Climate and World Order Revisited

Köppen published “The thermal zones of the Earth according to the duration of hot, moderate and cold periods and to the impact of heat on the organic world” [translated title] in the German journal Meteorologische Zeitschrift in 1884. It was the first scientific paper to classify and map the world’s climate regions. His classification was adopted and fine-tuned by later geographers. This version is from Wikipedia. The most striking feature of this map is the lack of intelligibility. Almost the only thing one can make out with any confidence is the great desert and rainforest belts of the tropics.


Modern researchers continue to try their hand at improving on Köppen. This next one is from Kottek et al. (2006). Here some rationality has been brought to bear. Although one is still kinda lost in the complexity.

Screen Shot 2019-04-10 at 11.08.50 PM.png

The contrast with Köppen’s map is striking. He was interested above all in mapping thermal burdens. The Köppen climatic classification was dictated to first order by isotherms, with second order corrections for rainfall and seasonality. When was this sharpness lost?

Screen Shot 2019-04-10 at 11.42.43 PM.png

I have argued at length that the point of departure for understanding global polarization is the Heliocentric geometry of our life world. Thermal burdens directly (and indirectly via disease burdens) suppress productivity, going some way towards explaining the massive divergence in the incomes of high and low latitude nations. The next figure displays the dominant variable. We are working with Gecon data at the level of latitude and longitude grids.


Of secondary but often decisive importance is precipitation. A vast belt of desert stretches from Morocco to Siberia. The lack of rain west of the 100th parallel in the United States is well known. Other major deserts can be found in Australia, Southern Africa, and Southern Americas.


Principally as a result of these conditioners the vegetation of the planet follows a similar bauplan. The zones of massive rain in the tropical belt are covered in impenetrable rain forests.


But how much does geography matter? How much handle can we get on cross-sectional variation in income with climatic and topographic factors? We fit a linear model with ET, minimum monthly temperature mean, maximum monthly temperature mean, precipitation, elevation, distance from ocean, distance from river, and roughness as predictors. And we take out dependent variable to be the ranking of the cells (the latitude-longitude grids) by per capita market income. We find that all predictors are highly significant (p<0.0001) and bear the expected signs. The next figure displays the distribution of market income and that predicted by the model. The fit is shockingly good. Our basic model explains 43 percent of the variation in more than 19 thousand observations. ET alone explains 22 percent.


The next figure displays the fixed effects. The dominant variable is ET. The correction terms cannot be ignored of course. Minimum monthly temperature means (“min”) enter with a positive sign suggesting a negative gradient for very cold climes. The maximum monthly means enter with a negative sign suggesting that they capture additional thermal burdens beyond ET. Distance from the ocean, elevation, and roughness enter with negative signs. Distance from the closest river however enters with a positive sign.


If the agenda is to explain global polarization, we need to investigate why ET is such an effective conditioner. What we have done here is not explain global polarization. What we have done instead is to document the pattern and set up the explanandum. In effect, we are doing what Binford did in setting up his reference frames. The question is not whether these patterns hold but what explains them. Why are climatic and geographic conditioners so effective in documenting global polarization?

Köppen offered an explanation.

A hot, even a very hot summer, does not prevent the breathless striving in North America. However, where the heat, even if it is more moderate, goes on for the entire year, where the stimulating winter does not occur, a Nordic may follow his ideal targets or great speculations brought along for several years. But inertness and unconcern is certainly the general characteristic of humans in those regions, which, the longer the safer, will also take hold of the immigrated Europeans.

The racialist framing is no coincidence. There was a certain unity to Western thinking on physical anthropology, geography, and geopolitics—they were all disciplines central to high racialism. Geographers such as Griffith Taylor integrated geology, paleontology, physical anthropology, geography into discourse on world history (ie racial history) and world politics. The high racialist who paid the most attention to climate and world order was Ellsworth Huntington. He was perhaps the first to analyze temperature optima. He showed that productivity is maximized in Goldilocks zones. Research that would later be extended by Wyndham in 1960s Apartheid South Africa. Later still, it would be picked up by physiologists and ergonomists, whilst being studiously ignored by economists.


If the goal is to study high racialism, we need to start paying attention to the closely connected discourses in ethnology, physical anthropology, geography and geopolitics. For it is no coincidence that Huntington titled his 1919 monograph World Power and Evolution and Taylor titled his Environment and Race (1926). What is really interesting in these discourses is that despite working unambiguously in the high racialist framework, both are exercises in reaching beyond essentialist hierarchy to explain world order.

Taylor is even more interesting that Huntington. His strata theory may not have stood the test of time in its details, but the modern picture is largely consistent with the notion that modern population structure is due largely to repeated massive migration pulses. The sheer audacity of this imagination is astounding.

ERM, 1937, migration zones.png

Taylor’s schema was of course unadulterated racial catastrophism. But his willingness to challenge established hierarchies is refreshing. His racial taxonomy was obviously in direct tension with the orthodoxy that would find its most refined form in Coon’s The Origin of Races (1962). According to Taylor, the western Alpines and the Mongoloids are two branches of the same people.

Human Biology, 1936, strata.png

In addition to interrogating the hold of high racialism on the Western mind, we must ask, How precisely did high racialism structure scientific discourse? What were their lacunae? And what did they still manage to discern despite the rigidities of the discourse?





Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s