Ode to the Road Part 4 – Why Europe?


Why is Europe so…European?

The life forms that inhabit various places on earth adapt to the particular environment. Humans might think that technology isolates us from this influence, and to a certain degree it does, but not as much as we tend to think.

Ok, the main discouragers, the hotter and colder climates have been conquered to a degree. Without air conditioning the only things moving in the south of USA would be tumbleweeds. Without energy technologies the productivity of the Finnish worker would be zero for the half year he or she can’t get out from under the duvet because of cold and darkness. But on a more subtle level, our geography still determines us and the lifestyles we lead. Whether we think of it or not, our norms have many direct and profound links to our environments.

The Croatian kid from Split that tends to spend the days of the whole summer in the blue waters of the Adria and the balmy nights chatting on the piazzas will naturally have a carefree, live-for-the-moment approach. The peasants of the flatlands will be used to armies coming and going and have a sheep-like temperament, while those of animal-husbandry origins in the rugged mountains will be proud to be individualistic and uncompromising (blood-feud is traditional in mountains and unheard of in the plains). Regions where the weather is often unsuitable for outdoor activities will have more book-worms, thinkers and artists. Cold climate, by requiring more fuel for the body to keep its temperature up, will ensure the cooking is fattier and alcohol content is higher. Add to this the secondary effects like socio-economic status (for instance, rich societies will have much stricter codes of conduct in areas of honesty and transparency and fewer children than poor societies), and we realise that we are a product of our environment much more so than we like to admit.

So next time an observation is made of a group of people from a certain region of the world, the knee jerk reaction shouldn’t be the soft-liberal “that is racist, don’t generalise”, or hard-line “it is in the genes, you can’t change it”. Rather, we should think what factors influenced this culture, the subjects of which just do what makes sense from that perspective. Next time the rightist friend makes a remark like “poor people shouldn’t have too many kids”, just remind him or her that all the ancestors of the now rich countries did the same when they were poor. So yes, we can generalise and no, it is not in the genes.

In the beginning geography is the key. Europe had one huge boost provided by Mother Nature’s awesome one-two combination: the Gulf Stream pulling warm equatorial waters up the whole western coastline, and the constant easterly trade winds fanning these waters to bring warm air and even temperatures over its western shores.

Because warm air can hold more water, the rains will be thick, and because of constant trade-winds they will come reliably to germinate and generously moisten the land year after year. Its effects can be quite amazing: The Norwegian town of Stavanger at considerable latitude of nearly 60? doesn’t experience monthly average temperatures below zero even during the long dark winter, and summer fruit like strawberry and grapes are happily grown there (in comparison, Kiev at 50? latitude has bitterly cold winters and has trouble growing grass for the soccer fields). Without the Gulf Stream, even Britain would be frozen over half the time. The window of opportunity for early human inhabitation has been greatly enlarged by the Stream all along the western edge of the continent-even if the same winds will bring the Icelandic volcanoes’ ashes as well from time to time.

The hunter-gatherer societies were relatively stable in their numbers, but as the art of agriculture and animal husbandry spread, the stored plentiful grains caused population to boom. This momentum in growth meant that every time the population density reached what the land could support, the incentive for technological improvements was strong, as in absence of more gifts of nature that was the only factor that could lift the production possibilities curve quickly. Animals and plants were bred to improve yields and working animals and the wind was made to work, adding precious energy to the increasingly sophisticated machines.

Of course, it was not the only place on earth with favourable conditions for human activities. Why did it emerge as such a clear winner in the middle ages? Maybe it was simply more ruthless, determined to control it all, aggressive to drive home its strengths and exploit the weaknesses of others in its way. Like the biggest, baddest tumour that kills off all other tumours in the organism (and in the end the host organism as well-actually, that’s a scary thought), Europe ruthlessly eliminated all other competitors by all means available. For example, centuries before any knowledge of microbiology existed, the Portuguese were spreading diseases by handing out blankets full of bacteria and viruses they had resistance to, but would kill the Latin-American aborigines very quickly. Now, that is what I call efficient ruthlessness.

Another example in the difference in “drive” is China, a country which, having gone through the same development curve, as late as the 15th century was ahead of Europe in many ways. Huge and sophisticated 2000 tonne sail boats (ships the size we wouldn’t know how to build using wood even today) roamed the Indian Ocean when the largest and very cumbersome Spanish carracks could only displace 1000 tonnes. But in the 15th century Chinese leadership banned trade with the world by making sailing a multi-masted ship a criminal offence. This consigned the existing fleet to rot in harbours and the skills to build these giant ships were forever lost. With trade, ideas have stopped flowing as well, and development plateaued. Isolationism? Political wrangling? There is some debate about that, but the facts are, China has stopped to push home its advantage. Europe didn’t let petty infighting get in the way of expansion, and the unopposed naval power, colonisation, unlimited resources and trade have brought untold riches within a few short centuries.

So Europe is like it is because of its geography which has set the scene for history to add its touches. For the less patient, it is not necessary to go back so many centuries; we can feel the effects of much more recent history as well. Because of the hardships of 20th century, European way of life uses some 30% less energy than other highly developed countries. WW and post-WW habits and planning decisions resulting in energy and other efficiencies are set to make big returns in the coming age of energy-deficiency. The compact European cities that work better for people and business are a great example of this effect. Areas where war meant men were few, and the war industry effort had to be stepped up have much larger female participation in the workforce than relatively less affected areas.

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