Guns, Germs & Steel – along with lessons for Atl. Canada

I just listened to an excellent podcast featuring Jared Diamond and his latest publication Natural Experiments of History. Diamond is the guy who wrote Guns, Germs & Steel and another book I read called Collapse -both highly entertaining and informative.

The new work looks at a number of examples throughout history of why certain peoples or countries develop at a different pace.  He looks at Haiti vs. the Dominican Republic or whether or not Napoleon was good for the countries he took over. 

By modelling these natural experiments we can attempt to determine what large factors were influential to development and then try to apply the learnings.  Of course you have to make every attempt to control for other factors that were at play before the perturbation but I found the concept fascinating.

For example, think about Atlantic Canada.  When a few people dare to question whether or not joining Confederation was the best thing to do for this region, the typical response from central and western Canada (and many here) is indignation.  Atlantic Canada is part of one of the most successful and prosperous countries in Canada.  Furthermore, you (we) have been on Equalization for decades.  Where would this region be if not for its being part of the greater Canada?

I wonder what Diamond would think of that.  If you used his model you might find that Atlantic Canada might have been far more prosperous as a separate country.  If you read Donald Savoie’s work, you see clearly that many of the leaders at the time in Atlantic Canada predicted this region would wither and be entrenched as the poor region of the country due to Upper Canada’s political domination.  And it’s hard to deny that we have become the entrenched poor region of Canada in the intervening years.

To many folks this is an inevitable consequence of history.  The Maritime region is in a bad geography.  It has relatively little oil and gas (at least until now).  It is physically far from the centres of power and control.  Too bad.   Every country has poor areas.  Accept your destiny.

But I think that is too simplistic.  If I had the cash, I’d get a guy like Diamond to look at it. Why didn’t Halifax become Boston?  Why did this region (and I guess we can include northern Maine) stagnate while other areas boomed?

As I said before I think the next 50 years will be less kind to Atlantic Canada (if you can use that term) in terms of the generosity of the federal government.  Notwithstanding the Constitution, there is less connection here with Ottawa than ever before and and increasing number of the those weilding the power have never even been to this region.  That will only increase over time. 

I know a lot of you bristle when I talk about this stuff but I think there are short, medium and long term policy issues that need to be discussed.  Short term, this region needs a serious economic development effort that leads to significant private sector investment and builds up the economy.  Medium term we need to become less dependent on the federal government (we are at 40% of our budget in NB coming from the Feds) and longer term we need to understand where this region fits in the Canada of the next 100 years. 

I don’t think it is acceptable that this region repeat its role as the labour market incubator for Central and Western Canada.  For one thing we are having far fewer children to send west.  For another, there are longer term structural challenges associated with this stuff.

I’ll get back to the nitty gritty of economic development again but I still think we need to talk about this stuff.

7 thoughts on “Guns, Germs & Steel – along with lessons for Atl. Canada

  1. I am not familiar with the author you site but find the premise very interesting.

    I wonder if he did an analysis of whether or not the Irving family was good for New Brunswick, or the Maritimes what the result would be.

    In other instances where there have been monopolies it is generally believe the jurisdiction with the monopoly suffered.

    You also mention the oil and gas. I find it interesting that the current government is more interested in selling off our resources than allowing them to benefit our communities. I guess as the oil is going to the refinery in Saint John we are adding value to it. We could be adding value to the gas though, with a Co-generation plant and a cluster of businesses around it. It is curious that the government blocks the Fundy Green Park group at every turn to try and stop this type of model that is a model being used in many other places…perhaps even in the US communities that burn NB gas in their Co-gen facilities.

  2. You don’t need cash, David, I’ll connect you with my father-in-law who is one of the foremost historians on Maritime history. He created the Canadian Studies at Trent University. I’m sure he’d be happy to talk to you.

  3. THere’s no such thing as ‘natural’ where people are involved. You can’t look at Haiti and the Dominican and make comparisons, it doesn’t work. History rarely gives such controlled experiments.

    I tend to agree that the status quo may not be kind, just today while going to the market I listened to CBC and they were stating pretty matter of factly that just in health care there are HUGE problems coming.

    “What if” scenario’s are a bit of a waste of time. At least have the guts to say “what if we became a country NOW”. At least in quebec they have the balls to build a separation party, they don’t continuously complain about whether they got the shaft. In the maritimes its even more a given, and its only Albertans like at your last post that know nothing about the region or its history that think its somehow been blessed.

    Of course it DOES take serious guts to talk about separation. Because NOW there would be real repercussions-namely 30% of the budget and other federal investments. But you can’t have cake and eat it earlier. And its true, IF you took out the money, the maritimes would pretty much be the third world. So its not as bad as in Africa, where they’ll rob the resources and leave NO social policy, at least the maritimes is ‘connected’.

    Plus, given the autocratic, despotic, and short sighted way that certain industries have held control, its not like Irving would move so they’d pay no taxes-they’d simply own even MORE. People forget that the main reason KC despised little Louis wasn’t because of bilingualism, but because Louis developed the mining industry in Bathurst with Noranda at a time when Irving wanted to stretch out into mining as well. It’s true NB may NOT have become a ‘colony’ of central canada, but it would probably be simply a colony of Irving.

    It’s tough to take a stand, but even in Vermont a poll showed that 10% wanted Vermont to separate, and at that time they were looking at this ‘Atlantica” idea. Ten percent isn’t huge, but its not tiny. If the maritimes started making noise like Quebec, there would of course be the noises from the rest of canada saying ‘let them go’ (just like they say about quebec), however, POLITICALLY, like I said, could you imagine right now if there were a federal Atlantic Party while the tories and liberals are neck and neck? That would be some serious power.

  4. A couple of quick follow up points. One, I am not a big believer in whining about the past. My interest in the past has nothing to do with complaining about this region’s trajectory since Confederation. Second, I am not interested in talking about secession. I don’t find that a practical option. My point is that if we model this stuff properly we might find some important ideas that can be used to help us have a more prosperous next 100 years. If we study in depth the evolution of this region pre-Confederation and then pivot from Confederation with different scenarios (based on comparative analysis) we may learn something – about centralization, about trade routes, about the types of investments national governments make in regions, etc. We just don’t think about this stuff very much and all I am saying is that there may be some value here.

  5. Come on, do you really not understand trade routes and centralization? YOU have blogged for years about “the types of investments national governments make in regions”. YOU think about and blog about this stuff ALL THE TIME. Pre confederation and post there isn’t a huge disparity-just a different colonial owner. There have been studies and royal commissions for DECADES that outline all these problems-go spend half a day with Mr. Savoie and he’ll precis his numerous books for you. I’m certainly not saying all the regions problems are federal, not by a long shot. But they ARE ‘political’. I’m just doing the same as you-running out ideas. In Quebec, just talking about secession didn’t get that, but it has certainly benefitted them financially. I wasn’t even necessarily talking about secession though, even a party that claims to represent the region accomplishes the same thing. In fact, even a group of federal representatives working together against their party lines but for the regions interest may accomplish a lot.

    But your scenario will by necessity be filled with so many assumptions as to be practically useless. For ‘investments’ I think this blog and even its few readers have pointed out the hypocrisy of the feds not funding R&D adequately, etc. The OECD as well has numerous studies on canadian regions, and comes to the same conclusions. We certainly don’t need to go back to 1867 and build a model that finally suggests the same thing everybody has been saying. But history is interesting and most maritimers know almost none, and Bill MacNutt has been dead a long time. So any blogs on that area would certainly be interesting.

  6. I have read all of Diamond’s books. He backs up his theories with a lot of solid data. There are, in fact, ‘natural’ differences in locations that provide one type of advantage or another; but Diamond does not confine himself to those – he also points out the impact of societal decisions on regions. In Atlantic Canada’s case, we had advantages but technology brought changes and we failed to adapt. The feds have not helped much, that’s true; but that is at least in part because we have not gone to the feds with a real plan that we have stuck to. We have settled for the short-term crumbs. What else can you expect in a region where there is little transparency in govt planning, little appetite in the mass media for such discussions, and an apathetic public.

    Diamond’s books are well worth a read.

  7. “With Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, Jared Diamond manages the impressive feat of articulating a huge idea, a theory of the environmental determinism of human evolution, in both understandable and persuasive terms. It’s a masterful work.”

    The main problem with it is that it overlooks genetic changes that accompanied cultural and geographic change. Particularly, the advent of agriculture has been shown by the likes of John Hawks to have lead to a raft of genetic change. Others like Scott Williamson, Bruce Lahn and Ben Voight have shown a number of changes that relate to neurological function. For instance, you see new versions of SLC6A4, a serotonin transporter, in Europeans and Asians. There’s a new version of a gene (DAB1) that shapes the development of the layers of the cerebral cortex in east Asia. More of this will be understood as the cost of genome sequencing falls.

    Books that build on Diamond’s work, but include the genetic changes include New York Times Science reporter Nicholas Wade’s ‘Before the Dawn’. Also, the more recent ‘The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution’ by Greg Cochran and Henry Harpending incorporates recent genome findings.

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