Geography is Kinda-Sorta Destiny

NOTE: The Growth Economics Blog has moved sites. Click here to find this post at the new site.

I spent last weekend in Orlando with my wife and kids at Universal Studios. This had two effects. The first was to confirm everything I hate about large groups of people. The second was that it allowed me to read a number of books. So this is another post that is partly a book review.

I read Why the West Rules–for Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future by Ian Morris. This is a book I was surprised I hadn’t already read. But nevertheless, I finally got around to it on the plane.

By itself, Morris’ book is fine. I think it falls in a grey area: it gets a little dense for a popular book, but isn’t thorough enough for an academic one. Parts of it are like reading a history textbook, where it becomes a list of events and names without a lot of context. I do like his summary of what drives history. “Change is caused by lazy, greedy, frightened people looking for easier, more profitable, and safer ways to do things. And they rarely know what they’re doing.”

The larger theme of the book is interesting. Morris stakes out a position that geography is really why the West “rules” at this point. Somewhat fixed characteristics like soil and general weather patterns ensured that Western Europe and China were bound to be relatively rich compared to most of the world. The additional advantages of western Europe were the relatively easy access they had to the geographic bonanza of the New World (which itself was due to the particular fact that Native Americans died from European diseases and not vice versa).

Given my not-overwhelming recommendation of Morris’ specific book, let me offer you some additional books that make the case for geography and/or biology being a major factor in economic development.

  1. Plagues and Peoples by William McNeill
  2. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond
  3. The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor by David Landes. (Not the whole book, but the early chapters focus on geography)
  4. The European Miracle: Environments, Economies and Geopolitics in the History of Europe and Asia by Eric Jones. (Probably my favorite in this list)

I could go on, but I run into the “wedding invitation” problem. If I recommend another book in which geography features strongly, like Empire of Cotton, I feel compelled to recommend the other 10 books that I find similar in scope or quality. Pretty soon we’re talking about a long list. So stick with these for now as your entree to the world of geography as a determinant of development.

Morris and these other authors are often accused of “geographic determinism”. This is often slung about as a kind of epithet, implying that the author means that world economic history had to come out *exactly* like it did because of geography. This bothers people because it seems to exonerate western Europeans from all the awful things they did along the way to becoming rich. It can also be easily twisted into arguments about how Europeans are superior to other races or groups of people.

But that is setting up straw men in place of what these authors actually say. The mistake is to think that by asserting geography matters, this denies any role for human agency. Geography sets the budget constraint, affecting the slope (i.e. relative cost of land versus labor) and intercept (i.e. how many people land can support). But people set the utility function, making the choices about production, consumption, and innovation. To say that geography matters for development is to say that incentives matter, that’s all. Geography creates some subtle, and some not so subtle, differences in the constraints facing people, and they react accordingly. They look for easier, more profitable, and safer things to do within their given geographic conditions.

It is also a mistake to think that geography implies that relative development levels must be constant over time. Certain geographic characteristics are fixed, for all intents and purposes; North American is closer to Europe than to China. But nearly all other characteristics that we could lump under “geography” change over the course of human history. Think of the climate, with little ice ages and the Medieval warm period. And technological changes can make geographic characteristics change in their influence on development. Think of oil.

Geography doesn’t say that some populations are supposed to be rich, that they deserve to be rich, or that they will always be rich. It says that it isn’t terribly surprising that they are rich right now. Imagine that we could rewind and rerun human history over and over and over again. Each time, set the clock back to 15,000 BC and then let things go. Each time, it would be different as all the millions of coin flips in history came up heads or tails. Geography means the coins are not fair. Europe, blessed with productive agricultural land, lots of internal waterways, access to oceans, etc. etc.. comes up heads 55% of the time. Africa, with tough agricultural conditions, a bad disease environment, and a lack of natural transport networks comes up heads only 45% of the time. Over those thousands of versions of history, it would tend to be the case that Europeans would be relatively rich.

So when these authors say “geography matters”, take that as a statement similar to saying that a coefficient in a regression “matters”. It’s a statistical statement that the coefficient on geography is significant, not that the R-squared of the regression is 100%.


3 thoughts on “Geography is Kinda-Sorta Destiny

  1. That’s a very good note: “a statistical statement that the coefficient on geography is significant, not that the R-squared of the regression is 100%.” The significance depends on specification, and under some specifications geography loses significance.

    This is tricky because models are tied to the context, and it sounds okay that geography matters even if it becomes insignificant in some models. Not only R ≠ 100%, but you have many contexts (like regional development) in which well-known models are no longer valid.

    Maybe, instead of asking historical questions with nation-level proxies for geo and other factors, it’s better to narrow questions about growth to policy related contexts, such as millenium villages, where you can observe geographical and institutional determinants at the same time? (Okay, that’s getting done by many now, but how can we make general theories more flexible?)

  2. _1493_ by Charles Mann might be another one; its topic is the Columbian Exchange in general, but this ends up talking a fair bit about, hmm, biogeography? The impact of diseases and food plants. The accidental importation of malaria and yellow fever shaped the Americas, and colonial histories (use of African labor; armies dying in the malarial zone); maize and potatoes might have helped shift the demographic mass of Europe northward, as well as making population and environmental changes to China; access to Brazilian rubber may have been essential for the Industrial Revolution to really take off — engines need rubber seals or *very* good machining. Mostly rubber. Peruvian or Chilean guano helped drive the 19th century agricultural revolutions, too, some thing it even saved Europe from depleted soils, just in time…

  3. Well said. I think that it is also important to highlight that these arguments in the mentioned book is mostly about continents. Thus, I think that it is unfair to test the “geography hypotheses” with cross country data, which many people do.

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