Geography and North-South Disparities

November 19, 2011

Books like Guns, Germs, and Steel and The Botany of Desire, and discoveries like the impact of infectious disease on IQ and climate shifts on the fall of Rome, have shown what a huge role geography and environment play in shaping development and the course of history. Stanford economist Thomas Sowell describes this phenomenon at work in modern Italy, showing how socioeconomic and other disparities between North and South that are often attributed to behavioral or biological factors actually have deep roots in the lay of the land.

Arable land is both scarce and scattered in southern Italy, leading to many isolated settlements — contributing in turn to the linguistic and other cultural differences. Moreover, there are very few long navigable rivers to facilitate trade and communication. Such modern means of travel or communication as broadcasting, railroads, and airlines were of course not yet in existence, or were not yet significant in southern Italy, when the massive immigration to America was taking place. Even in the middle of the twentieth century, however, geographical isolation was still extreme in some southern Italians villages.


The climate and terrain of southern Italy contributed to its poverty. While the temperatures are relatively mild, rainfall is both low and concentrated in only a few months. The growing season is dry — "drought may endure for six months or more." When the rains finally come, they are torrential, causing erosion. The dryness during the growing season in turn limits the use of fertilizers. The impermeability of much of the hilly soil facilitates rapid water runoff when it does rain, and the deforestation of southern Italy's once heavily wooded areas adds to both erosion and the collection of water in stagnant pools, breeding malaria. Italy has been the most malarial country in Europe, and southern Italy more so than the rest of the country. In addition to the direct suffering and death caused by malaria, disease also exacted an economic toll. Because the most fertile lowlands were also the most malarial, peasants and agricultural workers lived up on hillsides in order to be away from the malaria-bearing mosquitoes at night, when they bite. This in turn meant that much of the day was spent going to and from home and work — often miles apart — instead of actually working.

While much of southern Italy is hilly and mountainous, the highlands are at just the wrong height for agricultural purposes. They are too high and rugged to be good cropland and too low to collect snow, which would melt and give a slow, steady runoff of water during the spring. In addition to lacking these advantages common in some other European countries, Italy also does not have its sod broken up by nature through successive freezes and thaws during the winter. The southern Italian farmer must perform the vital function of breaking up the soil entirely by his own efforts and that of his animals pulling the plow.

Italy's natural deficiencies are both agricultural and industrial. About three quarters of the land area of Italy consists of mountains and hills. Only about half of the land is arable, and most of that is in northern Italy. In the south, the mountains "reach so close to the sea that arable land is limited to mountain villages, high plateaus, or coastal plains" — the latter being generally "very narrow." Italy is also lacking in both the quantity and quality of coal and iron ore needed for producing iron and steel — a mainstay of modern industry.

History has added to the problems created by nature. Southern Italy was long a battleground for contending empires and dynasties, which fought back and forth across the Italian peninsula for centuries, going back at least as far as the Roman Empire. For two centuries during the Middle Ages, invasions were "frequent and almost annual." At various times, southern Italy was conquered by a variety of foreigners, including the Lombards, the Arabs, and the Normans. Massacres, pillage, rape, and enslavement were the common fate of the population.


Northern Italy has been better treated by both nature and man. The rain falls in the spring and summer, when it is needed for agriculture. It has "several rivers, whose waters are kept at a relatively steady level by melting Alpine snows," and those "provide considerable water and power for agriculture and industry." In addition, northern Italy has "a system of irrigation that has been nowhere excelled and rarely approached" — at least during the era of massive immigration to America. Northern Italian agriculture has been described as "luxuriant under cultivation," yielding "a notable variety of crops." Deforestation and other natural and man-made evils of the south were less prevalent in the north.

Thomas Sowell. Ethnic America: A History. New York: Basic Books, 1981.

Related: Resources and Industry in the North


Caudium said...

Yes, I knew 100% of this already.

The North had the easiest road of all Italy. The South has been the region of Europe least gifted by God. Why the people of Southern Italy are so religious I cannot fathom. Why care for a "Father" who gave you nothing?

Another thing to note, is that Southern Italy was affected by the Neolithic. So the Neolithics' knowledge of farming was still nascent and left much to be desired as far as allowing for crop renewal and prevention of erosion of soil. The land was abused.

Another thing to note, is that when you look at the flag for the Navy of Italy it has the flags of the great medieval martime republics: Venice, Genoa, Pisa, and Amalfi. Only one of them is in the South. It was a very progressive city for its time. It declined, but what really gave it the devastating blow was a landslide from which it could never recover. If one of three Northern republics had that catastrophe, there'd still be two more to survive. Amalfi was chosen to bear the disaster; and so the South was deprived of her only jewel.

king_cookie said...

the rest of the world is still wondering why Switzerland, Austria, Iceland etc. despite having harsh climatic and environmental conditions are still far ahead of Southern Italy.

Italianthro said...

Nobody intelligent is wondering that. The only harsh conditions in Austria and Switzerland are in the Alpine regions, and hardly anyone lives there as a result. Southern Italy has harsh conditions almost everywhere and is densly populated.

As for Iceland, it was actually very poor until the 20th century due to its bad geography:

"In the ensuing centuries, Iceland became one of the poorest countries settled by Europeans. Infertile soil, volcanic eruptions, and an unforgiving climate made for harsh life in a society where subsistence depended almost entirely on agriculture."

king_cookie said...

Austria and Switzerland are both landlocked and very montainous, much so than Southern Italy and Iceland is 14th in the Human Development Index rank.

Caudium said...

- Iceland has a much smaller population.
- Iceland's arable land wasn't misused by unrefined agricultural techniques.
- Iceland has more mineral wealth than southern Italy.
- Iceland didn't have to contend with as much unstable seismic activity, nor malaria, nor landslides, etc.
- Austria owes much of its prosperity to carry-over from its imperial days. Southern Italy had a kingdom, but it was more exploitative with absentee landlordism.
- Iceland didn't have to contend with devastating wars. It was relatively untouched from the medieval era to the present.

Caudium said...

The hospitable parts of Iceland aren't all that bad. People who do not know envision this harsh climate because "Ice" is in the name. The average low of Reykjavik for January is actually warmer than that of Chicago.

Caudium said...

^^ ooops, two posts before. I meant to say Iceland has more "natural resources" than mineral wealth. Even though they do have mineral wealth that's getting better. aluminum, etc.

King_Cookie said...

1)Japan is more densely populated but don't tell them it's an excuse to be poor
2)because Icelandic people managed to use better tecniques unless you think Baby Jesus or Santa Klaus did it for them.
3) Southern Italy has oil.
4)No sismic activity in Iceland? are you hammered? and Japan had to deal with far stronger earthquakes that would make Naples or Palermo even more run down then they already are.
and once again Japan managed to do a fast reconstruction while Belice and Irpinia still look like they were struck by the quake just yesterday
5)Austria lost its Empire in 1918 after an excruciating war on more fronts and in fact it was poor right after that. their wealth comes from elsewhere.
The economic disruption of the war and the end of the Austro-Hungarian customs union created great hardship in many areas. Although many states were set up as democracies after the war, one by one, with the exception of Czechoslovakia, they reverted to some form of authoritarian rule. Many quarreled amongst themselves but were too weak to compete effectively. Later, when Germany rearmed, the nation states of south- central Europe were unable to resist its attacks, and fell under German domination to a much greater extent than had ever existed in Austria-Hungary.
6)Iceland is far away from the european core and its wealth is recent and not correlated with absence of wars.
7) the South of Italy is not the Sahara desert of Siberia either according to our Department of Tourism

Crimson Guard said...

Hmm, maybe environmentalists:

"Pristine and fragile stretches of the Sicilian coastline are under threat from the rush to plunder the island's rich oil resources, environment campaigners warned yesterday.

With 100 new wells being prepared, energy companies have set their sights on the highly biodiverse region where the government has encouraged exploration through tax breaks. And campaigners were angered by the news that the family of Italian Environment minister, Stefania Prestigiacomo, who will vet the drilling applications, has financial interests in a company working with Italian oil prospectors."

Anonymous said...

Southern Italy has harsh conditions almost everywhere and is densly populated.

Doesn't high population density mean that the environment doesn't have harsh conditions? If it was truly harsh it would have lower carrying capacity and not be densely populated.

Italianthro said...

There are degrees of harshness. Obviously, Southern Italy is not the Sahara or Siberia, but compared to Northern Italy (which is more densely populated), it's lacking in resources and conditions that are needed for successful agriculture, trade and industry.

Caudium said...

Doesn't high population density mean that the environment doesn't have harsh conditions? If it was truly harsh it would have lower carrying capacity and not be densely populated.

It's not so much that Southern Italy is too densely populated. In fact, regions such as Abruzzo, Molise, and Basilicata have very low populations. However, it's population is too high in proportion to its natural resources.

If Southern Italy's population was say 8 to 10 million, I'd say that'd be ideal.

Caudium said...

Before we go any further, no one is making that argument that Southern Italians are "angels" that simply having everything going against them. They too are burdened with a disdain to forethought, anti-intellectualism, an excessive loyalty to the Church, and an excessive loyalty to the family wherein it compromises individual ambition.

Obviously there is a lot of sin to share around.

With regards to comparisons to Japan:

1) I have no interest in belittling Japanese achievements. They owe much of what they have to hard work. They work harder than Americans and I'd say all of Europeans. Their products are more varied, vast, and reliable than those of northern Italy for example.

2) Japan has a higher IQ. I think this may be due to Japanese having a larger brain in proportion to body mass. Japanese have larger ratio of this compared to Northern Europeans as well.

3) Japan is densely populated mainly along the Pacific coast. Land facing the Sea of Japan aren't as populated. The only cities of any significace population-wise on the Sea of Japan side are Niigata, Nagasaki, and Sapporo....and even these are "dwarves" in comparison to cities on the Pacific.

4) Japan has fertile plains and many rivers that were crucial to spurring commerce.

5) Japan's prosperity was greatly helped by foreign influence in Meiji-era Japan. America helped Japan in its wars against Russia in turn for giving contracts to America for railroads afterwards. (Sometimes, these promises weren't kept). Meiji-era Japan was similar to the Southern ItalianKingdom just prior to Risorgimento which enjoyed many advances and factories due to foreign influence. But unlike Japan these were asset-stripped by the North and taken to the Milan-Turin-Genoa triangle.

As well, Japan asset-stripped Korea in later Meiji-era with assassination of Queen Min. They took many of Korea's treasures and even took Korea's famed porcelain craftsmen and made them produce for Japan.

And after WWII, Japan was actually able to stabalize due to American involvement and help after U.S.A. didn't want to lose Japan to the Russian influence and Communism which had already been present in China, Korean peninsula, and Vietnam. Japan was also able to sustain itself with Yamashita gold stores in which it collaborated with America.

FrankCanada said...

Southern Italy is poor by Northen Italy standards. But I'd rather live there then Detroit are Buffalo. Sicilians & Italian Immigrants (mostly from the south) are the most successful immigrant people from Europe. Maybe second only to the Jews, and I'd give the Greeks third. You can't say that for the German type immigrants or any other type from Europe. The Japanese have a big brain? Please. Why are they so dopey looking, and their horrible Mafia dosen't come close to the camora, ndrangata, or Sicilian Mafia. And thats the key, crime is bad, blah, blah, But it also shows you the high base point of southern Italians. Uneducated, desparate peoples, in all countries have criminals. But none come close to the safistacation of the Mafia. And the Kingdom of Naples was one of the richist areas of Italy, until the Risorgimento. Southern Italy also introduced Europe to Medical schools, Arbic numbers etc.etc. Barbarosa (Frederik the great, King of Germany & Sicily) on Crusade to Palestine, once said "Why would God pick this horrible place as the Holy land, He should of chose Sicily" Thats why the south beleives in God. South Italy is one of the greatest places in the world.

Caudium said...

With all due respect FrankCanada, your post is churlish nonsense in almost all it's entirety.

King_Cookie said...

Japanese more intelligent because of their head shapes? and maybe Swiss and Austrians too because of their brachymorph heads?
ok people, I'm outta here, I don't believe in this stuff.
and for that self-hating Tony Manero type of guy from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn called Crimson Guard: Sicilians are closer to Greeks, get over it and learn some sirtaki to get in touch with your heritage.

Caleo said...

FrankCanada tried to make some interesting points, but he can't spell, and grammar is not his strong point.
Try again Frank, but this time focus on what you're doing and the overall point you're trying to make.
First, as an italian American, I commend you for creating this great blog and addressing topics that many educated Italians care about.
I just discovered this a few days ago and can't thank you enough. As someone with an interest in HBD and Genetics, it's great to see Italians contributing to these discussions. It's still amazing, in 2011, to see an amazing amount of prejudice towards Italians and ignorance in regards to Italian history and culture on the part of so many Americans when it comes to discussing HBD and group differences.
In reference to FrankCanada's ill conceived response, I do think the manner in which Italians/Sicilians utterly dominated organized crime both in Europe and North America does need to be addressed.
How a supposedly lower I.Q. population managed to pull off a massive organizational effort that lasted for more than a century in hostile territory (North America) is worthy of serious consideration.
Many factors come into play, but Italians/Sicilians accomplished something that the Irish couldn't, and God knows they tried.

Caudium said...

To King_Biscottino:

1) No one EVER made a reference to Japanese head shapes.
2) No one EVER made reference to Austrian/Swiss heads AT ALL.
3) No one EVER stated that Iceland doesn't have Seismic Activity. Just not to the same devastating effects as happened in Pompeii, Sarno, Irpinia, L'Aquila, Molise, etc. When was the last time you heard of a quake from Iceland having the same devastation as what happened in Irpinia in 1980, or L'Aquila in 2009, or the 1998 landslides in Sarno?


What's that? **cups hand over ear and leans**


Oh yeah. Just what I thought.

Rigoletto said...

Italianthro, this is a great article. I've been looking for, and thinking about this subject for a while now. Do you know any other good sources (Italian or English) that treat the subject with the layman in mind?

Two general points. As has been mentioned, South Italy is lacking in arable land. The industrial rev was preceded and made possible by an agricultural rev. Without food surpluses you can't develop industry.

Second, South Italy is not and hasn't been sovereign for most of it's history, including the crucial period of Italian industrialization. Other nations mentioned here, like Japan, Switzerland and Austria have been. Sovereignty is an enormous asset in implementing economic policy.

DagoRed said...

Southern Italy was rich and even richer than the North for centuries, the decline began in 1500 with the wars of Italy and the Spanish hegemony below.
The problem is political and cultural, rather than geographic and climatic.

DagoRed said...


Amalfi was integrated in the Kingdom of Sicily, the most powerfull italian medoeval State.

Italianthro said...

>>> It's not so much that Southern Italy is too densely populated.

Yeah, "densely populated" was a poor choice of words. Southern Italy has a fairly large population overall, but most of it is actually sparsely populated. I'm looking at this map of population density, and large settlements in the South are isolated around coastal cities, like Sowell says. Compare that to the concentrated block of settlements in the Po Valley, which makes up the bulk of the North's land area and is the most fertile and navigable part of the country:

"Except for the Po Valley, Italy has few large areas well suited to farming, mainly because of rough terrain, poor soils, and, especially in the south, scarcity of water. [...] Farms in the Po Valley are among the most productive in Europe. The richest agricultural region of Italy, the Po Valley is the principal area for livestock and dairy farming. The chief crops of the Po Valley include grains, grapes, olives, and sugar beets. [...] Navigable inland waterways consist chiefly of the Po River and Po Valley canals."

Caudium said...

Hello Italianthro,

But I've also heard that Campania was the "breadbasket of Rome". In fact, that's how it got the name Campania Felix as it was "blessed" with grain.

However, my feelings are that the Romans exhausted its output. Romans also supposedly contributed much to deforestation.

However, my father when he visited ancestral homelands inland Calabria...not too high in elevation either....he felt that he was in British Columbia with all the pine trees.

Caudium said...

Indeed, the waterways and rivers were crucial to the commerce development of the Northern Italian city-states. The more inland areas were in contact with the coastal cities (Genoa, Venice, etc.) So that the "depot" cities complimented the "port" cities and vice versa. This in tandem with proximity to France and Germany were very advantageous.

DagoRed said...

The study is shallow, inland waterways has such great importance in the development of the north. The rivers do not allow the passage of large boats. the writer Gianni Brera wrote that if the Po was navigable Venice would have unified Italy 4 centuries before.
Besides, the author does not know that some areas of northern Italy, as the same Veneto remained depressed until 1900, just as the southern regions

Italianthro said...

The Po Valley is the prime real estate of Italy, and navigable rivers are just part of the reason. It also has the country's most productive farmland and the best conditions for industry, with the Alps providing huge sources of hydroelectric power that compensated for low coal deposits and enabled (Northern) Italy to catch up to Britain, France, Germany etc. in the industrial revolution. But that didn't happen until the 20th century.

Anonymous said...

Southern Italy was NOT wealthier than the North during the middle ages, I have no idea where you got that from. The Kingdom of Naples/Sicily was important because it was a relatively large kingdom for its time, but the level of urbanization and development did not approach the north. Naples (the city) has been a den of crime since the 14th c at least. The court was regarded as the most corrupt in Europe for centuries.

Meng Hu said...

Race, John R. Baker.

"It would be wrong to suppose that civilization developed wherever the environment was genial, and failed to do so where it was not. ... It has been pointed out by an authority on the Maya that their culture reached is climax in that particular part of their extensive territory in which the environment was least favourable, and in reporting this fact he mentions the belief that 'civilizations, like individuals, respond to challenge'. [1043] ... The Sumerians found no Garden of Eden awaiting them in Mesopotamia and the adjoining territory at the head of the Persian Gulf, but literally made their environment out of unpromising material by constructing an elaborate system of canals for the drainage and watering of their lands. A very large number of Aztecs and members of several other Middle American tribes lived and made their gardens on artificial islands that they themselves constructed with their hands." (p. 528)

Italianthro said...

^ Selective quoting. Baker also argues that the Mayas and Aztecs were not civilizations. That's probably because they were limited by Latin America's tropical environments. As for the Sumerians, they benefited greatly from Eurasian environments suited to agriculture, namely the Fertile Crescent located between two major rivers. Read Jared Diamond and stop trolling.

tom said...

In his book Dr Sowell uses a present progressive verb form in speaking of Malaria which in the year of the book's publication (1981) had been eradicated over 50 years before. He also fails to mention that in the late 70s Italy had become Europe's 2nd largest steel producer and continues to be so. Italy is Europe's largest producer of fruits and vegetables many of which are grown in the South and many year round. Overall it is 2nd to France in the EU in overall agro production . So Dr Sowell should have researched his work rather than resort to the sorry, old foolish stereotypes of Italy being some 3rd world backwater instead of the world's 7th largest economy.