Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Ends of the Earth: Not an Ordinary Travel Book Review

 By Alice Odena

                        His face is turned towards the past. Where we perceive a chain of events,
He sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage
and hurls it in front of his feet.  The angel would like to stay, awaken the
dead, and make whole what has been smashed.   
But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with
such violence that the angel can no longer close them.
This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which
his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward.
This storm is what we call progress[1].

After watching a television footage of smoke billowing from a nuclear plant after the natural disaster in Japan, I thought back to the book I read in graduate school – “The Ends of the Earth”, a travel book written by Robert Kaplan. This book is not your ordinary travel book. As the author admits, this book is subjective. But by reporting on what he sees and supporting the story with historical facts, Kaplan makes us look beneath the surface. As an intrepid traveler I, of course, found this book fascinating. It forced me to look deep into things I never considered when I was traveling. Considering the recent events in Egypt, Libya and Ivory Coast, I found the book still relevant today. So after 11 years since Kaplan’s bone-chilling experiences in Africa created a vehicle of horror on which I shuddered my way through the rest of his journey, I thought I would give the book another read.

Kaplan’s main argument is that there are places in the world where the pattern that he described remains dismayingly evident – the irredeemable chaos. In the frontispiece of his book, Kaplan describes irredeemable chaos in the quote from Walter Benjamin “Illuminations” writing about the Angel of History (above). The various environmental threats are dynamically linked in both their causes and effect.

Kaplan covers all the areas mentioned in the book to expose his main argument, which can only be described by mapping the events and the different variables that impact the environment, as he takes us from West Africa to the Indian Subcontinent and Indochina. Armed with books on and knowledge of history, ecology, geography, politics and literature, Kaplan is able to show us the vital statistics concerning the poverty and violence in West Africa, the effect of urbanization in Turkey, the impact of industrialization in the Nile Valley, and population growth in Central Asia.

The first chapter sets the scene for all that follows. Kaplan writes, “Here, on this road of decayed and oxidized red rock called laterite, was the earth without subtlety: an oppressively hot, in ways hostile, planet…” Then, Kaplan brings up the issue of crime by taking us to cities in West Africa. His narratives such as ‘unlit streets’, ‘the gun-wielding guardsmen’, ‘police car running out of gas’, conjure vivid images of a violent place. His reflection on the smell: ‘an odor of sour sweat, rotting fruit, hot iron and dust, urine drying on sun-warned stone, feces and fly infested meat’, exposes us to environmental and human degradation.

From Ivory Coast, Kaplan travels west to Sierra Leone. Here Kaplan tries to show the effect of colonialism where the past – or, anyway, a reified version of the past holds such continuous sway as almost to choke off the possibility of liveliness and forward thinking. Due to colonial legacy, tribal social structure and political instability and bad government, West Africa has faced the greatest obstacle in economic development and regional cooperation. Kaplan writes, “The three soldiers pressing against the window embodies the onrushing meteor that I had felt on the night of my arrival in Sierra Leone at the beach bar. The Lebanese at the bar that night could afford to be jovial because their community was quietly preparing to depart. The future here could be sadder than the present”.[2]

In Islamic Coketown, the message is that the Islamic world most regimes – from the sheikdom of the Gulf to the western influenced secularist in Egypt – have failed their people either economically or socially. Again, he describes the effect of modern Islamic fundamentalism, unregulated urbanization and high unemployment among the fast growing population of the Asyut. Kaplan observes another assault on the environment as he travels through Egypt. He describes the impact of continued development and irrigation project on nature – ‘salinity, water-logging, the dislocation of indigenous Nubian settlement, and the difficulties in reclaiming desert land.’

The effect of urbanization is best explored in Part II – Anatolia and the Caucasus. Kaplan talks about the ramifications of plate tectonics, from where the plates of the Greek-Slavic Orthodox and Turkic world collide. Here, he describes the effect of urban transition on air and water quality.

The conflict between Islamic fundamentalists and former Soviet communists is only one factor in the chaos that afflicts the Soviet Central Asia. Kaplan describes how boundaries are being redrawn in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan (all resource poor). The valleys between the mountains are coveted and the land is more important than politics or even religion. If huge inequalities are present, people will be reluctant to restrain economic growth. At the same time, great inequalities may provide the excuses for religious sects to exploit or revive ethnic hatred.

The redeemable chaos is best explained in chapter 19 - China: “Super-Chaos”. In China the Angel rides a ferocious tiger that charges head-on into the future. As observed in Kaplan’s quote from former U.S. diplomat, Jonathan Moore, “China maybe the most dramatically unreadable harbinger of the future of our species: a giant microcosm with mighty contradictions poised for collision…riding a tiger into the future at a gallop. China’s rate of growth has been in double digits for the past three years, its free markets are running wild… With over one-fifth of the world’s population in 1992 and practicing the most…coercive birth control in the world, China is assaulting the nexus head-on, trying to control the chaos it is generating”[3]. If not held in check by its own forces, China may become the greatest social, economic and environmental disaster of the last thousand years. Kaplan and Moore both point out the grave potential for China to implode within itself. By sheer size and strength, the global impact of China’s buckling collapse within its social and economic structure will be unmatched.

Kaplan contends that ‘to restore the environment to acceptable levels for human habitation will be a long costly process that will put a drag on future economic development in Central Asia’. Consider the following synthesis of the research and ideas of the Chinese scholars:

“As much as tenth of all China’s farmland could be destroyed within two decades. What will remain is rapidly deteriorating, because of declining organic content and salinization. Artificial fertilizers have already pushed crop yields to attainable limit... Smil warns that while air pollution is amenable to dramatic high-tech fixes, land degradation is largely irreversible, except in some instances and at extremely high cost.”[4]

Kaplan points to Homer-Dixon detailed analysis on Super-Chaos and Physical-Social Theory. Social-social theory, according to Homer-Dixon, emerged with the Industrial Revolution, which separated many of us from nature. “But nature is coming back with a vengeance, tied to resource scarcity and population growth.” Population growth is a critical variable in the environmental impact equation as it underlies the patterns of demand for food, energy and water.

Kaplan talks about the population growth in Pakistan. Pakistan is a prime example of a single country’s inability to not merely maintain stability, but actually advance more rapid into the storm of chaos. Kaplan writes, “Even were Pakistan’s population growth rate to drop gradually to zero by the year 2040, its population will have increased from 130 million to several hundred million by then: perhaps more people that live in all of present-day Europe. Pakistan is one of the world’s most serious family planning failures”[5].

The Rishi Valley story provides a tiny breather from the story of gloom and doom. The story suggests that individuals can affect the composition of the atmosphere and vegetation in profound ways around the planet.

While sharing his journey through each chapter, I look desperately for corrective measures to the common conditions of over-population, the improper maintenance of natural resources and the artificial borders which keep neighbors at odds, but Kaplan offers no remedy to these unfortunate conditions. He merely makes note of the angel’s backward-progress into the future and the debris, human and otherwise, left in the wake. I think the strength of the book lies in Kaplan's observational record of the consistent and seemingly irreversible chaos that plagues the greater part of the three continents to challenge the readers to make their own conclusion. Consider Kaplan’s statement that the problem he saw around the world – poverty, the collapse of cities, porous borders, cultural and racial strife, growing economic disparities, weakening nations states – are problems for Americans to think about.

Reading the book for the second time, I felt as though I shared not only his journey to the ends of the earth, but shared his journey through thoughts. I came to realize that industrialized nations of the world should not feel insulated from the expanding chaos. As we have seen in recent events and have witnessed through Kaplan, disease and pollution, unlike humans, will not tolerate artificially drawn borders and ultimately rain down on all humans with equal chaos.

[1] Walter Benjamin, Illuminations - Writing about the Angel of History
[2] Robert D. Kaplan, The Ends of the Earth, Random House 1996
[3] Ref. footnote 2
[4] Ref. footnote 2.
[5] Ref. footnote 2.

1 comment:

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