Globe on FireI have written in the past of how the nature of everyday life creates the character of commoners and elites.  What we do, the habits we lay down, is our character.

Now our everyday life is created by our technology, where we live (geography), and our culture—how we choose to use our technology and interact with our environment.

A Russian in one of Lee Blessing’s plays once said “History is Geography Over Time.”  This is a near pure form of 19th century romantic nationalism.

Assume that humans are basically the same.  Go to different countries, or even different locales within a large country.  Notice that they are different from other people in ways which are similar—southerners have characteristics in common, bedouin have characteristics in common, Italians have characteristics in common, but within Italy where they come from also changes their character.

This is a common-sense observation, and before the modern era it was even more true: people were very different depending on where they lived.


Well, the simplest explanation is geography: to live in the tropics is to live a different type of life than to live in cold climes.  To live a rain forest is a different type of life than to live in a desert.

This is a hard argument for rich moderns to entirely understand: with our air conditioning and heating: with food delivered from all over the world to our supermarkets; with our travel being almost entirely inside mobile boxes; with almost everyone now wearing western style clothes; with every office looking more or less alike and everyone using the same few word-processing programs;, we can drop half the world away and feel somewhat at home in many of the essentials.  A certain type of life has been exported to as much of the world as can afford it, and most of the rest of the world, familiar with western media, aspires to that life.

But it was not always thus.  To live in Bengal was to live a vastly different life than to live in London. Heck, to live in northern Scotland was to live vastly different from living in London.  To live in the country vastly different from living in a city, but to live in Canton was massively different than in Tenochtitlán (one of the largest cities of its day.)  Being a rice farmer in southern China was much different from being an Iroqois farmer in the Great Lakes area.

What you did, each day, was very different.  Much of this difference was based on the simple requirements of making a living from that type of land.  Much of the rest was the difference in technology: the tools you had available to work with.  Some would include social organization in that toolkit, but let’s spin that off to culture.

Culture: the catch-all for the rest of it.  But how does culture arise?  Given the same pre-modern technology, and dropped on the Pacific Northwest or into Great Plains or into the Russian Taiga, you will live differently.  Start off with people with the exact same culture, give it a few generations and you will be different people, because you will have grown up doing different things.  And your technology will have changed, because what works best in each of those place is different.

Those differing lives become character, character is reified into culture, and soon you have tradition.

(And all this is before discussing the role of geography on such things as warfare, access to key resources like iron and copper, the role of geography in encouraging or discouraging diseases, natural trade routes, the difference between ocean and land transport, and so on.)

So, Geography is a big deal. It’s a big deal even today: Saudi Arabia cannot be understood without understanding its geography, including the (happy?) coincidence of vast oil reserves.  Canada’s population clusters along the southern border, with spars out into areas with resources worth exploiting.  Siberia is vast—and underpopulated, for good reasons based on its soil, climate and resources.

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But it’s also true because of the way cultural drift works: culture is not a completely dependent variable.  Drop different people with different cultures into the same approximate geography and they will develop differently: there will be clear similarities (intensive rice agriculture in multiple SE Asian societies), yet the cultures will not be identical.

So, even in the modern world, with our ability to denature the environment, there are geographical effects: but there are also the more than residual effects of culture developed in the pre-modern era.  These all swirl about to create our daily lives, and that forms the character of the commons, that point about which, despite our individuality, we coalesce.  That mass-character determines how we react to the events of our lives: to how active or passive we are, what we’ll fight for, and how we’ll fight.  Change is constrained and channeled by character, by who we are.

Character is destiny, both personally and en-masse.

Does that means some warped form of Panglossianism? Our character is our destiny, and we cannot escape our destiny because our character is formed by forces beyond our control (usually when we are children, and under the control of others similarly formed)?

I would suggest this is not the case.  Oh, it’s hard to change character and destiny, but it can be done, especially for the future.  We need to decide what destiny we prefer, what character is required and work to change our every day lives to create that character.

This is possible.  Huge swathes of the population despise their own characters: guilt and regret and self-contempt are part of humanity as much as smug self-regard.  We look on these things ill, but a better way to look on them is as fuel for change: if we do not like who we are, we can change.  And we can change as societies. If we don’t want to live in vastly unequal societies, we can change that: it has been done before. If we want to live in a way that doesn’t destroy the environment, we can do that.  And if want to live in actually free societies (i.e. not police and surveillance states), we can do that as well.

Within the matrix of what is made possible by technology and geography are vast social universes.  What is required to seize them is not despair at how we are conditioned by our lives, but an understanding that that conditioning can work for us as much as against us.