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What is environmental determinism?

Environmental determinism or geographic determinism is a geographic theory developed at the end of the 19th century, as one of the different approaches that supports the explanation of the development of societies and cultures. Although it was greatly developed at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, its foundations have been contested and it has lost relevance in recent decades.

Environmental determinism is based on the hypothesis that the environment, through accidents, geographical events and the climate, determines the forms of development of societies. He maintains that ecological, climatic and geographical factors are the main ones responsible for the construction of cultures and the decisions made by human groups; he also maintains that social conditions do not have a significant impact. According to this theory, the physical characteristics of the area where a human group develops, such as the climate, have a decisive impact on the psychological perspective of these people. The different perspectives extend to the population as a whole and define the general behavior and development of a society’s culture.

An example of reasoning supported by this hypothesis is the statement that populations that have developed in tropical areas have a lower degree of development compared to those that inhabited cold climates. The best conditions for survival in a warm environment do not motivate the populations that live there to develop, while more rigorous environmental conditions demand the effort of the community for their development. Another example is the explanation of the differences in the insular communities with respect to the continental ones in geographic isolation.


Although environmental determinism is a relatively recent theory, some of its ideas were developed as far back as antiquity. For example, Strabo, Plato, and Aristotle used climatic factors to try to explain why early Greek societies were more developed than other societies inhabiting warmer or cooler climates. Aristotle developed a climate classification system to explain the limitations of human settlement in certain regions.

Not only was it sought to explain the causes of the development of societies through arguments of environmental determinism, but it was also tried to find the origin of the physical characteristics of the populations. Al-Jahiz, an Arab intellectual of African origin, attributed differences in skin color to environmental factors. Al-Jahiz, in the 9th century, proposed some ideas about the changes of the species, affirming that the animals were transformed as a result of the struggle for existence and for the adaptation to factors such as the climate and the diet that were modified by the migrations, which in turn caused changes in organ development.

Ibn Khaldoun is recognized as one of the first thinkers who laid the foundations of environmental determinism. Ibn Khaldoun was born in present-day Tunisia in 1332 and is considered the founder of several disciplines of modern social science.

Environmental determinism - geographic determinism Ibn Khaldoun

The development of environmental determinism

Environmental determinism was developed at the end of the 19th century by the German geographer Friedrich Rätzel, retaking the previous conceptions, taking the ideas exposed in the Origin of the species of the species by Charles Darwin. His work was strongly influenced by evolutionary biology and the impact that the environment has on the cultural evolution of human groups. This theory became popular in the United States in the early 20th century when Ellen Churchill Semple, a student of Rätzel’s and a professor at Clark University in Worchester, Massachusetts, expounded it at the university.

Ellsworth Huntington, another of Rätzel’s students, spread the theory at the same time as Ellen Semple. At the beginning of the 20th century; Huntington’s work spawned a variant of the theory called climate determinism. This variant held that the economic development of a country could be predicted based on its distance from the equator. He claimed that temperate climates with short growing seasons stimulated development, economic growth, and efficiency. On the other hand, the ease of cultivating in tropical regions was an obstacle to the development of the communities that settled there.

Environmental determinism - geographic determinism Friedrich Ratzel

The decline of environmental determinism

The theory of environmental determinism began its decline in the 1920s, as the conclusions it drew were found to be incorrect, and its claims were often found to be racist and perpetuate imperialism.

One of the critics of environmental determinism was the American geographer Carl Sauer. He claimed that the theory led to generalizations about the development of a culture that did not admit of input from direct observation or other research methods. From his criticisms and those of other geographers, alternative theories are developed, such as environmental possibilism, proposed by the French geographer Paul Vidal de la Blanche.

Environmental possibilism posited that the environment sets limitations for cultural development but does not define culture. Instead, culture is defined by the opportunities and decisions that humans make in response to their interaction with the constraints placed on them.

Environmental determinism was displaced by environmental possibilism theory in the 1950s, thus ending its pre-eminence as a central theory of geography in the early 20th century. Although environmental determinism is an outdated theory, it was an important step in the history of geography, representing an attempt by the first geographers to explain the development processes of human groups.

Environmental determinism - geographic determinism Paul Vidal de la Blanche


Ilton Jardim de Carvalho Junior. Two myths about climatic/environmental determinism in the history of geographic thought . University of São Paulo, Brazil, 2011.

Jared Diamond. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies . Depocket, Penguin Random House, 2016.