country do prefer such a lifestyle, but it has simply become unaffordable for most in the Bay Area and similar economic hubs. Many people foreclosed from the exurban fringe have soured on the whole idea, and are rethinking the distant-commuter existence. Others were never enthralled with suburbia in the first place, but were forced into it by the inordinate expense of safe, pedestrian-focused urban cores. It is not coincidental that both New York and San Francisco have imposed rent control for years, as demand has long outstripped supply in their livable neighborhoods. Permitting existing city cores to expand and allowing the urbanization of suburban downtowns would help balance the equation, letting more people live where they want and where economic opportunities beckon.

An urban intensification program in Silicon Valley would unleash hidden benefits as well, due to inherent economies of agglomeration. Close physical connections facilitate the exchange of both objects and ideas, giving an economic edge to tightly packed areas. Transportation in such circumstances obviously is much less expensive than in dispersed areas. Direct, person-to-person communication is also invaluable for the generation and development of ideas, the ultimate foundation of the information economy. Although Silicon Valley has pioneered the creation of distant connections and far-flung on-line communities, it relies itself on face-time—which is one of the reasons why competitors in less expensive high-tech centers lag behind. The agglomeration effects of Silicon Valley, in other words, are profound, but are also profoundly constrained.

Ironies abound. While Silicon Valley is awash with cash—Apple is currently sitting on $100 billion, wondering what to do with it—California is an economic wreck, retreating on education, shuttering its beloved state parks, and letting its infrastructure collapse. The state needs sustained economic growth—which it could easily realize, but for the concerted opposition of its new gentry class, concerned above all with its own convenience and sense of exclusivity. That class, of course, was itself created by the gushing trough of local high-tech capitalism. Ultimately, the same group that built Silicon Valley is now strangling it due to its desire to maintain its own privilege.

I am reminded of the Polish-Lithuanian aristocracy in the 18th century, so proud of its freedom and so ready to use its veto power that it prevented the modernization of the state, thus dooming the entire country to partition by Russia, Prussia, and Austria.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Exclusivity and Anti-Environmentalism in Palo Alto and Vicinity

The previous GeoCurrents post argued that opponents of urban intensification in wealthy suburban communities such as Palo Alto, California are motivated in part by their desire to protect their property values.  Commentator Nick Baldo took issue with that assessment, arguing that increased density actually has the opposite effect. In retrospect, I think that Baldo is correct. Environmentally responsible “smart growth” in suburban communities such as Palo Alto would likely result in enhanced property valuation in the long term, although certain projects might cause short-term price declines in specific areas.

I stressed concerns about property value because the topic is ubiquitous in Palo Alto conversations. Long-term homeowners have seen the value of their equity explode, and many are obsessed with the issue, and fearful that their gains could somehow evaporate. Potential threats are carefully scrutinized.

Concerns about property values in the Palo Alto Area can quickly trump all environmental considerations, even in the most self-consciously green communities. I write from personal experience here, based on my dealings with the homeowners association in my own community. I live on the Stanford University campus in a 140-unit condominium complex. This neighborhood, composed entirely of faculty and high-level staff members and their families, leans strongly to the left, and its environmentalist proclivities are immediately evident in election returns, casual conversations, and bumper-sticker slogans. But property value considerations loom large, even though residents own only their own structures, and not the underlying land. (Actually, much of the equity in the buildings themselves belongs to Stanford University, which maintains a variety of complex housing subsidies for faculty members.)

One might think that such a community would pursue environmentally responsible policies, but it does not. I first encountered local anti-environmentalism here when addressing an irrigation issue. The condominiums in question are arranged in a circle around a small, manicured park area. Although the Stanford campus has a semi-arid Mediterranean climate, with rainless summers and only about 18 inches (460 mm) of precipitation during the rest of the year, the plantings in the common area are adapted to a much more humid climate, and thus require constant irrigation in the summer. Unfortunately, they are habitually over-watered. In late summer and early autumn, when longer nights and cooler temperatures reduce evapotranspiration, the lawns ooze water for weeks, with so much excess run-off that the gutters turn green with algae. Yet when I mentioned this needless waste of resources to the homeowners’ board, I received only withering stares and a terse comment: “we tried reducing irrigation once and several brown spots appeared in the lawn, threatening our property values.” Several years later, California experienced a three-year drought, which resulted in pressure on the community to reduce its water consumption. At that point I suggested replanting some of the lawn area with drought-adapted Mediterranean vegetation; from the reactions of the board members, one might have thought that I was proposing to put in tiger-pits and rolls of barbed wire. (The drought in question was followed by two wet winters, during which time pressure for water conservation vanished; California, however, is now experiencing another dry winter.

Management of the area outside of the circle of condominiums has also been environmentally hostile. This lightly tended zone is covered with annual grasses and supports a few native oak trees. It is little used, except by dog-walkers and stargazers, and it forms a small zone of relatively natural habitat in an otherwise suburban landscape. A few years ago, this area was colonized by a small contingent of ground squirrels. Ground squirrels are ubiquitous in the rural areas of the Stanford Campus, and most people consider them to be harmless and rather endearing little creatures. Ecologically, ground squirrels are significant in providing abundant food for hawks, kites, foxes, and other small predators. And sure enough, as the number of ground squirrels around the complex expanded, the number of hawks in the neighborhood visibly increased.  The homeowners association, however, became worried that the presence of so many rodents could threaten property values, and therefore ordered the extermination of the entire colony by way of poisoned bait. The local human community, despite its strong environmentalist credentials, voiced few objections.

Considering such reactions, it seems to me that the fear of reduced property valuation encourages anti-environmental positions among ostensibly green and prosperous suburbanites of Palo Alto and neighboring communities. But other factors are no doubt more significant. One is the desire for exclusivity. The larger the number of people who are able to live in Palo Alto, the less exclusive the precious community becomes, threatening the self-regard, if not the property values, of its elite residents.

At first glance, Palo Alto does not seem like a highly exclusive place. The very idea of a “gated community” is considered anathema here, the sort of thing that one finds in Republican-voting areas of the country. By the same token, local public schools are adored and generously supported. Unlike most high-income areas, Palo Alto sends relatively few of its children to private schools.

If one digs slightly below the surface, however, different attitudes are revealed. To substantiate this claim, I can offer only a single anecdote, related to me several years ago by an acquaintance. Perhaps the story is exaggerated, and I have no way to verify its claims. All that I can say is that the tale “rang true” at the time, and that the person who related it seems entirely trustworthy.

The person in question was at the time a stay-at-home mother with three school-aged children. Her husband was a teacher in the Palo Alto Unified School District, but on a single teacher’s salary they could not even dream of living in the community. The school district, however, allows the offspring of its teachers to attend Palo Alto schools regardless of where they live. As a result, the woman enrolled her children in an elementary school in one of the city’s most exclusive neighborhoods. Everything was working out well until some of the other parents discovered that this new family did not reside locally and thus, in their eyes, had no rights to the local school. Not only was the woman shunned, but her children were harassed on the playground with taunts such as, “my mommy told me that I can’t play with you because you don’t belong here.” Several months later, she pulled her children out of the school. She dubbed those who had driven her out the “Shallow Altos.”

Palo Alto schools, it is important to note, have acquitted such an exclusive ambiance by virtue of an accident of political geography. Adjacent to the community but separated from it by an eight-lane freeway is the city of East Palo Alto. East Palo Alto is a relatively poor place; until recently its population was mostly African-American, and now it is heavily Hispanic. Crime rates in East Palo Alto are high, gangs are a problem, and test scores are low. If East Palo Alto had been placed within the Palo Alto School District, many if not most Palo Alto parents would have enrolled their children in private schools. But East Palo Alto lies in San Mateo Country, whereas Palo Alto is in Santa Clara County, and it was thus integrated into a different public school district.

Feelings of exclusivity, I am convinced, inform the debates over urban intensification in Palo Alto. More important, however, are matters of mere convenience. Many established residents simply do not want increased competition for parking spaces, additional cars clogging the roads, or longer waits at their favorite restaurants. For the sake of such convenience, they are willing to sacrifice not only sound environmental policy, but also economic sanity, as we shall see in the next post.

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Anti-Environmental Environmentalism in California’s Bay Area, Part II

Trulia Palo Alto Real Estate Prices Map

As the previous post noted, the new environmental consensus calls for urban intensification to reduce of greenhouse gas emissions and preserve rural landscapes. In the San Francisco Bay Area, such an ideal has been widely embraced in principle by both leading environmental groups and regional associations. The 2007 housing report by ABAG, the Association of Bay Area Governments, opens by summarizing the new perspective:

After decades of development of auto-oriented communities, support is growing for more traditional styles of development. In particular, there is increased support for more compact communities near public transit that are not focused around the demands of the automobile. There is a growing demand for homes in areas that include jobs, shops, and services close to transit so that people can walk, bike or take public transit, in addition to using their car.

 Propelled by market forces and influenced by the new paradigm, in-fill developments have sprouted over many parts of the Bay Area in the past decade. But the pace of redevelopment has been frustratingly slow.  Most communities are resistant, especially to large projects, and even those plans that are approved often have to fight through years of environmental litigation.

A prime case is the proposed transformation of the shuttered Hunters Point Naval Shipyard in southeastern San Francisco. For over a decade, city agencies have been working with a private firm to remove environmental contaminants and begin building a new community that is supposed to eventually hold over 10,000 homes. Resistance from environmental and neighborhood groups, however, has brought repeated delays. In 2008, a solid majority of San Franciscans voted to proceed with the development, but lawsuits prevented groundbreaking. In July 2011, a Superior Court gave a tentative go-ahead, but a month later, an Earthjustice legal maneuver once again brought everything to a standstill. At that time, a California Superior Court ruled than that project could not proceed until the remediation of toxic substances had been completed. As the complete removal of all hazardous chemicals is all but impossible, it seems likely that the Hunter’s Point project, like most other local brownfield redevelopment schemes, will continue to be deferred for years if not decades.

In the Silicon Valley community of Palo Alto, adjacent to Stanford University, resistance to urban intensification reaches an extreme. Even the smallest developments encounter strident opposition. A recent case is the proposed Lytton Gateway project. A February 24, 2012 article in the Palo Alto Weekly made it seem as if proponents of the “new urbanism” had scored a major victory in pushing through the project, noting that:

An ambitious proposal to build a five-story building featuring … offices, apartments, and a coffee shop at one of downtown Palo Alto’s most prominent corners took a major stride toward winning the city’s approval … when the Planning and Transportation Committee agreed to rezone the site to make the project possible.

 Trulia Palo Alto Real Estate Prices MapAmbitious? The Lytton Gateway plans call for all of fourteen apartments. But even that miniscule number was too large for many local activists, who argued that the new residents would take up too much parking. The developers addressed the problem head on, promising to provide ample additional parking and even to “buy Caltrain Go Passes for all of the buildings tenants … and to provide two electric-vehicle charging stations.” (A Caltrain station is in easy walking distance from the project.) Such inducements, however, were not enough for several members of the committee, who voted against the proposal.

In Palo Alto, parking scarcity is one of the main weapons used against urban intensification. By forcing developers to provide ample parking, often underground, anti-urbanists push up building costs, discouraging development. Ironically, they also guarantee that new developments remains focused on the personal automobile, undermining a keystone of the new urbanism. But I wonder whether parking is really the overriding issue; the developers of Lytton Gateway, after all, promised to provide many new car-slots, yet they still encountered heated opposition. In the end, it seems that many Palo Alto residents simply do not want newcomers in the community. More than a few seem to be especially suspicious of those who cannot afford Palo Alto real estate. Half of the Lytton Gateways residential units are to be designated as “affordable housing,” accessible, in other words, to teachers, police officers, nurses, firefighters and other community servants.

Although high-density residences are extremely difficult to build in Palo Alto, another kind of housing development is commonplace. Single-family houses are continually being torn down and replaced by much larger buildings. But as the new structures are almost invariable single-family houses themselves, no net gain is realized in urban intensity. A March 2 full-page advertisement in the Palo Alto Weekly encapsulates the story. It trumpets an “outstanding opportunity to build in the Downtown/Professorville neighborhood on this 12,000 sf [square foot] lot…” As a seeming afterthought, the ad also mentions that, “The property is being sold as land value, but it does contain a 1,687 sf 4 bedroom, 2 bath home.” In downtown Palo Alto, in easy walking distance to a thriving commercial district as well as a commuter rail line, a house so modestly proportioned is often nothing but a “teardown,” a nuisance structure that adds no value to the underlying land. In this instance, the 12,000 square-foot lot is being offered at $2,395,000. Needless to say, few professors reside in Professorville these days.

In the end, the opposition to urban intensification in Palo Alto and neighboring cities is driven not so much by genuine environmental concerns as by property-value considerations, which are themselves coupled with the desire to maintain pleasant, low-density, carbon-intensive suburban neighborhoods as they are. Local environmental activism thus serves as a cover for a status-quo-maintaining, exclusionary, upper-class-based politics. In several respects, Palo Alto’s firmly Democratic-Party voting record belies a local political sensibility that could only be described as deeply conservative.

(to be continued….)

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Anti-Environmental Environmentalism in California’s Bay Area

The previous GeoCurrents post ended on a controversial note, contending that although the wealthy suburban communities of the San Francisco Bay Area seem decidedly liberal, they actually embrace highly conservative policies at the local level. Before I attempt to validate this claim, a word of warning is in order. The entire issue is muddied by terminological imprecision, and even more so by the simplistic nature of the conventional political spectrum, which in the United States runs from a liberal left to a conservative right. The flaws inherent in such a model are not difficult to locate. Libertarian beliefs are not the only ones that find no space on this political gradient, while “neoliberalism” is in many ways highly conservative, just as “neoconservativism” is some respects more radical than conservative. “Liberalism” itself means different things in different contexts and different places, as does “conservatism.” It is thus no surprise that students in the U.S. are often confused by academic discussions of political positions across the world, having difficulty, for example, understanding how the Australian Liberal Party could form the country’s conservative contingent (the Wikipedia helpfully describes the party’s ideology as one of “conservative liberalism” and “liberal conservatism”).

That said, it is generally agreed that certain positions fit comfortably on the left/right gradient. Although environmentalism has certain conservative aspects (as etymologically reflected in an older term, “conservationism”), the movement today is firmly identified with the left. By the same token, concern about global climate change is highly characteristic of the left. In the U.S., the political right tends to be suspicious of the entire phenomenon of global warming. Until recently, such views were largely confined to the far right, as mainstream Republicans tended to support market-oriented approaches to reducing carbon emissions (such as “cap and trade”). Over the past few years, however, almost all self-identified conservative politicians in the United States have come either to view global warming as greatly exaggerated if not an actual hoax, or have simply gone quiet on the issue. As a result, concern about global climate change in the U.S. is now a hallmark of the left (or liberal) side of the political spectrum.

Among American liberals, on the other hand, climate change looms large. Often viewed as an existential threat, global warming has come to overshadow all other environmental concerns, at least at the rhetorical level. Unless something is done, and done quickly, to address the problem, we are warned, the consequences will be disastrous. Exactly how rapidly change will occur, and how devastating global warming will be, remains debated, but few on the left doubt that urgent action is required.

One of the keys to reducing carbon emissions, environmental scientists have concluded, is urban intensification. Although the American environmental  movement initially evinced a strongly anti-urban bias, such attitudes have largely disappeared in the scholarly community. Whether in regard to transportation, heating, or the basic provisioning of goods and services, dense urban environments are vastly more efficient than scattered settlements, and therefore have a much lower carbon footprint on a per person basis. Recent publications that persuasively outline this position include James S. Russell’s The Agile City and a special edition of Scientific American.

Population growth bolsters the environmental case for urban intensification. California’s population continues to expand, due largely to immigration, both legal and undocumented. A generation ago, many local environmentalists argued for immigration restrictions, contending that additional human numbers would put too many strains on the state’s—and the nation’s— natural resources and ecosystemic balance. Today, however, such voices have all but disappeared; opposition to immigration has come to be seen as a nativistic, right-wing stance, not one that proper left-leaning environmentalists would embrace. Environmental organizations these days tend to be quiet on the immigration issue.

Given that the population of California will continue to expand, the compelling question becomes where to accommodate the state’s new residents. Until the crash of 2008, the chief dynamic was extensive growth, pushing ever outward by way of what James S. Russell calls the “suburban growth machine.” In the Bay Area, that process was reaching its limits; by 2000, the local lowlands had essentially been filled in, while the hills were largely off-limits; as a result, new growth spilled eastward into the Central Valley. Cities and towns in the valley began to mushroom, with instant suburban communities such as Mountain House sprouting in the fertile farmlands of San Joaquin County. Commuting from these growth zones along clogged freeways across the rugged Diablo Range into the Bay Area was a lengthy ordeal, and when gasoline prices spiked in 2008, a bad situation became much worse. According to some reports, Mountain House now has the highest level of negative housing equity in the country, and the nearby city of Stockton is verging on bankruptcy.

Beyond the far suburban fringe of the Bay Area, the population of the San Joaquin Valley more generally surged in the period leading up to 2008. Most growth here was suburban as well, occurring at the fringes of Merced, Fresno, Visalia, Bakersfield, and other valley towns. Unlike the Bay Area, housing prices here remained within the reach of most families, attracting increasing numbers of newcomers.

From an environmentalist perspective, suburban expansion in the valley has taken a significant ecological and economic toll. Some of the most agriculturally productive lands in the country have been paved over, replaced by inherently carbon-intensive, car-dependent sprawl. The population surge in the topographically enclosed Central Valley, moreover, has generated some of the country’s most severe air pollution, threatening the forests of the adjacent Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Serious environmental analysts concur in rejecting the suburban “extensification” model that has hitherto characterized California’s demographic expansion. The only real alternative, most would agree, is urban intensification, which entails increasing the population density of existing cities, whether by building condos in empty suburban lots (“infill”) or by constructing high-rise apartments in urban cores and around public transit stations. From the environmentalist perspective, the goal is to reduce the carbon footprint by building housing dense enough so that residents are not dependent on the personal automobile, but can instead get by on rail, bicycle, and foot, with “zip cars” for periodic excursions further afield.

The urban intensification model presents an unusual environmentalist formula in that it is not countered by economic logic. On the contrary, in the San Francisco Bay Area, market forces would instantly begin intensifying cities if they were not restrained to a massive extent by local governments and citizen-advocacy groups. Ironically, such organizations fight development in the name of environmental protection, focusing on the preservation of existing neighborhoods and ignoring other scales of analysis. In so doing, they thwart the emergence of less carbon-intensive urban options, and are thus, from a climate-change point of view, inherently anti-environmental.

The anti-environmental implications of local property owners’ opposition to urban development is often noted yet seldom taken seriously. The environmental community essentially gives NIMBY (“Not In My Backyard”) activists a pass, largely because they are able to portray their anti-intensification efforts as entailing environmental protection of a different kind. At its very start, the modern eco-movement embraced the credo  “Think Globally/Act Locally,” and that is precisely what opponents of enhanced urbanization do. Nowhere are such tendencies more apparent than in Palo Alto, arguably the heart of Silicon Valley, as we shall see in the next post.

 

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The Ignored Plight of the Yezidis

“We will always defend our Yezidis from prejudice and discrimination, whether by Kurdish Muslims or others.” —Nechirvan Barzani, former prime minister of the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government.

According to an October 24, 2010 report by al Jazeera, the worst suicide bomb attack during the seven years of the Iraq war occurred “when multiple truck bombs devastated two villages of the Yazidi minority sect.” The August 2007 blast, which killed almost 800 people, has by no means been the only attack on the Yezidis. Yezidi sources regard the assault on their community as genocidal. According to their most prominent website:

Beginning nearly twenty years ago, Saddam Hussein instigated a pogrom of Yezidi extermination by labeling them “Devil Worshippers” and thereby triggered whole scale [sic] persecution by the Iraqi Moslems. … Although this pogrom was lifted briefly following the US invasion and Saddam’s capture, the harsh conditions appear to be returning. Kurdish Moslems are currently blocking food supplies to the Yezidi villages and they continue to prevent the Yezidis from cleaning up the poisons in their water supply. … Within the mosques adjacent to the Yezidi villages mullahs continue to speak about the “Devil-worshipping Yezidis” and encourage their conversion to Islam or murder.

yez44On the rare occasion when the Yezidis are mentioned in the U.S. media, they are generally passed over as insignificant, forming as they do only a few percent of Iraq’s population. Such reporting is misleading: Yezidis number between 500,000 and 750,000 globally, with as many as 650,000 living in northern Iraq. Another 60,000 northern Iraqis follow the related Shabak faith, while as many as a million in Kurdish Iran adhere to a similar sect called Ahl-e Haqq (or Yârsân). Mehrdad Izady calls this complex of religions Yazdânism, which he regards as a survival of the pre-Islamic beliefs of the Kurdish people. He also includes the faith of the Alevis of eastern Turkey. The Alevis—heterodox Shiite Muslims who don’t worship in mosques and do drink alcohol—number some 15 million, on par with the global population of Mormons or Jews.

Regarding God as a remote figure, Yezidis worship the seven angels who they believe have dominion over the earth. Chief among them is Malek Taus, the Peacock Angel. Melek Taus is identified with Shaytan, or Satan, the rebellious angel of the Abrahamic (Judeo-Christian-Islamic) tradition, leading to the charges of “devil worship.” The Yezidi spiritual interpretation does not support the accusation. Although Yezidis do find something admirable in the Peacock Angel’s rebelliousness, especially his refusal to submit to Adam, they also believe that he repented of his mutiny against God, and was restored to his rightful place as leader of the angelic host. They certainly make no connection between Melek Taus and evil. Yezidis reject cosmic moral dualism, holding that wickedness lies in the hearts of humans, not in the spirits of heavenly beings.

The Yezidi holy scriptures make interesting reading. A sense of being under siege is clearly present: “The Jews, the Christians, the Moslems, and even the Persians, fought us; but they failed to subdue us, for in the strength of the Lord we prevailed against them.” Islam is singled out for critical commentary, but the curse leveled against its final prophet is rather mild:

This last time [an angel] dwelt among us longer than any of the other [angels] who came before him. He confirmed the saints. He spoke in the Kurdish language. He also illuminated Mohammed, the prophet of the Ishmaelites …, When [the angel] saw that Mohammed was not upright before him, he afflicted him with a headache.

Like many other religions, the Yezidi faith has its fair share of dietary and other behavioral prohibitions. Its proscriptions against certain vegetables, however, is unusual:

So hass (lettuce) is debarred. We do not eat it, for it sounds like the name of our prophetess Hassiah. Fish is prohibited, in honor of Jonah the prophet. Likewise deer, for deer are the sheep of one of our prophets. The peacock is forbidden to our Šeich and his disciples, for the sake of our Tâ’ûs. Squash also is debarred.

The current relationship between the Yezidis and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) is much like that between the Assyrian Christians and the KRG. Kurdish authorities pledge to respect and protect the Yezidis, but in return demand Yezidi support for the expansion of the autonomous region. As reflected in Barzani’s quotation above, many Kurds feel an affinity for the Kurdish-speaking followers of Malek Taus: “our Yezidis.” Many Yezidis, however, rebuff the embrace, refusing to call themselves Kurds and opposing the expansion of the autonomous zone. Yezidis have been barricading their villages to forestall attacks, trusting in the relative remoteness of their main communities. One of the principle Yezidi redoubts is the Sinjar Mountain, an isolated range rising from the semi-arid plains northern Iraq, deep within the contested zone.

The story of the Yezidis is instructive in several ways. It illustrates well the religious diversity of Southwest Asia’s “Heterodox Zone” (see Geocurrents, January 26, 2010). Such diversity is not surprising in the birthplace the Abrahamic faith-family: it is a basic principle of geography that areas of origin typically form centers of diversity. The survival of the Yezidi faith, despite periods of persecution, also speaks to the historical toleration of “Islamdom” relative to “Christendom.” It is hard to imagine the continued existence of people worshiping the rebel angel in late medieval or early modern Europe. But the current plight of the Yezidis also shows that such toleration is waning fast, especially in Iraq. Sunni extremism, feeding on geopolitical disputes of global reach, has been steadily stripping away religious diversity, a process began with the expulsion of the Jewish community of Baghdad in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Will it end with the eviction of Christians, Yezidis, Shabaks, and Mandeans* from all parts of Iraq outside of the Kurdish autonomous region?

The situation of the Yezidis also gives the lie to humanitarian claims that the global community will “never again” sit by while entire ethnic groups are targeted for removal or extermination. When it comes to such politically inconvenient examples of ethnic cleansing as that suffered by the Yezidis, the typical reaction is to look the other way, or to dismiss the community as too small to merit consideration.

The Yezidis have few champions in the wider world. They do occasionally benefit, however, from their association with the other beleaguered peoples of Iraq. On November 2, 2010, the government of the Netherlands announced that “the situation in Iraq is not so unsafe that failed asylum seekers cannot be deported back to Iraq.” But the Dutch government allowed that members of vulnerable minority groups, including “Iraqi Christians, Mandaeans, Yezidis, Palestinians, Jews and Shabaks … can more easily appeal for protection without a lot of evidence.”

*The Mandeans, or Sabians, revere John the Baptist as their main prophet, thus forming another Abrahamic faith.

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