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Is geography destiny? Historian and archaeologist Ian Morris on why where we are shapes what we do

Podcast & Video

Today’s episode of Hub Dialogues features The Hub’s executive director Rudyard Griffiths in conversation with historian, archaeologist, and Willard Professor of Classics at Stanford University Ian Morris about his new book, Geography is Destiny: Britain and the World: A 10,000 Year History. They touch on why geography is so integral to shaping history, whether or not Brexit was inevitable, and what the geographical lens can teach us about the rise of China and the war in Ukraine.

Ian Morris’ other highly informative books can be found here.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, Spotify, or YouTube. A transcript of the episode is available below.

Transcripts of our podcast episodes are not fully edited for grammar or spelling.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Hello, Hub listeners. Rudyard Griffiths here, the executive director of The Hub. Well, normally you’d be hearing Sean Speer’s voice conducting a Hub Dialogue, but I had to shoulder Sean out of the way today because we have an opportunity to talk to a big thinker who I got to admit I’m a bit of a fanboy when it comes to his writing and books. He’s someone I consistently turn to to have my brain stretched in new directions. I just love academics and scholars who have done all the hard work for me and can write, again, big thoughts and big ideas about the sweep of human history.

I’m just so fortunate to have the opportunity to talk with Ian Morris about his new book, Geography is Destiny: Britain and the World: A 10,000 Year History. Ian Morris is a historian, an archeologist who holds Stanford’s prestigious Jean and Rebecca Willard’s Professorship in Classics. He’s also a professionally trained archeologist, having participated in important digs around the world. He has associations with some of the world’s most prestigious academic institutions from the London School of Economics, the British Academy, to the Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of Toulouse, and the Max Planck Institute. Ian, great to be in conversation with you.

IAN MORRIS: Well, thanks so much for having me on the show under that very kind introduction.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Ian, let’s dive right into the book and I just want to situate your considerable contribution to our understanding of history and the importance of geography as a device, as a field of human knowledge and endeavor that can help us better understand our past and arguably give us some creative ways to think about the future. Why the title of the book, Geography is Destiny? What is the argument you’re trying to make here?

IAN MORRIS: Yes, well, this is the latest in a series of books I’ve been writing over the last 10, 15 years. Well, actually, I started my career as a pretty straightforward historian and archeologist looking at one particular part of the world over reasonably short space of time. What I found was the bigger I made the geographical and chronological framework, the newer and more surprising answers started to come out until I got to the point I found myself talking about the whole world over thousands of years and generalizing, broad-sweeping theories about history.

Then it occurred to me that these grand global theories, they’re not really worth very much unless you can scale them back down to explain actual things that happen to real people. I’m thinking along these lines, then along comes Brexit in 2016. The British vote to leave the European Union. It just occurs to me, oh, of course, this is the perfect test case, the perfect place to take these grand theories and see, can we bring them back down to a more human scale? Admittedly, for me, a more human scale is still 10,000 years long.

The question I found myself asking was, well, can Britain’s long-term geographical, geostrategic position in the world, does that help us understand what happened in June of 2016? Are there these long-term continuities? The reason it’s a 10,000-year history is that 10,000 years ago is basically the point at which rising sea levels—as the glaciers melt at the end of the ice age—rising sea levels start cutting—well, start making the British Isles into isles because they’re not isles up till then. This is the point at which we see these two geographical facts which have dominated British history ever since. One being the fact that the British Isles are islands—crucial. The other one being that they’re really close to Europe, so there’s insularity and proximity. I start trying to look at this story and ask myself, can I see long-term forces driving the outcomes we’ve recently had and where things are likely to go next? If so, what are they? That was the basic thinking behind the book.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Okay, well, let’s dig into that because I think there is a bias out there, you know it, Ian, that it’s chaps not maps, to reverse your phraseology, that define history. If you’re going to understand Brexit, well, you’ve got to understand the personalities of the moment of when that historical event occurs, but then, more importantly, you’re going to go back into history. You’re going to study the great men, and let’s hope we throw in a few great women too, to come up with a chain of causality that leads from A to B to C. Why maps not chaps in this case, to understand Brexit? I want some data points.

IAN MORRIS: Yes. Well, one of the nice things about writing this book is, like I was saying, it’s an attempt to get down at least a little bit more to the human level. It became a lot clearer to me as I was writing the book the extent to which it’s maps and chaps. You take either end of that explanatory spectrum, we miss a lot of what’s going on. Karl Marx has his famous line middle of the 19th century that men make their own history but not in ways of their own choosing. I think he’s absolutely right about that.

The title of the book is Geography is Destiny and that’s because really nothing that was said or done in the Brexit debate was in any way new. It was like Brexit was the latest round of this 10,000-year-old argument that we can trace back in history and the archeology of people arguing about what do insularity and proximity mean and what do we do with them? The story I felt came out of this long-term history was that while geography drives history, at the same time, history drives what geography means. Insularity and proximity, they keep changing their meaning, particularly because as technology and organization change what the insularity and the proximity mean, that becomes abruptly different from one period to another. It’s like geography is destiny, but it’s up to us to decide what to do about it.

That was the basic idea of running through the book. What I tried to do was get into what was happening in each period of time and see how well did they understand the cards that geography were dealing to them? Then how well do they play them? Because you got some people who just, they just don’t get it. They just never quite grasp what Britain’s geography means for them. Then you’ve got other people who get it, but then they just interpret it in such really stupid ways, it turns out disastrously. This, I think, is the storyline. If you want to be a great statesman, a great geo-strategist, you must understand the geography and then you must figure out what you do about it.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Well, let’s just experiment with the counterfactual. Let’s say sea levels never rose, the trench wasn’t filled in, the Channel didn’t exist. Would we have had Brexit? Would we even have a Britain in your view that is anywhere close to our understanding of the culture, the people, the dynamics of that society today?

IAN MORRIS: Yes, it’s a great question. I love counterfactual questions because I think they are the only way you can really think about causal questions. You say if A equals B, then you’re implicitly asking, well, what if not A, do we still get B? In this case, this counterfactual, like most of them, it gets a little bit tricky because of course, you’ve got to ask yourself, how could we live in a world where the sea level didn’t rise?

Did the ice age have to continue? If it did, then of course you have, the whole discussion is off the table. But if we have the fantasy world where we can have the ice age end and still, for some reason, the waters don’t fill up the Channel—I don’t know, somebody blocks it—then I think British history, in some ways, it wouldn’t have been wildly different. What happens when the waters do rise, you get these three big phases of British history since the end of the ice age and the first one, by far the longest, lasts until about the year 1500, you’ve got water in the Channel but it actually doesn’t matter. That through most of British history, the Channel has been more of a highway than a barrier.

If you can get to the continental side of the English Channel, you can pretty much automatically get to the English side as well, because the levels of technology and the organization of governments are such that nobody can stop you. You can still capsize and drown, but barring that you can get across the Channel. British history has almost always just been an extension of continental history. The great inventions and breakthroughs and developments all happened off to the south and east, down in the Mediterranean Basin, the Middle East, India, China, and so on. Then they roll north and west. They get to the edge of Europe and they hop straight across the English Channel because it’s simply a highway, not a barrier.

Wash across the British Isles, sometimes for good, sometimes for ill, usually for a mix of those. That has been the standard story, that if there were no English Channel, that would just have continued. What makes British history so peculiar is that about 500 years ago, the British were able to reverse that story and suddenly make insularity trump proximity. They could close the English Channel, and that’s when weird stuff starts to happen in British history.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Well, let’s talk about some of that weird stuff and maybe just an idea that some of our listeners are having tuning into this conversation about the effects of technology because it’s really 500 years ago that you begin to have the basis for a technological revolution that completely transforms and changes British society. It creates a British Navy that rules the seven seas, that creates in turn empire that allows for Britain to project force in ways that you couldn’t have predicted maybe, or even conceived of, for an earlier era of British history. How does technology interact with geography to shape destiny?

IAN MORRIS: Yes, technology is one of the big driving forces in the story. I say technology and just the organization of society, that these are constantly changing what geography means. Between 8,000 BCE, when the waters are starting to rise, and 1500 CE, obviously, huge amount of technological change, but none of it is enough to affect the basic geographical facts in British history.

Well, what changes that is starting in the 15th century, you’re getting west Europeans, Portuguese especially, tinkering around developing new kinds of ships. By the 16th century, they’re building these galleons. And the galleons, they’re expensive, like the 16th-century aircraft carriers, but they could do two things for you. One is they can open the ocean. These galleons can escort merchant ships across the Atlantic.

It’s still a bit risky to cross the Atlantic, but it’s becoming reasonably safe and predictable. The Atlantic, which had been a barrier through the whole of history—it was just too big for anybody to cross with a couple of minor exceptions—the Atlantic is turned into a highway, linking Western Europe to North America and then onto the rest of the world. These galleons open up the Atlantic, prove that Britain is no longer the edge of the world, because they have been for so long.

So, Britain, is not the edge of the world anymore. But then what you can also do with these galleons? English sailors start to realize this around about the 1560s, 1570s, you can put them into the English Channel and you can close the Channel. For the first time in history, you can deny arrival, the use of the seas, in the way that is standard fare for naval strategists today to talk about your command of the oceans.

Command of the oceans meant nothing before about 1550. Then you get these guys saying, “Aha. Now here’s an idea. We have been shaking in our boots for a generation or two now about the power of the Spaniards. They control the Atlantic. They can cross the English Channel anytime the mood takes them. Well, now they can’t.” They go and tell Queen Elizabeth this, and she is profoundly skeptical about this.

She never entirely bites the bullet on this one, but this new idea has come up. You can close a Channel, cut England off—because England, Scotland, Ireland, separate countries at this point more or less—you can protect England from any continental interference, then secure behind your moat defensive, as they call it. This is a Shakespeare line. There’s no coincidence Shakespeare starts all this talk about England being this blessed plot, secure behind the silver seas and moat defensive.

This is all in the 1590s, because essentially before that, it simply made no sense. Shakespeare’s talking about a moat defensive, English governments say, “Aha, we can hide behind the moat defensive. We can unite the whole of the isles into a single kingdom and we can create this global empire if we want to. That’s the big question. Do we want to do that?” That’s where the organization thing comes in because this is like super expensive.

You can’t just have the boats, you’ve got to have new kinds of governments that can raise enough money consistently to build a lot of these boats and keep them at sea year after year after year. This is a very new thing. On the whole, English people say, I don’t want a government that can reach down into the bottom of my pocket and steal all my money because that’s kind of what the deal is here.

We will give you Shakespeare’s blessed plot and you give us all your money and then we’ll make more money with it. This is the deal they’re trying to strike. You get this century of upheavals in the British Isles, the civil wars in the 17th century the most obvious example of this, but these are basically arguments about what do we think geography means? Where do we think England and then Britain as a whole fit into the larger world? It’s a really violent process. Geography is dealing with these cards, technology and organization, showing what the cards mean, but then you still got to decide, do you really want to go down that path?

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Was Brexit inevitable? If you have a thesis, a view that Britain developed this consciousness of itself as not only succinct and different from the continent geographically, but that that difference then compelled and produced for the country an incredible multi-century period of global preeminence, then doesn’t Brexit seem like a very natural kind of intuitive reaction to a British people who felt under stress, under threat in a variety of ways, real or imagined?

IAN MORRIS: Not inevitable. I tend to think that pretty much nothing is inevitable in history. It’s just that sometimes the cards favour one decision so heavily over other ones that it becomes more or less inevitable. With Brexit, I think you get this period starting to emerge around 1500, very much emerge by 1700, where the English and by extension the British see themselves as the centre of the world. In some ways, they are the centre of the world to project power globally.

Then by 1900, it’s starting to fall to pieces and actually it falls to bits really for the same reasons it was created in the first place. Changing technology and organization change the meanings of geography. Basically, the world keeps getting smaller and smaller and smaller about 1500 onwards. Couple of hundred years has this sweet spot—where if you’re British it’s sweet—where you can dominate the globe from your position off the edge of Europe.

By 1900, Britain can no longer do that. There are much greater piles of money that have accumulated in North America and Western Europe. The British are thrashing around for ways to preserve their global dominance. Of course, this is the period when some British start floating ideas like imperial preference, like a union with Britain’s overseas white settler dominions, like Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and that they’ll create a new kind of British global dominance.

The British basically thrashing around, looking for ways to either preserve the old system or to say to themselves, “Okay, we cannot do that, so what is the best new states for Britain to take on in this changed geography?” There’s a very famous line Dean Acheson, one-time secretary of state in the U.S. said, “Great Britain has lost an empire and not yet found a role.” Everyone in Britain was mortally offended by this, but the guy was right and this has really been what post-World War II British grand strategy has been about.

What is the role, now that the 18th to 19th century empire, they just don’t function anymore? It is ridiculous to try to defend them because we’ll lose, apart from everything else. What are we going to do instead? Brexit is part of this long-term debate, going back at least to Roman times. Should Britain try to basically to cozy up to the continent, to see its destiny is primarily continental, or is its destiny really different and insular?

The big question of course is what is geography now telling us? Was Brexit in fact a smart decision? I think actually the way people are going to judge Brexit, say 50, 60 years from now, they’ll look back on this and say what actually mattered in 2016 wasn’t Brussels, it was Beijing. What’s happening now, the big thing is happening for us is the accumulation of this East Asian mountain of money, the power of China.

The way they’re going to judge Brexit, they’ll say, as geography changes its meanings, did Brexit, did leaving the European Union improve Britain’s position relative to the great Chinese mountain of money or make it worse? I think that’s the question they’ll ask in half a century’s time.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: That’s exactly where I want to go next. Apply these lenses, first the big lens, the focal lens of geography, and then organization and technology, to China. Do you see a similar hinge moment in history where these various factors line up? I think everyone could understand the argument in terms of technology and organization where China is surging in terms of its ability to project, influence, and shape the global order.

I guess I haven’t done enough thinking about Chinese geography. Is this an asset in the same way that geography somehow became this lever in the United Kingdom to propel global power and dominance again far beyond what anyone could have reasonably expected from the British Isles? What’s your view on China’s geography?

IAN MORRIS: I think one of the nice things about writing this book was that it kept striking me as I was writing the book was how the basic methods I was developing, these can be applied to any part of the planet. They are analytical tools for thinking about what drives history. This struck me, particularly—I was invited to a conference in Kathmandu in Nepal, which was great. I’d never been to Nepal before.

Nepal, its geography is about as different from Britain as you can possibly imagine. Landlocked, mountainous, trapped between the Indian and Chinese giants, and geography has driven Nepali history every bit as strongly as British history, but just in different ways, because it’s a different place, and different places are different. Of course, exactly the same sorts of things apply in China.

Chinese geography, very, very different from Britain. This is something people have been thinking about a long time. This is classic essay by Halford Mackinder, the British geography from 1904, talking about how the world breaks down in what he called a core area within the Eurasian Heartlands in the inner rim, the countries around the edge of the Eurasian landmass from China through India, Middle East to Western Europe. Then the outer rim, countries which abutt directly onto Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Through most of history, the inner rim had been dominant, places like Britain, total backwaters.

Then you get this big revolution starting around 1500. Now outer rim countries, first Britain, then the U.S., and Mackinder was just beginning to see the rise of Japan when he starts writing about this, these countries become dominant because by controlling the oceans, now you can project power inward from the oceans into the inner rim. That’s why the British would shoot up the Chinese fleet in the 1840s, dictate terms to China, and for a full century, in what the Chinese call the century of humiliation, this is what the maps mean. The outer rim dominates the inner rim. That has not yet entirely changed, but Chinese geography has changed, part of it because of kind of organizational agreements.

China has been able to negotiate its way into the World Trade Organization and other groups, bring itself into the American-dominated global order. Once they do that, their geography abruptly changes meaning. The first big thing I think any Chinese strategist would say to you if you ask this question would be, is the big fact in China’s geography now is what they call the Island Chain. This is a chain of alliances running from Japan down to Singapore or Australia that the Americans constructed after World War II, that basically kind of constrains China. It has the potential to shut China off from access to the Pacific Ocean and have catastrophic effects that will hurt the Chinese economy.

For China, the question geography is forcing on them is how do we deal with this geographical problem? One answer is you break the Island Chain, either through negotiation, through cutting deals with Korea and other places, or through violence. You attack Taiwan. The other answer is you outflank the Island Chain, you build the Belt and Road initiative across Central Asia, down to the Indian Ocean, out to the Mediterranean, and you do all your maritime connections there. It’s a little less convenient, but you can do it. You can get around the American Island Chain. I think a Chinese strategist will say, “Absolutely. This is exactly the sorts of problems that we are dealing with.”

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: The peripheral countries will try to continue to fight for the primarily the naval dominance that allowed them historically to advantage themselves over the larger landlocked great powers. It’s a fascinating way to look at it. I want to end on just a little bit of a personal confession. Over the course of this horrible war that we’ve seen break out in Europe, the first major conflicts since World War II, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, I’ve been thinking about you and I’ve been thinking about your book that really had a big impact on me, which was, War! What is it good for? Everything.

The final chapter of that book, Ian, where you presented a, for me, really compelling way of looking at this moment of history that we’re in the middle of. This contest, as you put it, between nightfall, where our technologies—including as we’re seeing in Ukraine with far too much discussion of the risk of nuclear weapons—kind of swamps our innovation and our ability to manage complexity.

I’m just wondering—you wrote that book a while ago now, there’s been some time—I’m wondering how you’re feeling at this moment and whether you feel that the forces of nightfall are in ascendancy or whether you’re still optimistic. Not that you were necessarily optimistic in the book, you said it was a very even and uncertain race between human’s capacity to innovate versus our capacity to destroy ourselves. I just would love to check in with you on that thesis.

IAN MORRIS: Actually, Ukraine is I think a classic illustration of the geography is destiny thesis. Even the name, Ukraine, probably comes from an old Slavonic word meeting borderlands. If you’re given the choice, never live in a place called the borderland because everybody’s going to fight over you. In a way, there’s nothing terribly surprising about what’s happened. I think the reason it’s come to so many others as a shock is that it seemed like we developed a new equilibrium where the use of violence to resolve major international problems, the costs were always going to outweigh the benefits.

No great powers were again likely to resort to force, especially if it sets you up down the nuclear path. I think for all kinds of reasons, Vladimir Putin has drawn a different conclusion from what’s happened over the last 10 or 15 years. I take the Ukrainian conflict—coming back to your larger question about nightfall—in a way, this might turn out to be one of the benchmarks by which we can judge the progress toward or away from nightfall. Putin has been talking about the possibility of using nuclear weapons here. This is a bizarre Russian idea they’ve been floating for 20 years about escalating to deescalate. You use nuclear weapons in order to send a message to the West that if you continue supplying weapons to Ukraine, we’re going to escalate still further.

It’s a nutty theory, but some people apparently take it seriously. There are all kinds of indications that this conflict could be hastening or speeding up our move toward nightfall. It’s beginning to look now like maybe that isn’t going to happen. I think it might be if all goes well in the Ukrainian conflict, this might be something that over the next 20 years, people like Xi Jinping they’ll keep looking back on Ukraine and saying, well, what we learn from that episode is that force is still not a good way to try to resolve your problems.

Invading Taiwan, I’m sure it has a lot of attractions to some strategists in Beijing, but it’s a really bad idea that the West actually is going to stand together. Talking about escalating nuclear weapons, just talking about it, that’s not going to do it. The only way you could really frighten people is by actually escalating. Then it’s going to get really appalling really, really quickly. This was the lesson of all the war games that the RAND Corporation did, that other people around during the Cold War did. You can’t play with nuclear weapons. The minute you start down this path, all bets are going to be off.

I’m hoping, in my optimistic mood, I’m hoping that this is the outcome of the Ukrainian war. People say, “wow, here was the definitive lesson that since 1945, since the invention of nuclear weapons, the whole, the rules of the game have changed.” That whatever happens, Ukraine is always going to be a geographical problem for any Russian ruler. If you’re a ruler in Moscow, you’re going to be terrified of the thought of having a hostile Ukraine, just because of the geography. The way to deal with that problem is not by invading them, it’s by trying to make the Ukrainians like you the way the Europeans have done.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Excellent. Ian Morris, thank you so much for coming on Hub Dialogues today. I just urge readers, if you’ve not dived into Ian’s collection of really interesting, important books on history, international relations, and geopolitics, do that, and no better place to start than Geography Is Destiny: Britain and the World: A 10,000 Year History. We’ll also put up on The Hub webpage featuring a transcription of this interview links to Ian’s other recent books, including War! What is it good for? a top-10 nonfiction book on my list. I look forward to, Ian, the chance to talk to you again. It’s always such a privilege. Thank you again for coming on the show.

IAN MORRIS: Well, thank you again. It’s great to talk.