In this episode of 'The Books That Made Me', Ben Keene (Co-founder of Rebel Book Club) talks to Tim Marshall about the nonfiction books that have had a massive impact on him to date, including why it's important to read books that take us outside of our comfort zones and political leanings.
Tim also shares the background to his latest book 'The Future of Geography' and how the solutions to some of our climate challenges could be in space, or more specifically on the moon...
Tim Marshall is a leading authority on foreign affairs with more than thirty years of reporting experience. He was diplomatic editor at Sky News and before that worked for the BBC and LBC/IRN radio. He has reported from forty countries and covered conflicts in Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Israel.
He is the author of Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World; The Age of Walls: How Barriers Between Nations Are Changing Our World; and A Flag Worth Dying For: The Power and Politics of National Symbols.
He is founder and editor of the current affairs site TheWhatandtheWhy.com.
1. Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order by Robert Kagen
2. Milestones by Sayyid Qutb
3. Cosmos: The Story of Cosmic Evolution, Science and Civilisation by Carl Sagan
*Please note due to some technical issues, the episode only features Tim's comments on book one, 'Paradise + Power'.
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[00:00:00] On the moon and on the meteorites and the giant meteorites, there are more rare earth materials and precious metals of the exact sort we need for the 21st century technology, including the 21st century technology for renewables. Lithium, Helium, all sorts of things. They're there on the moon. There is huge amounts of water, which probably has Helium and other things in it. This is theoretically and probably part of the solution.
[00:00:34] Welcome to ‘The Books That Made Me’, where today we are talking with a nonfiction legend. Uh, the geopolitical author of ‘Prisoners of Geography’ and now ‘The Future of Geography’. Today we talk to Tim about his new book, ‘The Future of Geography’, how power and politics in space will change our world and how it's happening today.Tim also shares the book that's had the biggest impact on him.
Tim Marshall. Tim, welcome to Rebel Book Club.
[00:01:06] Well, thank you. The last time I was called a legend was in Kosovo when a guy said you are a legend in my country. So, so thank you for that.
[00:01:15] That, that's a bigger status call, I think, even though Rebel Book Clubbers believe that too. Um, so let's talk about the new book, ‘The Future of Geography’, because this is a sort of a departure, not just planetary, but, um, from looking backwards, I guess.
Um, what moment did space sort of come into the, into the foreground for you and you knew you had to dive into it.
[00:01:39] A couple of years ago, um, it's about two and a half and I was finishing off a book called, um, uh, ‘The Power of Geography’, which was the follow up, one of the follow ups to ‘Prisoners of Geography’.
And I went through various countries, you know, I did a chapter on Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the UK. And then I was thinking, and I thought, actually, you know what? Space. This is also an area we need to think about. And, uh, yeah, I don't know if it's a lightbulb moment, but, um, the dim lightbulb moment was this sort of sentence that formed in my head that, you know what?
International relations now encompasses space. And that was the sort of dim light bulb. So I put a chapter about the geography of space and its relationship with international relations. And then when I got to the end of it, I thought, you know what, there's a book in this. Um, you know, it deserves more than just a chapter. And so, so, that was the, uh, the genesis in the beginning.
[00:02:38] And it makes so much sense when you're now, obviously we're on the other side exploring. And a Rebel Book Club, we actually had this theme. It came out ahead of of your book, but I'm sure ‘The Future of Geography’ will be, will be gobbled up. So we read ‘The Future of Humanity’ by Michio Kaku, who's sort of been in the space space for a long time.
[00:02:56] Yeah, I read, I read that as part of the research. Yeah, because I have to say this is the first book I've written where I haven't actually been to the place because there's a few sort of, there's a few barriers in my way, not least gravity and the atmosphere. So yeah, I read that as part of the research.
[00:03:13] Well I heard Virgin Orbit might be getting an extension on their funding. today, so that that could help you. You can go up with the next satellite.
[00:03:20] Tim: Depends how many copies we sell, if I can afford it.
[00:03:22] Ben: So astropolitics, Tim, like, why is this, would you believe, having dived into this topic, going to have such a big impact on us, versus what feels like these more immediate challenges of, you know, the climate crisis, wherever AI is going, the return of nuclear war, why, why is space going to have such a big impact?
[00:03:40] You mentioned two there, uh, climate change. Well, the satellites are helping us to, uh, plot it, and therefore to try to, uh, find out what to do about it. Some of the solutions, longer term, may well be in space. For example, massive fields of solar panels, which deflect the sun's power down to huge fields of, um, receivers, uh, which of course can work 24 hours a day because, you know, there's no night time out there.
Um, so that's one. And then you mentioned nuclear war. Well, sadly. Um, there's a connection there as well, which is that, for example, some of the satellites by the major powers are linked to their early warning systems. So if they go dark, as the expression goes, people get very nervous. And given that now there is such a thing as killer satellites, where one satellite can attack another.
Uh, there are what's called ASATs, direct ascent attacks. Five countries have already practiced this. They've launched a missile from the surface of the earth, and they've knocked one of their own satellites out of the sky, just to test if they can do it. Now, they weren't testing if they can do it to get in case they needed to do one of their own, they've tested it in case they want to target someone else's satellite.
And so it follows that if your early warning satellite was knocked out, you would be very nervous. This could be the precursor to a launch. So, you know, I think most things you could say to me about what's going on in Earth and I will be able to give you a direct connection to space.
[00:05:19] And then when you look at something like the climate crisis, as we've explored quite a lot at Rebel Book Club in the last couple of years, it does feel increasingly, and we had the IPCC's latest report out this week, it does feel like increasingly immediate for many, many humans.
It feels like when we were exploring this, it's in conflict with this idea of like, leaving Earth, terraforming Mars, going to places that don't have an atmosphere. So why, why do you, why do you think that, um, that's still going to happen, that space race is going to happen when actually the reality of the climate crisis is, is on us now?
[00:05:58] Because it is happening. Uh, now you've introduced the argument about whether it should be. I am firmly on the side of that it should be. Um, we can go back to the previous space race and there are so many advantages came from it and not least those silver things you put around you at the end of marathons, which I admit is not a global human game changer, but many, many things came out of it.
Many good things. Okay. To take it head on in the immediate term. Uh, it is helping us to combat climate change in the near future, it could present, uh, partial solutions. In the not too distant future because the Americans intend to land again on the moon with a man and a woman this time in 2025 and have a base by 2032, which if HS2 is anything to go by means 2038, but that's another matter.
Um, yeah, because the reason they're going this time is not ideology. The reason why they went last time was to prove to the world that their system was superior to the Soviet system, because it was an integral part of the Cold War and the ideological war. Our technology and therefore our culture society is better than yours.
Russians won several stages on that race, but the Americans got to the finish line first. So this time it's not driven by that. This time it's driven much more by economics. Now, on the moon and on the meteorites, some of the giant meteorites, there are more rare earth materials and precious metals of the exact sort we need for the 21st century technology, including the 21st century technology for renewables, the lithium, uh, helium, all sorts of things.
They're there on the moon. The Indians have found that there is huge amounts of water, which probably has helium and other things in it. So again, this is theoretically and probably part of the solution. Now we can further despoil the earth and dig it all up, or we can go out there. And yes, despoil the moon, which is another argument.
The last thing, there are more answers, but the last thing is also, this is Musk's argument. I mean, I don't accept his timeline at all. He's talking about a million people on Mars in 2050. I think that's unlikely, but we might well need plan B. We might well have to get off and it's no good getting to say 2100.
I don't mean nine o'clock. I mean the year and suddenly thinking, you know what? We really need to leave. And it's that old adage about you. You don't plant a tree so you can sit underneath it. You plant a tree so that your children can sit underneath it in the shade in the future. And I think we have to, we have to start.
We've started and we're keeping going. So that's my argument for it. Now, there are eminent people, Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, who argue against this, who think that the issues are too pressing and we have to focus here. I think that I think that both approaches, uh, trying to solve things here and working up there, uh, can be in tandem
[00:09:05] and and listening to you it feels like a great example of one of those big ideas where two things that feel like maybe they're in conflict, you can hold at the same time and not just because you need a plan B, but because actually there are things we don't know yet that will help
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[00:10:54] It's not, you know, it's not full of joy and light. I mean, um, I, I, I toyed with ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ by Gerard Diamond because I think that's a more uplifting book, but ‘Of Paradise and Power’ by Robert Kagan.
Now Kagan is a American intellectual, uh, political writer, uh, on the right of center. I think it's safe to say. I think neoconservative is too hard, but certainly a conservative, but you know, I'm not tribal in my politics. Um, so I don't mind, you know, within certain parameters. And I read this in 2003, probably when I was in Iraq.
The basis of it is, is that the transatlantic divide. Uh, had been laid bare - that we don't understand each other at, at quite deep levels. The Americans and the Europeans and the reason that it's paradise and power is that he says that most of us in the west live in paradise.
Now, obviously, we have our slums, our problems, our racism. You know, it's not paradise for everybody. But compared to many parts of the world, and you could possibly argue most parts of the world, we live in paradise. And he said the difference between the Americans and the Europeans, and to a lesser extent the Brits, is that the Americans understand that, and they understand that you cannot try to, uh, take your rules of para-power, whereas the Europeans, uh, who had taken this holiday from history after the end of the Cold War, did think that the rules of paradise would get traction In the world of power.
And he said that was the fundamental difference. And I just thought that was, you know, it's a title that sums up quite a deep thought and it's a short book. Um, and if you know, if you can, if, if you're not of the conservative ilk, um, just put it to one side, not the book, your opinions, and just read it for what it is.
Uh, or if you are read it for, you know, what it is. I think it's very useful to, to try to understand, um, things you don't agree with, if you just try to put to one side for a while, okay, what is their argument? And let me judge it on its merits, not on what I thought before I opened the first page.
[00:13:17] Absolutely, and actually our theme this month is how to have better conversations with, from different perspectives. It's hard, but your books have always seemed to me to be able to bring in a broad audience, obviously a large audience. How have you managed to, to, as you, as you've just said, not be drawn into the tribalism that is such a powerful force?
[00:13:40] Yeah, it's hard though, isn't it? It's hard. I mean, I am to an extent, um, but you know, I just try to resist it because I think there's too much of it now. And I don't like polemicists, especially polemicists, that only take a view in order to pay their mortgage. You know, what will get clicks? What will get people going?
I don't really believe this, but I'll write it anyway. I've got very little time for them. I think they're cheap. Genuine polemicists, writing from the heart. Okay. There's too much polemic at the moment, so I try not to, although obviously, you know, sometimes I do state clear opinions, which will make some people cross.
Um, when I was a working journalist, um, I disagree with those people that say you cannot get rid of your bias. Um, I honestly believe that. I mean, there are people that are scathing about that view that, you know, you have to, you can never get rid of it. I honestly think if you are aware of your bias, if you are aware that I am biased about this subject, um, once you know that you're biased and also think, and it's possible I may not be right. You then can approach and say, they think this for these reasons, they think this for these reasons. I mean, it's difficult not to put more weight on one side of the other, especially when it's a ridiculous argument about whether the earth is flat or not. It's not. But, you know, on the more nuanced arguments, I've never really found it a problem, uh, to, to say ‘on the one hand, and on the other’. Which some people hate, but I think we're in need of it at the moment.
[00:15:12] I think you're right, and that's why you should read a diverse range of nonfiction, ladies and gentlemen. Um, and, and, uh, you talk about not taking sides, but you're constantly promoting Leeds United Football Club. I mean, that's tribalism at it’s, you know, most intense.
[00:15:26] Ah, that's different. Oh, heavens, yeah, no, there is no... There is, there's no quarter asked for or given. Um, I'm a home and away season ticket holder. I go when, when they're playing, I'm there. And, um, yeah, that is, uh, that's different. Now that's football.
[00:15:43] That's a, that's a different kind of journey. And now talking, final question for me, Tim, today is talking of flags. I mean, the Leeds United flag is, I'm sure, powerful amongst certain, amongst certain crowd.
But, um, out of all the books of yours that I've read, “Worth Dying For: The Power and Politics of Flags” is the one that's kind of stayed with me, and it links to your previous point, which is around you know, human identity and what, what people will do.
You talk in that book really brilliantly about all these different flags ranging from national flags to, you know, uh, international flags like UN and I think medical flags as well. You mentioned it and, and the power of them to like for what people will do for them. Um, how does it bring us back to The Future of Geography, how do, how do you see that symbolism playing out, um, as we go to space?
[00:16:33] Good question, actually. I hadn't really thought of it in those terms. I mean, because all, most of the previous books, yeah, at their heart is identity, and to an extent nationalism, and the emotions that, that's what the book about flags was about, you know, how come it presses your emotional buttons.
But thinking of, um, yeah, there are… It will play in there as well. For example, the sight of the American flag back on the moon is going to be very powerful. But the Chinese are going to plant their flag as well. And I mean, some people are, you know, boys toys, babies. Fine, you might be right, but it doesn't mean it's not happening.
And that's what it's about, planting that flag. And then there's others going to take up, as part of the Artemis Accords, uh, a European astronaut to go on the moon, not in the first, not in the 2025 rocket… The competition amongst the Spanish, the French, the Italians, the Germans to be the first European to walk on the moon is enormous.
So there's that, there's the pride in space. The UAE has had a probe that's gone all the way to Mars. They are incredibly proud of that because it shows that the Arab world, you know, is now equal, um, in, in the modern world. That it can put probe all the way to Mars, you know, that's more than Britain has ever done, or Italy or France, uh, individually.
So there's that, there's that pride as well. Africans, um, the Nigerians are making their own micro satellites. They don't have launch ability, but they are Nigerian, you know, made in Africa, stuff is circling the earth. So there is that national pride aspect of it. And then there's that sheer economic, uh, greed, if you like.
No, not greed, um, necessity. And there's a there's a line in the book that the flag follows the trade. And what I mean by that is that all through history, once something becomes important enough trade wise. And I'm thinking of the East India Company, which had its own private army. Well, the British flag followed on pretty quickly, and that will happen.
[00:18:41] The business model of the future is not on Earth. Tim, thank you so much for giving us an insight into ‘The Future of Geography’.
It's a brilliant, brilliant new subject that you've made accessible for your big audience. And thanks for joining Rebel Book Club today.