1.3 The Eurasian Advantage
- Why is it helpful to look at climate zones to better understand the spread of technologies and ideas?
- What region of the world has consistently shaped the dynamics of global development since ancient times?
In this chapter, I want to talk about one particular part of the world and that is the mid-latitudes of Eurasia. Take a look at the map.
We can think of the world’s land areas in distinctive parts. There is Europe and Asia, part of the largest land mass, Eurasia. And the boundaries between Europe and Asia are conventionally given by the Ural Mountains.
But that large land mass has been at the core of so much of global change, of technological dynamism, and of world power for so long that there is a very special and crucial role that we need to understand.
Of course, there is Africa, also, our original home, the cradle of humanity, the origin of all homo sapiens. Now with a population that is about one-seventh of humanity, but rising quickly so that Africa could become a quarter of all of humanity or even a third of the total human population by the end of the 21st Century.
Then there are the Americas, North and South America, which from 13,000 years ago roughly until perhaps 1000 A.D. were completely cut off in human history from what was happening in the old world of Europe, Asia and Africa. Some Viking settlements about a thousand years ago came from Scandinavia, Iceland and Greenland to settle briefly in northeast Canada, in Newfoundland. But those settlements were very short-lived and forgotten.
And it was really with the discovery of the sea route that Christopher Columbus pioneered in 1492 that the links of the Old World and the Americas became deeply, rapidly, inextricably intertwined.
Oceania with Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific islands, also was inhabited by humanity 50,000 years ago, but the indigenous populations were largely separated from the dynamics of change in Eurasia, again until the Europeans came and began to colonize Australia through imperial rule in the 18th Century.
What I want to focus on in this chapter is the distinctive history of this great land mass, Eurasia. And that land mass has been home typically to at least three-quarters, if not more, of all of the human population.
China and India dating back for millennia have been the most populous parts of the world, the great monsoon rains and the high productivity of rice-fed agriculture supported relatively large population densities throughout south Asia, southeast Asia and east Asia for at least the last two millennia. Eurasia as a whole has been a connected land based region, home to the preponderance of the world economy and the world’s population. And by being a land-based contiguous area, that has facilitated trade and the exchange of ideas for millennia, at least we know since the active interchange between the Roman Empire and Han, China, 2000 years ago. Part of Eurasia has had a distinctive leadership role.
Some of Eurasia is desert and almost uninhabited. Some of it is tundra, frozen throughout the year with very small populations living there,but most of the population has been in a subtropical band of latitude and climate zone that some historians have christened, “the lucky latitudes.” This is one map that has roughly defined the so-called lucky latitudes, because an enormous amount of human history, population, and technological innovation has occurred in those lucky latitudes.
It is in those lucky latitudes that ideas have not only been innovated, but have been able to diffuse within a band that shares enough commonality of climate zone, of transport conditions, of disease burden and other characteristics to make it similar enough to be not a homogeneous region by any means, but a region that can share ideas and that has exchanged ideas for millennia.
It’s helpful to look at the climate zones of the world. This is a complicated, I find, and a very beautiful map, of one climate classification called the Köppen-Geiger classification. It’s a classification, color coded in this world map, that defines different regions of the world.
For example, whether they have a very low level of rainfall, that becomes one category, the so-called, B climate regions which here are yellow and beige. Those are the desert regions, or the grassland regions of low rainfall. Or regions of moderate temperature that have both winters and summers, the sometimes called temperate zones.
Those are generally in the classification system here, the C and D climate zones. And they have warm enough summers to grow crops and cold enough winters for freezing temperatures and usually no cultivation in those seasons. Such climates on this map are shown in green.
Light green areas around the Mediterranean basin for example, in what is not surprisingly called the Mediterranean climate of wet winters and dry summers. Great for growing grapes for excellent wine, famous in the Mediterranean region. Or the darker green areas which generally are more humid throughout the year. So without that dry summer season. And you can see that the eastern seaboard of the United States, much of Europe, coastal China are in that green temperate region.
Well, if you look at the lucky latitudes of Eurasia, those are generally B and C climate zones, meaning that in part they are the steppe lands or the grasslands where animals can graze, where horses can thrive and where grasslands support animal herding.
And the darker green areas, where high population densities can grow food with especially staple grains like wheat and rice with very high productivity and therefore, can support high population densities.
What’s notable about the lucky latitudes of Eurasia is that not only are they congenial in general for animal husbandry and also for staple crop production, but they are sufficiently warm, that they’re not the punishing climate of the arboreal north, but they are not so hot that they introduce the range of tropical disease burdens like year-round endemic malaria or trypanosomiasis, sleeping sickness, which made it very, very difficult for populations in tropical Africa.
So the lucky latitudes are kind of the happy middle. Not too cold, not too warm. Both crops and animal production. And with a shared band of shared climate that stretches all the way from Europe in the west to Asia in the east.
Jared Diamond, one of the great explicators of economic history and economic development in our time, has emphasized that this Eurasian shared ecology is the longest stretch of contiguous shared eco-zone and climate zone in the world.
Eurasia he’s pointed out as shown in this map lies broadly speaking in an east-west orientation, which from a climate perspective, referring back to the Koppen-Geiger climate classification, means a shared climate across a shared latitude, broadly speaking.
Whereas the Americas and Africa are more along a north-south axis. That means cutting from the North and the South Pole at the extremes all the way to the tropical equator so that regions like the Americas or like Africa have many, many different climate zones. And that means that diffusion of agricultural knowhow or public health remedies for disease don’t transmit so easily across ecological zones.
The lucky latitudes, in short, seem to be lucky because they have a large space for sharing knowledge, innovations in one place can diffuse to 10,000 kilometers away. Wheat can be grown all of the way from Portugal in the west all the way to the east coast of China, 10,000 kilometers away.
So lots of innovation in that band. A moderate or temperate climate which avoids the extreme dangers, transport conditions which facilitated trade, whether it was overland trade of the Silk Roads for the last 2000 years or the sea- based navigation that commenced with Vasco da Gama’s voyage from the Iberian peninsula around the Cape of Good Hope, the southern tip of Africa, into the Indian Ocean and thereby to south Asia and to east Asia, but enabling a large band of exchange of ideas and technology.
These lucky latitudes have thereby been the major propellant of core technologies in this world. They have been lucky to be facilitated for 2000 years by modern transport, if I could call it that, of the use of horses which flourish in the steppes of Asia and thereby have played a role fundamentally in China, Europe, in western Asia throughout history and thereby have been available whereas horses could not survive the tropical climates of Africa and horses alas, had been driven to extinction with the arrival of the populations from Asia into the Americas, 10,000 to 15,000 years ago.
And so the lucky latitudes really, really were lucky. But another fact is shown here and these, this is a map of coal deposits. The red areas are known geologic deposits of coal. With the invention of the steam engine in the 18th Century and its adoption in England, in the beginning of the Industrial Age, made possible by the steam engine, the presence of coal by itself became a fundamental advantage in the diffusion of industrial knowhow.
Places with coal could develop heavy industry. Places without coal had a much greater disadvantage. Lo and behold, those lucky latitudes of Eurasia were lucky once again, because not only did they avoid the extremes of temperature, not only did they have the long transport network where ideas could flow from east to west, not only did they avoid the worst extremes of disease, they also turned out by chance to have lots of coal.
And so many parts of Eurasia again, of course western Europe, from the home of the Industrial Revolution in England and down the Rhine Valley into Germany and in parts of European Russia, parts of India and China, all were able to benefit from their coal deposits.
Alas, look at poor Africa in this story and South America, just by dint of geologic quirk, very little coal deposits in Africa. Only in north Africa and in southern Africa, all the way in the south of Africa were there any significant coal deposits.
Similarly in South America, not so much coal available. And so this became in the last two centuries yet another advantage of the lucky latitudes.
What can we conclude from this?
When we look at history, when we look at the role of China as a great progenitor of technologies for roughly 500 years, from 1000 to 1500 A.D., when we look at the role of western Europe in the last 500 years of globalization, this part of the world which took the technological lead, took the geopolitical lead that went along with its military might and its industrial power, had certain underlying geological and other geographical advantages, disease, crops productivity, mixed animal husbandry and crops production, then coal in the 19th and 20th Centuries that gave it certain advantages and helped shape the dynamics of global development.
They’re not called the “lucky latitudes” for no reason. There is real historical evidence that this part of the world has been lucky. It gave it many advantages in history and that’s where we see a lot of the innovation that created the waves of technological change, at least over the 2000 years of our investigation.