Rise of high-tech civilization helped by moderately cold climate, rainfall all year, navigable water ways

What follows is a review by Rembrandt Koppelaar of Christian Welzel’s 2013 book: “Freedom Rising Human Empowerment and the Quest for Emancipation” on a private forum, followed by some comments of members of this group.  The basic paradigm of the book is that technological advancement is highly correlated with nations that have a cool-water (CW) condition, which is lots of cool-water, moderately cold climates, continuous rainfall over all seasons, and permanently navigable water ways. The book covers  broad sociological trends in 95 to 183 countries, using indices such as the Human Values Survey.

“The basic gist of the book is that abundance of resources has led to the availability of human Action Resources (the time to develop mental capacities) which has led to motivations to emancipate/seek human freedoms, which has led to guarantees (civic entitlements).

More interesting in our context is the last chapter (I skipped most of the rest and dived into this) which is about the origin of technological progress, and the reason why Western-Europe / Japan managed to progress much beyond earlier societies, from around 1500+

The author – head of chair in political culture research at center for Study of Democracy Leuphana University Germany – posits it is due to the combination of having universal water access and cooler climates.  The theoretical proposition is roughly as follows:

Cool-water condition –> lower disease and greater water/resource security –> higher probability of equal distribution across much larger groupings (higher per capita income as well)–> higher probability of less investment in offspring and more in human values / enables development of emancipative values –> higher probability of acceleration of technological development

Why are these conditions significant?

  • First, colder temperatures with mild seasonal frost kill microbes and, thus, diminish infectious diseases.
  • Colder temperatures also decelerate soil depletion, which improves land productivity
  • Continuity of rainfall over the seasons further improves land productivity, and, combined with colder temperatures, keeps water sources healthier
  • Ccolder temperatures greatly diminish physical exhaustion from work, which is conducive to labor productivity
  • Availability of permanently navigable water ways is a lubricant of economic exchange and democratizes market access

In combination, colder temperatures, continuous rainfall, and navigable waterways generate the CW condition. Under this condition, soil is arable without irrigation and small farming households in the possession of an iron plow and an ox can work large sections of land on their own. There is not much need of community support and no need of extended families with many children to provide armies of land laborers. No central power can monopolize access to water as a means to control people under the CW condition.


Other aspects. why 1450-1500 CE as start of the “great human redirection” in Welzel’s words:

“Technological advancement on a mass scale is the base process of human empowerment from which emancipative values and civic entitlements follow. Hence, by identifying the environmental root cause of technological advancement, we provide an exogenous explanation of the complete human empowerement process. However, I also demonstrate that the advantages of high disease security and water autonomy did not begin to surface before 1450-1500 CE. The reason for the delays is that these advantages need vibrant urban markets to come to fruition, and no mature urban civilization emerged in CW regions before this time. The causes of the late maturation of CW regions are two-fold. First, given their large migratory distance from the human origin in East Africa, CW regions were populated later than the original, semiarid areas of civilization in Middle-East, India, China, and Southeast Europe. The larger migratory distance also means a larger diffusion distance from the original centers of agriculture and urbanity in the Middle East. Second, CW regions embody a delay factor that postpones the abandonment of the foraging lifestyle. Ironically, the delay factor originates precisely in the higher intiial utility that the CW regions bestow on freedoms: this utility discourages an early abolition of the free foraging lifestyle. As a consequence, the full-scale adoption of surplus agriculture is delayed. So is the flourishing of urban civilization because it needs surplus agriculture to feed urban populations. But once this initial postponement is overcome, the CW condition turns into an accelerator of technological advancement for the same reason: the higher utility of freedoms under this condition. Once urban markets begin to flourish, water autonomy creates derivative autonomies, such as autonomy in marketing ones ideas, skills and produce – the engine of technological advancement.”


On the organization aspect that was unique in Western Europe and Japan (hypothesis, seems like circumstantial reasoning to an extent in my view).

“Late medieval Western Europe and Japan were the only two civilizations with high water autonomy to reach urban maturity in preindustrial times. All other Eurasian civilizations, from Eastern and Southern Europe to the Middle East to India and China, as well as the urban Amerindian civilizations, show a much weaker presence of the CW condition than do Japan or Western Europe. Accordingly, Powelson (1997) finds that Western Europe and Japan are the only two preindustrial civilizations that did not develop coercive feudalism. Instead, they established contractual feudalism – a form of feudalism that acknowledges the autonomies of farmers, village communities, and corporations. In both Western Europe and Japan, this pattern was linked with late marraiges, fertility limitation by means of monogamy and taboos on out-of-wedlock sex, an emphais of skill formation over the prolonged premarital period and “neolocal” instead of “patrilocal” household formation after marraige.”


On why earlier large empires did not find the same breakthrough as happened at 1500+.

“At times despotic regimes encourage technological advancement, yet only as long as it does not threaten despotism. Until the Great Redirection [1500+], technological advancement in the Middle Eastern, Indian, and Chinese empires was ahead of Europe and Japan: these empires were farther advances in mathematics, medicine, and astronomy; they invented procelain, gun powder, silk, paper, printing, and the compass. What is more, the Chinese empire initiated large-scale naval operations almost a hundred years before the Europeans did. However, as Goldstone (2009) notes, at some point, each of these empires reverted to dogmatism, thus suffocating the innovative thrust. To sustain despotism, the empires did not allow research and inquiry to break free from dogmatic control. For instance, it has been argued that after 1433 CE, the Chinese empire took seafaring under strict control to prevent the merchant class from growing too independent. As Western Europe and Japan reached the mature urban stage, civilization took hold where natural conditions gave rulers less control over people. Rulers had to acknowledge personal autonomies, autonomous social entities, and autonomeus social sectors and territories. Under these conditions, the key activity driving development – intellectual inquiry – was freed from political control.

COMMENTS (from several different members)

I’ve  just watched the brilliant BBC2’s “Britain’s Forgotten Slave owners” which makes a very convincing argument that the Wealth of the British Empire was built upon the Slave trade which started in 1627 and ended in early 1800’s when the total number of slaves was 800,000, owned mostly by British residents. Then fossil fuels came to the fore as the primary source of cheap energy. Without the slave trade, Britain wouldn’t have been so great.  So the availability of cheap energy should also be in the mix that influences sociological trends.

Holland, like Britain, derived most of it’s huge early wealth from the slave trade, spanning 1619 to late 1700’s. And also the Southern States of America. Australia’s early wealth was dependent upon Britain deporting it’s able bodied criminals to the Australian penal colonies where they were used as slave labor.  I opine that had not “fossil fuel slaves” been available to exploit, then the global economy would have continued to have been largely dependent upon slave labor, as it still is in many parts of the World. We are only have the luxury of being Enlightened largely because of the availability of non-human cheap energy from fossil fuel slaves IMO.

We talked about human labor inputs into EROI calculations for the Stanford project. They are important to include but a small percent of the work done by fossil coworkers. I’d be surprised if some analyses don’t exist for how much productivity increased for farmers using slave labor vs without.  And i expect those days will come again, either officially or under some other moniker.

I believe that as energy becomes more expensive and less accessible, humans again will start to be used as semi-slave or totally enslaved workforce.

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