A key premise of this book is to explore why flatness, a feature found rarely in nature, is something humans have tried hard to produce in civilisation. He argues ‘today more than 50 million kilometres of roads dominate the daily movement of most of the world’s people; and one million kilometres of railways link levelled croplands with architecturally planar cities.’
While the miles of concrete and asphalt are the ‘Earth’s new skin’, he describes how flatness has become the human hallmark on most habitats. Forests are razed, swamps drained and beaches reinforced. ‘Per capita, an average of six tonnes of earth is moved annually,’ he remarks. Strikingly, we move more earth than any other geological force.
Most interesting is the fact that humans don’t seem to enjoy flatness that much anyway. Higman shows how the world’s great flat areas, such as the Australian bush and the North American prairies, are often portrayed culturally as featureless places of unease, loneliness, even madness. Natural flatlands ‘struggle to achieve’ the same conservation profile as mountains and oceans. Higman offers that all the energy we put into flattening the land is at odds with our preference for variation, and perhaps reinforces it.
In dealing with such a universal concept, some of the arguments are lost in abstract references. It shines, however, when linked to real-world issues such as the flat, low-lying countries facing the rise of sea levels and the toll of globalised industry on natural resources.