Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

A Modest Proposal for Geographical Determinism

We often picture the world in terms of luck. In spite of the fact that the world is an unequal place of unequal societies and social relationships, we often look at these inequalities as simply the luck of the game: some peoples got the luck as well as the riches and others got the bad luck as well as the poverty. This simply equates out to a world of predetermined places distributed according to how lucky you are and were. Anyone who has managed to read and finish Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs, and Steel can’t help but be struck by the power and force of the argument: geographical and environmental conditions in Europe and Asia led to political and military advantages resulting in further technological advances, which culminated in the power of the West (as well as China) crushing the rest of the world. The book basically shows you detail by detail how the European colonists arrived in the Americas with guns, horses, and hellfire and the Native Americans met them with bows, arrows and local superstition. How and why the West won was only a matter of playing out each position and their pre-established conditions according to a model of geographical determinism.

Amongst the economic inequalities in the world there is little denying the fact that the West did win, and with Diamond’s argument we can start to understand why and how. But while this argument carries all the power of good scientific, anthropological, and historical research and argumentation, we as educated and critical citizens of world need to put this history (“our” hertory) of the world in question (This “our” marks, I think, the turning point of ethical and political critical reawakening that can be associated with questions of discrimination in feminism, queer theory, post-colonial and race theory, etc.).

Let me start by a personal anecdote, which will hopefully put this all into a “critical” perspective.

A few years ago I was playing with two of my friends the game Monopoly. And the game was unfolding as it often does: you or someone else had gotten a group of properties, bought houses and hotels, and were advancing steadily; victory was the logical conclusion. But on that evening, we were struck by a sense of injustice because against all our friendship, mutual affection, and cooperative willingness to work together, the rules were such that there would be only one winner. We as players were logically required to follow this out according to the dice of chance and our economic decision-making. But ironically amongst our drinking and laughing (and, if I must say, dangerous readings of Marx), someone posed the anti-monopoly question: why don’t we try to make the game more like communism? Our drunken attempt to formulate a functional game is unimportant because (leaving theoretical questions aside) what was important was the simple idea that we didn’t want to play a game where someone had to lose. We had all sat down as friend and there was no reason we should stand up frustrated or angry. Finding a winner wasn’t what was important to “us” because what mattered was making sure everyone was a “winner.” In this way, we were already on the way to rethinking the very fact that there should be winners and losers.

This all leads me back to Diamond’s geographical determinism, because as he so eloquently puts it, when we look at history, we see that geographical starting points resulted in the eventual (and critically unquestionable) technological slaughter and massacre of weaker and lesser others. The resources and connections that were there at these starting points meant that someone had to lose and someone had to win. It mattered little where or on what side you were; what mattered was the fact that you followed your specified role and won or lost accordingly. The West clearly did win, but like transforming Monopoly into “communism,” shouldn’t the rules of the geopolitical game be likewise revolutionized and rethought?

While Diamond clearly showed that the West won, it doesn’t mean that we as educated and critical citizens of world should continue to accept and follow these so-called pre-established rules where someone has to lose in order for us to win. We’re more intelligent than this childishness. As a child, we lost and won according to our skill and luck because we were playing games that dictated winners, but as adults, isn’t it time we put away these winner-take-all oppositions?

In a winner-loser mentality, we are thankful for our fortune and sad for the misfortune of others, but we never have to go any further, because if the rules require losers and it’s merely chance who chooses her vanqueurs and her victims, then I’m just happy when it isn’t me the victim. In a global political environment of continually bloody tensions, Diamond’s geographical determinism is of little importance, because what matters is a game plan where everyone wins. This doesn’t mean total equality or equalizing. America’s or Europe’s riches aren’t going to be shipped directly abroad, but what does matter is putting in play rules of equal respect and cooperation where everyone is supposed. Because when someone loses, we all tragically lose too.