Place of the Year 2012: A Q&A with Joshua Hagen
As we continue to prepare for Place of the Year 2012, we’ve invited Joshua Hagen, Professor of Geography at Marshall University and co-author of Borders: A Very Short Introduction, to share his thoughts on the relationship between geography and current events. Here’s what he has to say….
1) Has Europe’s geography affected its fiscal crises?
Europe’s ongoing fiscal crisis has served to exacerbate pre-existing regional and national divisions. In the process, this has added an array of political, cultural, and linguistic challenges to the dire economic situation ravaging much of Europe. In Spain, for example, the national government appears on the verge of joining the list of states seeking to tap the Euro-zone bailout fund. The Spanish government has seen its tax revenues dry up as unemployment has climbed to an astounding 25 percent. Additionally, the national government has had to bailout banks and several regional governments, including Catalonia. Home to Spain’s largest regional economy, Catalans have maintained a strong regional identity, including their own language, despite recurring efforts by Spanish governments to centralize authority and suppress regionalism. Recent decades have seen improved relations between Catalonia and the Spanish government, including official recognition of the Catalan language and a significant degree of autonomy for the regional government. Unfortunately, anger and resentment emanating from the recent economic depression has spilled over into culture and politics causing long-standing Spanish-Catalan antagonisms to flare up again. The Catalonian government has scheduled a referendum on full independence from Spain this fall, although this appears to violate the national constitution. Regardless, anger at the Spanish government and frustrations with the lack of economic progress have led many Catalans to conclude the region would be better off as an independent state. It is unclear if the referendum will actually go forward, much less what the result and consequences might be. The continuing economic crisis has exacerbated similar cultural-linguistic disputes in Belgium, Italy, and the United Kingdom. On an even broader scale, the fiscal crisis has revived long-standing stereotypes of Germans versus Greeks and Europe’s Nordic countries versus the Mediterranean. Depending on one’s perspective, Germany and Europe’s North is portrayed as responsible, hard-working, and frugal or stingy, bossy, and arrogant. Conversely, Mediterranean Europe is viewed as lazy, corrupt, and hapless or victimized, swindled, and resilient. Each situation features its own unique dynamic but all illustrate how the economic crisis and challenges of fiscal integration have served to arouse long-standing regional and national divisions.
2) What does the geography of Syria say about the future of its civil war?
Like the other states of North Africa and the Middle East, the borders of Syria are rather arbitrary creations reflecting the shifting regional balance of power between European colonial powers and the Ottoman Empire during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Syria’s current government is dominated by Alawites, a religious minority that comprises only about 12 percent of the total population but an absolute majority in Syria’s Mediterranean coast region. The forces rebelling against the Syrian government are mainly drawn from the country’s dominant Sunni Arab populations. The tide of war has shifted back and forth with both sides benefiting from external allies: Iran and Russia supporting the government and the Arab Gulf States and Turkey backing the rebels. It is impossible to predict the exact course of future events, but Syria’s demographic and physical geography make it very unlikely that the government will succeed in re-establishing undisputed control over the country. Nor does it appear that rebel forces currently have the firepower or organization to oust government forces from their strongholds. Instead, it is likely that rebel groups will wage an ad hoc war of attrition that gradually wears down the regime’s advantages in technology and equipment. At some point, the regime will either be forced to consolidate their troops in Damascus and the Alawite homeland, effectively partitioning the country, or segments of the Alawite plutocracy will switch sides leading to the shift collapse of the ruling Assad family. In any event, the geography of Syria will likely be changed irreversibly as ethnic-linguistic-religious groups sort themselves out into relatively homogenous enclaves and significant numbers of minority groups leave the country all together. This would parallel the unfortunate precedents set in Iraq, Libya, and Egypt.
3) Is there a geographically-volatile place or concept that is not getting a lot of press? What do you see in geographical tea leaves for the coming years?
Homeland: The idea of ‘homeland’ has demonstrated power as a driving force of history. If times of turmoil and insecurity have normally invested the idea with increased emotional power, the coming years could witness a resurgence of territorial antagonism and conflict among ethnic groups. The continuing accusations over the global economic crisis, political instability across the Arab world, renewed saber-rattling in East and Southeast Asia, mounting calls for economic protectionism, and rising anti-immigrant sentiment in seemingly every part of the world are all entangled with a rising tide of nationalism and national territory. Ironically, this follows several decades of predictions announcing the arrival of a borderless world and the end of geography. In contrast, growing fears of insecurity, scarcity, and powerlessness are likely to fuel increased pressures to define and defend national homelands.
4) What do you think should be Place of the Year in 2012?
That’s up to you, dear reader! Make sure you’ve voted below or submitted your nomination in the comments. We’re excited to announce the short-list on November 12th!