Environmental Determinism

This previous week’s readings sought to develop a background for the history of Geography both in the larger world sense and in the strictly American realm. It included a brief introduction to early Greek thinkers like Herodotus and Ptolomy, Arab geographers like As Idrisi, and more recent folks like Kant, Ratzel, Vidal, and Penck. The most humorous, and most easy to read, was a bit on Environmental Determinism by Ellen C. Semple. It was completely unscientific, anecdotal, and racist. Yet it was a very predominant way of looking at, if not justifying imperial behavior at the turn of the 20th century.

Though the basis for Environmental Determinism is rather simple, even elegant, it takes much larger and sweeping generalizations about peoples based on the environment in which they live. One of my favorite generalizations was that peoples from the mountainous regions of the Alps were incapable of creating art because of the abundance of beauty in Mountains. It was people from the lowlands of France and such that were creating the poetry of the day because the less aggressive landscape allowed their minds to create purely aesthetic works. I’m paraphrasing, but not by much.

This way of looking at peoples was naturally misused to defend the treatment of indigenous peoples, and justify expansion and other imperial practices. Many subsequent geographers have felt that this simplistic and unscientific theory is part of the reason that Geography as a discipline lacks a clear picture in our minds. In other words, Environmental Determinism did for Geography what Fascism did for Khaki.

One thought on “Environmental Determinism”

  1. If you haven’t already, you should look at Guns Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond (In all your extra free time…right). He argues similarly that geography and environmental conditions that shaped today’s societies (I think it focuses mostly on biological traits / native flora-fauna). I’ve only read selected chapters of this book…the first Chapter “Yali’s Question” is most relevant to what I study. But I would be very interested in your pov on it. I recently saw him speak at the Woodrow Wilson Center, his discussion focused on the Easter Island extinction and trade. Essentially, using it as a basis for comparison to today’s environmental issues and gloablization. Very interesting, excellent speaker, bad bad comb-over action though.

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