BOSS blog 5: Freedom and climate change

BOSS Blog 5, Gert Jan Hofstede,  2010 07 27

Hothouse Earth arriving

North-Western Europe has just spent a week in the throes of the worst heat wave within living memory. In an email exchange with fellow researchers, us Northerners complained. A (Flemish) lady living in Rome replied: “PS. on the heat: I feel a bit amused reading and hearing Dutch and English people suffering the heat that we in Rome suffer since decades. Now maybe people start to understand things like siesta, long lunchbreaks, people working till 19-20 in the evening in summer, slower rhytm, schools closed for 3 months ….”

She is right as far as I am concerned. The last time I’ve been in such heat was during a heat wave in Athens, Greece in 1973. I argued with my dad about going to Poland instead, but he said it could be hot there as well.

My freedom

It set me thinking about the role of climate on freedom.

I am used to being free. I have learned as a child to regulate my impulses through self-control, rather than coercion, or strict rules. The unwritten cultural rule was: as long as you do not hurt or offend anyone, you can be my own judge. As long as you keep your commitments, you can go off alone.

My childhood

In my childhood I’d spend a lot of time out of doors. I would play with pigs, water and fire, climb trees, roam around the region. In winter, I roamed the region on skates. My football team bicycled to neighbouring towns without adult supervision. I would come back home when things were finished. My parents had a ship’s bell tied to our house whose sound carried far. They would ring it when dinner was ready.


Having just spent a week indoors, trying to hide away from record-breaking heat wave temperatures of 40 degrees centigrade, unable to think straight, I wonder how much of my freedom is down to the mild climate that we have enjoyed in the Netherlands in the twentieth century. Let me explain.

Climate and culture

Dutch organisation Psychologist Evert van de Vliert had the idea of correlating Hofstede’s culture dimension scores with climate data of countries around the world. He took the country’s capital as a proxy for its climate. He labelled climates as ‘demanding’ to the extent that mean daily temperatures deviate from an ideal twenty-two degrees centigrade. So, a demanding climate can be caused by both hot and cold spells. He then looked at culture and found that demanding climates cause a split between affluent societies that can cope, and poor ones that can only endure. In the former, culture allows self-expression; in the latter, it is constrained by survival needs. Cultures in countries with a bearable climate throughout the year do not show this dependence on affluence: people in them can manifest self-expression even if they are poor (Van de Vliert, 2009).

So what?

This is of course a very coarse picture. It raises the question of path dependency, though. What happens to a country’s culture when the climate changes? Can self-expression values make a civilization paint itself into a corner? In this context, I was impressed by the book “1177B.C., the year that civilization collapsed” by archaeologist Eric Cline (2014). It turns out that the ‘Global village’ consisting of the civilizations of the Myceneans, Minoans, Hittites, Kassites, Egyptians and others was terminated in the space of a generation. It took many centuries of obscurity for the Greeks, Persians and others to fill their place. The cause, Eric believes, is a combination of factors. Excavations show specific destructions of temples and administration buildings in many cities. Could there have been social unrest that the elites were unable to deal with? Was social cohesion insufficient?  Recent studies show that the collapse coincides with the onset of three extremely dry centuries in the Eastern Mediterranean. The hidden cause may have been climate change.

Conclusion: Let’s cope, not just endure

Climate scientists believe we may be headed for ‘Hothouse Earth’ (Steffen et al. 2018). This means there will be a temperature regime the planet has not seen since the Pliocene, many millions of years ago. This will pose daunting cultural threats. Let’s cope, not just endure. We may be able to avoid Hothouse Earth yet, if we are quick. We will imperatively need social cohesion.


Eric H. Cline (2014) 1177B.C., the year civilization collapsed. Princeton University Press.

Steffen, W., Rockström, J., Richardson, K., Lenton, T. M., Folke, C., Liverman, D., . . . Crucifix, M. (2018). “Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115(33), 8252-8259.

Evert van de Vliert (2009) Climate, Affluence, and Culture. New York: Cambridge University Press.