In order to understand the world in which we live in, as well as the relationships between each country, we use reading grids and various models of interpretation. By doing so we are unconsciously implementing some metageography. Indeed, the structure, shaping and the organisation of our geographical knowledge is arranged according to abstract concepts, founded mostly on current facts. Just by the action of classifying, or simply labelling, all our world depictions automatically go through multiple processes, entailing some important consequences.
For instance, we could ask ourselves why we refer to some countries and populations as “Western”? Since, once we acknowledge that our planet has a spherical shape, this label completely loses purpose, we are all at the west of something. This portrayal of the world is most likely a consequence of the maps we have been accustomed to since the early stages of our lives. These maps are created as a result of the human intellect and therefore depend on the creator’s perception of the world. We may deduce from this that the person that potentially creates geography also dictates our perception of the world. Thus, if we often say that winners write history, we so often forget that they write geography too.
The distinction between the Western and the Eastern worlds, is today, a widely used hallmark by many populations of diverse geographic backgrounds. This geographical characterization was determined towards the end of the XVth century by the desire of two geopolitical leaders to share the world with each other. During that time, the Portuguese and Spanish were prevailing on the great seas discovering many new lands and it was the Pope’s responsibility to determine the owners of the latter. In an attempt to solve these conflicts over the Western hemisphere, the Treaty of Torsedillas was established on June 7th, in 1494, to equally separate these territories between the powers. The treaty decreed that all the newly discovered lands within 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde islands, would be owned by the Spanish and the Portuguese, therefore, labelling all non-European territories either “East Indies” or “Western Indies”. The Treaty of Torsedillas positioned Europe as the centre of all of the depictions of the world for all centuries to come.
Nevertheless, our geographical perception of the world is not only due to maps. In fact, even if located even more to the west of the “West Indies”, South America has rarely been defined as “Western”, suggesting the existence of other factors influencing the geographical representations of the world.
So, as new colonial empires were rising and progressing, it became appropriate for the world powers to distinguish countries from the “North” from those of the “South”. This second compass-driven division of the world was very appreciated during the colonising period since it perfectly reflected the differences between the metropolis and its corresponding colonies
However, the second world war, as well as, the end of the 20th Century showed a completely new reorganisation of the reigning international relations. The world power had been decentralised, electing the United States of America as the dominating world power. Nevertheless, the south-north dichotomy survived through the transition from the colonialist model to the “development” dogma.
This economic progress influenced the surge of a new world division between developed and under developed countries, that, as stated by Gilbert Rist in his publication, The History of Development: From Western Origins to Global Faith (2015), didn’t consist of a simple semantic change, “it radically transformed the vision of the world”. The paradigm of development did indeed become the principal model used for the reorganisation and comprehension of the world international relations. This theory was identified by Truman in 1949 as the new doctrine, in terms of external policy, of the United States. It positioned countries of the “south” at the same level of countries of the “north”. Moreover, it measured the country’s power only by its status in the great race to modernisation (Walt Whitman Rostow, 1962, The stages of Economic Growth). By the end of the 20th century a general consensus was reached from all the governments on the distinction between developed and under developed countries, backed by the urgent need for progress and through an intensive resource exploitation and beneficial use of the international aid programs, such as the world Bank or the PNUD.
Despite the consensus, criticisms emerged in the 1980s insisting that this demarcation between developed and under developed countries was being used by the world powers to extend their supremacy on the least favoured countries. In response, the geopolitical powers set USA’s progress as the ideal level of development that all the other nations had to reach, justifying the diffusion of the American model of progress as a global policy to all the nations considered as ‘under developed’. Furthermore, the American model was also considered by the world Bank, the International Monetary Fund and, more generally, the PNUD as the ideal economical target to reach. These institutions benefitted from globalisation, the capitalist model and the advantages that derived from the multinationals located in developed countries. The methods used to deliver the development aid programs to the concerned, under developed, countries mostly aimed to reshape their internal market, the working environments and their access to natural resources (Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine, 2007).
Nowadays, to belong to the category of economically developed countries has become a sign of modernity in the general perception of the world. The concept of racing towards modernity has been transposed from the economical dimension to the cultural one electing the “western culture” as today’s culture of reference and portraying anything that differs from it as a regression.
Considering our necessity to divide the world into categories, we should recognize that we have the power, from our knowledge, to create and establish multiple interpretations of the world. “Western”, “South”, “under developed”, the job of a geographer does not only consist in creating new categories, as much as to update existing divisions, highlighting the unavoidable implication of the politics in geography.
Translation by Flaminia Sabbatucci
- Pelletier C., (2011). L’extrême-Orient, l’invention d’une histoire et d’une géographie. Paris : Gallimard (Ed.)
- Desclaux M.,7 juin 1494, Partage du monde à Tordesillas. Hérodote. (30/05/2017) [Online] Avalaible at : https://www.herodote.net/7_juin_1494-evenement-14940607.php
- Rist G., (2015). Le développement, histoire d’une croyance occidentale. Paris : Presses de Sciences Po (P.F.N.S.P)
- Klein N. (2007), The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Toronto: Knopf (Ed.)
- Rostow W.W. (1962). The Stages of an Economic Growth. London: Cambridge University Press (Ed.)
- Image: Map of Asia by D. de Wit – “Accuratissima Totius Asiae Tabula In Omnes Partes Divisia, De Novo Correcta, Amsterdam,(c1690), from cea +, on Flickr