Why Are Northern Countries More Successful Than Southern Ones?

Philip Dhingra
Philosophistry
Published in
6 min readApr 25, 2021

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What’s a Roman centurion doing all the way up north in England?

Why are countries in colder climates more successful than warmer ones? The French philosopher Montesquieu answered this question back in 1725:

cold air constricts the extremities of the external fibres of the body; this increases their elasticity, and favours the return of the blood from the extreme parts to the heart. … People are therefore more vigorous in cold climates.

This sentiment echoed my thoughts in the 1990s when I was an amateur historian and overall ignorant teenager who dished breezy opinions on all subjects. I believed that nations in colder climates were more successful because colder weather made people tougher.

But shouldn’t the opposite be true? If adversity makes us stronger, why aren’t there successful people living in Antarctica? Why isn’t Canada completely dominating the United States? Or, why don’t we seek harsher conditions for ourselves? Shouldn’t I starve myself to gain more grit? After all, what does not kill me should only make me stronger.

Jared Diamond, the author of Guns, Germs, and Steel, is probably the most successful thinker on the Big Connections between geography and destiny. He believes that the answer to the riddle is simpler. Northern countries seem more successful because the colonizers who reaped the benefits of the Industrial Revolution exported them to colonies with similar climates. South Africa, for example, is the most prosperous country in Africa, but it is also the most British. However, until a few centuries ago, the wealthiest belt of nations stretched from southern Europe through the Middle East, and on into northern India and southern China. In other words, there is no geographic pattern, just timing.

But again, the question remains: Why the North? Why didn’t the “wealthier belt” of warmer climates take advantage of the Industrial Revolution first? We can’t escape the notion that adversity has some contribution to success, but what is it? The Goths were supposedly successful in invading Rome because of all their practice fighting other Germanic tribes. Shouldn’t we be fighting all the time? What is the point of peace if it just makes us weaker?

Sam Tanzer, writing on Quora, turns the riddle around, saying that it depends on how you define…

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Philip Dhingra
Philosophistry

Author of Dear Hannah, a cautionary tale about self-improvement. Learn more: philipkd.com