How Geography Shapes Our Identity


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The ancient Romans believed every place—from a street corner to an entire nation—possessed a genius loci, a presiding spirit that animated it, watched over it. Today, we dismiss such fanciful notions, and in fact gleefully pronounce the death of geography itself. Digital technologies have dissolved the inconvenient confines of the physical world, leaving us free to frolic in a placeless present. Or so we’re told. To butcher Mark Twain, rumors of geography’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. Not only is geography distinctly undead, it is more alive than ever.

The advent of Skype and countless other forms of virtual communication hasn’t suppressed travel but, rather, has encouraged it. More people are hitting the road than ever before. Virtual contact inspires actual contact. Curiously, the prophets of this placeless utopia tend to live in one place: Silicon Valley. And more people arrive there every day, drawn to the idea of Silicon Valley as well as its physicality, its genius loci. In this way, each iPhone sold in India and China acts like a breadcrumb, leading to the promised land.

Geography may not be destiny, but it comes awfully close. In ways large and small, our surroundings shape our lives. Our productivity, happiness, and creativity are all functions of place. Simply put: Where we are affects who we are.

The stubborn persistence of geography is, I think, something to celebrate. It means the world remains diverse, and as any biologist will tell you, ecosystems thrive when there is diversity. There’s nothing more vulnerable than a one-crop economy. Vive la difference isn’t just a catchy jingle. It’s a survival strategy.

So, yes, place matters, but what exactly do I mean by place? At the most basic level, I am speaking of topography, the lay of the land. This matters. Ancient Greece sprouted hundreds of distinct cultures and city-states largely because the hilly, rocky terrain created natural barriers that encouraged such a potpourri of cultures. Meanwhile, the clear and sharp Athenian light inspired philosopher and artist alike in the most successful of city-states.

What truly makes a place, though, is not topography but culture. Culture is the sea we swim in. So pervasive, so all-consuming, that we fail to notice its existence until we step out of it. It matters more than we think.

Take happiness. With our words, we subconsciously conflate geography and happiness. We speak of “searching for happiness,” of “finding contentment,” as if these were locations in an atlas, actual places that we could visit if only we had the proper map and the right navigational skills. Even a cursory glance at the United Nations’ World Happiness Report is revealing. Four out of five of the happiest nations are Nordic (and have been for some time). It is not their climate nor their topography that explains this but, rather, their cultures, remarkably robust ones that all the gigabytes in the world cannot erase.

Place also influences our creative lives. Plot the appearance of geniuses throughout history and you’ll notice something quite interesting. The greatest minds pop up not randomly—one in Siberia, another in Bolivia—but in groupings. Genius clusters. Athens in 450 B.C. Florence in A.D. 1500. Certain places, at certain times, produced a bumper crop of brilliant minds and great ideas. With very few exceptions (see: Silicon Valley), they are always cities. And they all possess one essential ingredient: openness to the foreign, the other. No wonder a disproportionate number of geniuses were immigrants; not only did they bring with them a hunger for success, they also possessed an “oblique perspective,” as one psychologist observes, a worldview born of their particular geography.

The power of place gives lie to one of the greatest myths perpetuated by the self-help industrial complex: namely, that our interior lives are all that matter. We can be happy (or productive or creative) anywhere, we’re told. Perhaps this is true for the Dalai Lama, but for us mortals it clearly is not.

That isn’t a bad thing, provided we’re willing to treat geography not as an obstacle but as an opportunity. Crossing geographic borders enables us to transcend our own internal ones. As Henry Miller once observed, “One’s destination is never a place but a new way of seeing things.” Similarly, the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore said he traveled in order “to see properly.” Both writers touch upon an essential truth: Our environment seeps inside us. We internalize our surroundings so that, eventually, the line between out there and in here dissolves entirely. Looking at geography this way, it is no longer some antediluvian notion we must strive to shed. It is an essential part of our humanity—and always will be.