The Arabian Continent

30 October 2012

Tuesday


The are many places that have been called the “crossroads of the world” but I would think that Arabia deserves this epithet more than most places on the globe. The Arabian peninsula lies near the geographical center of the Old World, where Africa, Asia, and Europe all meet. The cities of the region have long been linked by trade routes — both overland and maritime — and these trade routes have led them to the farthest reaches of the Old World. Many of the peoples of Arabia thus became involved in commerce, and as an inevitable by-product of wide-ranging commerce throughout the Old World, merchants and tradesmen were often the conduit of knowledge, playing a crucial role in idea diffusion between the Orient, the Occident, and Africa. And long before this, the sequential iterations of hominids who came out of Africa almost certainly came through Arabia on their way to Asia and Europe.

This map of the world from 1482 shows Arabia at the center of the world’s known landmasses. In older maps it was customary to place Jerusalem at the center of the world.

In The Scandinavian Continent I pointed out the the Fennoscandia region is geographically almost as large as Western Europe, and it is only convention — that is to say, only an accident of history — that we refer to a “European continent” but we don’t refer to a “Scandinavian continent.” Similar reasoning holds for the Arabian Peninsula. Indeed, Arabia has more right to be called a continent in its own right than Europe. At 3,237,500 square kilometers (according to Wikipedia), Arabia is larger than both Europe and Fennoscandia. If we include within this region the lands roughly bounded by the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea, the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman, the Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and the Red Sea — pretty much everything traditionally encompassed by the Eurocentric term “Middle East” — then the Arabian continent is quite a big larger than Europe, Central Asia, or the Indian subcontinent.

Traditional tribes of the Arabian Peninsula.

There is an interesting structural similarity between the Scandinavian continent and the Arabian continent: both regions possess little arable land, so that both were marginalized during the apotheosis of agricultural civilization — say, from the end of Viking depredations on the European periphery up to the Industrial Revolution. Both regions hosted (and still host) nomadic pastoralists. In Scandinavia these were the Saami, who followed the reindeer herds, while in Arabia these were the Bedouin, who lived by herding Camel, sheep, and goats. An important structural difference is that many Arabs regard the Bedouin life as the fons et origo of Arabian culture, whereas the Saami have been viewed as marginal to the cultural life of Scandinavia by the settled population.

Here is one formulation of the relation between the Bedouin and Arab culture more generally speaking:

“…the Bedouins are looked upon, not only by the Arab cities, but by the entire Arab world with the exception of its Westernized elements, as images and figures from the past, as living ancestors, as latterday heirs and witnesses to the ancient glory of the heroic age. Hence the importance of the Bedouin ethos, and of the Bedouins’ aristocratic moral code, for the Arab world in general.”

Raphael Patai, The Arab Mind, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1976, p. 73

As I have many times emphasized, the relationship between life and landscape is profound, and in the case of the Arabian continent the traditional life of the people of the region continues to be revered even as society has departed to an ever greater extent from the Bedouin way of life, and this in a society in which most pre-Islamic cultural manifestations are marginalized. The ancient way of life of the people, which far pre-dates Islam, is the norm and the measure to which contemporary Islamic society in Arabia conforms itself.

Between the nomadic ways of desert herders and the ultra-modern cities of the Arabian continent, there is an unbridgeable gap, and yet the people of the region must bridge, or attempt to bridge, that chasm between two ideals — the ideal of Bedouin society and the ideal of Islamic society — every day. The origin of the Ummah — the Islamic community — is to be found in Medina, where the Prophet established the first Islamic community, which therefore become normative. Medina began as an oasis settlement, and therefore was the exception of a settled society in a region dominated by nomadic pastoralists. The Ansar — the Helpers of the Prophet — were settled peoples of the Medina oasis. The cities today are oases in the desert, but the land is still a desert suitable only for pastoralism. The ideal of a settled Islamic society and the ideal of a nomadic desert society interpenetrate, and both exist — coexist — in the present. Since both interpenetrating ideals are constitutive of the social fabric in the Arabian continent, Arabian identity is in tension with itself at its very origins.

The continuity and the unity of the people that makes this geographical region a continent — for continents defined in terms of peoples (and the ecology of their way of life) makes as much sense as the arbitrary conventions that have hitherto been accepted as the basis of continents — is a continuity and a unity that constitutes a discontinuous and disunified identity. This is not unique; many identities are famously contested and conflicted. But the particular dialectic represented by the continuing influence of a Nomadic ideal, is found only in a few places in the world, for example, among the Turks, the Mongolians, and some of the native peoples of the plains of North America. In these cases, it is not clear if there is an equally significant thread of a settled ideal as the dialectical other of the nomadic ideal. That an entire continent should be conflicted in this particular way, and be defined by this conflict of identity, is of no small geopolitical interest.

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Mercator’s 1595 map of Arabia.

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Thursday


One version of the decomposition of the earth’s land masses into continents.

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.

A map of the world from the 1703 edition of Peter Heylin’s Cosmographie.

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.

A map of the Scandinavian continent by Emanuel Bowen — although Bowen certainly didn’t call it that, his map makes the point of the geographical unity and distintiveness of the region.

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.

Scandinavia usually collectively refers to Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden. There are linguistic and cultural ties that supervene upon the geographical relationships.

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.

Fennoscandia and Fenno-Scandinavia are geographic and geological terms used to describe the region made up by the Scandinavian Peninsula, Finland, Karelia, and the Kola Peninsula. (from Wikipedia)

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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Monday


Geopolitics and Geostrategy

as a formal sciences


In a couple of posts — Formal Strategy and Philosophical Logic: Work in Progress and Axioms and Postulates of Strategy — I have explicitly discussed the possibility of a formal approach to strategy. This has been a consistent theme of my writing over the past three years, even when it is not made explicit. The posts that I wrote on theoretical geopolitics can also be considered an effort in the direction of formal strategy.

There is a sense in which formal thought is antithetical to the tradition of geopolitics, which latter seeks to immerse itself in the empirical facts of how history gets made, in contradistinction to the formalist’s desire to define, categorize, and clarify the concepts employed in analysis. Yet in so far as geopolitics takes the actual topographical structure of the land as its point of analytical departure, this physical structure becomes the form upon which the geopolitician constructs the logic of his or her analysis. Geopolitical thought is formal in so far as the forms to which it conforms itself are physical, topographical forms.

Most geopoliticians, however, have no inkling of the formal dimension of their analyses, and so this formal dimension remains implicit. I have commented elsewhere that one of the most common fallacies is the conflation of the formal and the informal. In Cartesian Formalism I wrote:

One of the biggest and yet one of the least recognized blunders in philosophy (and certainly not only in philosophy) is to conflate the formal and the informal, whether we are concerned with formal and informal objects, formal and informal methods, or formal and informal ideas, etc. (I recently treated this topic on my other blog in relation to the conflation of formal and informal strategy.)

Geopolitics, geostrategy, and in fact many of the so-called “soft” sciences that do not involve extensive mathematization are among the worst offenders when it comes to the conflation of the formal and the informal, often because the practitioners of the “soft” sciences do not themselves understand the implicit principles of form to which they appeal in their theories. Instead of theoretical formalisms we get informal narratives, many of which are compelling in terms of their human interest, but are lacking when it comes to analytical clarity. These narratives are primarily derived from historical studies within the discipline, so that when this method is followed in geopolitics we get a more-or-less quantified account of topographical forms that shape action and agency, with an overlay of narrative history to string together the meaning of names, dates, and places.

There is a sense in which geography and history cannot be separated, but there is another sense in which the two are separated. Because the ecological temporality of human agency is primarily operational at the levels of micro-temporality and meso-temporality, this agency is often exercised without reference to the historical scales of the exo-temporality of larger social institutions (like societies and civilizations) and the macro-historical scales of geology and geomorphology. That is to say, human beings usually act without reference to plate tectonics, the uplift of mountains, or seafloor spreading, except when these events act over micro- and meso-time scales as in the case of earthquakes and tsunamis generated by geological events that otherwise act so slowly that we never notice them in the course of a lifetime — or even in the course of the life of a civilization.

The greatest temporal disconnect occurs between the smallest scales (micro-temporality) and the largest scales (macro-temporality), while there is less disconnect across immediately adjacent divisions of ecological temporality. I can employ a distinction that I recently made in a discussion of Descartes, that between strong distinctions and weak distinctions (cf. Of Distinctions Weak and Strong). Immediately adjacent divisions of ecological temporality are weakly distinct, while those not immediately adjacent are strongly distinct.

We have traditionally recognized the abstraction of macroscopic history that does not descend into details, but it has not been customary to recognize the abstractness of microscopic history, immersed in details, that does not also place these events in relation to a macroscopic context. In order to attain to a comprehensive perspective that can place these more limited perspectives into a coherent context, it is important to understand the limitations of our conventional conceptions of history (such as the failure to understand the abstract character of micro-history) — and, for that matter, the limitations of our conventional conceptions of geography. One of these limitations is the abstractness of either geography or history taken in isolation.

The degree of abstractness of an inquiry can be quantified by the ecological scope of that inquiry; any one division of ecological temporality (or any one division of metaphysical ecology) taken in isolation from other divisions is abstract. It is only the whole of ecology taken together that a truly concrete theory is possible. To take into account the whole of ecological temporality in a study of history is a highly concrete undertaking which is nevertheless informed by the abstract theories that constitute each individual level of ecological temporality.

Geopolitics, despite its focus on the empirical conditions of history, is a highly abstract inquiry precisely because of its nearly-exclusive focus on one kind of structure as determinative in history. As I have argued elsewhere, and repeatedly, abstract theories are valuable and have their place. Given the complexity of a concrete theory that seeks to comprehend the movements of human history around the globe, an abstract theory is a necessary condition of any understanding. Nevertheless, we need to rest in our efforts with an abstract theory based exclusively in the material conditions of history, which is the perspective of geopolitics (and, incidentally, the perspective of Marxism).

Geopolitics focuses on the seemingly obvious influences on history following from the material conditions of geography, but the “obvious” can be misleading, and it is often just as important to see what is not obvious as to explicitly take into account what is obvious. Bertrand Russell once observed, in a passage both witty and wise, that:

“It is not easy for the lay mind to realise the importance of symbolism in discussing the foundations of mathematics, and the explanation may perhaps seem strangely paradoxical. The fact is that symbolism is useful because it makes things difficult. (This is not true of the advanced parts of mathematics, but only of the beginnings.) What we wish to know is, what can be deduced from what. Now, in the beginnings, everything is self-evident; and it is very hard to see whether one self-evident proposition follows from another or not. Obviousness is always the enemy to correctness. Hence we invent some new and difficult symbolism, in which nothing seems obvious. Then we set up certain rules for operating on the symbols, and the whole thing becomes mechanical. In this way we find out what must be taken as premiss and what can be demonstrated or defined. For instance, the whole of Arithmetic and Algebra has been shown to require three indefinable notions and five indemonstrable propositions. But without a symbolism it would have been very hard to find this out. It is so obvious that two and two are four, that we can hardly make ourselves sufficiently sceptical to doubt whether it can be proved. And the same holds in other cases where self-evident things are to be proved.”

Bertrand Russell, Mysticism and Logic, “Mathematics and the Metaphysicians”

Russell here expresses himself in terms of symbolism, but I think it would better to formulate this in terms of formalism. When Russell writes that, “we invent some new and difficult symbolism, in which nothing seems obvious,” the new and difficult symbolism he mentions is more than mere symbolism, it is a formal theory. Russell’s point, then, is that if we formalize a body of knowledge heretofore consisting of intuitively “obvious” truths, certain relationships between truths become obvious that were not obvious prior to formalization. Another way to formulate this is to say that formalization constitutes a shift in our intuition, so that truths once intuitively obvious become inobvious, while inobvious truths because intuitive. Thus formalization is the making intuitive of previously unintuitive (or even counter-intuitive) truths.

Russell devoted a substantial portion of his career to formalizing heretofore informal bodies of knowledge, and therefore had considerable experience with the process of formalization. Since Russell practiced formalization without often explaining exactly what he was doing (the passage quoted above is a rare exception), we must look to the example of his formal thought as a model, since Russell himself offered no systematic account of the formalization of any given body of knowledge. (Russell and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica is a tour de force comprising the order of justification of its propositions, while remaining silent about the order of discovery.)

A formal theory of time would have the same advantages for time as the theoretical virtues that Russell identified in the formalization of mathematics. In fact, Russell himself formulated a formal theory of time, in his paper “On Order in Time,” which is, in Russell’s characteristic way, reductionist and over-simplified. Since I aim to formulate a theory of time that is explicitly and consciously non-reductionist, I will make no use of Russell’s formal theory of time, though it is interesting at least to note Russell’s effort. The theory of ecological temporality that I have been formulating here is a fragment of a full formal theory of time, and as such it can offer certain insights into time that are lost in a reductionist account (as in Russell) or hidden in an informal account (as in geography and history).

As noted above, a formalized theory brings about a shift in our intuition, so that the formerly intuitive becomes unintuitive while the formerly unintuitive becomes intuitive. A shift in our intuitions about time (and history) means that a formal theory of time makes intuitive temporal relationships less obvious, while making temporal relationships that are hidden by the “buzzing, blooming world” more obvious, and therefore more amenable to analysis — perhaps for the first time.

Ecological temporality gives us a framework in which we can demonstrate the interconnectedness of strongly distinct temporalities, since the panarchy the holds between levels of an ecological system is the presumption that each level of an ecosystem impacts every other level of an ecosystem. Given the distinction between strong distinctions and weak distinctions, it would seem that adjacent ecological levels are weakly distinct and therefore have a greater impact on each other, while non-adjacent ecological levels are strongly distinct and therefore have less of an impact on each other. In an ecological theory of time, all of these principles hold in parallel, so that, for example, micro-temporality is only weakly distinct from meso-temporality, while being strongly distinct from exo-temporality. As a consequence, a disturbance in micro-temporality has a greater impact upon meso-temporality than upon exo-temporality (and vice versa), but less of an impact does not mean no impact at all.

Another virtue of formal theories, in addition to the shift in intuition that Russell identified, is that it forces us to be explicit about our assumptions and presuppositions. The implicit theory of time held by a geostrategist matters, because that geostrategist will interpret history in terms of the categories of his or her theory of time. But most geostrategists never bother to make their theory of time explicit, so that we do not know what assumptions they are making about the structure of time, hence also the structure of history.

Sometimes, in some cases, these assumptions will become so obvious that they cannot be ignored. This is especially the case with supernaturalistic and soteriological conceptions of metaphysical history that ultimately touch on everything else that an individual believes. This very obviousness makes it possible to easily identify eschatological and theological bias; what is much more insidious is the subtle assumption that is difficult to discern and which only can be elucidated with great effort.

If one comes to one’s analytical work presupposing that every moment of time possesses absolute novelty, one will likely make very different judgments than if one comes to the same work presupposing that there is nothing new under the sun. Temporal novelty means historical novelty: anything can happen; whereas, on the contrary, the essential identity of temporality over historical scales — identity for all practical purposes — means historical repetition: very little can happen.

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Note: Anglo-American political science implicitly takes geopolitics as its point of departure, but, as I have attempted to demonstrate in several posts, this tradition of mainstream geopolitics can be contrasted to a nascent movement of biopolitics. However, biopolitics too could be formulated in the manner of a theoretical biopolitics, and a theoretical biopolitics would be at risk of being as abstract as geopolitics and in need of supplementation by a more comprehensive ecological perspective.

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Friday


Cultural geography” has become one of those recent catch phrases that also indicates a quasi-academic discipline that is vaguely defined not necessarily because it is intrinsically vague or poorly understood, but, I think, mostly because it is so comprehensive. There is little in the academic curriculum that cannot, with a little bit of creative cant, be called “cultural geography.” This is not necessarily a bad thing, and I am not invoking the study of cultural geography at this time because I want to criticize it or to mock it.

Eleven cultural realms mapped geographically, not unlike Samuel Huntington's division of the world into thirteen civilizations.

I skimmed a few contemporary books of the sort that would be used for textbooks on Cultural geography, and, despite the painfully pedantic layout of the books, none of the authors I skimmed would risk a straight-forward definition of cultural geography. And for good reason. To do so would be to limit the potential comprehensiveness of flexibility of this handy category. But, clearly, however hesitant we might be in hazarding a definition of cultural geography, we can see that cultural geography is a successor category to geography more narrowly defined. So let us say, roughly, and for the present, that cultural geography is a more comprehensive geography. As anthropology is routinely divided between biological (or physical) anthropology and cultural anthropology, so we might imagine a parallel distinction in geography, with traditional and narrowly defined geography being physical geography (the geographical counter-part of physical anthropology) while cultural geography is the geographical counter-part to cultural anthropology.

The concepts of cultural geography are a bit woolly due to the aforementioned desire not be be stuck with a definitive formulation, but it occurs to me that there is a way that the formulations of cultural geography could be made both more precise and more interesting by bringing the conceptual resources of ecology, which is essentially the study of how organisms live in an environment. Taking our cue from ecology, we can think of cultural geography as how cultures live in an environment.

This thought occurred to me when I was recently listening to George Friedman’s The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century. In Chapter 7 of this work, “American Power and the Crisis of 2030,” Friedman formulates a theory of fifty year cycles that govern US political fortunes. He argues for four complete cycles since the founding of the republic, and he divides these political cycles in this way:

1) From Founders to Pioneers,
2) From Pioneers to Small-Town America,
3) From Small Towns to Industrial Cities, and
4) From Industrial Cities to Service Suburbs.

Obviously, this cycle invites extrapolation from service suburbs to whatever comes next.

Cultural and economic succession mirror ecological succession.

What I find particularly interesting about the cycles described by Friedman is that this is essentially the description of a process of ecological succession. When new land is built up by vulcanism or existing land is devastated by a storm, there is an process that is called ecological succession, such that the empty land is first colonized by hardy plants like weeds. They are followed by slightly less hardy plants, the soil is enriched over time, larger plants are able to grow, and eventually we reach a climax ecosystem. The process Friedman describes is the cultural and economic equivalent of this, with the pioneers first setting out into the barren lands, homesteading, creating small towns, small towns grow into industrial cities, and suburbs spread outward from the cities. Thus the city surrounded by its suburbs is the equivalent in cultural geography to the climax ecosystem of ecology.

This is not a new theme, and was in fact famously put forward by Frederick Jackson Turner in his influential essay, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History”:

“Limiting our attention to the Atlantic coast, we have the familiar phenomenon of the evolution of institutions in a limited area, such as the rise of representative government; the differentiation of simple colonial governments into complex organs; the progress from primitive industrial society, without division of labor, up to manufacturing civilization. But we have in addition to this a recurrence of the process of evolution in each western area reached in the process of expansion. Thus American development has exhibited not merely advance along a single line, but a return to primitive conditions on a continually advancing frontier line, and a new development for that area. American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier. This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character. The true point of view in the history of this nation is not the Atlantic coast, it is the Great West.”

Turner did not use explicitly ecological concepts in his exposition, but we can read in this passage how he conceptualized the westward expansion of the US as an iterated process of building civilization anew from “primitive” conditions at each stage of expansion. We have previously discussed recent criticisms of the Turner Thesis, but I still find much of value in Turner, even if some of this conceptions require further articulation in order to do justice to the conquest, convergence, continuity, and complexity of the American west. Scholarship too exhibits conquest, convergence, continuity, and complexity.

Some interesting possibilities are suggested by this use of ecological concepts in cultural geography that promise a more scientific understanding of history, but we will need to consider this more carefully at another time. Perhaps in the future we will be able to speak of the culture cycle as readily as we speak of the carbon cycle today.

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