Why Are Northern Countries More Successful Than Southern Ones?

Philip Dhingra
Apr 25 · 6 min read
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 prosperity:

Since just staying warm enough to survive the winter in these climates costs more than the per capita income in some of the world’s poorer equatorial countries, I’d expect the correlation to exist almost by definition.

If you define prosperity as the amount of product that a country makes per person, the Northern climates should be more successful by definition. It just takes a lot more “stuff,” i.e., warm clothes, insulated homes, etc., to support living in those biomes. These basic creature comforts are the P in GDP, i.e., gross domestic product. But if we define success as population density, then the equator has always been more successful, not just in supporting large human populations, but also animal ones. All living things gravitate toward the sun.

But any of these explanations, whether from Jared Diamond, or Montesquieu, or some random person on Quora, are unsatisfying because they don’t capture the cyclical relationship between warm and cold nations. For example, I love pointing out the existence of Hadrian’s Wall, way up in Northern England, past Manchester. This wall represents the northernmost extent of the Roman Empire, under emperor Hadrian from 117 to 138.

Likewise, Britain conquered as far south as far as the Falkland Islands, near the Southern tip of South America. If history shows us anything, it’s the trading of dominance between warm and cold climates, swaying in a cycle that appears to be 800 years long, with some nested sub-cycles, such as between the Carthaginians on the southern shore of the Mediterranean versus the Romans of the North.

“Geography and Wealth” or “Geography and Innovation”

One way to solve the riddle is to compare world history to the history of innovation in the last 150 years. In America, we have seen the ebbing and flowing of corporate-sponsored or state-sponsored R&D on the one hand (think DuPont, IBM, or NASA), and rugged entrepreneurialism on the other (Thomas Edison or Steve Jobs). At one point, the giant railroad companies were much like the Big Tech companies today, monopolizing industries through network effects. Instead of fiber optic cables, though, their networks came from tracks made of steel. But in another era, car startups cropped up every week, just as a flurry of software startups showed up in the 1990s and 2000s.

These cycles show the trading places between the little guy and the Man, between David and Goliath. More technically, there are some periods when scale is more important, and there are some periods when smaller, decentralized units are more important.

Weaponry goes through similar cycles. A gang of men with big muscles meant nothing in the face of one skilled archer at a distance. But then, after improvements in armor, the phalanx regained the upper hand. Or later in history, just as the airplane gained in maturity, so did trench warfare lose in efficacy. Periods of symmetrical combat are followed by periods of asymmetric weapons and tactics.

Sometimes larger populations can overwhelm ingenuity. For example, the United States in the 1800s was considered by the rest of the world as a place for degenerates. French naturalist Comte de Buffon described America as “so ill-favored by nature that all it contains is either degenerate or monstrous.” Arguably, Britain was still the engine of global innovation, but it’s just an island, and there are only so many people it can support. The Americans were essentially British people plus immigrants, trees, and a vast landscape ripe for agriculture. It should be no surprise, then, that the direct descendants of the most successful empire at that time would overtake its parent in GDP in 1890. By 1950, the U.S. had seven times the GDP of England. During the same period, England went from 27M people to 39M, whereas the U.S. went from 63M to 151M. Scale matters.

Likewise, there are more English speakers in China today than there are in the U.S., simply because even if only a fraction of the 1.4 billion people who live in China study English, which a significant portion of them do, that’s still more than all of the people in America.

In other words, if all of life is a competition, and all competitors expand to fill whatever strategy they can, there will always be instability at the top. Every strategy gets exploited to its maximum because it’s more rational to commit to a winning strategy than it is to hedge with alternate, antithetical strategies. The result is micro and macrocycles, where strategies on different ends of an axis will pay off in different environments. And one of the natural axes for humanity is between sunshine, which leads to calories and population growth, versus the creativity that comes from the limited resources of a dimly lit environment.

Which part of the cycle are we in? A lot depends on your notion of success. I’ve been joking lately that the purpose of San Francisco is to see whether half a million people can control half of the world’s GDP (SF actually has 875,000). The housing policies of San Francisco reflect resistance to population expansion, but it doesn’t seem to bother anyone, since as the techies get richer, they can afford to isolate themselves further from a crumbling urban core.

Meanwhile, you have a city like Shenzhen, with 12 million people working towards creating their own technological transcendence, cropping up every 5 to 10 years in China. Will the scale of China overtake the half-million people situated on a little promontory in the middle of Northern California? We’ll find out soon enough.


Complete essays from Philosophistry: The Love of Rhetoric

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