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The end of geography?

The end of geography?

The world is more closely-coupled than ever before. This section considers the additional organising principles that are in play, and reviews the consequences. There are two main sections. In the first of these, we look at the sources of change. In the second, we consider the consequences of this.

The sources of change.

The facts of geography organised the human world until, perhaps, a generation ago. Economies were predicated upon agriculture and the defence of primary production. Food grew where conditions were suitable. A surplus allowed armies to be raised and artisans to be fed, cities to develop and complexity to flourish. Trade followed routes defined by geography from locations rooted in the particulars of place. The time, risk and resource taken in travel set limits to ambitions. Natural barriers, whether set by climate or disease, oceans or deserts also defined what could be done.

In such a world, centres of power expected to command everything that lay in their domain. There was no sense of common forces running 'under' all societies, as the modern world might see human resource, the economy, communications and science. Nations were possessions of the powerful, and popular nationalism had yet to be more than a tacit assumption. Interactions between nations were conducted by elites for elite interests

This world of 'blobs on maps' has, however, been transformed. It is a mistake to see this as the coupling together of nations that were once loosely organised, although this has happened. Rather, four trends have combined to create forces that have led to a much deeper coupling. This linkage is established primarily through areas other than the state.

Figure 1: The relative decline of state-to-state relationships.

The nature of the ties which bind have changed, and the point at which they connect has also shifted. This said, the world's populations are bound together in a much tighter relationship than was the case even a generation ago.

There are three reasons for this, closely related to what we have already discussed.

Trade has developed explosively in the past century and has proven itself to be a major engine of growth. It carries with it mutual dependency, specialisation (which can be a source of dependency) and the exchange of best practice. Just in time practices and the outsourcing of intermediate goods (discussed elsewhere) have both tightened the strength of these bonds. The chief beneficiaries - and those most closely bound to each other - are the industrial nations, which dominate both economic output and trade.

Second, telecommunications has bound the world in a network of information. The consequence of this is rapid judgement and major transfer of the media of exchange. Something around US$7-10 trillion are traded across frontiers each day. (World product is about US$ 35 trillion.) Loose connections have become closely linked, and shocks propagate easily across this quite new kind of linkage.

Third, as we interact with world systems, either with those which humans have created or with natural structures, so we create affects with which others have to live. As we need to regulate our national economies in order to manage crime, pollution and exclusion, so international connectedness demands increasing reciprocity from the various actors if conflict is to be avoided. This feature has, to date, been relatively muted, but issues discussed elsewhere will increase its intensity very significantly in the decades ahead.

The consequences of change.

The outcome of this is a world in which nobody can have pretensions to be 'in charge', where self-accelerating drivers of change are everywhere at work and in which close coupling ensures that shocks propagate swiftly. The points of attachment of this coupling are in constant change and seldom resemble classical state machinery, and seldom impinge only indirectly on the state.

There is no regulatory system that of itself will solve these issues. The major economies will not enter into organisations which bind them to use their power against what they perceive as their own interests, which would surely occur in an majoritarian institution in which around seven billion poor people face off something over one billion rich.

What will undoubtedly occur is more institutional development between nations of similar interest and, perhaps, increasing transnational political association amongst equivalent private interests. Transparency is in almost everyone's interests: if nobody is to be in charge, then at least we should all be able to see what is coming, and take steps to correct major imbalances.

There are obvious sources of instability that we can anticipate and, perhaps, doing something about before they become intransigent or acute. Financial mismanagement of the sort which precipitated the 1997-99 Asian crisis is just such an issue, as are weak systems of central banking. The misuse of dangerous technologies and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction are equivalent issues. Resource mishandling - such as the salinification of rivers or the misuse of hydrocarbon reserves - are obvious problems with equally straightforward policy goals.

Less easy to handle are the issues discussed elsewhere, such as poor internal governance, corruption and political instability. The major threat posed by unsustainable development is unavoidably entwined with weak governance, deferred inward investment, mass migration to cities and acute local priorities. The weaker the governance, on the whole, the more acute these alternative needs will prove. The greatest threat to the stability of the world in 2020 is if three to four billion of its inhabitants are trapped in regimes which are making the lives worse, denying them education or advancement, acting in ways which create a downward social and economic spiral. In a close-coupled world, such a division will be the equivalent of the mob that so frightened the aspirant classes of C19th cities.

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