Saturday, November 22, 2008

The sociology of the weather

I've often thought economic and social historians, when trying to uncover the forces that shape human history, have rather neglected one or two factors that I reckon have been hugely significant in the shaping the fate of peoples, in the moulding of national characters.

One of these is the weather. If you live somewhere like Scotland, you have plenty of anecdotal evidence that this has a huge impact on people's behaviour and the feeling in your bones bears witness to this - but there's precious little in the way of quantitative research done on this subject. Or if there has been, I haven't been made aware of it - and I haven't been made aware of it because if it exists, it isn't very popular.

I reckon there's a couple of possible reasons for this. One is that people don't like the determinism of such an idea. This requires a couple of qualifications. People don't object to determinism as such if they believe History is on their side and these determining forces will one day emancipate and vindicate them. This is the case with unreconstructed Marxists, for example - also those ultra-Hayekians who hold the unfettered free-market as the last great untried utopia. It's determinism without redemption that people recoil against. I've heard it argued that this is what people don't like about Max Weber: he offered only diagnosis and no cure - Calvinism without salvation.

Added to this is the banality of it: a friend of mine argues that people don't like to think their lives can be shaped by something so mundane. Why has Scotland exported so much of its population for so long - even to the present day? There are a number of plausible economic, social and political reasons suggested for this but in all the literature I've ever read on this subject, I don't recall anyone taking the "because it's fucking freezing" hypothesis anything like as seriously as they should - which brings me to this:
"The Shetland Islands have the best quality of life in Scotland, a study has shown.

Residents tend to have higher-than-average earnings, a greater chance of being employed and better health, according to the research. The area also benefits from the best education results and has a low rate of house-breaking.

The Bank of Scotland data assesses the quality of life in regions across the UK by examining a range of factors which include housing, environment and education."
These "quality of life" assessments tend to re-enforce my preference for more traditional economics. The study also cited lower than average house prices as an attractive feature of the Shetlands - but the reason house prices are lower is because there is less demand for Shetland housing. Since we can rule out low wages, unemployment, and crap education as variables here, I'd have thought the Bank of Scotland might have given more serious thought to including things like horizontal rain, low temperatures, high winds and minimal sunlight as factors when drawing up their quality of life index. But these are the sort of people who regularly come up with Canada as the best place on the face of the planet to live in. Yeah, right - the second biggest country in the world has only 33 million people living in it? Yet another case of the failure to apply the "fucking freezing" hypothesis, I reckon.

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