Environmental Determinism

In a geographic sense, environmental determinism is defined as the belief that the environment with its geological features, landforms and climate, has directly shaped the way that societies have developed. In other words, physical features have set human civilisations on a certain developmental trajectory. To an extent this is indeed true. The first great civilisations such as those of Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt, developed along rivers (Tigris-Euphrates and Nile respectively). These rivers provided opportunity for food, drinking water, agriculture, the transportation of crops and armies as well as trade. The Nile to this day offers a “natural two-way transit system [1],” whilst when settling in ‘Britannia’, the Romans built ‘Londinium’ around the main crossing of the ‘Tamesis’. Not only did this enable the internal movement of goods, but a link to the continent and the wider Roman Empire. Dartnell’s Origins which draws in parts from ideas laid out by Jared Diamond, epitomises environmental determinism. Arguments such as the development of intelligent and highly adaptable species (ultimately homo sapiens) due to amplifier lakes in the East African Rift System, which are in turn a result of plate tectonics causing mantle plumes, and Milankovitch Cycles, are somewhat plausible. Furthermore, there is indeed a correlation between Cretaceous clay deposits and Democratic Party voting counties in states such as Alabama and Mississippi. Even the landscape in our modern, high-reaching cities could potentially be as a result of plate tectonics. Schuberth argued that the distribution of skyscrapers in New York, focused around the southern tip and Midtown resembles the cross-section of an underlying metamorphic schist which exists in a syncline [2]. In these two locations it rises close to the surface, offering a strong foundational basis for the construction of massive buildings. This could also explain why London has relatively few skyscrapers, existing in the bottom of the Weald-Artois anticline now filled with unaccommodating, soft clay. However, this could also explain the reason why London developed the first underground system in the world, becoming world leaders, with London Clay better suited for the tunnelling process.

The idea of this piece is not however to merely present the many different ideas and examples that Dartnell uses in Origins, some of which are to an extent plausible. Instead we will dive into the problems of determinism and why it has since lost its prominence in the main schools of geographic thought. Often, there is a great deal of extrapolation between geological and geographical processes to human society today. For example, going from glacial moraine deposits as ‘Doggerland’, to the reclamation of land in the Netherlands, to communities coming together to afford windmills, to the scaling up the same idea for the shipping industry and eventually the birth of capitalism and the first stock market in Amsterdam – this is all quite a long and tenuous chain of reasoning. Yes, physical features may have had some influence, as in the case of capitalism’s birth, or in US voting patterns, but one cannot sweepingly claim ,”Dutch financial innovations helped her build the modern world, and they had grown out of her low-lying landscape and the need to reclaim land from the sea [3].” A geological process that was one of many influences in one particular area, has been extrapolated with no proof of causality nor debate on why this Dutch section of ‘Doggerland’ led to the birth of our modern capitalist society (as opposed to similar geological features in Britain’s North Sea). The crux of the matter is that environmental determinism was extrapolated, de-contextualised and taken too far all because it helped to give “a scientific foundation for theories by which it was possible to understand how people lived and acted in a changing world [4].”

Environmental determinism gave credibility and ‘scientific evidence’ to racism, imperialism and colonialism, by arguing that humans and social outcomes were directly influenced by climatic conditions. One example is that between America and Panama. The lens of environmental determinism argued that Panamanians, who are a “tropical type of people [5]” were lazy and thus failed to build the canal across the American isthmus [6]. Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States, legitimised African colonisation by arguing that tropical climates made people more uncivilised. Meanwhile, those who live in higher latitudes face more variable weather conditions (due to the general atmospheric circulation model) have stronger work ethics. More worrying still, the same logic was used by Hitler in claiming the supremacy of the Nords.

Environmental determinism has now withered away with many erroneous (and sometimes racist) claims that do not always allow for results based on direct observational research. Carl Sauer for example, after studying the destruction of pine forests on Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, completely transitioned away from the idea of environmental determinism and became a fierce critic, as he started to believe that humans control nature and hence develop their cultures.

Environmental possibilism grew out of the early 20th Century decline in the popularity of environmental determinism. Possibilists believe,” that man is never entirely free from the influence of environment, but there is a room for the effort of man, such as technology, attitude, habits, and values of human, which influence man’s action and it also bring the physical environment. So, it is obvious that both factors (Man and nature) are equally important to make an influence on each other [7].” With academic coinage of the term ‘Anthropocene’ and frameworks such as the Paris Agreement, the view that we too can (now) influence the environment has now prevailed. Today most geographers would be hesitant and cautious before advocating the view that the structure of societies and the decisions that people make are solely formed from the force of the natural world. On the other end of the spectrum, Soviet leaders,”equated anthropogenic transformation of the environment with progress [8].” Possibilism helps to find a middle ground. Nature is influencing us less and we are influencing it more, with our present technologies helping to both overcome the difficulties and struggles of the past (such as the need to live near to a river), whilst degrading and polluting the natural world at the same time.

So, although environmental possibilism is by far the most prevailing strand of academic geographic thought, environmental determinism must not be forgotten. It documents an attempt by early geographers to explain the patterns they saw across the world in an accessible manner. Some may go as far as to call texts by Friedrich Rätzel and Ellen Semple canonical. Without this horrible past, we may not have found the equilibrium we have today, the equilibrium provided by possibilism.


[1] Dartnell, Lewis. Origins: How the Earth Shaped Human History, Vintage / Penguin Random House, 2020, pp. 73

[2] Schuberth, Christopher J. The Geology of New York City and Environs, The Natural History Press, 1968, pp. 81

[3] Dartnell, Lewis. Origins: How the Earth Shaped Human History, Vintage / Penguin Random House, 2020, pp. 97

[4] Frenkel, Stephen. “Geography, Empire, and Environmental Determinism.” Geographical Review, vol. 82, no. 2, 1992, pp. 144. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/215428. Accessed 5 Oct. 2020

[5] Frenkel, Stephen. “Geography, Empire, and Environmental Determinism.” Geographical Review, vol. 82, no. 2, 1992, pp. 145. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/215428. Accessed 5 Oct. 2020.

[6] Huntington, Ellsworth. 1915. Civilization and Climate. New Haven: Yale University Press.

[7] Fekadu, K. The paradox in environmental determinism and possibilism: a literature review, vol. 7 (7), Department of Geography and Environmental Studies, Arba Mnich University, Arba Mnich, Ethiopia, September 2014, pp. 132

[8] Ziegler, C E. International Encylopedia of the Social & Behavioural Sciences, 2001, pp.14723-14728, Soviet Studies: Environment

(Featured Image: © Jasper Sodha)