On “Are the Desert People Winning?”

Is there such a thing as desert culture? Does living in an arid ecosystem beget monotheism? According to this article, there is, and it does, and it doesn’t look pretty:

Which kind of culture would you prefer to get traded to? When it comes to the theistic part, it’s six of one, half a dozen of the other to me. As for the other correlates, desert cultures, with their militarism, stratification, mistreatment of women, uptightness about child rearing and sexuality, seem unappealing. And yet ours happens to be a planet dominated by the cultural descendants of the desert dwellers. At various points, the desert dwellers have poured out of the Middle East, defining large parts of Eurasia. Such cultures, in turn, have passed the last 500 years subjugating the native populations of the Americas, Africa, and Australia. As a result, ours is a Judeo-Christian/Muslim world, not a Mbuti-Carib/Trobriand one.

And it gets worse:

Unfortunately, the rain forest mind-set appears not only less likely to spread than its desert counterpart but also less hardy when uprooted, more of a hothouse attribute. Logging, farming, and livestock grazing are rapidly defoliating Earth. Our age witnesses not only an unprecedented extinction of species but of cultures and languages as well. William Sutherland, a population biologist at the University of East Anglia, has shown that the places on Earth with the most biodiversity are the most linguistically diverse as well and that languages are even more at risk for extinction than are birds or mammals. And so the rain forest cultures, with their fragile pluralism born of a lush world of plenty, deliquesce into the raw sewage of the slums of Rio and Lagos and Jakarta.

I’m not so sure I buy the premise (the author even has an “X culture has 200 words for snow” argument, which is eye-roll-inducing), but it is striking that Mesopotamia used to be a “fertile crescent” not so long ago, geologically speaking. Or, as it was supposedly said of the Roman legions by Tacitus: “where they make a desert they call it peace.”

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