The world is flat—not. Harm de Blij’s The Power of Place: Geography, Destiny, and Globalization’s Rough Landscape is, despite the author’s hope of improvement, a sobering read. Geography is one of those subjects that studies show Americans consistently failing. But de Blij begins and ends with one of my favorite themes: that place defines a person. One of the realities with which all humans must reckon is that we have no control over where we’re born. As de Blij demonstrates, not fatalistically, that place will determine to a great extent what life has to offer us. Chances are that most of you reading this were born in what social geographers call “the core.” The core is that affluent part of the globe that encompasses successful states with relatively good prospects for their citizens. It is, numerically, the smaller part of the world’s population and it is the base of claims for the world’s flatness—that is, its apparent sameness across borders. De Blij, who has crossed one or two of those borders, knows that there is a roughness inherent in this world, and those outside the core pay the highest price.
Among the many factors de Blij examines one—religion as an accident of birth—comes up repeatedly. Religions quickly complicate efforts at fairness and equal distribution with various theologies of why the poor are poor and that we can justify leaving them that way. Or worse, a religion may decide, since it alone is right, that those believing otherwise ought to be destroyed. Internecine as well as international rancor is a commonplace of the news as religions compete for the alpha male spot on the human (actually man-made, gender distinction intended) hierarchy. The religion you’re born into, for most of the world’s population, is the correct one. Missionaries, by definition, disagree. Theirs is the true correct religion and even if it doesn’t improve the lot in life of the poverty-stricken, it will at least make for a better afterlife, cold comfort though it may be.
One issue that de Blij touches upon only minimally is the sacredness of place. Of course, that is often the ground for conflict, but in smaller ways we often feel an attachment to the place we enter the world. Beyond visiting the relatives still near my hometown, sometimes I just want to go there and linger, pondering what this world intended for such as me. The distress I feel when I see that the hospital where I was born has been closed down, the houses in which I grew up razed, and even my first school remodeled, touches something deep and undefinable. It is a small part of who I am that has been erased, the silencing of the clock’s ticking. Those rough hills were my home for the two most formative decades of my time on earth and I belong to them. I owe them who I am. This is the mystery of sacred geography. The refinery fires, the childhood friendships, the Christian bookstore that propelled me in a direction I may alter but not eradicate. It’s not rational, I know. But like many animals, I feel the draw, and de Blij points out the many benefits and frightening realities that attend it.