Monday, September 16, 2013

Scaling the World

Watching an American movie recently (Sean Penn's Into the Wild) with some Filipino friends, left them wondering aloud where all the people could have gone from the deserts of the American Southwest or from the woods of Alaska. I explained that much of the American West is like that - that one can drive for miles at a time on highways without seeing another car or a house. And it's likely to stay that way as long as people continue to migrate to cities. The only way to comprehend the sheer size of America is to drive across it.

But the size of many nations in the world is comparably small. The expansiveness of America makes it hard for many Americans to comprehend the comparable tininess of most modern nations. The Philippines, for example, is made up of 7,107 islands, most of which are uninhabited because of a lack of a fresh water source. The total land area of the Philippines, including it's lakes and rivers, is estimated to be around 120,000 square miles, making it 73rd on the list of the world's largest countries. It also makes the Philippines only slightly smaller than the state American state of New Mexico.(1)

The United States is the 4th largest country in the world, behind Russia, Canada and China. Since a little more than one-third of Americans have bothered to acquire a passport (2), signifying their indifference to the attractions of the rest of the world, it might be diverting to some to conduct an informal survey of the comparative dimensions of different countries in relation to our fifty American states.

Afghanistan, which American soldiers have had to explore for nearly twelve years, is smaller than Texas. So is France, which is the biggest European nation. Sweden is only about ten thousand square miles larger than California. All of the Japanese islands constitute an area that is slightly smaller than Montana. Germany, even with East and West now united, is ten thousand square miles smaller than Montana. No wonder Hitler wanted Lebensraum ("living space").

Italy is less than a thousand square miles smaller than Arizona. New Zealand is about the same size as Colorado. The United Kingdom, which includes (as of this writing), Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, is a tad bigger than Michigan (and this is a country whose Royal Navy ruled the waves!). Greece is slightly smaller than Louisiana. Syria, all over the news, is a bit bigger than Washington state. Austria is a bit bigger than South Carolina.

I have written before about the meaning and importance of borders and other lines of demarcation. In another movie, Sam Peckinpah's masterpiece The Wild Bunch, the gang arrives at the banks of a river, on the other side of which is Mexico. Angel, played by Jaime Sánchez exclaims in Spanish how beautiful it looks to him. Tector Gorch (Ben Johnson) says, "Just looks like more Texas far as I'm concerned." Angel replies, "You have no eyes!"


(1) By population, however, the Philippines is ranked 12th in the world, with 98,346,000 people. Try to imagine that many people in New Mexico. California, 40,000 square miles bigger, has about one-third the population of the Philippines.
(2) A pleasant surprise is that the number is on the rise. Nearly 110 million Americans (out of 313 million) now have passports.

[Look closer at the map (click on the image). All the names are in Cyrillic.]

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