Back to Know Your World

Living in the tropics (without air conditioning) is difficult. Infrastructure is more expensive to build and maintain, diseases non-existent in temperate climates plague all, and most traditional grains cannot ripen. Mexicans solved these problems by climbing up into their mountains, where higher elevations mean lower humidity and cooler temperatures. In this world-at-night photo, the populated highlands of Central Mexico stand out starkly, while the low-population-density northern deserts and southern jungles lie dark. North across the Rio Grande – in the United States’ temperate climate – looms a more traditional settlement pattern, complete with hub-and-spoke cities and a plethora of secondary population centers.

The split between the two geographies has shaped relations between the countries since their independence. The ease of transport across the American rivers and plains enabled the United States to quickly evolve into a participatory democracy in which no region held sway. In contrast, Mexico’s plague of highlands, deserts and jungles made everything more expensive. Politically, Mexico still struggles to find a balance between the ultra-rich who have the funds required to make a portion of the country bloom and everyone else who works for them.

The result is that Mexico, even today, is not truly a unified polity, but instead a series of oligarchic empires struggling both against each other and Mexico City for control of their zones of influence. The difference across Mexican and American history is striking. When America goes to war, it takes the war to its target – only once has it been the victim of a foreign invasion. It has suffered but one civil war lasting only four years. In contrast, the Mexicans have found themselves under attack a half a dozen times, and have spent nearly six decades at war on their own territory, civil and otherwise.

For more on the contrast between the Mexican and American systems and how that contrast will generate the greatest threat to the American way of life, see Chapter 13 of The Accidental Superpower.