Why are Cold Countries Richer than Hot Countries?

I just watched a video called “Why are Cold Countries Richer than Hot Countries” by “Economics Explained” youtube channel.

And this is an excellent example of the terrible conclusions people who just ponder a question and run some superficial statistics draw.

For anyone who has studied history and in particular economics history this comes across as the most shallow analysis.

It is also a somewhat dangerous idea being pushed here, because it is very similar to the ideas pushed by “race realists.” This is really just a cute word for racists.

Basically white supremacists has long pushed the poorly supported idea that because surviving in the cold is harder than in the heat, people in Northern Europe must have developed to be more intelligent.

According to their theory, people in warmer countries would have to be more stupid. The warmer, the stupider they would be.

Economists Explained goes very much down this path talking about how people in cold climate, who have to stay inside a lot have to learn to get along better with each other, while people in warm countries can just frolic around and hence turn more aggressive.

Implied in this reasoning is of course that dark skinned people are aggressive and careless while light skinned people are peaceful and measured in their way of being. It is like listening to a 1800s eugenicists. Of course I don’t think this was the intention by “Economics Explained,” (EE) but this is a built in prejudice in many people which lead them to seek explanations of this sort.

Let me go through the various propositions and debunk them.

Claim: Northern People are Peaceful

As a Norwegian that is certainly a flattering suggestion. Norway today is certainly a country of fairly cool headed peaceful people.

But let us get real, Norwegian history is anything but peaceful and coolheaded. Has these guys never heard about the Vikings?

All of Scandinavia was an excessively violent place.

The Goths and the Celts which the Romans met, where they peaceful people? Not exactly? Quite the contrary. In fact because they where more warrior like, Romans gradually replaced their whole army with Goths.

EE here mix up correlation and causation. Places like Norway did not become prosperous because it was peaceful, rather it became more peaceful because it became more prosperous. You can see this pattern repeated all through history. As countries develop they tend to become more peaceful. It is not like their peacefulness was always there, fixed by temperature.

Claim: Cold Climate Makes People More Innovative

This claim is really stretching it. Mathematics and science originally developed in quit hot areas such as:

  • Mesopotamia
  • India
  • Ancient Greece

Places like Scandinavia, the Baltic’s and Russia was a backwater. It took a long time before Northern Europe was very innovative and that innovation depended in large part on scientific development that had been going on for a long time elsewhere.

Medieval Europe was far behind in the science. The Arabs where far more advanced. In fact it was only thanks t them that Europeans rediscovered Greek philosophers and mathematics.

When Europe began science again it was not in the North, quite the contrary it was in the South. The Renaissance began in Italy, one of the more Southern parts of Europe.

The Real Reasons why Colder Countries Are Richer

The real reasons are far more complex than this video lets on.

Water in Cold Climates

One thing has dominated human development above all other things through the centuries and that is: water.

Coastline, rivers and canals have played a vital role in the development of human civilization.

It is not without reason that all great civilizations arose around massive rivers. Nor is it an accident that almost all large cities are located next to a major river or next to coastline. Major cities pop up where there are good harbors.

I have written extensively about how coastlines and river are crucial in how countries develop extensively here as well as why Britain industrialized before China here. Hint: It has to do with water.

We will have to do the short version here. Large rivers in hot climate flood a lot which is great for agriculture.

However with respect to actual transport, such as transporting coal, iron ore, timber or bulk quantities of industrial goods they are terrible. The water flow of rivers in hotter climates can grow or shrink 80 times through the year. That is because in hot climates you find rain seasons with massive rainfall.

In such areas flooding is extremely destructive. It is not without reason that the story about the destruction of the world and Noah’s ark is about a flood in the middle east.

This is where Northern countries have a big advantage. In countries like the Netherlands and Britain rainfall is quite constant and moderate. This keeps water levels in rivers and dug canals quite constant. Hence both the English and the Dutch could use rivers and canals to transport a lot of goods.

In fact all of Europe has lots of rivers and canals which makes it superior for transport. Africa and the middle East in contrast are terrible for water based transportation. Too little coastline relative to landmass and too few rivers, and those that do exist are prone to flooding.

This means European cities could engage in mass production, because bulk quantities of mass produced goods could easily be transported. But more importantly for early industrialization, Coal and Iron ore from mines could be cheaply shipped along canals and rivers to major cities cheaply.

Water Power

But there was another important factor benefitting cold countries. You cannot build waterwheel effectively in hot climate due to the massive variation in water flow.

In places like northern France and Britain you can build water wheels what work year round. These could in turn power industrial machines. Prior to the industrial revolution, this was how factories developed. They developed where there was water power. Such development was never really possible in hot climates.

Tropical Disease and Water

Hot climates had another big problem, which the dutch discovered when they tried to dig canals in hot climate.

The dutch figured they would do things the dutch way in their colonies in tropical regions, so they dug canals.

Only stale water became breeding ground for mosquito. The dutch quickly got them selves killed doing this.

This is a major benefit of cold climates. Humans can put on clothes to survive. But a lot of nasty bugs and microorganism simply die. Colder climates thus get a less disease to deal with.

Thermodynamics

Stir quickly around in water and it will become hotter. Work invariably generates heat. And hence when humans work we produce heath. We have to get rid of this heath or we die. If we can’t, we have to simply slow down or take a break.

Here is a major advantage for cold climates. It is easy to get rid of heat. Being cold is relatively easy to solve. Just put on clothes, burn wood or setup a house.

Until humans got Air condition, there was no simple way of getting rid of heat. Hence humans in hot climates had sever limits on how hard or much they cold work.

It is not without reason that siesta is a thing in Southern Europe.

EE mentions Singapore. Why is it rich? Well, the man most credit with its economic success thanks Air condition for making that possible.

It not only makes it possible to work more, but it also helps clear the mind. There was a story of an Indian traveler during colonial times coming to Britain.

He remarked that he had never been able to think as clearly in his life before. he said, he finally understood how the Brits had been able to outsmart them.

While this is of course an exaggeration, it is of course a lot to it. It is not easy to think clearly when it is very hot.

Economists Explained, Got it All in Reverse

EE tried to suggest that the North ended up better because people there lived under harsher conditions and hence had to become smarter to survive.

However in fact it is much the opposite. The North had the advantages. As soon as humans had invented fire, could build houses and make clothes, there was a lot of advantages to living in the North:

  • Less disease to deal with. A simple thing like infection kills you more readily in a hot climate.
  • Easier to think and work hard in cold climate.
  • Water power and water transport could readily be exploited.

So why did civilization in warmer climates have an early lead? Because that is where grains developed first. Because things grow better there and hence as mentioned in the video, food surplus was initially more significant in hotter climates.

However as the heavy plow got developed and better transportation systems, this advantaged started getting undone.

Conclusion

Don’t trust simplistic quick explanations of complex phenomena in human civilization. Usually there are numerous indirect factors at play.

E.g. rainfall pattern which is so important is indirectly influenced by temperature.

And above all, be suspicious of any explanation that suggest us Europeans are just smarter than everybody else. Eugenists and racists have tried to falsely claim this for centuries to excuse domination and conquest of other people.

Written by

Geek dad, living in Oslo, Norway with passion for UX, Julia programming, science, teaching, reading and writing.

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