Tim Marshall's The Power of Geography does not live up to its ambitions

Geography is not determinism, let alone fate. Picture: Shutterstock
Geography is not determinism, let alone fate. Picture: Shutterstock
  • The Power of Geography, by Tim Marshall. Elliott & Thompson, $32.99.

Surely any antipodean patriot would welcome a book where Australia not only occupies the first chapter but that chapter begins: "Australia was in the middle of nowhere, became a very big somewhere, and is now centre stage".

The author of that double-edged, edgy compliment has been a BBC correspondent and diplomatic editor at Sky News. This work forms a sequel to Marshall's earlier Prisoners of Geography. Were the series to be extended, perhaps "Potential, Pitfalls and Pinnacles of Geography" might follow.

This volume comes with an ambitious sub-title, "ten maps that reveal the future of our world", one which does not live up to its promise. Rather than telling stories about shifts in historical development, territorial boundaries, relative progress, social conditions or other indices, many of the maps include only a limited number of basic geographical features. Judicious use of graphs and charts, backed up by an investment in colour, might have better illustrated and illuminated Marshall's argument.

The map of "Space", for instance, is entirely terrestrial, and marks 11 sites only. That of Australia includes capital cities and a few ridge lines.

Space book-ends that first chapter on Australia. In between are appraisals of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Britain, Greece, Turkey, the Sahel, Ethiopia and Spain. China, the United States and India comprise hugely conspicuous exceptions, but one of Marshall's contentions is that "numerous actors, even minor players, are jostling to take centre stage".

In an obvious but still obviously important point, Marshall contends that "geography is a key factor limiting what humanity can and cannot do". Readers seeking a more nuanced take on the intersections between geography, politics, economics and history might be directed to Robert Kaplan's recent work, especially The Revenge of Geography and Monsoon. For Kaplan as for Marshall, the trick in handling such familiar material is not to over-simplify, over-generalise or over-dramatise.

Turning to Australia, Marshall observes that "Australia's size and location are both a strength and a weakness", then declares that "life in Australia presents many challenges". Awkwardly and anachronistically, Marshall suggests that - in respect to climate change, water supply and national defence - we are "caught between an Ayers Rock and a hard place". Claiming that this chapter teaches us nothing new would be an exaggeration; who realised that Beijing is closer to Warsaw than to Canberra?

Marshall's assessment of Australia focuses rather more on history than on geography. That balance is redressed elsewhere, particularly in his account of the geo-political impact of Iran's mountain chains or Britain's easy access to the oceans.

Historical asides from other countries, ones whose stories contain more colour and movement than our own, also enliven Marshall's studies. In those sections, Marshall's chatty, informal approach to his readers pays dividends. "The Sahel is the shoreline, the Sahara the sea" is a fair example of Marshall's crisp but quirky style.

Marshall also deftly picks arresting details from the flow of chronologies. One leader (n 529 BC what is now Iran) died when his head was dunked into an animal skin filled with human blood. London began literally as a bridgehead, constructed by the Romans between Ludgate Hill and Cornhill. Virgin Orthodox monks in Askum, Ethiopia, might feel obliged to turn lethal. Women could not even testify at trials in Franco's Spain.

Marshall reckons that Kurds are not the world's "largest nation without a State": Tamils are. More ambitiously, he imagines a little state centred on the Bosphorus, called Marmaria, then invents an entire history - essentially melancholy - for the place.

Coming back to the country chapters, Ethiopia is consistently intriguing (if too optimistic at the end) and Spain well-handed (except for treatment of modern Catalonia). The most successful chapter is that on Iran, especially in explaining how time and demographics might become enemies of the regime.

Students of international relations have often looked for tool-kits to help them understand their subject. Economics was one such, until its supposed rules, lessons and laws dated and withered. Speaking foreign languages was another, although that could lead to client-itis. "If only you understood these folk as well as I do, you would sympathise with them more easily and agree with them more often." An attachment to "realism", cynical Realpolitik played with a comforting academic veneer and an accent like Henry Kissinger's, provided another lure. So did the hackneyed illusion that history repeats itself.

Geography is not determinism, let alone fate. Nonetheless, a good map intelligently read can explain constraints and demands clearly and directly.

This story An ambitious thesis that falls flat first appeared on The Canberra Times.