Salon's Primer on Libya

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Tunisia. Egypt. And the rest will be history. Among the “rest” of the Arab nations now experiencing their own versions of a 21st-century, social-media-driven revolution is Libya. Unlike its immediate neighbors to the west and east, Libya (an OPEC member) adds the complicating layer of oil wealth and the additional global geopolitical entanglements that entails. Salon provides a nice primer on this important Mediterranean state.

Trying to Make Sense of the Arab Spring

I’m not going to be so bold here as to pretend to understand all the forces that have come together to produce the ongoing political upheavals within the Arab world this year, let alone predict where these revolutions are headed. The talk today, both here in the United States and elsewhere around the world, mostly concerns reactions to President Obama’s landmark speech yesterday on U.S. policy toward the Middle East.

Rather than pick apart the rhetoric of public diplomacy, as an historical geographer I’m more inclined to take a longer view and look for underlying trends (social, technological, environmental, economic, cultural, etc.) that might be driving the political words and actions that define today’s “current events”. Thus, I read with great interest a provocative interview that now appears online in Der Spiegel with the French scholar Emmanuel Todd.

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It’s a wide-ranging discussion, which includes some interesting comparisons between today’s Arab world and the political-economic convulsions of central Europe during the 1800s. But it is Todd’s forward gaze, rather than his glance back at history, that I find particularly compelling. Much as I alluded to earlier this week in noting the rapid aging of the human population in the decades to come, Todd sees a demographic transformation significantly interwoven with changes in culture and society. Specifically, he sees the Arab Spring sprouting from a combination of rapidly declining fertility rates, increasing literacy rates, and declining practices of endogamy (marriage between first cousins). Of course, the usual suspects of politics, economics, and religion, are a part of his story, too, but not in any sort of simplistic, linear, cause-and-effect sequence. And given that Todd is a French scholar being interviewed by a German publication, it was perhaps inevitable that the article also includes some light-hearted intra-European verbal jousting.
The ABCs of climate change: buying us time

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This week’s Economist discusses the new focus on short-lived global warmers. Both ozone-producing methane and atmospheric “black carbon"—the soot that constitutes so-called Asian/Atmospheric Brown Clouds (such as the ABC over India illustrated above)—are positive "forcings” of climate change, which mean they help push our atmosphere toward a warmer average state. Moreover, both black carbon and methane/ozone are unhealthful pollutants in their own right, and both can be significantly reduced around the world with relatively low cost. While the long-term buildup of carbon dioxide remains a primary concern, addressing black carbon and methane/ozone now offers the potential of perhaps buying us a couple decades in mitigating and adapting to global climate change.

This is all hopeful, promising stuff. But as is often the case with atmospheric science and politics, it’s a bit more complicated. The climate-warming black carbon is often emitted alongside other pollutants (pale aerosols, sulfur compounds) that actually yield the opposite effect—a “global cooling” of sorts through their reflection of incoming sunlight. Then you throw in the complication of clouds, and of the complexity of local/regional effects versus global averages, and it all becomes very difficult to model with any sort of certainty. While scientists don’t mind a fair amount of uncertainty—such continuing mysteries keep them in business, after all—it does make policy-making and political activism a lot more difficult. Stay tuned.

Long before I had the chance to visit Istanbul a year ago, Turkey fascinated me. Being such a crossroads both historically and geographically, how could Turkey not fascinate any self-respecting historical geographer such as myself?

Besides the occasional anecdote, students in my World Geography class will be familiar with Turkey largely through the third part of one of their assigned books, Robert Kaplan’s The Ends of the Earth. It’s been fifteen years since the book was published, and while the Turkey about which Kaplan wrote remains very relevant and recognizable, much has changed. Perhaps most significantly, the last decade has witnessed the rise of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who almost certainly will be reelected to a third term this weekend. The Der Spiegel article that accompanies this map provides an excellent overview of Erdogan’s dynamic Turkey, a country fast emerging as one of the world’s “BRICs” (or large “emerging markets”) and one of its most significant geopolitical players—particularly in the volatile Mediterranean basin. Moreover, despite Turkey becoming ever more like Europe in terms of social-economic measurables, the rise of Erdogan’s Turkey raises questions about its prospects to join the European Union. For as Der Spiegel argues, it looks increasingly that “Europe doesn’t want Turkey—and that soon Turkey will no longer need Europe.”

We still talk about the British conquering India, but that phrase disguises a more sinister reality. It was not the British government that seized India at the end of the 18th century, but a dangerously unregulated private company headquartered in one small office, five windows wide, in London, and managed in India by an unstable sociopath – [Robert] Clive.
—  William Dalrymple, “The East India Company: The Original Corporate Raiders,” The Guardian (4 March 2015)
The Myth of Europe(an Exceptionalism)

Gareth Harding is correct to point out, in the current issue of Foreign Policy, that the European crisis today is more than just economic. And it’s more than a matter of Europe’s political institutions—a crisis that could be fixed, presumably, by a cleverly drafted treaty or even by a true European constitution. No, Europe faces an enduring identity crisis in which nascent ideas of “Europeanness” remain poorly defined, let alone widely embraced.

Where Harding goes astray is in his assumption that Europe’s identity crisis is somehow exceptional. He takes for granted that other large political entities such as India, China, Indonesia, Brazil, and most significantly for his argument, the USA, somehow have a cultural-historical glue that solidly binds them together as a singular people, while Europe struggles to fit the square peg of multicultural diversity into the round whole of national unity. For example, he argues that “few places on Earth have such a glorious mishmash [as Europe] of cultures, languages, landscapes, and peoples coexisting in such a small area.” Really? There’s no questioning Europe’s diversity, but I’d argue that few places on Earth DON’T also enjoy such a “glorious mishmash”. Moreover, Harding also seems to take for granted an enduring stability in Europe’s modern national identities (e.g., German, Italian, Spanish) which, upon closer inspection, appear no less fictional or artificial than a shared sense of Europeanness today.

While I am not convinced that pan-European nationalism faces a diversity challenge that is fundamentally greater than those faced by other large polities around the world, I do think comparison with the USA is helpful. Circa 2012, the United States of America does have the following advantages over a would-be United States of Europe in terms of crafting a unifying national identity:

  • The USA is much, much older. As the first on-line commenter to Harding’s article noted, USAmerican nationalism is a project more than 200 years old, while the current EU project is only about 60 years old. Building any sense of nationhood takes time, especially when a large number of citizens still alive grew up in a “Europe” that, in an EU sense, had yet to exist.
  • The USA was forged by a singular revolutionary struggle. As Benedict Anderson explained, nations are “imagined communities” of anonymous strangers. There are several ways in which an imagined sense of community can be produced and re-produced, but central to that cause is the ability to craft a more-or-less singular national history. More than shared “values”, which Harding and countless others emphasize, nations of people are bound together by shared stories. I, for example, would be hard-pressed to find much in the way of shared values with the millions of my countrymen and women who support the Republican Party, but I don’t believe that makes me, or them, any less “American”. Our values differ sharply, just as did those of our forefathers and -mothers, but we all collectively belong to the same epic national tale, a story that began with a common struggle of diverse colonial peoples against a singular foreign ruler. The story of Europe is not so easily told, and attempts to do so (e.g., Hitler’s vision of a restored Roman Empire re-centered around his would-be “Germania”) have tended to lead to horrific and perverse outcomes. The contrast between the USA’s ability to tell and re-tell an inspiring national story, and Europe’s inability to do the same, is perhaps most simply captured by contrasting the easy-to-grasp emotional power of the July 4th Independence Day with Europe Day on May 9; as a nation-inspiring writer, at least, Robert Schuman was no Thomas Jefferson.
  • The USA has a de facto lingua franca. The differences between polyglot Europe and the allegedly monolingual USA can easily be exaggerated. The widespread practice of multilingualism, including English as a prominent second language, softens the language divides within Europe, just as the large presence of Spanish (and Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, et al.) speakers in the USA demonstrates that Americans hardly possess a common tongue. Nonetheless, regardless of one’s own first language, very few in the United States question the fact that, unofficially at least, English is the first language of the nation. Whatever one might think of the values of multiculturalism versus those of a “melting pot”, it is far easier to craft a sense of nationhood around the motto “e pluribus unum” (out of many, one) than Europe’s chosen alternative: “united in diversity." 
  • Europe’s confused geography. I am not referring to the geographic expansion of the European Union from its six original members in the 1950s to the 27 of today and potentially more beyond. The USA, after all, saw its membership nearly quadruple over the course of two centuries from its original count of 13 states. Instead, Europe’s geography is confused by its variable methods of membership. The USA has its own ambiguities, with non-state possessions such as Puerto Rico, a distinct national capital District of Columbia, and numerous semi-sovereign "reservation” enclaves for indigenous peoples. Moreover, a decentralized federal political structure allows for a lot of diversity in laws and regulations between the fifty states of the USA. But this is nothing compared to the territorial confusion that is Europe. The EU has 27 members, but only 17 use the shared Euro currency. Most of the EU27 are participants to the passport-free travel zone known as the Schengen area, as are four non-EU states, but not the UK or Ireland. The fact that unambiguously “European” Norway and Switzerland are not part of the Euro or the EU (although they do belong to Schengen) further blurs Europe’s effective boundaries, no less than does the prospect of adding to the EU a country that many perceive as non-European (i.e., Turkey). Outside of political-economic institutions, the concept of a shared European identity is geographically stretched by how far beyond EU territories that European pop culture extends. Each May features two of the most iconic annual entertainment events that celebrate the coming together of European peoples: the final match of the European Champions League of professional club soccer, and the final round of the Eurovision song contest. Both competitions feature entries not only from Turkey, Israel, and the ex-Communist Eastern bloc but also from virtually the full extent of the former Soviet Union, reaching deep into the Caucasus Mountains, the Caspian Sea, and beyond into Central Asia. Tel Aviv, Tblisi, and Tashkent are no less European cities, it would seem, than Turin, Toulouse, or Tilburg.

As both an historical geographer and a Euro-phillic American, I am hopeful that a stronger, more-unified European Union can emerge in 2012 and beyond. Europe, and the world, would be a better place for it. The challenge of building such a Europe is indeed daunting, both in terms of crafting effective institutions and in fostering bonds of pan-European identity based on sincere trust, cooperation, and the spirit of “brotherhood” celebrated in Beethoven and Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” anthem of Europe. But that challenge is not insurmountable, especially when we put aside a false sense that it is somehow unique to Europe or requiring of a common mindset. The people(s) of Europe will never be able to identify a common set of values, just as we here in America have been unable to do so after more than two hundred years. Like an extended family, political unity doesn’t require that we all value the same principles in the same way; it merely requires that we see ourselves as participants in the same national story with a shared commitment to make it—whatever “it” is—work.

Despite the trolley car in this photo, and the story of gridlocked automotive sprawl presented in the accompanying article, Istanbul remains a strongly pedestrian city. That’s at least the case along the centrally located Istiklal Caddesi (pictured here, with the Turkish “C” pronounced more like an English “J”), which is one of the world’s truly great urban walking streets. Istanbul is remarkable for many reasons, but one of them is its ability to be both sprawling and densely and energetically crowded at the same time—not unlike the way in which Istanbul simultaneously represents both the tenacious ancient Byzantine and Ottoman pasts and the unpredictably dynamic 21st-century future on the Mediterranean margins of Europe and the Middle East.

Quite a few people told me they could sense that the Communist Party leaders were losing control and the Springsteen concert was like a last-ditch effort to change it, but it was too little, too late,” said Kirschbaum. “Springsteen only made them want more freedom.
—  Woody Guthrie’s guitar killed fascists, and according to Erik Kirschbaum’s new book, Bruce Springsteen’s guitar tore down walls. Like a boss.
Immigration is, on the whole, good for economies; and right now, rich countries can do with all the economic help they can get. Rather than sending immigrants home, with their skills, energy, ideas and willingness to work, governments should be encouraging them to come. If they don’t, governments elsewhere will.
—  The Economist makes the case for immigration. I, for one, wholeheartedly agree and find anti-immigrant attitudes in the more affluent regions of the world to be a prime example of looking the gift horse in the mouth.
"Exceptional People": Why we should embrace immigration

Ian Goldin and Geoffrey Cameron, of the University of Oxford, summarize their case for immigration. It’s an even-handed, fair-minded commentary on both the benefits and the costs to receiving societies. One big political challenge is that those benefits tend to accrue in a geographically diffuse pattern over a relatively long period of time, while the costs tend to be borne more acutely and immediately in particular locales.
Jeffrey Sachs: Greece can be Saved

The modern economy utterly depends upon credit, whether it’s to allow individual students and households acquire an education or a home, an entrepreneur or large company to finance the creation or expansion of a business, or a sovereign state or other public entity (school district, county, etc.) to build infrastructure and/or provide social services. When flows of credit dry up, economic life dessicates, too.

All macroeconomic crises are credit crises to one degree or another. Never has this been more obvious than during the extended “recession” in which the world—particularly North America and Europe—has been mired for several years. Mortgaged home owners “underwater” and facing imminent foreclosure. Students saddled with debt that they’ll be repaying long after graduation day. The State of California, like most of its peers in the USA, stuck in a repeating “Groundhog Day” loop of perennial impending budget disaster. The list of credit crunches goes on and on and on.

And then there is Greece. Sure, Spain, Ireland, perhaps even Italy sometime soon: these Euro-zone governments face some pretty daunting fiscal challenges themselves—and the United States isn’t exactly a model of sustainable public finance either. But no sovereign debt crisis is as salient right now as Greece’s, to the point that investors around the world effectively expect its government to go bankrupt; already agencies such as Standard and Poor’s and Moody’s have lowered their credit ratings of Greece to “junk bond” levels. This isn’t good, and it threatens not just the Euro monetary zone but could send shockwaves through the entire global economy. All of this makes for very depressing summer reading, the source of much hand wringing and finger pointing among leaders and pundits, as well as for some very understandable anger on the streets of Athens and other Greek cities.

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It is indeed very hard not to be pessimistic about our economic prospects. And that’s the catch. As FDR famously reminded us during the depths of the Great(est) Depression, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Credit is a funny and fickle thing, prone as it is to self-fulfilling prophecies. Optimism can snowball into “irrational exuberance” and create enormous bubbles of wealth and overconsumption. An infectious pessimism, though, can melt that snowball—burst that bubble—no less quickly as interest rates spike, revenues collapse, and opportunities to restructure/refinance debt disappear.

No, we can’t simply “hope” our way out of the current economic crisis. Like any good hangover, this is a time for sober reflection upon our earlier excesses—reflection that informs sincere reforms to the way we generate and spend money. But if Greece (or California, or the USA) is to be saved, as the esteemed Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs argues, it will be through leadership and policy founded upon a committed and confident optimism that dares to promise—sincerely promise—what most don’t presently believe possible: Greece can and will pay off its debt, especially if stronger nations pledge their support and thus hold back the economic vultures poised to feed on and profit from our pessimism.


The Eurocentric historical geography of Wikipedia—or at least of its largest, English-language form. It’s a pretty short video, and make sure to watch it to its end, because you won’t be entirely sure of what you’re seeing for the first two-thirds or so.

For more background on this project, click here on Gareth Lloyd’s site. You can also read about this project at one of my favorite geography blogs, Floating Sheep.


Language is fun.

The Population Implosion. As we inch closer to completing the modern demographic transition, the world gradually shifts from an historic several generations of dramatic population growth—from less than one billion people worldwide in the 1700s to just about seven billion today (and probably eight or even nine billion by mid-century)—to a post-modern demographic retrenchment. Just how far and how quickly population decline occurs remains to be seen, and it likely won’t become a truly global phenomenon until at least next century. Nonetheless, for some societies in East Asia and Europe, the prospect of a shrinking and aging population and the “dependency” challenges this presents is already here. Indeed, Hong Kong is on pace to shrink to nothing—zero population—in about 25 generations, or roughly the 28th Century. This is not a forecast, by the way, but instead a mathematical extrapolation that helps illustrate the changing course of our demographic ship.

most of Tripoli is now in the hands of Transitional National Council forces and supporters, two of Muammar Khaddafi’s sons are in custody, and the backbone of Khaddafi’s military has been broken. …The whereabouts of Gaddafi, Khaddafy, and Qaddafi are still unknown, however.
—  Foreign Policy magazine’s Daniel Drezner provides a quick and preliminary accounting of the winners and losers of this weekend’s apparent climax to the 6-month-long Libyan revolution. And while it’s got a few moments of tongue-in-cheek humor, such as the quote above, it’s also a serious (and opinionated) analysis well worth reading.

When those of us in the affluent West think of globalization, we tend to emphasize the flow of jobs to "emerging economies"—outsourced customer service in India, low-wage factory work in China, and the like. We need to remember, however, that the world’s emerging economic giants are not just sites of global production; they are also increasingly important centers of global consumption, whose rapid rise in demand is driving commodity prices more than (probably) any supply-side or market-speculation factor. At least that is the general conclusion we might draw from recent research investigating the near-perfect correlation in global prices for two very different commodities: fine wine and crude oil. It seems that no factor explains the rapid rise in prices for both over the last two decades better than the equally rapid rise in personal incomes and aggregate demand of those emerging economies. Click on the graph above for The Economist’s summary, or click here for a direct link to the January 2011 IMF Working Paper presenting this research. For students of Economics, this study provides a nice, relatively simple example of the use of linear regression in econometrics. It also provides an example of the basic principle that it’s at the economic “margin” where prices are determined, not at what we might alternatively call the economic “center”. Here is how Serhan Cevik and Tahsin Saadi Sedik make this last point in somewhat less jargony English:

Our analysis also shows that while advanced economies account for more than half of global crude oil and wine consumption, emerging market economies make up the bulk of the incremental change in aggregate demand and therefore have a greater significance in determining price fluctuations.