For one year I studied Human Geography in a Master’s program at the University of Kansas. I was home for a year’s furlough from mission service in Brazil and was encouraged to study but ran out of money so never completed the degree. However, while at KU, I was exposed to Environmental Determinism, a precursor to Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel and his ideas of Geographic Determinism. We studied about hot and cold climates, coming to the conclusion that climate was a major factor, but race was also considered. Herein lay the problem – at that time our studies continued to return to race and skin pigment as a determinant in many parts of the world, which wasn’t something one wanted to talk about.
Others think of Social Determinism – wherein institutions have significant force on reality. Those of us on a diversity journey in churches talk of institutional racism, in which I might not myself be a racist, but the societal institution that I’ve (majority person) helped to establish could be a detrimental obstruction for those in the minority.
Thankfully, Diamond’s understanding takes us past those parochial theories of race and institution and shares a wealth of knowledge that is convincing. He dismisses great leaders and social factors as irrelevant, citing that anyone could have been in those positions, rather, claiming that it is geographical and environmental factors which have shaped the division of people, power and money over the course of history.
Stephen Hawking in History of the World poses similar ideas, illustrating the importance of geography by stating that monkeys in the grasslands became our ancestors because they had to learn to stand upright in order to see over the tall grasses, whereas jungle monkeys didn’t evolve, instead, continued in their present state because of a jungle environment that didn’t require change.
For Diamond, domesticable animals and plants are the key, allowing for higher calorie intake, increasing population density, therefore giving time for other professions, leading to a higher birthrate, better technologies and less susceptibility to germs, increasing language and writing, which produce governments and new ideas – and armies.
In Foreign Policy, May/June 2014 on P. 70 the author mirrors Diamond’s idea of population density. In an article on Megacities, he calls the growth of urban areas a process of “agglomeration economics” and praises it because production costs are reduced because of better infrastructure, energy availability and labor. GDP in most urban areas more than doubles their counterparts in rural areas, especially in developing countries, and even with the smog seen in so many large cities, one’s carbon footprint is still less than in smaller cities and rural areas.
It’s a fascinating read, especially when he points out that religion was only created and fostered to help keep authorities in power. Sadly, we see this continuing today but pray that true religion has greater aspirations and more admirable goals than to just keep a ruler in power – rather it’s the basis to keep not only the ruler, but all forms of life in check and flourishing.
The next time I smugly smile to myself when enjoying the benefits of living the lifestyle I do, I will remember that maybe I had little to do with it and instead, it was just the location, location, location of some great, great, great, great, great, great……grandfather!