Ancient Wisdom on Climate and Society, Part 2

Physiologist Jared Diamond’s 1997 Guns, Germs, and Steel. The Fates of Human Societies is a rare publishing phenomenon. An ambitious yet accessible study on the development of human civilization, it won a Pulitzer Prize, sold over a million copies, was translated into 36 languages, turned up on college reading lists everywhere, and was eventually made into a 3-part National Geographic TV series.

What impressed many reviewers was, in the words of the National Geographic narrator, Diamond’s “highly original theory that what separates the winners from the losers is the land itself – geography. It was the shape of the continents, their crops and animals that allowed some cultures to flourish while others were left behind.” Yet, as illustrated by the fact he buried his discussion of prior writings on this idea in the book’s endnotes, Diamond was well aware that geographical or environmental determinism had a long and often appalling history of justifying social or racial superiority and colonial enterprises. Not surprisingly, he has ever since been at pains to defend his very different take on the subject.

In a nutshell, proponents of environmental determinism maintain that people and cultures are the way they are because they have been shaped by their physical environment. Needless to say, some environments and climates are more conducive to success than others. Aristotle famously commented in his Politics that “those who live in a cold climate and in [northern] Europe are full of spirit, but wanting in intelligence and skill; and therefore they keep their freedom, but have no political organization, and are incapable of ruling over others.” In the more torrid parts of the Middle East, the “natives of Asia” proved “intelligent and inventive, but they are wanting in spirit, and therefore they are always in a state of subjection and slavery.” Luckily, the “Hellenic race, which is situated between them, is likewise intermediate in character, being high-spirited and also intelligent. Hence it continues free, and is the best-governed of any nation, and, if it could be formed into one state, would be able to rule the world.”

Other environmental determinists put more weight on the benefits of adverse conditions. Montesquieu observed in his The Spirit of Laws that the “barrenness of the earth renders men industrious, sober, inured to hardship, courageous, and fit for war: they are obliged to procure by labour what the earth refuses to bestow spontaneously.”  By contrast, the “fertility of a country gives ease, effeminacy, and a certain fondness for the preservation of life.” A few decades later John Stuart Mill argued along similar lines that “neither now nor in former ages have the nations possessing the best climate and soil, been either the richest or the most powerful; but (in so far as regards the mass of the people) generally among the poorest, though, in the midst of poverty, probably on the whole the most enjoying.” Part of the problem, Mills argued, was that “[h]uman life in those countries can be supported on so little, that the poor seldom suffer from anxiety, and in climates in which mere existence is a pleasure, the luxury which they prefer is that of repose.”

The fact that technological achievements in a particular location are profoundly affected by the local physical geography is obviously indisputable. After all, one does not fault the past inhabitants of Switzerland or the Tibetan plateau for having contributed little to maritime technology, nor past Inuit people for failing to develop agriculture.

Yet, the evidence pointing to the profound impact of geography and climate on political institutions and human achievements has always been extremely thin. As critics have long observed, the dominant culture at different points in time (e.g., Mediterranean or northern European) is always said to be the beneficiary of the best physical geography. The key problem, however, is that a constant factor is used to explain very variable outcomes over time.

One of the best short essays against environmental determinism is Voltaire’s entry on the “climate” in his Philosophical Dictionary. One of his targets was his contemporary Jean Chardin, according to whom in Persia the climate was so warm that it “enervates the mind as well as the body, and dissipates that fire which the imagination requires for invention.” “In such climates,” Chardin wrote, “men are incapable of the long studies and intense application which are necessary to the production of first-rate works in the liberal and mechanic arts.” And yet, Voltaire commented, “Chardin did not consider that Sadi and Lokman were Persians,” nor did he “recollect that Archimedes belonged to Sicily, where the heat is greater than in three-fourths of Persia.” He also forgot that “Pythagoras formerly taught geometry to the Brahmins.”

Another problem for the likes of Chardin and Montesquieu, Voltaire wrote, was that “[e]verything changes, both in bodies and minds, by time” when the “climate has not at all changed.” One need only look at the changing political fortunes and intellectual achievements in Egypt, Greece, Rome and England to see the truth of this statement. Indeed, in his Misopogon, the Roman Emperor Julian commented nearly a millennia and half earlier that what “pleased him in the Parisians was the gravity of their characters and the severity of their manners.” Observing his contemporaries, Voltaire couldn’t refrain from observing that “these Parisians, without the slightest change of climate, are now like playful children, at whom the government punishes and smiles at the same moment, and who themselves, the moment after, also smile and sing lampoons upon their masters.” Climate, Voltaire wrote, “has some influence, government a hundred times more; religion and government combined more still.”

In the end though, perhaps the most pithy jibe against environmental determinism is the fact that, in the words of development economist Peter Bauer, the “weather tends to be bad in centrally controlled economies.” Climate activists who are steering us in this political direction in the name of “building back better” should ponder these words.


Pierre Desrochers, is Associate Professor of Geography, University of Toronto Mississauga.

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