14 April 2017

Climate: limits and opportunities for the new economies

In the previous post Information, Energy and Human development, I conclude saying that we dont know what will happen to our society if the planet will be overheated. I dont have the answer, and maybe I will never have it, but sure I gained a new question about which has been the influence of the climate on the history of civilisation, and which could be its role, if there is any, into imagining a future more equitable and a sustainable society.

I start exactly from this last point: how we are now imagining a future civilisation? 

Stating that we need a new source of energy that should be renewable (in the way we do not risk total depletion of it, at least till the sun will shine), also thinking about a new economy, that is not based on an intensive exploitation of fossil fuels,  would represent a powerful leverage to make a step toward a better future.

Recently, interesting currents are emerging in the economic scenario, promoting alternatives to phase out the present ‘polluting’ Growth Economies, that already in the 70ies, thanks to the study of ‘Limits to Growth’[1], showed the own limits in lasting this vision on a planet with a finite carrying capacity.

One of these currents is the Circular Economy’ (CE) that aims to reduce waste and to avoid pollution within the productive cycles, including the use of renewable energies and promoting the role of diversity as a characteristic of resilient and productive systems; so that it represents an interesting  way out from the limits of the present Linear Economy.

Another one is the Degrowth Economy (DE) that not only is based on the previous pillars of the CE, but it is also a new philosophy of lifestyle. The DE affirms that the prosperity can be of better quality and more equitable for all the humankind, even with much fewer materials things and harmonising the economy production according to the natural cycles (and I completely agree). 
We can grasp, from the previous description, why this current is called 'Degrowth': it simply pushes in the opposite direction of the nowaday 'Growth' economy, whose prosperity is based on the increasing demand of always new goods and services. 
Anyway, to be more precise, 'Degrowth' refers to the lowering of the indicator called Gross Domestic Product (or GDP), that measures the economic performance of a system according to, in simplified terms, the number of goods and services it can provide. Therefore, the DE assesses that more valuable prosperity is possible if we consistently lower the value of this indicator,  in particular in that countries we call Developed Countries, that stand out for their very high level of GDP in comparison to the world average. As a matter of fact, DE underlines also that this difference in GDP exists because there is a huge gap, both in economic and development terms, between the North and the South of the planet. The predominance of the North holds hostage the Southern socio-economic system, slowing down also its potential alternative trajectories toward a better life. 
Look at this paragraph, extracted from the very interesting book  'Degrowth: Vocabulary for a new era':

The message is clear and the reality too: the condition of the South of the Planet is very different from the North of the Planet. The DE aims to re-equilibrated this difference, conquering a new welfare for all the humans, based on more equity and environmental justice. Mumble ..how to do it? 

Usually, when we want to change something in any present situation, it is a good idea to check some facts in the past, probably the reasons of the existence of certain things in the present have their roots in the history.

Thus, when, in the past, this predominance of the Northern economy started and, is this just due to a randomness,  or are there any fact/evidence, in the history of civilisation, that advantaged the North in comparison to the South?

Take a look at the following picture:

Figure 1. Chronology of the most important ancient civilisations.

All the most ancient cultures were born in the Northern hemisphere.

I started to think this fact can not be only a coincidence. Why the civilisation and the economy historically have progressed more in the North than in the South? Could this mainly due to a physically different space instead of a conceptual different space'?

I think soThe economy is made by humans exchanges, interactions, cooperations: all these conditions, in which humans live and lived in the past, determine the economy and the civilisation (Here, I refer to  'civilisation' as the attitude of humankind to dominates the environment according to the fundamentals of rationalism). In particular, the capacity to produce (manufacturing) and the capacity to distribute (transport) are the foundations of any world economic system.  

Lets start to examine which could be the macroscopic differences, in terms of the capacity of transportation and productivity, between North and South of the Earth.

First, we are terrestrial creatures, we move easier by land than by seas, also many animals that have been and are crucial for transportation, hunting, agriculture and so on, are terrestrials too. Take a look at the following picture:

Figure 2.  The surface extension of emerged lands. 

As we can see in figure 2, between the parallels - 60°S and + 60° N, i.e. in a climate that is not polar, the available land is much higher in the North than in the South. 
Thus, an important macroscopic physical difference between North and South of the planet is the extension of emerged lands in not polar zones. 
Moreover, the Southern portion of emerged lands is fragmented in 3 continents: South America, Africa and Oceania: if we move in the direction West- East (W-E, or vice-versa) we note that these three portions of land are far severals hundred of kilometres of water.  Thus, any civilisation was born in the South, (before the transportation didnt reach an adequate technological level)  should expand preferred along the direction the N-S , while the path W-E  was more difficult to travel due to the presence of the water.
Quite different is the availability of movement W-E in the Northern hemisphere. Here, Asia and Europe cover the larger portion of Northern emerged land; moreover in those two continents, were born the most ancient civilisations in the history of humankind (China, Egypt, Greek, Romans and so on, as already shown in figure 1). Probably, the presence of the Mediterranean sea, that is an almost close sea in a temperate zone, permitted the development of navigation techniques and the development of commercial trade routes in more safe and protected areas.

We can summarise saying that: More are the emerged lands, more are the possibilities of creating a network of connections and more are the possibilities to have suitable places where things could be manufactured.

Ok, you will say that today the problem of the trade connections have been overcome by technologies, so lets say that the oceans or the extension of emerged lands don't represent any more serious obstacles in exchanging goods or information also in the Southern hemisphere.
But there is another problem, if you note, that still remains:  along the N-S pathways (meridians), in any point of the globe, we had/have to face with a change in the climate conditions (figure 3). 

Figure 3.  The figure shows a rough, meaningful split, of the three climate zones of the planet: polar, temperate and tropical zones.

Thus, I go back to the opening question of the post: has, (and had in the past) climate any impact on civilisation? And could it be related to the productivity of the human beings?

There is an interesting book, Civilisation and Climate by E. Huntington, that for the first time faced this issue at the beginning of 1900. 
Huntington, as himself reports, had the mission to investigate: “step by step,  the process by which geologic structure, topographic form, and the present and past nature of the climate have shaped man's progress, moulded his history; and thus played an incalculable part in the development of a system of thought which could scarcely have arisen under any other physical circumstances."

I admit I haven’t yet read the entire book, but if you search accurately in this treatise, you can find the author clearly reports that the temperate climate is the best environment for the development of civilisation, under several points of view. And figure 3 shows that the portion of temperate climate zone in the North of the globe is decisively larger than in the Southern one.

Here, as one of the example that reinforce the thesis of the author, I just report the following graphs, from his book:

This figure reports the main temperature in which a man, employed in a factory job, is able to reach his best performance in terms of productivity, intended as the best combination of mental and body energies. This temperature it is around 50 °F or 10 °C.
More recent studies[2]assess that in an office, the ideal temperature for mental activities is around 20-22 °C, and it makes sense:  we probably need a warmer environment to reach the optimal mental-body energy combination to work in an office in which we stay sitting almost all the time. And we are sure enough that these average values of temperature are typical of the temperate climate zones.
The book from Huntington offers several others interesting examples to thinking on, it simply reveals that the human activities, and even the moral issues, still depend upon Nature. And this is a positive aspect- the author says- because it gives us the opportunity to correct our behaviour, knowing that there are climate physical conditions to take into account, even in planning a new economy.

And, especially in a Degrowth Economy, the relationship between our body energy and the climate is, probably, the most important to keep in mind if we want to achieve more equity in the opportunity of future sustainable development, for all the cultures independently of the latitudes they are.

What I would like to point out with these ideas, is that the productivity of humans, on which civilisation and economy both rely, have been and still remains highly conditioned by climate. 
The North and the South of the planet are different environments, different availability of space and climate, i.e. a mainly physical differences, that, reasonably, have affected the history of the world economies, with an active role in originating the inequalities we are observing now.
Changing our economy implies to face these climate diversities, maybe now more than in the past,  to image a future more equitable civilisation as it is described in the vision of a Degrowth Economy, or another new desirable more equitable Economy, that I think, we need so much precisely ‘now’.

The message of Huntington is full of hope, he concludes his treaty saying: ‘If we are able to conquer the climate, the whole world will become stronger and nobler”.

The previous analysis aims to recall that physical differences still exist between the two hemispheres, even they appear faded by the idea of globalization. Decarbonize the present economy is absolutely urgent to avoid global warming but it will not remove the preexisting physical barriers that originated economic inequalities even before the industrial era. And any new policy that promotes a more sustainable and equitable society must account for this physical diversity, to avoid its virtuous proposal failing.

[1] Meadows, D. H., Meadows, D. L., Randers, J., Behrens, W.W.(1972). The Limits to Growth. New York: Universe Books.
[2]Mofidi, F., Akbari, H. (2017), Personalised energy costs and productivity optimization in offices,  Energy Build143:5, doi: 10.1016/j.enbuild.2017.03.018


  1. Hello Ilaria,
    I thought that geographical determinism was outdated! As a theory, it didn't pass any serious test. Even people like J. Diamond would admit that the raise and collapse of civilizations are complex and multi-causes processes. By the way I don't really get the final message of the article. What should we do? develop technologies to control the climate to reduce North-South inequality? is that possible? desirable? safe for the planet? those are essentially political questions. North-South gap is essentially political! Any form of determinism has proved to be inadequate to answer this kind questions!

  2. Dear Mario

    Thanks a lot for your comments, they give me the occasion to clarify something further.
    In the post I didn’t tell anything about the causes of civilisations’ collapse, I think I think had not the main relationship with climate, while, in contrast, the climate could play an important role in providing their birth. I really have some concerns about the fact that this geographical determinism is surpassed, otherwise, Antartica could be populated not only by few proud people and for short period of the whole lifetime.
    What I think is that in examine complexities, we should not neglect some simple facts on which such a complexity relies on, and this provide the second point: I absolutely agree with you, we must (and this is one of the things we should do) stop to think in term of North and South, this is a political – economic distortion that does not enlight adequately the opportunities to build a really more sustainable- let me say -global’ society. I was surprised to find this kind of argumentation in a so recent treatise on degrowth economy.
    The last point is ‘domain climate’. Here the word ‘domain’ is intended as ‘governance’: I don’t claim any technological forcing to change the climate, indeed I ask for trying to do all the possible to preserve it, knowing what it implies, i.e. civilisations, also the future ones, need favourable climate conditions to develop.


    1. Sorry fo the double 'I think' at the second row...

  3. thanks for the nice reply. I'm just particularly sensitive to geographical determinism because in my field, development studies, has been traditionally used to claim the superiority of white people living in the tempered north versus the savages dwelling the warm south.
    As regards the north-south gap...well the reason our degrowther friends (I personally know the guy who wrote that piece) use this dichotomy is to stress the fact that we might not need a global universal way of dealing with social-environmental crisis but a pool of diverse approaches, or multiverses in the words of Arturo Escobar. To do that we have to open the door to different epistemologies, different ways of knowing, something that scientists in the 'north' are extremely reluctant to do... for instance, what does imply a climate governance? who decide? on the basis of what knowledge? produced by whom? who wins who loses? scientific knowledge (mostly produced in the north) is never neutral, on the contrary, it underpins the values, purposes and motivations of the society that produces it. That's why I think is crucial to approach climate change not as a technical problem but as a political one. thanks for your time!


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