2 August 2012
The idea of a continent is inherently ambiguous because it is ultimately derived from accounts of the world that preceded any scientific understanding of the structure of the world’s land masses; it is an informal concept, and it can only be formalized in a quantifiable scientific account if we adapt conventions that were no part of the original meaning. I can still remember learning about continents in my earliest elementary school education and how confused I was by the disconnect between the apparent principle and its putative application to the map. When I was asked, as part of a test, to approach the map and point out the various continents, it was with considerable trepidation that I pointed to somewhere near Lisbon to indicate “Europe” and somewhere near Vladivostok to indicate “Asia.” The distinction between Europe and Asia was not at all clear to me given the idea that continents were contiguous land masses separated by water. If anyone had taken the trouble to explain to me the profound cultural and historical difference between Europe and Asia I might have been a little less confused, but now I know that my confusion was justified, and no one at the time attempted to clarify the problem. As with much elementary school education, the function of the teacher was to exploit the ignorance of confusion of children in order to control them. The way to get good marks was not to understand, but to repeat conventions that have been established by authority figures.
The purely convention decomposition of the world’s land masses into continents is revealed by the history of geography’s different ways of accomplishing the task. Peter Heylin defined a continent in his book Cosmographie of 1657 as follows:
“A Continent is a great quantity of Land, not separated by any Sea from the rest of the World, as the whole Continent of Europe, Asia, Africa.”
Emanuel Bowen was willing to take the next step in his 1752 Atlas, in which he declared that a continent is:
“…a large space of dry land comprehending many countries all joined together, without any separation by water. Thus Europe, Asia, and Africa is one great continent, as America is another.”
Thus making all the Old World a single continent and all the New World another continent.
It is a mere accident of history that we refer to “Europe” as a continent while we do not generally refer to “Scandinavia” as a continent. Both Europe and Scandinavia are peninsulas of the Eurasia land mass, and each with its distinct cultural and demographic histories, and in this respect we are as justified in identifying a Scandinavian continent as a European continent. That we do not generally do so is, as I said, an accident of history.
If we take Europe to include France, Germany, Holland, Belgium, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Austria, Andorra, Lichtenstein, Luxembourg, the UK and the Czech Republic (roughly equivalent to Western Europe during the Cold War, but not exactly, as my division is as arbitrary as any other convention), then the geographical area of Europe is about 2,288,955 square kilometers.
If we take the geographical division sometimes called Fennoscandia including Norway (in which I will include the area of Svalbard), Sweden, Finland, Karelia, the Kola Peninsula, the geographical area of Fennoscandia is 1,491,587 square kilometers, or 65% of “Europe.” If we include along with Fennoscandia the culturally and commercially connected regions of Denmark, the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania), Iceland, and Ireland and Scotland (as we would typically include the British Islands with the European continent), the total geographical area of the Scandinavian continent comes to about 1,961,458 square kilometers, or about 86% of “Europe.” If we include the 2,166,066 square kilometers of Greenland in the Scandinavian continent, it is almost twice the size of Europe. So, depending on what conventions we establish, either the European or the Scandinavian continent could be the larger.
Note: It has been observed that one of the consequences of the Norman conquest of 1066 has to shift Scotland and Ireland into the orbit of continental Europe, whereas they had previously been part of the Nordic region of Northern Europe, with their primary trading and cultural links (including genetic links between populations) being to Scandinavia. I read this recently but cannot remember the source.
My point here is simply that on geographical terms, Europe and Scandinavia are more or less on an equal footing. Tom Paine’s conception of a continent as formulated in his pamphlet Common Sense is relevant here:
“Small islands not capable of protecting themselves, are the proper objects for kingdoms to take under their care; but there is something very absurd, in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island. In no instance hath nature made the satellite larger than its primary planet, and as England and America, with respect to each other, reverses the common order of nature, it is evident they belong to different systems: England to Europe, America to itself.”
Paine passes beyond mere geography to incorporate a dimension of political economy into his understanding of a continent (as I understand his reference to “systems”), and this seems entirely justified to me, as I have pointed out above the separate and distinct cultural and demographic histories of Europe and Scandinavia. Europe and Scandinavia also belong to different, albeit related, systems.
I must also point out, however, that it is not entirely an accident of history that the cooler climate and shorter growing season of the Scandinavian continent produced less wealth and a smaller population than that of the European continent. France has about 33.46% arable land; Norway has about 2.70% arable land. These are differences that make a difference. The Scandinavian continent, being poorer and less populated before industrialization, was not in a position to assert its cultural difference to the extent that the European continent was able to do so in the same time period. (With the consolidation of industrialization, Scandinavia is now more wealthy, per capita, than Europe.) But, ultimately, this too is an accident of history, but an accident of of geology and plate tectonics and climatology. Presumably during the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum climatic conditions on the Scandinavian continent were considerably different, but this did not happen to correspond to the rise of homo sapiens, which, once again, is mere historical accident on a grander scale.
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