geography

Recently, I heard Jared Diamond speak at Benaroya Hall (thanks to Luke, my favorite barista, who invited me). He is the famous author of Guns, Germs, and Steel, and unofficial spokesman for research tourism in Papua New Guinea. This book probably contains the most interesting ideas about the rise and present shape of human societies ever, but the writing is a little number heavy and dry. Somehow, this exact same style is way more entertaining in a live performance due to Diamond’s droll, kiwi-influenced accent. Now like every good author, he is out pimping his new book, Collapse, about the corresponding fall (or not) of societies.

The one word that was reinforced throughout the whole evening was geography. This word evokes in me vaguely sterile experiences of looking at colored maps in middle school, memorizing states and capitals, and writing reports on faraway places exclusively through reading the encyclopedia. But when Diamond uses the word geography, he actually means a more inclusive definition that encroaches on ecology, sociology, anthropology, ethnobiology, geology, history, economics—fields of knowledge which we tend to isolate into their own silos, the better to quantify them and practice a reductionist brand of science. The older and more colorful mixture of knowledge about the Earth’s regions, inseparable from their location on the planet, is famously popularized by the National Geographic Society.

We can all agree that National Geographic is sexy. After all, they brought us awesome photographs of terra cotta warriors in China and the Afghan girl and zebras mating, or whatever. Then why is geography is the least sexy subject in school? In fact, less than 1 percent of universities in the U.S. have a department of geography. Once you have reduced this field to cataloguing Anglicized place names, it hardly seems a worthwhile academic discipline.

As usual, pundits and futurists are to blame. It has been popular recently to make fun of location as irrelevant, a holdover from the last century when transportation was slow and we weren’t connected by a series of tubes. Those poor prehistoric sods, they couldn’t even outsource their call centers to India or import tasty, endangered sea bass from Chile. Thank god Thomas Friedman is around to tell us about globalization. For economic reasons, we no longer need to be bound by the accident of location. We can have everything, be everything, no matter where we live or were born. I can’t wait until we are all brains in a vat or upload our consciousnesses to the Internet after Brother Kurzweil’s rapture.

Unless, of course, oil stops being free and shipping containers don’t move themselves. Or the game of third-world labor arbitrage is balanced out by Asian nationalism and the need for authentic human relationships. Or some backhoe runs over the power cord to our cerebral aquarium or the fiberoptic line of our global socialputer. Stupid backhoes.

What about disregarding location for intellectual reasons? In Richard Dawkins’s 1991 Christmas lectures, he imagines the scenario where space aliens land on Earth and give us a report card on our progress as a species. In the arena of science and mathematics, they might pat us on the head patronizingly and say “Eh, you’re on the right track. Keep it up, you’ll get there some day.” After all, the wavelength of the hyperfine transition of hydrogen is the same everywhere in God’s creation. Why else would we have put it on the Pioneer plaque? But these aliens, they will either be uninterested or disappointed in our religion or culture as small-minded and provincial. After all, what does it matter to the universe how a tribe worships its deity on a small planet in a tiny solar system in one of countless galaxies?

As much as I heart Dawkins, we are stuck here on this spaceship earth for the immediate future. And as Jared Diamond teaches us, our cultural and religious beliefs are not just arbitrary and irrelevant local phenomena. They can be traced to the shape of continental landmasses, the latitude of our evolution, the direction of human migration—gross physical characteristics of our planet that are tectonic in scale. There are parts of reality that can be described by mathematical equations, and there are parts that can only be explained in the context of their time and space, their real-estate prices and political parties, their history and geography.

I like history too, by the way.

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~ by Paul Pham on 7 March 2010.

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