The seduction of maps

We come now to another pitfall in the study of geopolitics, the seduction of maps. Maps have always been used for political purposes, whether with good or bad intentions. Throughout modern history nation-states have deployed geographical arguments to make claims, just as the modern State uses statistics to support its policies. We can call this phenomenon the seduction of maps, or Gaia's seduction.

When lines are drawn on maps they become contracts supported by rules and laws. In some cases in the past the great powers did not even know what they were signing up to at the time, and only found out afterwards. For instance, the sharing out of the American continent between Spain and Portugal was based on a hypothetical meridian line drawn 370 leagues (about 1400 miles) west of the Cape Verde islands.30 All the land to the west of the line was to go to Spain, and that to the east to Portugal. The Portuguese soon discovered that they had drawn the short straw, and pressed to shift the line westwards; and to an extent they achieved this, thanks to the limited surveying technology of the period, though Spain still came away from the draw with the most attractive prize. This episode was to shape the course of European history and policy for centuries, yet the details were largely a matter of chance.

Another example is the nineteenth-century colonial division of Africa by the great powers of Europe.31 The colonial powers did not take into consideration the fact that African identity is based primarily on the tribal system. Tribal territories seldom coincided with colonial boundaries. Consequently inhabitants of African countries acquired no real feeling of national identity, and often see themselves even now as less responsible for compatriots who belong to other tribes. This explains most violent conflicts in Africa to this day. A political candidate will receive votes from people who belong to his tribe. Thus the largest tribes or those who are best at getting their members to vote usually win. Having won, they allocate the lion's share of resources to members of their own tribe, with obvious injustice for the rest of the population.

This is the story of Zimbabwe, for instance. We sometimes think that political and social turmoil is an African trade mark, but that is not so. As Leo Frobenius (1933) reminds us, before the white man set foot in Africa most tribes there lived in peace; their societies were quite orderly by the standards of most European countries.

Up to only a hundred years ago, nations often dealt with one another using different maps. It was therefore an important advance when a decision was reached on what representation of the world to use as a standard. Before Max Eckert in 1906 defined a map projection which represented the world without distortion of areas or angles, even separate social and professional groups preferred and used different representations of the world to suit their own interests and activities. Seamen, for instance, typically preferred the projection of Gerhard Mercator, a Flemish geographer, mathematician, and cartographer, who developed his model in 1569. Mercator maps make the regions close to the poles appear very large relative to lower latitudes, which is more practical when sailing in those waters. There were others who challenged this map of Eckert's, criticizing his projection as unfair to the poorer nations, since it gave less prominence to countries near the equator. Thus Arno Peters, a German historian and cartographer, introduced a map in 1974 which was considered more politically correct, because areas of the same size in square miles are always shown as the same size on the map. The idea was to improve the way we display in two dimensions the three-dimensional reality of geographical space. This idea was noble, but the consistent equal-area principle implied distortion in other respects, so that the map is unusable in practice.

At another level, maps create basic problems about identity. When we point at a map and say "we are here", this means that others are elsewhere. If we say that those others possess territory N, it soon happens that some other group somewhere else raises the question whether they should not rather have N-1. The second group may think they ought rather to have N+1, and so a conflict begins.

Since we have physical bodies, we need a geographical location. Being human, we tend to think possessively: that is our nature. This attitude is reinforced by our insistence on private property. We are tied to the land, we own it, and that gives us our identity. It defines and represents our culture, ultimately it is part of who we are. Cultures without a clearly defined geographical territory or cultures that have forsaken their land of origin often run into trouble with the local population. Examples of this are found in the Jewish, Gypsy, and Chinese diasporas.

Much of this changed with industrialization, when large numbers of people started to move out of the countryside into the larger towns, and then moved between towns. This quickly created a more multicultural society. But we still tend to stick to people whose values we share. This is not even necessarily a cultural or ethnic divide, it is more often a social or economic divide. In the Greater Los Angeles area, for instance, cities and neighborhoods are very much divided along socioeconomic lines. When people's income rises they often move to a "better" neighborhood, regardless of their ethnic origin. Inhabitants of other neighborhoods then become "the others", even if these neighborhoods include the place we were living in earlier when we had less money. In all these cases the difference in geographical location becomes an important parameter determining our identity.

With globalization people are moving even further, changing places, working in one country and living in another, going on holiday in a third, and so forth. In the distant future entire civilizations or nations may have to move, whether because of global warming or because of the coming of the next ice age. For instance, it is calculated that less than 10,000 years from now, when the next ice age arrives, all Scandinavians will have to move south of Berlin which will then be the border of glaciations. This may sound radical, but it will not be an extraordinary incident in the history of Homo sapiens. Largescale emigrations of this kind have occurred before. The Indo-Europeans have been in Europe for less than 20,000 years. The last group probably emigrated from the area corresponding to today's Ukraine no more than three to five thousand years ago. Going back even further, we Indo-Europeans were living in the Caucasus-Afghanistan-Kashmir area for a long time. When the animals we hunted, initially the reindeer, moved into newly ice-free areas to the north, we followed them. Because of these migratory paths, we who live in Northern Europe can trace not only our languages, but also our religious beliefs (the Nordic mythology), back to Sanskrit. Potentially it should also be possible to explain numerous traits related to our national and ethnic character by reference to DNA research tracing us back through the same migratory path.

Longer ago, perhaps some sixty to a hundred thousand years ago, we, Homo sapiens, once migrated out of Africa, at least according to the latest findings confirming the "out of Africa" theory of human origins. For all that time we have struggled for possession of territory, and for all that time there has been a need to draw maps, maps which must have begun with lines drawn in the sand or mud. The system of drawing lines to make maps has then become increasingly complex during our evolution. As we have developed as a species we have demanded more order in our surroundings: not only in our own garden and neighborhood, but ultimately in our relations with other nation states. Maps provide that order, but they can also sharpen conflicts with others. A good example of that is the disputes we have had and continue to have about maritime boundaries in connation with fishing rights and, more recently, rights to explore for oil under the sea. There is also a race to claim rights to use waterways around the North Pole as the ice slowly retreats, allowing new transport routes which will replace much of the trade going via Suez and Panama Canals today. Denmark has made a formal decision to train special forces for the defense of this territory. The citizens of Greenland are suddenly in a hurry to claim national independence from Denmark, now that they stand to become rich. At the same time, we could probably say there would be even more conflict if there were no maps at all.

In a wider perspective, it is the continuation of the logic of private property: "I own this, you own that". Climate, people, and cultures may change, but there is always a need to draw "static" maps. We are at all times inclined, provoked, and indeed forced to produce a geographical representation of who we are. At the same time we must realize that all borders and political units are subject to continual change, however gradual. That they change does not mean that we can do without them. In much the same way, we need theories to help us function and understand the world in which we live. Competition and possession of land are the ultimate expressions of our struggle for prosperity. Theories that cannot respond to these needs will eventually be discarded, since we must always be pragmatic.

Earlier critics of geopolitics who pointed to its abuses, such as the sociologist Max Weber, saw it as an oracle for decision makers, a right-wing body of literature defending national interests. It can also be seen as left-wing, as in the case of Stalin's great eastward expansion of the Soviet Union. Geopolitics has no political bias either to right or left; it is at the service of whoever is in power.

Others say that geopolitical literature nurtures prejudices, that the academics and intellectuals who produce it have their own political agenda, that its content misses too much of the social complexity it seeks to understand, that it is unduly focused on polemical aspects, and leads eventually to political determinism. Much of this is hard to deny, but the same can probably be said about most research. Anything can be misused. Other, better-known examples are physics (the atom bomb), biology (pesticides), engineering (weapons of all kinds), and economics (financial derivatives).

From an economist's point of view, maps allow new and better predictions about economic behaviour. Geographical representations of natural resources are an effective way of presenting indicators of power, for both private-and public-sector organizations. Just as with the invention of the alphabet or numerical notation, ultimately maps and other graphics are simply a better way of communicating ideas. While figures make analysis easier, and words are best for description and explanation, maps allow for a more immediate perspective and understanding of a phenomenon, a clearer presentation of facts, whether they are ideas or reality. In other words, we can often understand a phenomenon much more readily by looking at a map or a drawing than when it is explained to us using letters or numbers. Looking at a map, where different colors represent particular concepts, we immediately get the feeling that we know what the person is talking about. It is the same with pictures, from which maps can be said to derive. Maps should be seen as one more language, as yet another way of representing reality, ultimately as a more direct and quicker means of communicating ideas. In connexion with historical and political analyses they become a powerful tool for understanding the world of politics and business.

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