The Other I

July 22, 2012

Why it’s harder to make a living in some places on earth

Economists have studied various economic and governmental institutions which either facilitate or retard development in a country.  They have identified some critical variables, but they are apt to miss some of the geographical variables that are equally important.

A look at a map of the globe in which the average incomes are displayed show that in both America and Africa, the countries at the northern and the southern tips of the continents have higher per capital incomes than countries in the middle.  This pattern holds even when government institutions are not ideal.  Why?

Because by and large, tropical climates tend to suffer from three significant geographical limitations that temperate climates often do not have to face.  These factors are disease, agricultural productivity of the land, and transportation.

Take disease.  Tropical diseases like elephantiasis or malaria are far more difficult to control than disease occurring in a temperate climate.  Partly this is because disease-causing microbes are not killed off each year by winter temperatures.  In tropical countries they continue to multiply year-round.  The problem is exacerbated when these microbes are carried by mosquitoes or ticks, which themselves multiply much faster in tropical climates.  Finally, the human workforce is itself debilitated both by disease and by the significantly higher number of children women bear, nurse and care for as insurance against the high death rate of children.

Disease, therefore is one factor which contributes to the second limitation of tropical zones which is lower agricultural productivity.  There are others.  First, plants that grow in temperate zones tend to store more energy in parts that are edible than plants that grow in tropical zones.  And disease also attacks plants in tropical zones more aggressively than in temperate zones, for the same reasons disease attacks humans more aggressively.  Fewer microbes are killed off by cooler weather.

Secondly, glaciers repeated advances and retreats in temperate climates have left the land nutrient-rich.  Tropical areas haven’t been enriched in this way.  Finally, because temperatures are higher in the tropics, organic matter is broken down faster by microbes.  This might sound like an advantage, but it isn’t because the nutrients produced by rotting matter is leached away more quickly than in temperate climates.  So by and large, soils in tropical climates are not as rich as they are in temperate zones.

The third factor which tends to favor temperate zones at the ends of the continents rather than in the middle is the availability of transportation, especially by sea.  It costs seven times more to ship goods by land than by sea.  This is one of the significant reasons why landlocked countries like Bolivia in South America, and the fifteen landlocked countries in Africa are among the poorest.

Geography isn’t everything, just as our genetic make-up is not a complete explanation for what any individual human becomes.

But geography hasn’t created a level playing field.  It’s a lot harder to make a living in some places than in others.


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