BOOK REVIEW: THE POWER OF PLACE—GEOGRAPHY, DESTINY, AND GLOBALIZATION’S ROUGH LANDSCAPE
by Harm de Blij and published by
Oxford University Press, Oxford, England 2009, ISBN 978-0-19-536770-6

This book is likely to interest you as a leader or manager, especially if you’ve read Thomas L. Friedman’s 2005 The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York, NY). I say that because Harm de Blij’s The Power of Place is somewhat at odds with Friedman’s book. Already in the Preface, de Blij says “The Earth, physically as well as culturally, still is very rough terrain, and in crucial ways its regional compartments continue to trap billions in circumstances that spell disadvantage. …The power of place still holds the majority of us in its thrall.”

The two books overlap or become somewhat aligned when one considers de Blij’s three categories of the earth’s residents and recognize that Friedman was talking primarily about de Blij’s “globals.” The three groups of the earth’s inhabitants, according to de Blij, are:

  • Locals—defined as “those who are poorest, least mobile, and most susceptible to the power of place.” He goes on to say that the locals “will increasingly outnumber the globals, to whom the world appears comparatively limitless” or, to use Friedman’s term, “flat.”
  • Globals—described as those “…whether in government, industry, business, or other decision-making capacities, flatten playing fields for each other as they traverse the world…” The globals build security and migration barriers, mobilize armies, and move factories.
  • Mobals—these are the “risk-takers, migrants willing to leave the familiar, to take a chance on new and different surroundings, their actions ranging from legal migration to undocumented border crossings, their motivations from employment to asylum.” While mobals range from unskilled workers to educated professionals, they are essentially restless locals.

In addition to categorizing the world’s population as locals, globals, and mobals, author de Blij partitions the earth’s geography into the global core and the periphery. To fully understand this spatial categorization, one needs reference to the book’s excellent maps.  The global core is the urbanized and wealthy portion of the globe comprised of Europe, North America, extreme East Asia, and Australia-New Zealand. Everything else is in the periphery, that is, roughly, Asia, Africa, and Central and South America.

Approximately 15 percent of the earth’s population resides in the global core and they earn nearly 75 percent of the world’s annual income. This means that the other 85 percent of the population lives in the periphery of the earth’s geography and earn only 25 percent of the world’s annual income. This suggests a very “un-flat” world using individual income as indicator, with the “haves” having an annual per capita income almost twenty times that of the “have nots.”

Juxtaposition of the global core and the periphery creates a dynamic in that “the core attracts millions of mobals ranging from legal immigrants to asylum seekers and from illegal workers to revolutionaries.” The core simultaneously spawns anger and hope. An example of hope: “The remittances sent home by just one successful mobal can sustain an entire extended family in Mexico, India, China, the Philippines, or a host of other countries.”

The preceding, which is presented in Chapter 1, sets the stage for most of de Blij’s book which goes on to describe many aspects of the global core and the periphery and, more importantly, their inhabitants. As examples, consider language, religion, and health.

Language

About 7000 languages remain, half classified as endangered by linguists. Just as biological diversity decreases with increased latitude, so does language diversity. And converging languages, or what the de Blig calls a linguistically “flat” world, positively affect economic interaction.

The author notes that while advertisements for professionals tend to stipulate English ability they increasingly require at least one other language. Is this a word to the wise for those of us who are in positions to mentor young people? On the other hand, if one is dealt the hand of being born in the periphery and not have the opportunity to learn a global language, like English or variations on it, that person is also at a serious disadvantage. For him or her, the world seems both “unflat” and unfair.

Religion

Religion according to author de Blig, “can constitute a dominant ingredient in the power of place.” Contrasting language and religion, he goes on to say “Criticism of one’s language or dialect tends to be internalized…But nothing matches the passion incited by religious insult or humiliation.” This dynamic is heightened by a worldwide rise in religious conservatism or fundamentalism.

The author next connects Christianity and Islam, the two dominant global religions, with the global core and periphery. Christianity has about 1.6 billion adherents and is diminishing while Islam has 1.3 billion followers and is growing rapidly. Furthermore, while Christianity is scattered over the globe in the global core and the periphery, Islam is in the periphery, contiguous, and concentrated in northern Africa, the Middle East, and southwest Asia. Thus we see the potential for religious differences to drive conflict between the “disadvantaged” in the periphery and the “advantaged” in the global core. Or as stated by the author:

                        “…it is the Islamic and Christian domains into which the
                        overwhelming majority of locals are born and from
                        which the greatest number of mobals originate. By
                        the time they interact, many have been radicalized by
                        the internal conflicts of their faith and by exhortations
                        of fundamentalists, capitalizing on interreligious strife.”

These strong words are consistent with recent world events and worthy of consideration.

Human Heath

The “poorest and weakest on the planet” [those in the periphery] are also the sickest.” This is due, in part, to the fact that low latitudes, which also encompass substantial portions of the periphery, “harbor a far greater number and variety of vectors, from mosquitoes to snails and from flies to worms, than high latitudes do.” Disease rises during cultural conflicts which is more common in the periphery. And potable water, life’s essence, while readily available in the global core is often severely lacking in the periphery. If chance births you in the periphery, you face a marginal quality of life.

The author goes on to discuss the geographic variability of risk due to natural disasters, the power of cities, land-locked countries, and other topics illustrating the social and economic hills and valleys of the globe.

Flattening the World for Everyone

Having considered the apparent extreme unevenness of the globe, the leader or manager reader looks with anticipation at the book’s last chapter, “Lowering the Barriers.” Surely, here we will learn how to help the disadvantaged rise above the valleys and climb the mountains and how to finally flatten the world. While I found the preceding chapters to be illuminating, this last one was somewhat disappointing. Perhaps the world is so “unflat” that it defies solutions.

Suggestions offered in the last chapter for lowering the barriers include helping children become bilingual or multilingual and protecting children form religious fanaticism. Other ideas are changing Switzerland’s identity-protected banking system, because it facilitates illegal use of funds intended to help those in the periphery; some form of amnesty for illegal immigrants in the U.S.; and encouraging PBS Television to offer late afternoon or early evening Spanish language instruction for U.S. citizens who only speak English.

Author de Blij, also recommends more female peacekeepers working for the UN because women, in great numbers, “would protect women and children caught in the mayhem”. Adjustments of national boundaries are suggested as a means of reducing ethnic and religious conflict.

Other ideas offered by de Blij include preventing terrorists from obtaining nuclear weapons; providing much more access to potable water in the periphery; attacking infectious diseases that appear to be making a comeback in tropical periphery areas as a result of global warming; and, based on his assumption that human activity is a significant contributor to global warming, implementing remedial actions.

In summary, The Power of Place moved me somewhat away from Friedman’s overly-optimistic “the world is flat” theme. Harm de Blij, in his book, convincingly argues that the world is rough terrain for the majority of the earth’s residents. Accordingly, I recommend his book to anyone who wants to further understand the global context of their work and life and mentor others to do likewise.

Closing Thoughts:  Please contact me if you have questions/suggestions or want to discuss this book. Feel free to share this book review with anyone.

Stuart G. Walesh, Ph.D., P.E., Dist.M.ASCE, F.NSPE
Email: stuwalesh@comcast.net
Cell: 219-242-1704

My brief bio may be viewed at http://www.helpingyouengineeryourfuture.com/learn-more.htm.

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