Monday, October 5, 2009

Bound by lines on the map

One central lesson of geography is that humans are bound to the earth around them. Globalism has indeed made the world seem smaller (or flatter, acccording to Thomas Friedman) but the supremacy of typography and the tyranny of distance have not been transcended yet. Over the years I have lived on both sides of the U.S. and have spent about a decade outside the United States in the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and the Far East. And I noticed that in most places people generally have at least two names to describe where they live: a poltical name and a geographically descriptive name. The political name is official, usually recognized by other political states and organizations such as the United Nations and usually gives no clue as to the physical environment of the place; it has no descriptive value. The descriptive name is normally unofficial, often not known widely outside the area, but universally known and used by the residents.

Those who live in Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Suffolk, or Hampton Virginia (yes, they are all rip offs from English towns or counties) are united by the knowledge that they live in the Tidewater region. It describes their litoral existence on the Virginia coast and unites them to their common geography. Their are many such regions. In Texas there is the Hill Country. In Kentucky, the Bluegrass. In New Mexico, the Otero Mesa. The Ozarks unite Northern Arkansas and Southern Missouri in common customs and lifestyle and is more of an identity for the people there than the imaginary border between them. In fact, this is often the case.
People use these alternate names because they often feel tied to these geographic realities much more than to the artificially drawn state boundaries that were often simply the result of expedient compromises reflecting the political landscape of centuries past.

By ignoring natural boundaries in favor of statute and treaty-drawn ones, we impose artificial restrictions on ourselves and, often, sow the seeds of conflict where otherwise there might flourish cooperation. Where I currently live is one example. The city of El Paso should rightfully be part of New Mexico. El Paso shares a common heritage, trade routes, climate, an aquifer, and the Rio Grande river. El Paso, technically part of Texas, is nearly 600 miles from the nearest major city in Texas, San Antonio. It is only 30 miles from Las Cruces. El Paso and Albuquerque, the largest city in New Mexico, are 3 1/2 hours apart by car. For decades there has been a heated clash over water rights, El Pasoans arguing for more water, New Mexicans turning a deaf ear. All of El Paso's water originates in New Mexico. The residents of New Mexico decide what to do with the Rio Grande without much thought or consideration to El Paso, not to mention Juarez in Mexico. This situation produces no end to the consternation and debate in the region. But what if the political boundaries were drawn just a bit differently? What if El Paso county were ceded to New Mexico? Wouldn't it be better for all involved to address the issue of shared resources more democratically? Indeed, why not include Juarez as well? Think how the fortunes of Juarenses would be different today had the Texas border been drawn twenty miles to the south?

Elsewhere, the problems generated by haphazardly drawn boundaries often result in more than hard feelings and thirsty farms, they result in war. In Africa, boundaries drawn by the European colonial powers in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars created political divisions right through indigenous tribal nations, administratively separating them forever. In Nigeria, for instance, major ethnic groups who shared neither language nor religion, and often fought each other, were thrown together and told they were fellow countrymen. Conflict continues there to this day along tribal and religious divisions, as Ibo Christians clash with the Muslim Fulani and Hausa. It is a dire situation resulting from the sad combination of ignorance and power wrought into imperial imposition. Quick and thoughtless decisions by conquering powers 200 hundred years ago, in complete ignorance of the internal social or physical geography, continue to cause needless suffering. All because of lines on the map.

1 comment:

Vincent said...

Amen to all of this.