Why is wealth skewed towards "colder" countries?
October 26, 2006 4:53 AM   Subscribe

Why is wealth skewed towards "colder" countries?

Why are prosperous countries ( using GDP as a measure) usually (but not always) located in temperate climates while poorer countries are located in tropical, savannah or desert climates?
posted by jacobean to Society & Culture (38 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Jared Diamond has made a living answering questions like this. Check out Guns, Germs, and Steel.
posted by wfrgms at 4:57 AM on October 26, 2006

Jared Diamond is mining a very old seam. Go back to sopme of the original texts he's sourced from:
Alfred Crosby's Ecological Imperialism
William McNeill's Plagues and Peoples

There was quite a vogue for these sorts of books in the 1960s and 1970s but then they fell out of fashion. Which is why Diamond's reworking in the 90s had quite a novel impact.

Basically, it boils down to conditions being less suitable for endemic malaria. Also, local rodent populations and social behaviours had a lot to do with the timing and extent of bubonic plague outbreaks. It also has to do with how the Eurasian land mass is extended laterally across temerate zones and makes transmission of macroparasites and microparasites quite straightforward along the tropical zones.
posted by meehawl at 5:18 AM on October 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

Protestant work ethic.
posted by flabdablet at 5:25 AM on October 26, 2006

Also, it hasn't always been like that, and it probably won't always be like that in the future.

At various points in time, China, India, the Middle East, and the pre-Columbian empires of Central America have all been the richest parts of their "known world."
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:29 AM on October 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

well... you can't lie out on the beach all day sunning yourself in temperate climates!

Interesting though, never thought about that . My own assumption would be that it's just the way the world has panned out recently. Like nebulawindphone mentions, it hasn't always been like that and it's unlikely to stay this way. The European Empires of the early 20th century had a lot to do with the way things have turned out imho.
posted by twistedonion at 5:33 AM on October 26, 2006

Protestant work ethic

But why would something like a "protestant work ethic" emerge as a social behaviour?
posted by meehawl at 5:42 AM on October 26, 2006

Protestant work ethic.

It would be interesting to compare estimated GDP from before the reformation between temperate and tropical countries.

I have a feeling that a lot of hotter countries used to be very prosperous. The near east, bits of Eastern Africa etc.
posted by public at 5:43 AM on October 26, 2006

Why is wealth skewed towards "colder" countries?

That is true now, but think of Egypt, Greece and Rome, the various civilizations of Mesopotamia, the Aztecs and Incas and Mayans, etc.

In a thousand years, maybe people will be wondering why everything great comes from Africa and South America and the Antarctic Union. Or the Moon -- "No one on Earth does anything because it's just too hard to move around."
posted by pracowity at 5:44 AM on October 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

But why would something like a "protestant work ethic" emerge as a social behaviour?

Because the largest empire in the world suddenly became protestant? I imagine that would provide a fairly large incentive for people to emulate that behaviour.
posted by public at 5:45 AM on October 26, 2006

National geographic had an interesting commentary about how geography has affected the economic development of Africa.

Africa is split in half with two narrow temperate zones separated by a wide tropical zone. This has complicated the diffusion of domesticated plants and livestock across the country. (Which in Europe and Asia involved small evolutionary changes from region to region.) Most indigenous African crops failed to gain wide market acceptance in European markets.

The tropical zone and the Sahara has also complicated trade routes across the continent.

Human parasites such as malaria have had a million years of co-evolution and diversification.

Contemporary macrofauna in Africa also co-evolved with humans and has proven difficult to domesticate. The number of domesticated animal species is actually quite small.

Most of Africa didn't have access to easy mass transport by river. (The Nile is a big exception.)

The overall conclusions was that geography goes a long way to explaining why most of Africa has not benefitted from the 1,000 years of trade that set the stage for European expansion.

nebulawindphone: At various points in time, China, India, the Middle East, and the pre-Columbian empires of Central America have all been the richest parts of their "known world."

China, India and much of the Middle East are temperate and not tropical, savannah or full-on desert.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:49 AM on October 26, 2006

ok I'll stop posting now

Here is a handy map of world GDP per capita. If only it were also weighted by population density!
posted by public at 6:00 AM on October 26, 2006

also, Eric Jones's The European Miracle
posted by chelseagirl at 6:18 AM on October 26, 2006

I'll second checking out Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel as an awesome answer to this question.
posted by yeahyeahyeahwhoo at 6:20 AM on October 26, 2006

Because the largest empire in the world suddenly became protestant?

I am not entirely sure which Empire you are referring to. During Luther's time, the largest world empires were the Inka, the Chinese, and then very quickly the Spanish.

The question really is, *why* would something identified as the "work ethic" emerge in a particular region, at a particular time. That, in essence, in similar to the original question asked.

I believe that the reasons for Europe's recent boost in relative GDP has to do with geographically and historically contingent factors. The "ethics" emerges as an epiphenomenon of these macro trends. The environment shapes the peoplem and their beliefs.

It's worth noting that the northern Europeans (mostly protestant) suffered more from catastrophic plagues in the early Modern era than the southern Europeans (mostly catholic). This was because the catholic cultures tended to retain a semi-mystical belief in and practice of quarantine rituals derived from their experiences during the late medieval plagues. Because the more "rationalist" northern Europeans rejected the contagion theory of disease as obviously flawed in contrast to the "scientific" miasma theory, quarantine was seen as a superstitious relic. Given also that northern Europe was both less populated than southern Europea and formed a less hospitable habitat for plague rats, when plague did arrive every few generations it found a completely niave population and spread more rapidly.

The same pattern was visible during the cholera outbreaks of the 19th century, when the northern Europeans, *sure* that French scientists had proved contagion was a lot of rubbish, rejected quarantine.
posted by meehawl at 6:27 AM on October 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

I should add, McNeill addresses some of the aspects of the "modern ethic" in Plagues and Peoples. If you go back to the 11/12th centuries, for example, Europe was then coming into its peak of economic performance after the pandemics of early medieval era. With the population thinned and international (and inter-city) trade almost non-existant, mass plagues were virtually unknown. This was, for its time, a rationalist era that produced such philosphers as Aquinas, who espoused logical universe derived from a deity imagined as just and reasonable. In many ways, Aquinas echoed the creationist philosophies of Ibn Sina and Al Razi in the Islamic cultures a couple of centuries earlier. The work ethic at that time in Europe was positively Confucian, and economic activity was systematic and organised through rigid guild hierarchies.

However, rising populations and international trade during the 13th and 14th centuries exposed EUrope to pandemic plague. People were dying all over, young and old, some within hours of appearing healthy. Death became arbitrary and illogical - it appeared as if a random deity was simply striking down people willy nilly. San Sebastian became a popular metaphor for people struck down by invisible arrows. The "work ethic" became a minority view and Europe entered into a couple of centuries of economic decline and drift. Only when the pandemics abated could a more logical viewpoint begin to emerge and this newly-reborn belief in a rational world where people could "get ahead" by sheer force of will and intellect and effort became known as the Renaissance.

I agree with McNeill that peoples cultural beliefs to a large extent reflect the disease environment in which they live. In history, the temperate regions tend to be characterised by several centuries of relative freedom from disease during which international trade has grown and stoic/rationalist philosophies gain primacy. Overpopulation then leads to a century or two of pandemic dieoff, during which such philosophies go into disrepute. There have been at least 3 (and possibly 4) such dieoffs in western Europe since the 1st century, and it's even possible that the Mycenean dark age was such a dieoff around 900 BCE.

Tropical zones, by contrast, do not exhibit such periodicity, given their more adapted parasites.

The periodicity between Europe and China has been loosely coupled since the 1st century, and it's definite that China suffered from the 1st and 6/7th century dieoffs along with the Romans, linked as they were through trade. However, it's a loose coupling and China's recent history diverged due to its push south into tropical zones. Part of Europe's good fortune was that it arrived in the Americas just as it was coming out of a couple of centuries of dieoff and it had a whole host of new endemic diseases to spread to the Native Americans, and secondly the implementation of sanitation in the 19th century enabled European cities to avoid the traditional dieoffs that previously had decimated them every few centuries so.

One stat I found remarkable was the amount of migration into a city needed just to maintain its population. In the 18th century London required 600K people to immigrate from the countryside just to maintain a stable population. In the 19th century this number was doubled or tripled. With the implementation of sanitation, cities no longer became mere furnaces for consuming people from the countryside but now produced vast excesses of population. Europe exported its excess populations to the territories cleared by pandemic diseases during the previous couple of centuries.
posted by meehawl at 6:49 AM on October 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

This is as cultural as it is geographic. Almost all the rich countries are either in Europe or are European settlements, like the U.S., Canada, Australia.

As late as 1400 it was not at all clear that Europeans would soon dominate the planet. A variety of factors unique to Europe forced them outwards (short list: they had only intermittent access to luxury goods like spices and silk and needed a new route that wasn't across the Islamic world, they developed double-entry bookkeeping and joint stock companies, they adopted technology like lanteen ails and compasses from the Arabs, etc.)

Once Europe expanded along the African coast and across the Atlantic, the surge of wealth and knowledge jump started European civilization and encouraged further expansion. Add to this the dramatic disease imbalance between Europe and the New World, where the natives died in heaps before the invaders could unsheath their swords. The wealth of the New World encouraged European expansion elsewhere, even where there was no disease imbalance.

European expansion actually drove other world civilizations backwards on the path of progress. The slave trade ripped Africa apart and destroyed the centers of learning. The advanced civilizations of the Americas collapsed. India and China were forced into the European orbit in inferior positions.

Europeans then colonized those portions of the world that most closely resembled their homelands. An English farmer of wheat and oats with a taste for dairy products found North America more amenable (and closer) than South America, and so on.

So what you are seeing in the modern world map is the en of a historical process. History is a better explanation than climate.
posted by LarryC at 6:49 AM on October 26, 2006

During Luther's time, the largest world empires were the Inka, the Chinese, and then very quickly the Spanish.

Yeah, I've always felt that the phrase "Protestant Work Ethic" was invented to denigrate Catholics especially the Spanish. It's a xenophobic myth that northern European countries (i.e. Protestant) countries are/were more productive than southern countries. I believe that its part and parcel of the myth of the "cruel Spaniard" (compared to the fair Englishman) and all part of early reformation propaganda. I've thought about this a lot being half English and half Spanish...

Actually all of what meehawl said is great...
posted by ob at 6:51 AM on October 26, 2006

Oh yeah I'd like to be another to thoroughly recommend GUNS, GERMS AND STEEL.
posted by ob at 6:53 AM on October 26, 2006

Though when empires lin temperate zones like egypt, rome, etc. were wealthy the majority of the work was done by slave labor, imported from mostly other climates. The American south was once home to the wealthy, while slaves were used, and though currently rebuilding has been one of the poorer regions in the US historically.
posted by jeffe at 6:54 AM on October 26, 2006

Though when empires in temperate zones like egypt, rome, etc. were wealthy the majority of the work was done by slave labor, imported from mostly other climates. The American south was once home to the wealthy, while slaves were used, and though currently rebuilding has been one of the poorer regions in the US historically.
posted by jeffe at 6:55 AM on October 26, 2006

The one element that isn't mentioned from Guns, germs & Steel is that Europe and it's derived nations are wealthy because they had a head start. Also, Europe's ability to support dense populations via high-yield agricultural plants and domesticatable animals (two things that are not present everywhere) led them to other developments earlier than, say, in Australia or North America.

But a lot of it is just the head start. People started living in Europe a lot earlier than North America. The flip side is that Europe was much better able to support large populations via agriculture, unlike Africa which presumably had a head start on human habitation over Europe.

That's my rough (bad) synopsis of GG&S. He doesn't talk about China much, though as others have pointed out, at one point China was a contender for eventual plant-wide winner. Actually, they're still in contention.
posted by GuyZero at 8:23 AM on October 26, 2006

posted by Mr. Gunn at 8:24 AM on October 26, 2006

I was thinking about scale and although it's often impossible to guage accurate figures (and even exactly what diseases were in play) from pre-modern accounts, some scaling is possible. During the great pandemics that periodically swept Europe and China, somewhere between 20% and 50% of the entire population would die through a combination of disease and famine. There are accounts of cities mass burying 5-10K people per day for months.

These pandemics would usually sweep through for a year or two then abate. They would often return a generation later, when a new population of immunologically vulnerable inhabitants had emerged. The disease and the people adapted from there on, reducing the mortality and usually converting it to a childhood epidemic that "merely" resulted in high infant mortality. Measles and chickenpox were child killers in Europe, but city killers in the Americas.

The effect of apandemic, however, is to remove huge chunks of adult, productive population. This is remembered generally as a "dark age" or a collapse or realignment of empires.

In Europe/China, this happened only every few hundred years.

When the Europeans began expanding into the Americas and the Pacific/Australia, these kind of pandemics hit the native populations in rapid succession. Instead of being able to wait several generations between pandemics and recover their strength and cultural cohesion, the native populations were hit with diseases that every year or couple of years killed a third of a half of the remaining population. In a large enough original population, this dieoff could take a century and reduce a population down to only a couple of percent of its original size. And the former cities, the most productive regions and the centres of government and trade, were inevitably and disproportionately affected. Most of them simply vanished. It was an apocalypse.

To the early modern Europeans, it was a divine miracle that they found themselves in possession of rich lands well tended and primed for an agricultural output capable of supporting a vast population :
But for the natives in these parts, God hath so pursued them, as for 300 miles space the greatest part of them are swept away by smallpox which still continues among them. So as God hath thereby cleared our title to this place.
posted by meehawl at 8:29 AM on October 26, 2006

Though when empires in temperate zones like egypt, rome, etc. were wealthy the majority of the work was done by slave labor, imported from mostly other climates.

as opposed to now when...
posted by micayetoca at 8:47 AM on October 26, 2006

and, as for the subject of the thread, I second what pracowity said, word by word.
posted by micayetoca at 8:50 AM on October 26, 2006

There's no good answer to this question, because the question assumes temperature is the only variable. A temperate climate is one factor that makes some cultures more successful, but it isn't the only one. Guns, Germs and Steel lays out the reasons for the material success of a society.
posted by electroboy at 9:09 AM on October 26, 2006

After you read GG&S, read 1491.
posted by matildaben at 9:17 AM on October 26, 2006

The effect of apandemic, however, is to remove huge chunks of adult, productive population. This is remembered generally as a "dark age" or a collapse or realignment of empires.

This is false. The first real plague in post-Roman Europe appeared in the Byzantine Empire at the height of Justinian's reign (aka, as far as most people know, the Golden Age of Byzantium). The other plagues were during/before the Renaissance, and the effect was to entrench the existing empires (HRE, France, Spain) at the expense of the Italian free cities.

Also, GGS is really, really not as good as people claim it is. It relies on this notion of "farmer power" that supposedly inevitably results in developed agricultural nations beating the shit out of non-agricultural ones, but if you look at intra-Eurasian history, the reverse is true far more often. He curtly dismisses the Mongols as a momentary exception, but fails to mention any of the others, which make this the rule rather than the exception: The Hittites taking over the Egyptian empire; the Arabs in the seventh century completely annihilating one highly developed agricultural empire (Persia) and taking over the richest half of another (Byzantium); the Mongols themselves taking over Russia for hundreds of years; Tamerlane and the Mughals; the Manchu and Mongols in China; the various barbarian invasions destroying the Western Roman empire; the Aryans taking over the Dravidian civilization in India; the Scythians and Sarmatians defeating the Greeks, Romans, and Persians; and so on. Even if these are just "bucking the general trend," failure to account for this completely destroys any relevance Diamond's work has to history. Furthermore, none of Diamond's sophisticated modeling manages to fully explain the central issue, which is the conquistadors collapsing the Incan and Aztec empires; in fact, the plague accounts for all of the model's explanatory power on this point, and that's been a well known factor for historians for a very long time.

Also, the majority of Europe's population could not have survived the Industrial Revolution without the potato, a high-yield, high-nutrition New World crop that more or less transformed European architecture. Presumably the New World civilizations could have benefited from wheat and Eurasian legumes to the same extent.
posted by nasreddin at 10:40 AM on October 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

This is false.

How so? You refer to a "first real plague in post-Roman Europe". If by "real" you mean yersinia pestis then, yes, that is definite. The symptoms were unknown to Galen, who instead desribed some poxy epidemics.

I find it difficult to refer to "post-Roman" since "Byzantine" is not what those people called themselves. They called themselves Romans, or Romanoi.

Justinian's campaigns facilitated the introduction of endemic malaria into northern Italy, where it had never been rampant before, Coupled with Belisarius's war of attrition, this depopulated Italy for hundreds of years.

If you imply that the plague of Justinian did not hamper his attempts to restore Rome to its historical borders, then I think you are mistaken. The contemporary Procopius reports that 10000 people died every day in Constantinople and the epidemic lasted four months there. almost half the city's population died. Overall, Justinian's plague is considered to have killed around 25m people and caused the European population to drop by around 50% between 550 and 700.

Justinian failed to permanently re-capture the western territories from the Germans and more importantly convert them into productive holdings. His campaign weakened the empire dramatically. Italy was converted from a productive territory to a depopulated, plague-ridden and malarial swamp. Old Rome was reduced to less than one-hundreth of its population during its peak. The formerly bountiful North African territories were reduced to penury. Justinians campaigns shattered the Mediterranean economies. He could have worked with the Ostrogoths, who had both the will and the abilities to maintain Italy in a high state of development. After its ruin, what it got was the Lombards. A good analogy for Justinian's "success" in the western territories might be the US success in "nation building" in Iraq.

Justinian's plague continued for another couple of generations in strength (the last mention of plague dates from 767), draining the vigour of Rome and preventing it from fielding large armies. Because of the losses suffered by Rome and Persia, both Empires were at their weakest when the newly united Arabs (with less dense populations less affected by the pandemics) swept out of the deserts of Arabia in 634.

If you mean to imply there were no pandemics in Europe before the 6th century then you are wrong. Livy records 11 pandemics dating back to the 4th century BCE. The Antonin Plague of 165-180 may have been smallpox (it was some variety of pox) and killed between 25% and 33% of the afflicted populations. Something very similar to the Antonin plague swept Rome again in 251-266. 5000 people a day were buried and entire estates were depopulated. These depopulations and elimination of the curiales hastened the development of the hacienda structure within the western Roman territories and made it possible for large numbers of Germans to settle the no-depopulated Roman fringe territories.

The plagues also facilitated the spread of Christianity in the Empire. The new religion offered charity and a social netowrk that other religions did not, and even made a point of caring for the sick. The plagues were good recruiting tools, as Cyrpian of Carthage noted in 251:Many of us are dying in this mortality, that is many of us are being freed from the world. This mortality is a bane to the Jews and pagans and enemies of Christ; to the servants of God it is a salutary departure. As to the fact that without any discrimination in the human race the just are dying with the unjust, it is not for you to think that the destruction is a common one for both the evil and the good. The just are called to refreshment, the unjust are carried off to torture; protection is more quickly given to the faithful; punishment to the faithless ... How suitable, how necessary it is that this plague and pestilence, which seems horrible and deadly, searches out the justice of each and every one and examines the minds of the human race.
posted by meehawl at 12:55 PM on October 26, 2006

meehawl: I apologize. I assumed you were making a hastier judgment than you really were.

Yes, I'm familiar with Procopius and Byzantine history in general. By post-Roman, I guess I should say post-Diocletian: that is, after the transfer of power to the East. And I'm aware of pre-Justinian plagues; witness, for instance, the plague in Athens during the Peloponnesian War.

I disagree, however, that Justinian's conquests in Italy were a net negative. Calabria and Sicily were held for hundreds of years and functioned as crucial outposts for the empire, although in periods of succession crisis they would inevitably break away. Still, they were fairly rich (both Arabs and Normans considered Sicily a vital prize, and Arab sea power in the Mediterranean was dependent on their control of the island). It's unfair to blame the depopulation of Italy on Justinian; that was just as much a consequence of the Lombards/Huns/Goths/Vandals sweeping through in successive waves as it was of the plague. But you already knew that. I think it's silly to say that Rome's depopulation was a consequence of the conquests of Justinian. The Italian power-center had been shifting to Ravenna since before Romanus Augustulus, and there's a reason why it took so much longer to conquer than Rome did. Justinian couldn't work with the Goths for the same reason that Basil II couldn't maintain the Bulgars as a large but weakened client state: for the Byzantines, depending on foreign peoples to govern themselves while maintaining allegiance to Byzantium was never a sustainable policy (viz., the Serbs in the twelfth century, a nation who no one in the eleventh century could have thought had any potential for independent existence and action).

The 6-8th century plague was not continuous as you suggest; Justinian's plague proper mostly ended with his reign. Constantinople recovered tremendously in between the various bouts of plague, and the Arabs (especially the more nomadic tribes adjoining Palestine, who functioned as a crucial buffer against Persian attacks) were still substantially affected by the plague enough to be beaten back several times over the course of the first stage of the seventh-century crisis. The plague's reappearance was a function of population recovery and developing trade networks, as it was in Europe (Procopius: "It started from the Egyptians who dwell in Pelusium. Then it divided and moved in one direction towards Alexandria and the rest of Egypt, and in the other direction it came to Palestine on the borders of Egypt; and from there it spread over the whole world, always moving forward and travelling at times favorable to it ... And this disease always took its start from the coast, and from there went up to the interior"). Thus, in later plagues, the sailors of the Cybarrheot theme were generally instrumental in spreading the contagion. I think that the Arabs in Arabia proper were less affected because of their geographical separation. Also, the fielding of large armies was just as possible, it was the lack of revenue from populous port cities that prevented the troops from being paid regularly--leading to mutinies and instability.

I didn't know about the role of the plague in spreading Christianity; thanks for that Cyprian quote.
posted by nasreddin at 1:26 PM on October 26, 2006

Oh, and Africa was hardly reduced to penury--of course, the capture of the enormous Vandal treasury was a drain on the economy, but it was still capable of defending and supporting itself after the central empire could not afford to send troops anymore. It couldn't have resisted the Arab onslaught for long, of course, but afterwards the Arabs had a populous and wealthy territory on their hands.
posted by nasreddin at 1:29 PM on October 26, 2006

Also, the majority of Europe's population could not have survived the Industrial Revolution without the potato, a high-yield, high-nutrition New World crop that more or less transformed European architecture. Presumably the New World civilizations could have benefited from wheat and Eurasian legumes to the same extent.

Maybe wheat, but they had beans already. I've always wondered how much a boost Europe got from the improvement in its food supply after contact with the Americas. All of a sudden there was a much more secure or varied food supply available: not just potatoes, but sweet poatoes, corn, beans, peppers, chocolate, squash, and tomatoes.
posted by dilettante at 1:44 PM on October 26, 2006

I appreciate your points. We could argue this for a long time, and in fact people have been doing just that for centuries!
posted by meehawl at 1:46 PM on October 26, 2006

Another point described in guns germs, and steel, is that the temperate climates are where the best farming is - there are only a handful of super-productive crops (though thousands of varients on each), and almost all of them grow best in temperate climates. Livestock is similar.

The location of the most productive farming isn't such a big factor on wealth now, but it was during the period that set the current shape of the world into motion.
posted by -harlequin- at 3:05 PM on October 26, 2006

Diamond isn't perfect, but he's much better than Crosby (social darwinist) and McNeill (I liked his earlier books, but *Human Web* basically says what Diamond says, but less convincingly).

Basically: Imperialism, colonialism and unequal trade. The Europeans got there first, and once they had a slight upper hand, arranged all matters so that they kept the upper hand. The developed world is still screwing the developing world.

As to how they go the upper hand, read Guns, Germs and Steel. Then (if you want to know about Asia and Europe), read The Great Divergence by Pomeranz. Also, remember that in 1800 China had better technology in many areas than Europe - it wasn't obvious that Europe would be dominant in 1800, let alone 1400. However, China had just experienced a prolonged period of peace and prosperity under the early Qing, which lead to a) massive population growth (leading to an energy crisis in the 19th century) and b) poor military technology as compared to the constantly fighting, constantly inventing better killing machines world that was 18th century Europe.

Then read Mike Davis' Late Victorian Holocausts to understand how colonialism perpetuated poverty, instead of the riches people claim for it. Also, the reams of African agrarian history, about land theft, destructive soil "conservation" schemes, forced cotton cultivation (at gun point in Mozambique when the Portuguese were there), mineral and forest harvesting that sends profits overseas.

It has nothing to do with temperature (or else the Inuit would rule the world), or Protestant work ethic (the Scots are way more Calvinist than the English, but the industrial revolution began in the practically pagan coalfields of Northumberland). It has to do with agriculture, disease, coal, military technology, and imperial policy.

Also, the Europeans had sucky food. They kept exploring the world to try to find better things to eat and drink (and were willing to push illegal drugs to get it).
posted by jb at 6:26 PM on October 26, 2006

read Mike Davis' Late Victorian Holocausts ... It has nothing to do with temperature

There's a difference between temperature and climate. Actually, I thought the bulk of that book dealt with El Niño's effects on south-eastern Asia and how its effects were either ameliorated or enhanced by differening social responses political environments. The Holocaust analogy was a little weak, but is ammunition to reply to those people who live to trot out statistics for how many people were killed by Communism in the 20th century. "Let me tell you how many people laissez-faire capitalism killed in the 19th century..."
posted by meehawl at 8:09 PM on October 26, 2006

At various points in time, China, India, the Middle East, and the pre-Columbian empires of Central America have all been the richest parts of their "known world."

Because my boss is too cheap to turn on the heat yet, I would like to state that China as an example would more prove the Cold Country Dominance theory rather than dispute it. It's fucking cold.
posted by Pollomacho at 11:54 PM on October 26, 2006

There's a difference between temperature and climate.

You're right, but there are actual, insane theories that the colder temperatures in Europe make people work harder. As if rice harvesting in tropical heat were a walk in the park.

Diamond is the best straight-forward discussion of the basic advantages Eurasia (Europe and Asia) held over Africa and North and South America, in terms of crops spreading, agricultural variety, etc. The warm areas of Eurasia have done very well in the past - it's just in the last 200 years that a little coal-filled island, and its neighbours and colonies have done well. (Including the biggest colony, which one couldn't really describe as "cold" since much of it, including the areas with the highest recent population growth, never even gets snow on the ground. I wouldn't say that California, the Sun Belt or any of the South counts as a "colder" climate.)

Actually, I thought the bulk of that book dealt with El Niño's effects on south-eastern Asia and how its effects were either ameliorated or enhanced by differening social responses political environments.

It's also a good introduction to European colonial policy and the long term effects it could have on economic development. I actually think Davis's book is best on India - his points on China don't really hold, since it was only semi-colonialism and the government held most of the control; it does make a contrast to India in the c1960 El Niño event (where India got through with good management, while in China even more people died due to Mao's management). African history gives us many examples of how colonial policy could have long standing damage to the society and economy of places, but not so neatly summed up as in Late Victorian Holocausts.
posted by jb at 1:21 AM on October 27, 2006

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