I’ve been giving more thought as to why historically some cultures thrived and others failed. And Jared Diamond, in his marvelous book, Guns, Germs and Steel only partially answered the question when he postulated that readily available quality sources of proteins were chiefly responsible.
And while he builds a pretty good case, I’ve come to think incentives – those reasons to create progress – are the single greatest factor why certain cultures succeeded more than others.
A great counterexample is Mexico. Especially, tropical Mexico. If all a man has to do is pick up a fallen coconut, throw a line into the water to catch a fish then where is the incentive for him to develop agricultural tools?
If all he has to do is gather up some palm fronds and fashion them into a shelter then what is the incentive for him to build a longer lasting structure?
And if one feels vaporous, moist, or otherwise languid – the weather’s warm and the sea breeze balmy – then isn’t it better to make love than war? And why war against your neighbor anyway? You’ve already got some serious beachfront real estate, a lazy palm frond shack, a woman, a fishing line and a coconut tree. Who could possibly want more than that?
Things only get contentious when your neighbor has more than you. Or when the environment is harsh. Or when people have to travel more than a few dozen yards to find food.
The climate too is an incentive; provide adequate shelter or die.
You’re pounding rocks into points while your neighbors to the north have learned to smelt copper? Then you had better quickly discover how to make a hotter fire and smelt iron.
Your neighbors have dried adobe brick walls? Then you’d better leap-frog that primitive ass technology by firing yours in a kiln. Don’t adapt – don’t progress – then you’ve doomed yourself.
Every technological advance by your neighbor provides yet another great incentive to push your own civilization further down the road.
If there are no incentives there is no progress. And societies stall.
If resources are too abundant then there is no incentive and no progress.
One can apply this incentive model to just about anything. If society and its banking system don’t provide people with a proper incentive to save money then they won’t.
If the government doesn’t provide its citizens with the incentives to invest they won’t. If the government doesn’t provide incentives for modernization – being something as simple as a viable profit motive – then that society sits and does nothing.
I think the secret to everything from managing a small child to changing the world in a positive way all lies in the proper application of incentives.
PS – You want your people to work harder? Then give them a real [measurable] incentive to do so. You want your kids to do well in school? Then give them a tangible incentive.
Conversely failure occurs, systemic stress is introduced, people are made rebellious and miserable when there is no clarity; where instead of incentives there are only lies, half-truths, and ambiguity.