The Power of Place

The Power of Place is not an abstract concept. It’s all around us. It’s the reason why my German cousins have a life expectancy 7 years longer than my Sri Lankan cousins. It’s why I breeze through customs in most countries with my British passport, while my highly esteemed Grandpa has to jump through hoops with his Sri Lankan one. And it has resulted in thousands of Asylum Seekers languishing in detention on Nauru and Manus Island, caught in limbo while trying to reach the freedom and affluence that many Australians take for granted. As the political world pivots towards inequality as a legitimate issue for debate and action, more focus needs to be placed on the role birthplace plays in opportunity. The Power of Place, through its influence on mother tongue, movement, religion, education, health, natural environment, natural resources, cultural norms, and many other factors that de Blij explores; “remains the most potent factor shaping the destinies of billions”.


“The power of place manifests itself in continua of opportunity and risk, advantage and privation.”


From the outset, de Blij sets his work in contrast to the likes of Thomas Friedman, those who claim the world is ‘flattening’ – that forces like globalisation are creating a world of equal opportunity. As de Blij points out, this is true for only a small minority of the world’s population – less than three percent of the world’s population reside in a country other than that of their birth. Only 15% of the world’s population live in the “global core”, while controlling more than 75% of income. The other 75%, those who live in the ‘periphery’ and control just 25% of income, can we really say they have equal opportunity? The 97% of those who still live in the same place as their fathers and grandfathers were born, can we say they have the same opportunity as the 3% lucky enough to follow the action? Only someone living under a rock would think that there is equal opportunity throughout the world. And only if there is freedom of movement, freedom to reach what little places do offer greater opportunity, could there possibly be any flattening. More so, migration even within some countries – China and North Korea for example – is tightly controlled. This means that for the vast majority of the world their destiny is inextricably intwined with the destiny of their place of birth. And even those fortunate enough to be born into developed countries – countries where there is ostensibly more opportunity, – they may not have had the fortune of being born in the right place within them. For example, children who are born in San Francisco have access to better public schools than those born in Minnesota, while literacy rates and healthcare access in rural (especially Aboriginal) communities in Australia are appalling compared to those in the major cities.


“The power of place defines an aggregate of circumstances and conditions ranging from cultural traditions to natural phenomena, into which we are born, with which we cope, and from which we derive our own multiple identities.”


In contrast to the proponents of a flat world, de Blij defines three types of people; mobals, locals and globals. The overwhelming majority of the world are ‘Locals’ – the “poorest” and “least mobile”, the 97% of the world who are restricted by various factors to live out their lives in their place of birth. The second type are ‘Mobals’ – migrants, both legal and not, who are both able and willing to cross borders to facilitate better lives. And the third type are ‘Globals’ – those for whom the world really is flat. Globals are the businessmen and women, government workers and others for whom borders are all but insignificant. But really we must add to this, because even a successful businessman that was born in the wrong country will have trouble with movement and opportunity. It is the juxtaposition of the core and the periphery, the local and the global, the rich and the poor, the obstructed world and the flat, with which much of the book is concerned.


“With less than 3 percent of the world’s people residing in a country other than that of their birth, it is clear that, for all of migration’s push and pull factors, the overwhelming majority confront the realities of the locale of their parents and grandparents.”


Discussing what it is that restricts 97% of the world moving up the chain from local to global makes up the meat of the book. I touched on many of them in the opening paragraph. It’s things like language — where access to a global language can turn a local into a mobal, while monolingualism (whether forced or not) will undoubtedly curb opportunities for work and movement. Another barrier is being born a woman in the wrong place (de Blij calls Women “the most local of locals”), which immediately brings restrictions on education, movement, healthcare and self determination (etc.) even within countries with resources to burn. And even in what we would consider more enlightened areas, Women still face incredible barriers — domestic violence, unequal wages and glass ceilings etc. Education makes up another barrier, and there isn’t just a dichotomy between those who do and do not receive an education. Even for those who are fortunate enough to be educated not all is rosy — are they receiving the right education? Are they ready for the world of computers, or are they still stuck on the education conveyor-belt established by the Prussians? Religion is the next factor. As de Blij points out, religious differences often drive conflict and nationalism, especially when it comes to the apportioning of divine real estate. It is the Muslim extremists in parts of Pakistan that are throwing up the borders, as are the Buddhist extremists in Sri Lanka (etc.), and it is the realms of Christendom and Islam to which a majority of the locals are born, and from which a majority of the mobals originate. I can’t go into all the factors, so I will highlight just one more — the natural world. An abundance of natural resources can be the bane of entrepreneurism through dutch disease, the life support of illiberalism through handouts, the sustenance of civil war, and the cause of policy inertia. A lack of natural resources can mean the difference between studying and fetching water, and the diversion of much needed infrastructure spending to import fossil fuels. Finally, a country that is isolated, landlocked, situated near fault lines, or that is under threat from climate change — like many islands in the pacific for instance — is all but a trap for those born there. Nothing highlights the power of place better than the world’s slipshod distribution of valuable resources, access and natural catastrophes.


“Malaria, perhaps more than any other malady, symbolises the contrasts between global core and periphery when it comes to health.”


That last paragraph is just a taste of what I have picked up from de Blij’s book. Much of it is obvious, much of it is already covered in daily news reports, but the book’s framing really drives home how important luck is. However, a diagnosis of the situation is really all that de Blij offers. He has equipped me with a multitude of reasons for why the world looks like it does. Why it is so dominated by ‘the Core,’ but the conclusion — entitled “lowering the barriers” — offers very little in guidance on how to fix the problem. It seems to boil down to meeting and altering the local circumstances that trap those that are stuck in the periphery — sexual discrimination, religious indoctrination, monolingualism, poor education, environmental disasters (etc.) — and spreading English and American culture. He even acknowledges that there are already ‘countless programs, projects, schemes, and plans’ already focused on doing just this, but doesn’t take it any further. As such, the book ends on a rather flat note. While I did enjoy reading de Blij’s diagnosis, I am waiting for the prescription.


“It is the globals who build security and migration barriers, not the locals. It is the globals who mobilise armies to intervene in other states, not the locals. It is the globals who move factories from low-wage to even lower-wage environs, wreaking havoc among workers. It is the globals who control the fates of locals as well as mobals, often ruthlessly.”


Putting a copyright notice here feels kind of pointless. So I'm just going to appeal to your better nature - please don't steal without credit. A backlink would be nice :)