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Why Is The World Split Into Countries?

Why is the world divided into countries? Why can't everyone live as one big group?

Why is all of the world split up into countries, states, cities and counties and more? Why can't we all just live as one big group? Which country has the least amount of people? We're talking about countries and borders with author Juan Enriquez. Also in this episode: why don't school buses have seatbelts?

To understand countries you first have to know what a border is. The kind of border we're talking about is a boundary set up by a government. And its basic function is to say, within these lines a specific government is in charge and specific rules are in place that people who live here have to follow. Sometimes borders can be defined by a natural feature, like a river, mountain or ocean. But sometimes they're straight lines that cut through all kinds of natural lines and are more of a political boundary.

It's not always easy to come up with a border that everyone can agree on. Wars have been fought over where one country's borders start and another's end. People have been killed over border disputes. This stuff can get really messy.

You've probably learned about the U.S. Civil War in your history classes, if you're in school. That was back in the 1860s, when the southern half of the United States wanted to secede from, or leave, the United States. The Confederate States of America, as they were called, even elected a president, Jefferson Davis. But the president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, fought to keep those states as part of the Union, the existing U.S.

It's often the people who are living in a disputed territory who suffer the most, because these decisions about border disputes are often a struggle, not something that people decide with a handshake. And the decision makers don't always have the best interests of the people who live there in mind. Powerful governments have historically wanted to take over land that's valuable, and that's been more important to them than the wishes of the native people who live there.

"Why is all of the world split up like countries, states, cities and counties and more? — Devika, 8, Overland Park, KS.

Credit Courtesy of parents
Courtesy of parents
Devika, left, 8, lives in Kansas. She loves art and can do it 24 hours a day! She likes to illustrate story books and also enjoys singing. Sophia, 8, lives in Florida. She loves swimming and reading. In her free time, she also enjoys putting together Lego sets. Sophia plans to be an astronomer when she grows up.
"Why is the world made up of so many countries. Why can't we all just live as one big group? — Sophia, 8, Apopka, FL

Borders are always changing. The newest country in the world is South Sudan, in East Africa. That country declared independence from Sudan in 2011, just five and a half years ago, after a very violent civil war.

In some places it's still not clear who gets to claim the land. In Antarctica there are seven countries that all claim overlapping territories.

And in other places, voters have thought about becoming a new country and then decided not to. In 2014, people living in Scotland thought very hard about separating from the United Kingdom. The UK is made up of four countries: England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland all have their own governments and varying degrees of sovereignty, or independence, but they're part of the United Kingdom. Scotland was thinking about leaving the United Kingdom. But in the end, the Scots decided to stay in the UK. For now.

The idea that borders are in constant change is not something we think about a lot in the United States. But Juan Enriquez has thought a lot about it. He wrote a book called the Untied States of America.

"The history of humanity has been learning to tolerate, how to learn to live together in larger and larger groups in peace. We're still not perfect at it. In the last hundred years or so we've moved from being a species that lives mostly in the countryside to being a species that's living about 80% in cities. As we do that, I think we'll get better at tolerating other countries. We'll get better at living with other people. Maybe our notion of current countries may start to fade," Enriquez said.

"Countries for a long time, concentrated people who had one belief system, they were of the same religion or color or beliefs, one of the things that makes the United States so strong and successful has been while it does have borders, within those borders it has gotten more tolerant of people who think differently, look differently, or have a different systems that in other places would lead to a border."

"A lot of the history of humans has been moving from 'only my family matters,' to 'only my tribe matters,' to 'only my town matters,' to 'only my country matters.' One of the really nice things about what's happening today, particularly among young people, is there are problems like the environment or education or stopping wars or keeping the planet clean or getting to mars that require a whole lot more people. That means we have to break down some of those borders, I think we're slowly headed in that direction."

Many countries have systems that require permission to live in another country, and may require classes, or long wait periods, or family ties to be allowed to live there. Those are citizenship requirements. And you might have to go through an immigration process.  

In some places you don't have to get permission if the country you're from and the country you want to live in have an agreement. That's true for countries in the European Union.

Juan Enriquez says this kind of open border concept may be the way of the future.

"I think borders are getting more and more tenuous. Part of the reason why they are doing that is it used to people that people didn't travel more than 20-30 miles from where they lived. When you invented the automobile and airplane travel gets cheap, now you can see other cities and towns and even other countries. The amount of kids who are getting the opportunity to travel is increasing. Travel shows you how interesting it is to talk to people who are different from you," Enriquez said. "Then it becomes harder for governments to create a sense of distance a sense of hate between one place or another."

—  Juan Enriquez, author of Untied States of America: Polarization, Fracturing and our Future.

Listen to the full episode for answers to which country has the smallest number of people and why many school buses don't have seat belts.

Read the full transcript.


Melody is the Contributing Editor for But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids and the co-author of two But Why books with Jane Lindholm.
Jane Lindholm is the host, executive producer and creator of But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids. In addition to her work on our international kids show, she produces special projects for Vermont Public. Until March 2021, she was host and editor of the award-winning Vermont Public program Vermont Edition.
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