Guns, Germs and Steel

In: Uncategorized

22 Feb 2009

Until I saw the documentary version of Guns, Germs and Steel yesterday I had not realised how much Jared Diamond, one of the world’s most prominent environmentalist writers, pitched his argument in terms of global inequality. Diamond first set out in 1972 to explain why people in developed societies had so much “cargo” (stuff) compared with hunger-gatherers in New Guinea. His answer started with the agricultural revolution of 11,000 years ago where those in the Middle East had an advantage thanks to their indigenous crops, barley and wheat, along with access to animals that could be domesticated. Such knowledge was then gradually passed on to Europe and Asia. Later on, in the sixteenth century, the Spanish conquistadores used their superior technology to subjugate Latin America.

Relatively little of Diamond’s documentary was spent on recent years. To the extent he talked about contemporary inequality it was presented as a legacy of the past. Essentially his views amount to a kind of geographical determinism. There was no attempt to explain the role of contemporary social factors create inequality today.

Although Diamond’s views may have some merit as an explanation of history they do not explain the present. It may well be true that indigenous crops and access to animals that could be domesticated gave those in the Middle East an advantage at the dawn of the Agricultural Revolution. But to properly explain contemporary inequality means starting with social relations today rather than the distant past.

Strangely the documentary had a relatively upbeat ending. It was implied that Africa could potentially achieve development along the lines of Malaysia or Singapore. As far as I can see there is no reference to this possibility in the book on which the documentary was based. It is also at odds with his 1987 essay on how the Agricultural Revolution was “The worst mistake in the history of the human race”. That implies the best form of equality would be if we were all still hunter-gatherers.

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