Friday, October 24, 2008

The Power of Place

Harm de Blij’s new book The Power of Place is one half of an argument that I already agreed with at the first paragraph. As such, it didn’t do much for me in terms of changing my view of the world. It is essentially a challenge to the view that globalization has made the world “flat.” (as in Thomas Friedman’s best-selling The World is Flat, a title Friedman acknowledges as hyperboly).

De Blij is a professor at Michigan State and a public advocate for geography—his previous book was Why Geography Matters... Not someting I like I needed to be persuaded of, but I gather there are a fair number of people who really do think geography really doesn’t matter, so good for him.

I was attracted, honestly, by the title, and I was disappointed to find that place itself and its power was not really described. There is no topography (in the old sense) here, no “sense of place.”

What this book is about is the importance of location. De Blij’s point is that regional variations in health, religion, language, exposure to natural hazards, etc. are huge determinants in your economic and physical well-being—quality of life. Well, to coin a phrase, duhhhh.

The piece that stuck out for me the most was his approach to religion. De Blij is not a religionist, and he picks out religious conservatism, especially conservative Islam, for particular critique. Now, I’m no fan of Wahhabi ideology (or of the fiery fundamentalism of any faith), but that this sticks so especially in his craw I think relates to of the weakness of the whole book: a limit in scale to his view. In cartographic terms, he never gets closer in than 1:100,000, and mostly he’s hovering above 1:1,000,000 (the scale of a US state road map). When he does zoom in, it’s for a few peculiarly impersonal snapshots, in particular a view of his native Netherlands from below sea level.

De Blij sees local conditions as trapping people, keeping them out of the benefits of a global marketplace. He fails to address seriously the appeal of localism: the way a close relationship with a place can yield an understanding and an attachment whose richness can more then counterbalance the economic benefits of mobility.

The appeal of religion is in the experience, the day-to-day living it. Same thing with place: the appeal is getting to know the place, learning to see it not as a ground to put your feet on, but as ground that supports you, as a thing itself. “Religion” itself is an “outside” word, as I think I’ve noted before.In the sense we and de Blij use it, it is a name for a system, like a state. When you live within it, it usually is not the state you are paying most attention to, it’s the places within that state. And it’s the visceral love for those places that politicians use to translate into love of country.

Religion has much the same dynamic as place: when it develops deep roots (and de Blij advocates keeping children from being “indoctrinated” until they are old enough to develop judgment), it ties people to itself with roots of habit, knowledge, and comfort. This becomes a “trap” only if the basis of the person’s attachment is a lie (e.g. a prophet who it turns out is a shyster who runs off to the Bahamas with all your money). The same imbalance holds when a person’s attachment to place is physically unsustainable—the heartbreak of resource-extraction economies forcing families to move once the resource is tapped out.

Where people are seemingly traped by their geography or religion, it is not the place or the spiritual life itself that is the problem usually, it is the socal construct built up around it. And unless we learn to respect the deep connections at the core of that construct, we will be approaching issues of global culture and its effect in as dark an ignorance as a madrassa student approaching a Western university or a hick visiting New York.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Two books to read, which offer a counterperspective to Friedman's "The World is Flat," and one of them is about how geography matters in globalization.

The Harvard Professor, Pankaj Ghemawat's latest book, "Redefining Global Strategy," is more academically inclined. I read an article of his published in the journal, "Foreign Policy", where he argues that the world is, at best, only semi-globalized. His argument being that Cultural, Administrative, Geographic and Economic aspects of a nation come in the way of total globalization from taking place and cites examples of the same.

The other small, but interesting book, is by Aronica and Ramdoo, "The World is Flat? A Critical Analysis of Thomas Friedman's New York Times Bestseller," which offers a counterperspective to Friedman's theory on globalization.

Interestingly enough, the book written about two years back, discusses in the following chapters,
"Debt and Financialization of America"
"America"s Former Middle Class"
"A Paradigm Shift for America" with prescriptions for the future

the debt ridden American society, deregulated financial institutions, mortgage crisis and other related issues, with clear pointers to the economic crisis gripping US today. For more information regarding the same, check this out:

This is a small book compared to the 600 page tome by Friedman, and aimed at the common man and students alike. The authors point to the fact that there isn't a single table or data footnote in Friedman's entire book.

"Globalization is the greatest reorganization of the world since the Industrial Revolution," says Aronica.

You may want to see
and watch
for an interesting counterperspective on Friedman's
"The World is Flat".

Also a really interesting 6 min wake-up call: Shift Happens!

There is also a companion book listed: Extreme Competition: Innovation and the Great 21st Century Business Reformation