Guns, Germs And Steel

Aug. 1, 2006
Locate plants overseas for strategic reasons such as becoming close to customers or being close to raw materials. A simple labor cost reduction doesn’t add up.

Do you think that global shifts in power and vast population migrations are something new? Reading Jared Diamond’s classic history “Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies” will change your mind—or at least your perspective. This book is a highly readable survey of vast amounts of research tracking the movement and development of human society since its beginning about seven million years ago.

Archeological evidence reveals that humans have been on the move as long as they have existed. And some societies have tended to overpower local populations and extend their domination, bringing their agriculture, technology and organizations along. Diamond was walking on the beach in New Guinea with his friend Yali when the friend asked, “Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo [goods] and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?” That question started the research.

The essential answer is that due to many local conditions in a few isolated places in the ancient world (approximately 10,000 years ago), some peoples began to intentionally produce food either through herding large mammals or growing crops. The lucky ones had the right circumstances to do both. Being a food producer meant that the population could grow. Having the ability to store food meant that the society could develop specialization. Specialization meant technology development. Therefore, some societies came to spread, and dominated local societies as they migrated.

Note a few key words that are applicable even to us today—specialization, production and technology. It took thousands of years of history for particular societies to develop those three things. Our North American society is really just a migration of people who had already lived that history. The natives of the land lost primarily due to less history to develop these. Therefore, for instance, Native Americans had no natural immunity to certain diseases that the Europeans had. Most of the American native population was decimated by European diseases (germs). Those that survived the germ invasion were done in by the other technologies of guns and steel.

Figure it out

Globalization as a manufacturing strategy sort of fits within this migration thesis, except that our society hasn’t always figured out why it’s doing what it’s doing. We have engineers flying off to Mexico, China, Singapore and other locales to set up manufacturing plants whose primary purpose seems to be to take jobs away from Americans and give them to low-wage people in other countries. As Dr. John Vande Vate, executive director of Georgia Tech’s Executive Masters in International Logistics, points out in my article on Global manufacturing on page 28, there are many fallacies to this theory. In fact, in the first interview I conducted for Automation World in the June 2003 issue, Dick McAlister of ABB mentioned the same thing. Locate plants overseas for strategic reasons such as becoming close to customers or being close to raw materials. A simple labor cost reduction doesn’t add up.

I think that this means that the United States has little to fear—unless we as a society cease being productive. That’s where the readers of Automation World enter the picture. You are essential to this task. We all need to remember that the fate of our society lies with us collectively to keep our society productive and strong. I believe a society becomes wealthy by producing goods from raw materials—whether that’s agriculture or manufacturing. Let’s keep producing.