Geography: Meaningful for Modern Economic Growth?

Chances are you’ve at least heard of Jared Diamond and his book Guns, Germs, and Steel (originally published in 1997).  It won the Pulitzer Prize and does a stand up job of refuting most implicitly or explicitly racist or ethnocentric explanations for the disparate levels of development and stability across nations and continents.  Diamond’s theory is founded on the idea that different ancient societies began making technological leaps and bounds at different times depending on the contemporary geography that attended.  In general, the orientation of the continent (east-west vs. north-south), the availability of domesticable animals and plants and the relative nutritive content of the latter, the climate, the macro- and microfauna – all these factors, which lie outside the scope of the human equation – vary from region to region.  That one modern group of humans is richer or has more power than another, says Diamond, is ultimately determined by the prehistoric, unfair distribution of natural resources and favorable accidents of birth and settlement. 

And the theory is pretty sound, or at least appears so upon a cursory examination of the data.  Leave it to a modern economist, however, to take a good theory and stretch well beyond reason.  I speak of a paper by Douglas Hibbs and Ola Olsson, in which they develop a methodology to explain modern GDP/capita via a series of measurements of a nation’s “prehistoric biogeographical endowment.”  They find strong correlations between modern GDP/capita and things like prehistoric climate, axis, available domesticable plants and animals, etc.  Perhaps most provocative is their assertion that the quality of a nations institutions is explicable in large part by the attending prehistoric biogeography.

It is at this point in reading the paper that I became quite perturbed.  It is very misleading to use modern nation-states, none of which existed in any way shape or form until just a  few hundred years ago (and that at best – most modern African and near East nations did not exist until the middle of this century!), as an analytical unit when measuring the effect of a series of events that occurred as much as 10000 years ago.  Modern political boundaries were not determined by geography.  In fact, most borders on the impoverished continents of South America and Africa were imposed haphazardly and arbitrarily by the colonial powers, regardless of the ethnic makeup of the regions that were split up.  As a consequence, you have many ethnic groups that are split up into two different states, others which were forced to live together under the same flag who would not otherwise choose to do so.  Dense populations are suddenly created in areas unconducive to dense population, leading to proliferation of disease, poverty, and conflict. 

My point is simply this:  Prehistoric Geography has about as much causative effect on present day GDP/capita as the Big Bang does.  It is very hard to make the case that the system that produced modern day circumstances was entirely predetermined.  That is, the power of cultural interaction to determine present circumstances has long outstripped the effects geography would have.  It would be one thing to expalin Mesopotamia’s cropping-up with reference to geography.  It’s entirely misleading to say that Sudan (for example) is poor because of its prehistoric biogeographical predispositions.  Geography vested power, perhaps, but it is the use of that power towards destructive ends that gives us our current situations. 

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One Response to “Geography: Meaningful for Modern Economic Growth?”

  1. sehauser Says:

    Great post. You are right, modern day GDP/capita cannot just be reduced down to geographic and biogeographic conditions that originally caused the shift from hunter/gatherer societies to agricultural.
    Once cultures started to interact there was a whole new layer added to the problem. While it is true there are countries that are still behind because of geographical disadvantages, to ignore how geography vested power leads to destructive ends (as you put it), skips over the last couple hundred years of modern history. Colonialism and Imperialism have had major repercussions on modern nation states and the gap between rich and poor cannot just be explained away by prehistoric conditions.
    Again, great post, I always enjoy reading a post that makes me slow down and think about what is being argued.

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