Coffee House Reading #18: Prisoners of Geography


‘Oh god not that book, I tried, but I could never get past Russia…’

Was the editors response when I suggested Tim Marshalls 2015 output ‘Prisoners of Geography– Ten Maps that tell you everything you need to know about Global Politics’ for this edition of Coffee House readings. Well, boss, if you had read past Russia, you would have learned that no one makes it past Russia. No one, and Mr Marshall explains why through ‘Geo–politics’.

Maps, Maps, Maps

If we are honest, maps are a thing theses days. People love maps, be they standard ones, the ‘scratch–off where you have been ones’ or just old as time. They are trendy. It is therefore relatively easy to imagine that this tangible form of click bait is just that, trashy click bait. However, this is far from that, if anything, the maps in this book are too boring and too true to be click bait. They are honest maps, telling an honest story.

I will confess, I was  a little disappointed in the maps provided. They are simple maps, no fancy colours, or ancient twists. However the story Marshall weaves around the maps, is like a crash course in both history and current affairs. Finally an understanding of how America came to be the shape it is. How it grew and some of the ridiculous ways they ‘acquired’ land. ‘The land of the free’ may not have been free, but they cleaned up in the sales. An understanding of why Russia is doing what it is doing in Ukraine. The importance of Poland to both Russia and Western Europe.

Mountains and Rivers

Herein lies the importance of Marshalls maps. He gives a basic understanding of all the current affairs situations world wide, through maps. In a world of ‘fake news’ and unreliable sources, he harnesses one thing that cannot be disputed as support for explaining the actions of the world powers, geography. You would be hard pressed to find someone to argue with over the existence of a mountain or river.

Through this we learn how geography shaped the nations we live in. Our generation of Europeans, takes this for granted. We have not experienced wars and as Marshall points out, they are a foreign thing to us. We are also shown how geography still dictates the decisions made by governments all over the worldWhile also highlighting how geography was not (unfortunately) considered when the colonial powers came to draw their lines.

An idiots guide to geo–politics.

One would be forgiven for imagining this book in the classic, ‘Idiots Guide’ yellow. As that is exactly what it is. An Idiots Guide to Geo–Politics. But in that we arrive at its relevance. As the world drifts from echo chambers and blame games, a basic understanding of why things are happening is helpful for all. Marshall uses simple language, as if explaining it to a mate in a pub.

More helpful, but by no means certain, in spite of the certainty of geography, is what the future holds. Tim Marshall is a vastly experienced reporter, his career has taken him to the front line on many occasions. He has seen, on the ground the effects of geography on war, notably in the Balkans. Thus he is able to predict with experience what he imagines are possible outcomes for the future of current affairs and world politics.

Obviously no one can predict the future. Marshall himself would probably be the first to admit that. To roll out the old adage ‘we can learn lessons from our past’. If we can see how geography shaped us, it is easier to imagine where geography will take us. It can show us the potential problems that will arise from the limits of this ‘blue dot’. Some of these issues, such as climate change, are already already talked about, but others are not.

What those others are, can be found in the geography and the change makers should start looking now at what they could be. Marshall finishes with the Artic, an area he highlights as a potential collision course with its reducing ice. He hopes, that as we cruise into space we can collaborate in excursions, but maybe he should hope we collaborate over the artic before we start spreading through the galaxy.

Future fights

My editor could not make it past Russia because she felt that ‘Prisoners of Geography’ lacked something. What I feel it lacks, is depth, ironic because it is exactly Russias’ depth that stops people getting past it. But the lack of depth to it is exactly what makes the book. Its simplicity makes it accessible to all, meaning that anyone should be able to get at least a basic understanding. Further reading for the curious is at the back. It acts as a perfect accompaniment to Harari’s Sapiens. It is un–politicised enough to be unbiased. This offers the reader the chance to draw their own conclusions as to where the future issues of this planet could be.

We are, by remit, told to avoid politics here.  However politics shape our world and geography shapes that. With that in mind should we as change makers not look to geography to make change, and cut out the political middle man?

The best Viennese coffee shop to read this book in…

It would be easy to suggest ‘Welt Cafe’,with such a fitting name and proximity to a prison would be an obvious choice. However I finished and did a lot of the reading in Warenhandlung. This cafe, bakery and grocery store only really has one big table. This means customers have to communicate and share the limited space available (much like the limited space on this earth). On top of this it offers minimal packaging, organic and fair trade produce. This reminds us that the resources we have are limited and should no longer be fought over but shared. While the self service may scare some of you off, the coffee is worth standing in line for.

picture credits: Will Stafford & pixabay

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