FROM THE EARLIEST TIMES, the weather and climate have influenced, if not controlled, the progress of civilization. Yet, in spite of its obvious importance and often dramatic impact, professional economists generally take little interest in the weather as a prime factor in economic development. There are several reasons for their neglect. There are many other claims on their attention. Many of the most able economists lack any appreciation of the natural environment and are not drawn to agriculture. Even the comparatively few specialists in agriculture have found their first attention engaged elsewhere. Conventions have reinforced neglect: in economic theory the weather is treated as a purely external factor which, despite its notorious unreliability, must be taken as given; in econometric studies the weather is generally concealed among unspecified factors; in economic history the emphasis has been, not on the systematic explanation of short-run economic movements, where the weather’s face is most evident, but on broader and longer trends. The occurrence and form and timing of many declivities in the agricultural economy, indeed in the whole economy, are partly explained by the immediately preceding and sometimes anticipated state of the weather.1
“Weather” is a collection of atmospheric phenomena, among which the temperature and precipitation stand out, occurring within a stated period. “Climate,” in this definition, is the average weather. Weather influences in many ways the plants that are cultivated for human and animal foods and agricultural raw materials, the water resources that are harnessed for electric power, all forms of transportation and communications, building and tourist industries, etc.
Economic development is conventionally measured by the average income per capita. In the developing economies, most of the labor force is engaged in agriculture, which is generally the largest component of the gross domestic product (GDP). Employment in other industries is often closely affected by the forces that influence agriculture, for the typical local industry is closely related to it. The entire economy is therefore susceptible to the rhythm of the seasons and to the way this rhythm is heightened or softened by the variations of the weather. Ultimately, the weather affects all the major components of the GDP, wages and salaries, and the rate of inflation.
Although the effects of weather on agriculture are sometimes all too obvious, they may be indirect and not at all easy for a nonspecialist to discern. Paradoxically enough, the immediate result of the various conditions that cause the grass or root crops to fail is often a big increase in livestock marketing. The rearers find themselves short of feedstuff and water and are compelled to sell off some of their animals. But this “liquidation” of livestock soon of itself creates conditions of scarcity. After the initial glut, marketing decreases. The size of the grain harvest, besides having the most obvious and crucial bearing on the purchasing power of the ordinary consumer, influences the output and prices of other industries. However, what is favorable weather for one industry may not be favorable for another, a complexity which introduces endless permutations of shades of differences into the state of the economy.
As complex and serious as weather problems are, developing countries have at least begun to tackle them. Technical advances have already made inroads on the problems of keeping the economy running at times when most activity would have otherwise ceased. In addition, as the developing countries organize themselves on a modern basis, public services are created that are able not only to forecast, prevent, or combat some of the worst excesses of the weather but even to tackle if necessary some of the related problems of welfare, seasonal unemployment, and the distribution of goods. And with improved sources of raw materials, more indirect sources of power, more sheltered working conditions, and better transportation, the output of the manufacturing industries in developing countries is no longer as subject to seasonal and weather induced fluctuations.
Here and elsewhere, I am indebted to E.L. Jones, Seasons and Prices, The Role of Weather in English Agricultural History, George Allen and Unwin Ltd. (London), 1964.
P.K. Ray, Agricultural Insurance, Principles and Organization and Application to Developing Countries, Pergamon Press (London), 1967.
W.H. Rowe, Considerations on Establishing Crop Insurance in Latin America, Organization of American States (Washington, D.C), 1966.
W.H. Rowe, op. cit.
The astronauts of Apollo 9 photographed farms while in orbit in March, 1969 to see if orbital photography can detect signs of drought and disease in time for farmers to save their crops. See Gemini IV photos on the back cover.