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I am an honours graduate (BSc. Hons. Strath-Glasgow) coupled with an MBA-ICG (Paris) , experienced, Metallurgist - Materials Scientist and Engineer & Manager turned Consultant & Blogger. I specialised in Superalloys (aero-engine_Seminal Work peer reviewed & published IOM3_MST, Feb.1985, the 2nd issue of this now well known journal dedicated to the fundamental aspects in our multidisciplinary subject area ) My experience over a wide range of Special Alloys is extensive. (Cryogenic,Controlled Expansion-Dilatometric,Magnetic, Corrosion Resistant Grades and finally HSLA-Aircraft Undercarriage. (Great Stuff-I was lucky) My responibilities were especially in Melting & Refining to 1st Forming stage. Responsibilities include QC,QA & Accounting, Melt/Remelt Process  & Products, R&D.  Bilingual English-French. 
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Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Guns, gems and steel: The Fate(s) of Human Societies

I have long waited an opportunity to acknowledge this “Conversation”, to talk "waybackmachine” so to speak, since the original posted material dates from 1999-2000.

Shortly after, I stumbled-upon the comments provoked by Berkeley Univ., Top Economist, Bradford DeLong following his review of the book by Jared Diamond, “Guns, Germs, and Steel.” Most comments were contributed by erudite members of a list. (a list is a group of experts who agree to co-operate on themes of mutual interest; suggest themes for debate and exchange opinions and views via Internet etc. - web conversations).

Certainly as a materials scientist & engineer; metallurgist, one-time steelmaker, the title “Guns and Steel” caught my attention. Perhaps I misread too, “Germs as Gems”, another metals- minerals– mining theme. The global nature of Diamonds thesis certainly intrigued me, familiar with the post WWII suspicion over the role played in events leading to and during WWII by the Steel Baron’s of the day. Not sufficient reason to motivate further comment, though. My motivation to engage, again, in the present conversation over global issues at such a belated stage had to be very strong indeed.

In this, my scientific fibre was rudely awakened to what more and more consider to be the most important problem facing humanity over the next 30 years namely climate change and the end of relatively “easy to tap energy.” My pride as a member of the scientific community took a bashing. I knew practically nothing of the scientific basis of Climate Change, to Ecology as a serious subject and approach to an Environment in Danger, our Environment!

As an engineer I felt personally challenged to re-examine my past role (not as bad as many, if I may say so) but more importantly what useful role should I play . In this latter quest for (or against) concerted and educated action I discovered RJ Barendse’ s contribution to the “Diamond – DeLong” conversation - starter and to the Dutch experience and probing past record and approaches to such difficult questions, consolidating my own general knowledge and intuition on the Dutch experience. It was “This Above All” that led me to post the my impressions.

But before that, a word on the book which catalysed my enquiry: Guns, Germs, and Steel. by J. Diamond- Quoting Brad. DeLong:

“I think it is very much worth reading: it may well be the best book I read in the 1990s. It is truly a work of complete and total genius.” Brad justifies, his appreciation in the following terms, quote: “Why? Why did Europeans conquer Peru, Mexico, Ghana, and Australia? Why didn't Incas, Aztecs, Ashanti, or Australians conquer Eurasians. That is the question that Jared Diamond answers--largely successfully--in this book. And his answer can be summed up in one phrase: "seeds, germs, size, and guns." (Note that the answer is not "guns, germs, and steel"--a phrase that is more euphonious but less meaningful.)”

[PS. DeLong has “moderated and reproduced on his personal site a number of enlightening comments from what appears to be a wide cultural and academic cluster of readers-contributors to this field – what my search leads me to believe that this is an approach to what is known as “The World System.” To retain an equally scientific sceptical stance, I have not as yet established whether this may or not be just another approach to the Theory of Everything.”
I was soon reassured as to the value of the review and the comments.

Contributors who posted their comments, I deduced while preparing my post are members of a list of mostly academics from the fields of History, Geography, Economics and Sociology who correspond regularly. Many interesting and worthwhile comments, often very critical, may be accessed via DeLong’s website.

Last but not least is the substantial contribution by R. J. Barendse, of the University of Leiden on May 7, 2000. His comments turned into the long and insightful conversational piece, a thesis which stuck in my mind to the time of writing. [ Here is a link to RJB's biography.]
His criticisms and opinion as a historian are to the best of my knowledge a very fruitful source of inspiration & analysis necessary to colour the debates on Climate Change: Social, Societal-Economics & Survival, problems which many consider today to be the most important issue of the present day, throughout the next 30 years and unfortunately, perhaps throughout this century. Climate Change Indicators have gone from Orange to flashing bright Red!

(Repeated again on the radio interview with the French Consummers Associatoion last week "60 Million [French] Consumers – concerning hard fought lobbied standardised performance indicators, found by the Association to be quite inadequate and even misleading on economic and environmental automobile performance while “All CC – climate Change” indicators on Red! cf. image on the right.)

RJB’s remarks evolve into an in-depth description of how medieval Netherlands developed gradually from a very unfavourable-inhospitable environment into the highly populated advanced economy whose success to date in mastering the environment provides answers to some, if not all, of the most crucial questions raised in the face of more and more certain predicted climatic change effects. Living proof of the ability of a people to very successfully intervene and shape their landscape and develop a high standard of living.

He relates this to historical development in Africa, raised by Diamond’s book and questions the judgement that medieval “African farming was backward” or even the ‘definition of Africa due to the wide differences encountered.’ He gives praise to the considerable indigenous farming results given their landscape and points out with examples of major failures in applying European methods in Africa.

Old Style Environmental History:

He qualifies Jared Diamond’s (et al.) approach as “Old Style Environmental History” which assumes :
-the environment is `something given' - that it is `fixed'.
-Agricultural population tend simply to expand until they reach an `environmental wall, fixed by nature itself, which can not be moved. E.g. Europe is `more fertile than the tropics because its climate is moderate and it has thick soil, hence agriculture in the tropics is less productive, hence `civilization had less of a chance to develop in Africa than in Europe or in the Middle East'.

“New Environmental History”

He debunks the above "old economy reasoning", pointing out that, the Netherlands environment is very poorly endowed and yet it's Europe's most densely populated region and adds that this applies to several other European core-regions too. (Flanders for example which also suffers from too much water, or the Po-region,[Italy] which has had major problems with drainage and is badly malaria-prone, are also rather poorly endowed. They `should' have been uninhabited if it wasn't for other factors). The actual regional geography of Europe does not support the idea that its core-regions are particularly well fitted for agriculture - instead we have to study the long-term trend of settlement, which in many of these cores is closely related to that of trade. E.g. Holland might not have developed at all if it would have been located in Jutland rather than on the Rhine. RJB maintains that, “the environment is only one production-factor next to several others: gender relations being one, definitions of property being another and technology being still another. Attempts to explain human history through the environment are therefore equally unsatisfactory as - the, to be sure, more common - attempts to explain everything through property-relationships.

The environment is surely important but it should be seen as moulded by human intervention, which is moulded by technology, which is moulded by property-relationships, which are moulded by gender-relationship.

RJB clain's that: "this is a point long recognized by `new environmental history': a field in which - I'm proud to say - Dutch medieval history has been a pioneer. Thus, e.g. in the extensive Dutch research on floods, and climatic change in the North Sea in relationship to agricultural development in Holland. Dutch agriculture constantly adapted to its really rather harsh environment; e.g. by increasingly resorting to cattle instead of grain in the much colder and wetter conditions in the fifteenth century as compared to the thirteenth.
These comments appear so relevant in the light of the present day’s plights.

RJB makes a number of other points of importance depending upon the readers domain of interest and concludes on Diamond’s main theme of “ Western Dominance”…
“But the problem is of course that the European/US discourse is still that of power in the world - and in Africa in particular. Or do you see, say, Sudan imposing economic sanctions on the US because it doesn't like the `pornography' coming out of the USA ? Or do you see, say, Nigeria sending marines to Britain to safeguard Nigerian citizens against police beatings? Or - to mention a case from only yesterday - Senegal cutting development-aid to Holland as a sanction on the activities of Dutch pimps recruiting girls in Dakar ? Hence, Europe - and the US in particular - has a special responsibility for understanding other cultures for they have more power to influence them too. "
But I shall leave these speculations entirely to Barendse, for I do believe we do understand the desperation and misguidance which leads for example to suicidal terrorism and invite the interested reader to read the full comments.
Here my main aim is to bring this historical view of medieval Netherlands – note, not pre-historical view_ and it’s obvious relevance within today’s context of climate change and our apparent lack of vigour (and rigour) in tackling it.

I shall post on recent opinions on Dutch approaches to landscaping in the light of extravagant projects such as those of say Dubai for example.

Sources:

Bradford Delong's Book Review:
Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (New York: W.W. Norton: 0393038912).

J. Bradford DeLong's Site and current reflections-link

Roadmap - Further reading:
Globalisation Web Site
The Journal of World History and examples to read