Books

Geographer says troubled globe far from flat

“The Power of Place” (Oxford University Press. 280 pages. $27.95), by Harm de Blij

Consider this: During the last two decades of the 20th century, Texas reported 64 cases of dengue fever.

By contrast, the three Mexican states bordering Texas reported 62,514 cases during the same time.

One big difference: Window screens and air conditioning were relatively rare on the Mexican side, making it easier for dengue-carrying mosquitoes to spread the disease.

“Extrapolate these circumstances to the availability of medical services on the two sides, and it is clear that even on the doorstep of the global core, the medical landscape is anything but flat,” geographer Harm de Blij (HARM dee BLY) writes in his latest book, “The Power of Place.”

De Blij uses the dengue fever anecdote to argue that the place in which one is born and raised — and for most of the globe, this is the same place we'll live most of our lives — is still the chief factor in what types of lives we'll have.

“Earth may be a planet of shrinking functional distances,” de Blij says, “but it remains a world of staggering situational differences.”

His book is the latest salvo in the backlash that began after journalist Thomas Friedman published his groundbreaking book on the effects of globalization in 2005, “The World Is Flat.”

Friedman argues that changes in technology and communication, particularly through the rise of the personal computers, are rendering the world an increasingly flat place in which to live and do business. That's especially true, he contends, for individuals and small groups, who can trade information around the globe regardless of where their laptops or desk tops happen to be.

It's an intriguing and wide-reaching theory and, of course, ripe for alternate views. The flip side to Friedman's argument is that globalization is not nearly as flattening a force as its proponents make it out to be.

Instead, the counter-argument goes, physical location continues to play a huge role in people's success in the world. Management professor Richard Florida made the case in a book published earlier this year, “Who's Your City,” using reams of data to show that the world is actually “spiky,” with intellectual and economic energy accumulating in a few mega metropolises around the planet.

In “The Power of Place,” de Blij takes the argument a step farther by painting a darkly mixed picture of a world where a minority of the globe is able to escape the confines of their birthplace while the vast majority live their lives — and not always very pleasantly — based on where they were born.

De Blij divides the world into the global core — a swath of countries running more or less across the top of the globe and including Japan, North America and Europe — and the periphery, the still developing countries of South America, Africa, much of Asia and the old Soviet Union.

Every year, millions of immigrants seeking better opportunities risk their lives to overcome horrendous obstacles to travel to the core.

“To these and countless others testing the obstacles, notions of a flat world remain essentially irrelevant,” de Blij says.

De Blij, the author of 30 books, including “Why Geography Matters,” is not blind to the effect of the computer age. He acknowledges that the far-reaching advances in technology and communication cited by Friedman and others has changed how hundreds of millions of people in the global periphery interact.

But he also says it's impossible to ignore the fact that only about 3 percent of the world's population lives in a country other than that of their birth.

As globalization marches on, de Blij concludes, the immediate challenge is to alleviate the local circumstances that still trap billions in places rife with violence, natural hazards, health threats, inadequate education and sexual discrimination, among many other obstacles.

Lowering barriers and creating opportunities, he says, “will make this a better — and flatter — world.”

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