Life and Landscape

8 November 2008


To pick up again the thread of my opening reflection on the interrelation of geography and ideology in the make up of peoples and their political associations, geography is not only an influence on human populations today, it was also an influence on human populations (and their behavior) in the past. This is significant because human populations can move from one geographical region to another. In doing so, they bring the traditions born of one geographical region to a different geographical region, and this transition requires change, adaptation, and a tolerance of a plurality of conflicting forces within a society.

Mercator's image of the landscape of life.

Mercator's image of the landscape that shapes history.

The geography of a region over time shapes the institutions of the peoples who inhabit the region, and the institutions over time shape the character of a people. Once the character of a people has been formed, however, it is no longer dependent upon the landscape that was responsible for its emergence in history. A people can move from one region to another, taking their institutions and character with them. Over the long term, the institutions of a displaced people, hence their character, will be forced to adapt to a new landscape, but this adaptation will be another historical layer added to whatever geography or indigenous population inhabited the region prior to the arrival of peoples from elsewhere. The earliest arrivals in a region, coming from elsewhere, are like an institutional template placed over local conditions.

Global human migration patterns

Global human migration patterns

It is only with the complete oblivion of the past that new institutions can take shape. Human history is not without such instances of oblivion, both complete and partial. The obvious example is the period formerly called the Dark Ages, i.e., Western Europe after the shift of Roman political power to Constantinople and before the rise of Charlemagne. In Western Europe, the highly evolved and sophisticated political institutions of the Roman Empire deteriorated to the point of their abandonment in favor of local control. This devolution of power ultimately culminated in the feudal system, which in the high middle ages was as sophisticated and as highly evolved as the institutions of the Roman Empire, though in its own (and distinct) way.

Historical discontinuity imposed on the Romans by barbarians.

Historical discontinuity imposed on the Romans by barbarians.

The other example of historical oblivion is that of the whole of the prehistorical period during the historical period that followed. We have become accustomed to the idea of the antiquity of man, but for the bulk of the historical period the human past was strictly a construction of mythology. The facts of the natural history of man had been completely lost, and are only being recovered today through archaeology. The peoples of antiquity and of the middle ages knew nothing of the antiquity of man. They did not think in terms of tens of thousands of years, or hundreds of thousands of years, or millions of years. Indeed, many people today cannot think in terms of geological and evolutionary time scales. The mind must be trained to understand time at this scale, and this training did not exist prior to the nineteenth century.

Prehistoric cave paintings, rediscovered after thousands of years

Prehistoric cave paintings, rediscovered after thousands of years

Meanwhile, back from our digression, more on the character of peoples: national institutions and national characters constitute what Sir Karl Popper called “world 3”. This is an idea from a technical philosophical program, so bear with me; it is relevant. World 1 is the familiar world of corporeal bodies and the events in which bodies participate. World 2 is the equally familiar world of mental events and processes, including thoughts and feelings and the like. World 3 consists of products of the mind that have gone on to establish an existence independent of the individual mind. Popper’s scheme fits neatly with emergentism: world 2 emerges from world 1, and world 3 emerges from world 2. If you have a thought, that is an artifact of world 2. But if you write down your thought, and others take it up, develop it, discuss it, and extend it, that thought is no longer confined to the mental processes of one individual. It is now held in common, and this common realm of ideas become facts in world 3. And this is exactly what national institutions and national characters are, and they too are neatly accommodated by an emergentism: institutions are a function of the geography and climate of the peoples who created them, and national characters are a function of the national institutions.

A diagram illustrating Popper's three worlds

A diagram illustrating Popper's three worlds

The national institutions of Old World powers were transplanted into the New World, and the distinctions between national characters fostered by these institutions persist in the New World to this day. We know what parts of South America were settled by the Spanish, the Portuguese, and later by the Germans and Italians. We know what parts of North America were settled by the Spanish, the French, the Dutch, and the English. Not least among the transplanted institutions are the languages of the colonial powers. Languages incorporate distinctions and concepts and every kind of assumption and presupposition. A language fosters a certain kind of thinking, and a certain kind of thinking fosters a certain kind of acting. And these differences are vividly present today in the mosaic of cultures that overlay the earlier cultures that possessed a more direct relationship to the land from which they emerged. The later imported cultures did not emerge from the land, but they are no less real for being imposed on a geographical reality than from following from a geographical reality.

An early encounter between the New World and the Old.

An early encounter between the New World and the Old.

The conditions responsible, at least in part, for the emergence of an institution are not confined to geography, landscape, and climate. It was the “landscape”, if you will, of the industrial revolution that begat communism by way of Marx. Marx responded to the conditions of his time by creating the doctrines of historical materialism and communism. Communism then went on to have a life of its own. (It was a common feature of commentary upon Soviet-era political repression to remark that Marx would never have approved of the tactics employed in his name.) In its original form as a response to the conditions of early industrialization, communism was a supremely practical doctrine. When communism became a worldwide ideology in the middle of the twentieth century, a hundred years after the conditions of the early industrial revolution obtained, it came to justify policies and doctrines that made no geopolitical sense whatsoever. Ideology routinely trumped practical considerations. If an armed resistance movement in a small country claimed to be communist, it was given support (to the extent that support could be given) regardless of the relative unimportance of the country in question.

Karl Marx

In the name of Karl Marx and more generally in the name of Marxism many geopolitical initiatives of no practical utility were undertaken.

This is not to say that there were no geopolitical advantages whatsoever to such actions, only that the geopolitical calculation of interests was not the primary motivating factor in undertaking initiatives.

Soviet and Cuban advisers in Angola - realpolitik?

Soviet and Cuban advisers in Angola - realpolitik can take strange and even, may we say, unrealistic forms.

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See also: Addendum to “Life and Landscape”

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