I finally watched episode one of the Guns, Germs, and Steel TV show last night. Its all on TiVo, but I’m finding it hard to sit and watch – it is a rather painfully made show. So many shots of Jared Diamond looking scholarly: peering out windows, looking at maps, walking back and forth, etc. Ugh! And do they really need to work the title of his book into every other sentence? I mean, in the first episode they don’t even get up to the invention of guns…
The show is framed by the motif of “Yali’s Question.” Yali is portrayed as some local guy (he looks like a worker) whom JD bumps into on the beach one day and asks him:
Why you white man have so much cargo and we New Guineans have so little?
But Yali isn’t just some guy on the beach. He’s a politician. This isn’t JD’s fault. Here is what he says in the book:
I had already heard about a remarkable local politician named Yali, who was touring the district then.
But I can’t completely absolve JD for this portrayal. I believe there is something fundamentally wrong about the very question he is asking.
The modern U.S. is the richest, most powerful state on earth. It’s crammed with more cargo than most New Guineans could ever imagine. But why? That’s what Yali wanted to know. How did our worlds ever come so different?
By framing the question in this way, the show is forced to portray New Guniea as a land of poor people, and the US as a land of wealth. Although we are told that there are intelligent people from New Guniea, they are portrayed as hunter gatherers, or poor farmers. While the show does show the hubub of urban New Guinea at the end, one would hardly know that there is internet access in the country.
This gets to the fundamental problem I have with JD’s question. While it is interesting and important to ask why technologies developed in some countries as opposed to others, I think it overlooks a fundamental issue: the inequality within countries as well as between them. I assure you that logging industry executives in New Guinea live better than you or I do! Both New Guinea and the United States are far more unequal (by some measures) than is India. Moreover, inequality throughout the world is increasing more rapidly now than every before.
Although it is a contentious argument, economist Amartya Sen argues that inequality within countries can be more important than inequality between countries. I’ve collected a bunch of writings about this question on my wiki, and there was some lively discussion about it in response to this earlier Savage Minds post. But the main point Sen makes is that people in societies that are objectively poorer, but less unequal live longer than people who are objectively wealthier, but at the bottom rungs of a more unequal society. It doesn’t help to have more cargo if you can’t afford the dental work necessary to meet new standards of beauty. (Read this post about a US woman who couldn’t get promoted because of her teeth.)
Yes, it is interesting to know the environmental constraints societies have struggled against over the course of history, but it is a mistake to see this as an explanation of contemporary inequality.
To take a recent example, Nigeria (environmentally blessed with some of the largest oil reserves outside of the Middle East) used to be one of the richest countries in the world. Corruption, aided by Western banks who provided the means of funneling the majority of the nation’s GDP into private bank accounts, and deep cultural divisions between North and South, destroyed that wealth. Yet there are still many, many, millionaires and billionaires in Nigeria, and their collective wealth would be enough to give them plenty of “cargo” …
So, no offense to Yali, but his question should be:
Why is cargo distributed so unequally both within and between our societies?
Once you frame the question that way, environmental factors seem rather incidental.
UPDATE: Brad DeLong, points out that I overstated my case with the Nigeria example. However, I still think my overall argument still stands. The comparative wealth of Nigeria is less important for my point than the inequitable distribution of that wealth within Nigeria.
I would also add that the poor farming conditions DeLong speaks of are partially a result of the oil economy:
During the oil boom, Nigeria’s small family farms became marginalized. Women and children largely ran the farms as men sought work in the cities’ industrial-development schemes, which were heavily subsidized by petroleum wealth.
UPDATE: My discussion with Professor DeLong continues in the comments section of this post – which also has links to discussion on other sites.