SEATTLE — While Jared Diamond’s book “Guns, Germs, and Steel” explores the histories of various societies around the world, its findings remain relevant today. As societies grow increasingly connected and power dynamics shift, Diamond’s arguments prove relevant toward globalization, imperialism and food aid reform.
For those unfamiliar with the book, “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” it was published in 1997 and explores factors leading to different rates of development around the world. Ultimately, he concludes that domestication of plants and animals enables societies to develop technology and, consequently, gain power.
He argues in favor of a concept called “environmental determinism,” meaning that environmental factors carry the most potential to influence a society. If the flora and fauna species in an area were able to be easily domesticated, humans could settle in one area.
As societies became more sedentary, it was more worthwhile for societies to devote energy toward making life more comfortable.
Sedentary societies were able to develop technology (“steel”), including weaponry (“guns”), to protect their communities. Simultaneously, their domestication of animals led to an exposure to disease (“germs”) that proved invaluable, as these societies started to grow larger in size and take over other communities.
Thus, societies acquiring guns, germs and steel became more powerful than societies without these resources.
Historically, this pattern has repeated again and again: European colonization and imperialism are able to succeed primarily because of more powerful technology. Now, powerful technology can arguably include military technology, access to health care and resiliency against the effects of climate change.
Overall, Diamond sees the development of society as part of a causal chain that is primarily determined by the environment. As the world becomes more globalized, it is important to consider how countries influence one another and have historically over time.
For example, how has the Vietnam War affected the health of both the people and the land in Southeast Asia; will this have an impact on the success of USAID programs in the region?
How different would nation boundaries be in Africa if they were drawn according to territories held by ethnic groups, and would this lower the propensity of civil war and ethnic-based conflict in the region?
Looking ahead, the continued interaction between environmental determinism and imperialism remains relevant as international bodies handle conflict and territorial disputes.
For example, tensions are rising between countries in Southeast Asia and China regarding territory in the South China Sea, also known as the “West Philippine Sea.” ISIS is growing in the Middle East, but American imperialism arguably contributed to their rise to power.
Furthermore, environmental determinism also can contribute to discussions on the split in international development assistance programs, specifically the differentiation between emergency aid versus development aid.
Emergency aid, in which resources come from outside of the society, would not lead to long-term success, whereas development aid, in which resources and skills are grown more from within the society, could.
While other factors, such as natural disasters and conflict, complicate this distinction, it is certainly something for organizations to consider as they design their international development assistance programs.
One particularly relevant issue is with food aid reform. As organizations such as The Borgen Project argue for the reform of U.S. government-sponsored food aid programs, Diamond’s argument for environmental determinism works in their favor.
Currently, The Borgen Project is lobbying for the Food for Peace Reform Act; some provisions within this legislation include utilizing food aid only if it does not negatively impact the agricultural industry within the country in need.
Through this additional consideration, and general reform to ensure food aid has maximum impact while minimizing costs, food aid can be used to teach and empower communities rather than fostering dependency on foreign aid.
The Food for Peace Reform Act, and also the Global Food Security Act of 2015, could work to promote inclusive, sustainable practices and initiatives within international development and food aid. By keeping environmental factors in mind, and developing programs that take these factors into account, it is more likely that programs will succeed.
– Priscilla McCelvey
Sources: GovTrack, Think IRE, University of London Institute of Historical Research, Washington Post, Washington Watch