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Environmental Determinism and Future Orientation

Environmental determinism is the bad theory that just won't go away. There's a stubborn propensity among modern intellectuals to look for some fundamental environmental-geographic factor that has doomed the so-called "Global South" to be politically and economically backward while more temperate regions have a road to prosperity. The latest example to come to my attention is a passing reference by Philip Zimbardo, declared plausible by Radley Balko, that the need to prepare for winter led temperate-zone societies to develop a cultural disposition toward long-term planning, while tropical cultures could think only of tomorrow since their environment provided food year-round.

Before taking apart this example of environmental determinism, I should make clear that my point is not to deny any relevance for the natural environment in the development of societies. The proximity of Europe to America, and the accessibility of coal in England, certainly played key roles in producing our current geography of prosperity. But those factors are part of a larger historical conjuncture in which social factors like colonialism play significant roles. Further, we must recognize that since the current arrangement of political-economic power is a relatively recent phenomenon (the modern "Global North" took the lead around 1800, preceded by 1000 years of Chinese dominance, and before that the Middle East). So it seems quite odd to look for the explanation in variables rooted deep in human history, as environmental determinists insist.

Balko raises the cultural time-horizon hypothesis in the process of discussing Foreign Policy's index of failed states, most of which he notes are located in the tropical regions. So the hypothesis at issue is something like the following: the availability of foods is more consistent throughout the year in the tropics, which causes tropical societies to not need to learn to plan for the future while temperate and polar ones do, and ability to plan for the future is a key factor in whether a state is successful or "failed."

The first question, then, is whether food availability really is distributed evenly throughout the year in the tropics, but is unavailable in the winter in temperate/polar regions. But in fact all environments have seasonal cycles of food availability that human populations have had to master. Whether we're talking about the Yolngu, the !Kung, the Tehuelche, or the Inuit, hunter-gatherer societies had to know what food would be available where at what times of the year. Anthropologists don't know of any societies in which people would simply wake up in the morning and go see what bounty nature has bestowed today. Even in regions where there is a harsh winter, some food sources are available at almost any point in the year, if you know -- as native societies do -- where to look. Here in temperate Pennsylvania, deer hunting season is in the winter. And in tropical regions, the cycle of wet and dry seasons can sharply limit food availabiliy at certain times of the year. Massive seasonal food storage is a product of agriculture, which involves focusing on just a small number of food sources in order to amplify their output, and thereby becoming beholden to the seasonal up and down of those particular organisms.

While hunter-gatherers the world around do plan for the whole year, the development of agriculture is a good indicator of a society that has definitely taken up a year-long planning horizon. Agriculture involves a yearly cycle of plowing, planting, weeding, harvest, and storage. So what societies were the first to develop agriculture? Tropical societies. There is much debate among archaeologists as to the exact timing of the transition to agriculture in various regions, and the extent to which agriculture was a wholly endogenous development rather than learned from elsewhere. But a reasonable list of the "hearths" of agriculture might go something like this: Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Indus valley, inland Southeast Asia, the North China Plain, the Sahel, central Mexico, the Amazon, and coastal Peru. Matching that list up with the failed states index, we see that none of those places, despite being pioneers of long-term food supply planning, are in the "stable" or "most stable" categories. Several of them -- the Indus valley (Pakistan), Mesopotamia (Iraq), and the Sahel (Sudan, Chad, and Nigeria) -- are in the worst, "critical," category of state failure.

Moreover, all of the "failed states" in the index are primarily agricultural in 2010. That the people of an area might have given no thought to next week's meals 10,000 years ago says nothing about whether the people today -- at the time of state failure -- have an environmental motivation for thinking ahead.

Ironically, the Zimbardo lecture that Balko cites is mostly devoted to urging us to teach our children to be more future-oriented, warning of the dangers of video games to a generation of kids. But if the above environmental determinist hypothesis is correct, then it would seem to suggest we ought to be more amenable to Zimbardo's present-fatalistic orientation.

I don't have at hand any data on the actual time orientations of people in various countries. Let's assume for the sake of argument that there is a correlation between time orientation and national prosperity or state failure. Even if this is the case, I think the argument above establishes that the productivity of the natural environment can't be called upon to explain the distribution of time orientations. I would also question the causality between time orientation and prosperity. Certainly it's a conceit that we in the well-off parts of the world would like to believe -- if you straighten up and take the right attitude, you will find success. But I find it just as plausible that the causation runs the other way. If your society is impoverished and struggling, then it seems quite rational to conclude that you have little control over the future, and to take a fatalistic or hedonistic (Zimbardo's two present orientations) view of life.

(On somewhat of a tangent, the Zimbardo video has some really clever animation and drawing. But every person that the animator drew, from "generic person getting their teeth drilled" to "generic carnally indulgent southern Italian," was male. The only exception was a pair of schoolgirls representing the good future-oriented kid and the bad present-oriented pregnant teen.)


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