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Ancient Wisdom on Climate and Society, Part 2

By:

  Pierre Desrochers

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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READER COMMENTS

Stéphane Couvreur
May 3 2022 at 4:55am

Regarding the carbon tax at 23:20, I am not surprised that a government official speaks of this instrument as her preferred option to reduce carbon emissions. What I find more surprising is the lack of reaction of economists, who could argue that cap-and-trade is preferable. There can be a reasonable debate about this claim, of course, but I believe cap-and-trade to be preferable because:
1) it doesn’t have the word “tax” in the title and generates no revenue for the governement (provided that the quotas are allocated for free),
2) as a consequence of 1), there is no need to redistribute the receipts from the carbon tax as is standard with a Pigouvian tax,
3)

Jon Leonard
May 6 2022 at 5:36pm

A key difference between a carbon tax and a cap-and-trade system is how they handle errors in forecasting.  That is, under a tax system it is easier for individual businesses to adjust if the overall target was chosen incorrectly.  Under a cap-and-trade regime, the total amount of pollution is pre-determined; this either pollutes more than necessary if the cap is “too high”, or stifles the economy more than necessary if the cap is “too low”.  As in many cases in economics, the central plan can be suboptimal.

Stéphane Couvreur
May 3 2022 at 5:08am

(Oops!)

3) as a consequence of 2), there are fewer opportunities of rent-seeking and buying constituencies with the said tax receipts.

I have seen no economist making those points. Nordhaus prefers the tax because, as he writes in an endnote, quotas are more susceptible to cause corruption in developing countries. Sumner considers “foolish” the idea of allocating the quotas for free in a cap-and-trade system (I don’t understand why, cf. opportunity cost). Harford considers that a tax or a cap-and-trade are almost equivalent and points to Weitzman’s 1974 “Prices vs quantities” article. Levitt fears that firms would be better at distorting politically the allocation procedure in a cap-and-trade system than with a tax.

Do you have an opinion on the subject, David?

Best regards,

Stéphane

David Henderson
May 3 2022 at 7:03pm

Stephane,

I have two opinions.

First, either the tax or the cap and trade opens things to rent seeking. Your point #3 applies, but you didn’t mention the extensive fight that would go on as various firms, individuals, and governments pushed for more than their pro-rata share of permits. It’s hard for me to judge which is worse.

Second, your point about not getting revenue for the government is a good one. They’re likely to waste a lot of it. In my ideal world, which I think is highly unlikely, given the political system, the revenue would go to reducing the federal debt or reducing the most distorting taxes, dollar for dollar. Those are likely to be taxes on capital. But the political pressure would be strongly against that and in favor of giving each person and household a check. So the chance to either pay down the debt or reduce distorting taxes would be wasted.

A bigger point, in my view, is that there’s not much justification at this point for either. Remember that the goal is to “solve” global warming, not to reduce carbon usage per se. Reducing carbon usage is one way to do so, but there’s virtually no evidence that it’s the least-cost way. I think that some form of geo-engineering is likely to be substantially less costly.

Stéphane Couvreur
May 4 2022 at 1:07am

Thanks a lot for this long and thoughtful response.

A quick reaction:

Your third and bigger point is entirely right. No system solves for the optimal trade-off between reduction and adaptation. I will keep this in mind.

As for the first point, as long as there is some emission reduction, I believe cap-and-trade offers fewer opportunities for rent-seeking. Here’s why:
– it can be organized to be a one-time thing, so the rent-seeking contest occurs only once, initially, whereas the fight for the carbon tax receipts can go on forever;
– there is not much in it for bureaucrats, whose task would be to monitor emissions and not to regulate or collect a tax, so there’s a chance they will be more impartial.

Going back to your third point, I agree that cap-and-trade is far from “perfect” in any meaning of the word. Most economist I’ve heard criticizing it had a very different argument: “The price of tradable permits turns out to be too volatile to encourage firms to invest in carbon reduction technology”, they say (sic).

Your answer is implicitly that adaptation is better than reduction. This makes a lot more sense. It was also David Friedman’s answer.

Stéphane

David Henderson
May 5 2022 at 10:41pm

You’re welcome.

Good point about one-time.

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