Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall (2015) Non-Fiction

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Tim Marshall is a British journalist and author who has been on the front line in the Balkans, Syria and Afghanistan. He witnessed close hand how international conflicts and civil wars have arisen out of past decisions. He has seen how history has shaped the future events of a country and the role geography has had in that shaping.

In Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need To Know About Global Politics, Marshall gives some very interesting insights into the major factors that determine world history. He examines the international affairs of ten regions of the world to show that geographical factors – the physical landscape, climate, demographics, culture and the availability of natural resources –  have an important impact on civilisations. He considers that these geopolitical factors are often overlooked.

‘Seeing geography as a decisive factor in the course of human history can be construed as a bleak view of the world, which is why it is disliked in some intellectual circles. It suggests that nature is more powerful than man, and that we can only go so far in determining our own fate.’

Marshall discusses the following areas in this book:

Russia, China, USA, Western Europe, Africa, The Middle East, India & Pakistan, Korea and Japan, Latin America, and The Arctic.

I borrowed this book from my eldest son who recommended it. He reads mostly nonfiction, especially politics and current affairs. I don’t read much of this genre and expected it would be a little dry and heavy going. It definitely isn’t like that at all. I found it hard to put it aside at times – unlike a lot of nonfiction titles that I have had to read in small doses.

If you enjoy history, I expect that you would enjoy this book.

I liked it enough to include it in our  Australian version of Ambleside Online Year 11 which  covers the 20th Century. It would fit well into not only geography and history but also current affairs as most of the issues the author discusses are still being worked out.

Here are some extracts from the book that I found interesting and helpful:

Russia – the Arctic and the fact that Russia has never had a warm-water port, limits Russia’s ability to be a truly global power. Its most powerful weapon is gas and oil, where it is only second to the USA. Russia has a hold on Europe’s energy needs and the better a country’s relationship with Russia , the cheaper its energy costs. The closer a country is to Moscow, the more dependent it is on Russia. This plays into foreign policy – for example, Russia supplies about half of Germany’s gas needs so German politicians are slower to criticise the Kremlin for aggressive behaviour.

China – although it has always been a land power, in wasn’t until the 1980’s that China began to be major trading power. Until recently the country has been limited due to its lack of a global navy. With its huge population, lack of arable land and the affects of pollution, it is looking to expand. The author believes that the Chinese are not looking for conflict or seeking to spread Communism (not sure I agree with this??) but are concerned with keeping ocean access open as they depend upon imported resources. Recent maps published in China show almost the whole of the South China Sea as theirs and they have been building deep sea ports around the world as they seek to establish a ‘blue water’ (ocean going) navy.

USA – due to the shrewd decisions it made in the past to expand its territory in key regions, the USA became a two ocean superpower and is now close to being self sufficient in energy. This will change its policies in the Middle East as it will no longer need to rely on their oil.

Europe –  flat land and rivers that can be navigated have been key factors for Europe’s place on the global scene. The UK has been advantaged by its location with access to the North Sea and the North Atlantic. Its relative isolation has provided protection from European wars and unrest. 65 years of relative peace due to Europe’s unity may be threatened due to the financial crises they have been going through.

Africa – this continent is an example of the effects of isolation. Maps are deceptive and don’t allow for the hugeness of Africa. It is three times bigger than the USA!

‘Africa’s coastline? Great beaches, really, really lovely beaches, but terrible natural harbours. Rivers? Amazing rivers, but most of them are rubbish for actually transporting anything, given that every few miles you go over a waterfall. These are just two in a long list of problems which help explain why Africa isn’t technologically or politically as successful as Western Europe or North America.’

In the 15th and 16th centuries, at the height of the Ottoman Empire, thousands of Africans, mostly from Sudan were taken cross the Arab world as slaves. The Europeans did the same to a greater degree later on.

In European cities artificial borders were drawn with new countries created on maps. The same was done for the Middle East, and India/Pakistan (Partition!) – artificial borders on paper, drawing lines on maps & disregarding cultural distinctions & topography. This led inevitably to ethnic conflicts.

Japan and Korea – although they don’t have the ethnic problems of some other countries there are other problems. Japan is an island with basically no natural resources. Korea’s division into North and South was a decision made in the USA by two clueless junior officers in the White House. It left Seoul, South Korea’s capital, very vulnerable and only 35 miles south of their unstable Communist neighbours.

Latin America begins at the Mexican border and stretches all the way down to Cape Horn. None of its coastal area has many deep harbours so trading is limited. South America is cut off geographically from just about everywhere else with mountains and the Amazon jungle. Bitter relations between countries such as Bolivia and Chile and border disputes add to their problems.

Arctic – as the ice in this region melts, new energy deposits have been found, but it’s a dark and dangerous place: ‘It’s not a good place to be without friends. They know that for anyone to succeed in the region they may need to cooperate…’

Modern technology and air power is helping to break down geographical barriers; ‘bending the iron rules of geography,’ as the author puts it, but it is still a major factor for many countries.

Marshall has written a follow up book that looks at other countries, such as Australia, that I’d be interested in reading. I appreciated the author’s very readable, conversational style, and his knowledge of history and international affairs, and highly recommend this book.

The author has a sequel to this book – The Power of Geography.

13 thoughts on “Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall (2015) Non-Fiction

  1. fascinating post… geography is under-valued in educational circles in my limited and remote experience and it's great to know that an effort is being made to extend its influence… i really wonder what will happen when the oil runs out…

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  2. I read that somewhere else recently about how China is so large and yet does not have a lot of arable land, which makes the population venerable to famine. This books sounds fascinating and it is a good reminder to us that geography shapes its population and its prospects. I will also be on the look out for a copy.

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  3. From my experience it's the same here as well, Mudpuddle. I really enjoyed the way the author integrated history and all the run on effects of decisions based on not taking geography into account.

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  4. Hi Lark, I'm always disappointed when maps aren't included when the author is writing about specific places & events. I need to be ble to place it all to take it in properly.

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  5. Ruthiella, we've had lots of discussion over here about China's investments etc in the area; political influence and other things. I read that Britain is offering citizenship to anyone in Hong Kong who was there under British rule and now wants to leave.

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  6. Pingback: The Power of Geography by Tim Marshall | journey & destination

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