The ancient Romans believed every place — from a street corner to an entire nation — possessed a genius loci, a presiding spirit that animated it, watched over it. Today, we dismiss such fanciful notions, and in fact, gleefully pronounce the death of geography itself. Digital technologies have dissolved the inconvenient confines of the physical world, leaving us free to frolic in a placeless present. Or so we’re told.
Rumors of geography’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. Not only is geography distinctly undead, it is more alive than ever. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine drives this point home. War, it is said, is the best geography teacher.
What is geography? There are different branches, from physical (think climate, soil, and atmosphere) to geomatics (using computers to aid in mapping), but at its heart, the discipline is profoundly human and humane. “Geography is the study of earth as the home of people,” says Yi-fu Tuan, perhaps the greatest geographer of our age.
Getting inside Putin’s head demands the skills not only of a psychologist and historian but of a geographer. Yes, Putin is obsessed with history, but it is maps, not history books, that keep him up at night.
Geography also has real-world consequences. What Napoleon Bonaparte said more than two centuries ago still holds true today: “If you know a country’s geography, you can understand and predict its foreign policy.”
Getting inside Putin’s head, as much as that is possible, demands the skills not only of a psychologist and historian but of a geographer. Yes, Putin is obsessed with history — his warped version of it, at least — but it is maps, not history books, that keep him up at night. Russia’s map shrank dramatically after the collapse of the Soviet Union and Putin is determined to restore it.
Here are four of the geographic facts about Ukraine that shed light on Putin’s war:
- Ukraine sits squarely on the “European Invasion Superhighway,” linking East and West, Europe and Asia.
- Ukraine’s strategically important location means it has been fought over by various empires and regimes: the Ottomans, Nazi Germany, and, of course, Russia.
- Ukraine’s topography is mostly flat and rolling. The nation’s one mountain range, the Carpathians, is easily penetrated. That’s good news if you’re a cyclist or, say, an invading Russian army, but bad news if you’re trying to defend your homeland. There is a reason the Kurds have an expression to describe their people’s plight: “No friends but the mountains.”
- Ukraine’s history is intertwined with that of Russia but, contrary to Putin’s assertions, Ukrainians have had their own distinctive culture for at least three centuries.
It’s safe to say that, until recently, most Americans couldn’t find Ukraine on the map. A recent survey by the Council on Foreign Relations found that of 2,000 adults polled, most could answer just over half of the geography questions correctly, and only six percent got at least 80 percent of the questions correct.
This geographic black hole is a problem but not the biggest one. Barack Obama, addressing the contestants at the 2012 National Geographic Bee, said it well:
The study of geography is about more than just memorizing places on a map. It’s about understanding the complexity of our world, appreciating the diversity of cultures that exists across continents. And in the end, it’s about using all that knowledge to help bridge divides and bring people together.
Geographers are not neutral bystanders. They have opinions, and take a stand, as The American Association of Geographers recently did over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Geography tells us that a people’s right to determine their future is inextricably linked with their sense of place and space. Russia’s unlawful invasion and occupation of Ukraine force the displacement and migration of countless communities, stripping them of their dignity and fundamental rights.
Ultimately, geographers tend to be optimists, secure in the belief, says Tuan, that “asymmetrical relationships and exploitation can be removed, or reversed.”
Geography may not be destiny, but it comes awfully close. In ways large and small, our surroundings shape our lives. Our productivity, happiness, and creativity are all functions of place. Simply put: Where we are affects who we are.
The stubborn persistence of geography is, I think, something to celebrate. It means the world remains diverse, and as any biologist will tell you, ecosystems thrive when there is diversity. There’s nothing more vulnerable than a one-crop economy. Vive la difference isn’t just a catchy jingle. It’s a survival strategy.
No less than that great geographer from a place called Margaritaville, Jimmy Buffet, said it best: “Without geography, you’re nowhere.”