Chapter 2: Why Some Societies Progress, Others Regress
Geography As Destiny
It is easy to understand and accept the premise that geography plays a major role in deciding the fate of a nation. Intuitively one can readily see that the Arabs are fabulously wealthy because of their vast oil deposits. Economists have long clung to the idea of comparative advantage afforded by the luck of geography. Portugal’s Mediterranean climate enables it to produce cheaper and better wines than Britain. The easy availability of coal in Britain on the other hand, made possible the steam revolution.
Access to navigable waterways and oceans confer immense advantages. For this reason Malacca was a center of vigorous Malay civilization for a long time. Through international commerce and the consequent intermixing of various cultures, Islam entered and became established in the Malay world through that port city.
Yet like many ideas that seem right, geography cannot be the full answer. There are too many exceptions of countries doing well despite seemingly no natural resources or favorable geographic factors. Hong Kong and Singapore are two oft-cited examples. But even here one cannot ignore geography entirely. Hong Kong enjoys the proximity of a huge hinterland, China. Singapore too, despite the irritatingly frequent boasts of its leaders to the contrary, is blessed with its strategic location on the maritime trade route between the Far East and Europe, and a protected natural deep-water harbor. Those are not inconsiderable assets. As realtors endlessly remind us, location is everything.
Favorable geography alone is not enough. Many nations blessed with abundant natural resources and favorable geography remain stagnant, their people languishing in poverty. Brunei may enjoy one of the highest per capita incomes but its people are essentially Third World peasants. One can easily imagine that country reverting to its original tropical swamps and its ruler reduced to the level of the Sultan of Sulu once the oil runs out. Africa contains the largest deposits of many valuable minerals and has huge potential for hydroelectric energy, yet that entire continent remains backward and poor.
Geography as an academic discipline too has also fallen on hard
times, with major American campuses beginning with Harvard dispensing
with it. Matters once under its purview are now relegated to earth sciences and geology. Only ancient British universities like Cambridge still have a Department of Geography.
Geography however, has a long history. The Greek philosopher Ptolemy in his Geographica divided the world into six geographic zones according to climate, and concluded that the areas most conducive to human civilization are the middle zones—the Mediterranean climate – where of course Greece happens to be located. The extreme zones, the polar north and hot tropical band, were deemed not conducive for human civilization.
Ibn Khaldun, the 14th century Muslim historian in his Muqaddimah (An Introduction [to the study of History]), expanded on this Hellenic observation. “Environmental differences,” he wrote, “affect and shape man’s character, his appearance and his customs. The best conditions for human existence obtain in the middle regions of the earth, between its northern and southern extremes.” Ibn Khaldun too divided the world into several zones ranging from the tropic to the tundra, but he went further to boldly state that climate and the physical environment affect people’s character. Thus:
Now Negroes live in the hot zone. Heat dominates their temperament and formation. Therefore, they have in their spirits an amount of heat corresponding to that of their bodies and that of the zone in which they live….Excitability is the direct consequence.
Egyptians [in the heat are] dominated by joyfulness, levity, and disregard for the future. They store no provisions of food, neither for a month nor a year ahead, but purchase most of it in the market. Fez in the Maghrib on the other hand, lies inland and is surrounded by cold hills. Its inhabitants can be observed to look sad and gloomy and to be concerned for the future.”
He further elaborated on the role of the food supply in shaping the culture, physique, and character of a people. Thus, “We find that the inhabitants of fertile zones where the products of agriculture and animal husbandry as well as seasonings and fruits are plentiful, are, as a rule, described as stupid in mind and coarse in body. Those who lead a frugal life and are restricted to barely and dira … are superior both intellectually and physically.”
Essentially, we are what we eat! Or, adversity builds character!
The Malay scholar Pendita Za’ba, in a 1933 essay entitled Kemiskinan Orang Melayu (Poverty Among Malays) wrote, “The geography of our country, with its fertile soil and abundant flora which provide for easy sustenance together with our oppressively hot climate, are reasons often cited to explain why Malays are sluggish and backward. That is, we are not as diligent and hard working as the immigrants because we had no need to. Everything has been easily and amply provided for.” But he went on to suggest (a point often ignored) that “the factors of geography” alone cannot be the full explanation. He suggested two additional elements: first the role of religion (Islam); and second, culture.
I will cover these two issues as they specifically affect Malays later
The most obvious effect of geography is on the climate. Having been born and raised in the tropics, lived through many a frigid Canadian winter, and now residing in California, I can personally attest to the salubrious effects of the Mediterranean clime. Many Americans too share my sentiment, as evidenced by the large number of new arrivals from such states as Minnesota and Iowa.
It is argued that the human body tolerates cold better than heat. I disagree. I prefer the tropics to the frigid Artic any time; at least in the tropics I can always keep cool by taking off my shirt or having a shower. To keep warm in the cold entails adding more layers of clothing or starting a fire, both energy-consuming activities. In the tropics you can keep cool by not exerting yourself in the heat of the day; hence the cultural phenomenon of siesta. Only mad dogs and Englishmen would dare or be stupid enough to venture out in the heat of the day; the natives knew better.
Climate, as intimated by Ibn Khaldun, also affects personality. Many writers attribute the sunny, open, and warm personality of tropical inhabitants to the weather, in contrast to the frigid, icy behavior of the Northerners. Notice the similar vocabulary to describe human dispositions and weather.
Tropical dwellings too are open and airy, for ventilation and coolness, unlike the closed and insulated homes in cold weather countries. In a tropical home there is no distinction between the inside and outside; they just merge. When entertaining, guests are not cooped up within the confines of the living room but can easily flow out to the verandah and the outside. Malaysian homes also have their doors and windows wide open for ventilation, creating a welcoming aura. Entertaining in a temperate zone home, especially in winter, involves being cooped up. This does not favor long and leisurely conversations or create an atmosphere of openness. In Canada you hardly see your neighbor until the spring thaw. Not surprisingly, inhabitants of cold zones are prone to Seasonal Affective Disorders (SAD—depression).
I brought a Canadian guest to a Hari Raya (Eid celebration) party in Malaysia. At the end he was amazed at the number of guests he had met and yet somehow they did not overwhelm him. The reason was that people came and went, mingled in and out of the house, with some eating on benches outside. The atmosphere was like a party at a public park rather than in a home. Children too were tolerated because they were not in the way; they could be running outside the home. In contrast, in Western societies it is considered bad form to bring children along unless specifically invited. I can see why. All you need is a couple of kids running wild within the confines of a house to give everyone a headache. Malaysians visiting a similar party in an American home always wonder where the children are. Well, they are cooped up in the family room watching a movie under the watchful eye of the babysitter.
Geography has also been invoked to explain differences in personalities and temperament of inhabitants of the different regions within a country, as between northern and southern Italians.
Ibn Khaldun was the first to systemically study the development of society. To him urbanization, in contrast to nomadic lifestyle, represents an advance form of existence. Such concentrations of humans permit, among other things, the division of labor, a concept that predates by centuries the thinking of modern economists. Further, human society can only exist and flourish through the cooperative endeavors of all its participants on behalf of the common good. This “group feeling” or group consciousness (asabiyah) is the glue that binds society. Groups that have strong asabiyah achieve predominance over others. Contemporary social scientists have a modern term to describe this attribute: social capital. This is increasingly recognized as the glue that keeps modern society functioning.
Next: Culture and Geography: An Experiment of Nature