Throughout the study of geography, there have been a number of different approaches to explaining the development of the world’s societies and cultures.  One of such is environmental determinism. Environmental determinism is the belief that the environment determines the pattern of human culture and societal development. It is also known as climatic determinism or geographical determinism, is the view that the physical environment, rather than social conditions, determines culture. Those who believe this view say that humans are strictly defined by stimulus-response  (environment -behavior ) and cannot deviate.

The fundamental argument of the environmental determinist was that aspects of physical geography, particularly climate, influenced the psychological mind-set of individuals, which in turn defined the behavior and culture of the society that those individuals formed. For example, tropical climates were said to cause laziness, relaxed attitudes and promiscuity, while the frequent variability in the weather of the middle latitudes led to more determined and driven work ethics. Because these environmental influences operate slowly on human biology, it was important to trace the migrations of groups to see what environmental conditions they had evolved under.

Another example of environmental determinism would be the theory that island nations have unique cultural traits solely because of their isolation from continental societies.


Environmental Determinism and Early Geography

Although environmental determinism is a fairly recent approach to formal geographic study, its origins go back to ancient times. Climatic factors for example were used by Strabo, Plato , and Aristotle  to explain why the Greeks were so much more developed in the early ages than societies in hotter and colder climates. Additionally, Aristotle came up with his climate classification system to explain why people were limited to settlement in certain areas of the globe. Other early scholars also used environmental determinism to explain not only the culture of a society but the reasons behind the physical characteristics of a society’s people.

Al-Jahiz, from East Africa, he cited environmental factors as the origin of different skin colors. He believed that the darker skin of many Africans and various birds, mammals, and insects was a direct result of the prevalence of black basalt rocks on the Arabian Peninsula.

Ibn Khaldun an Arab sociologist and scholar, was officially known as one of the first environmental determinists. He lived from 1332 to 1406, during which time he wrote a complete world history and explained that dark human skin was caused by the hot climate of Sub-Saharan Africa.

Environmental Determinism and Modern Geography

Environmental determinism rose to its most prominent stage in modern geography beginning in the late 19th Century when it was revived by the German geographer Friedrich Ratzel and became the central theory in the discipline. Ratzel’s theory came about following Charles Darwin’s  Origin of Species in 1859 and was heavily influenced by evolutionary biology and the impact a person’s environment has on their cultural evolution.

Environmental determinism then became popular in the United States in the early 20th Century when Ratzel’s student, Ellen Churchill Semple, a professor at Clark University in Worchester, Massachusetts, introduced the theory there. Like Ratzel’s initial ideas, Semple’s were also influenced by evolutionary biology.

Another one of Ratzel’s students, Ellsworth Huntington, also worked on expanding the theory around the same time as Semple. Huntington’s work though, led to a subset of environmental determinism, called climatic determinism in the early 1900s. His theory stated that the economic development in a country can be predicted based on its distance from the equator. He said temperate climates with short growing seasons stimulate achievement, economic growth, and efficiency. The ease of growing things in the tropics on the other hand hindered their advancement.

The Decline of Environmental Determinism

Despite its success in the early 1900s, environmental determinism’s popularity began to decline in the 1920s as its claims were often found to be wrong. Carl Sauer for instance began his critiques in 1924 and said that environmental determinism led to premature generalizations about an area’s culture and did not allow for results based on direct observation or other research. As a result of his and others criticisms, geographers developed the theory of environmental possibilism to explain cultural development.

However, environmental determinism was an important component of geographic history as it initially represented an attempt by early geographers to explain the patterns they saw developing across the globe.

Environmental Possibilism

Environmental possibilism was set forth by the French geographer Paul Vidal de la Blanche and stated that the environment sets limitations for cultural development but it does not completely define culture. Culture is instead defined by the opportunities and decisions that humans make in response to dealing with such limitations. By the 1950s, environmental determinism was almost entirely replaced in geography by environmental possibilism. Possibilism is the belief that anything is possible. Meaning given whatever environmental conditions we are able to overcome them through knowledge, skills, technology and money.

Environmental possibilism believes that although the environment may be limiting in some aspects, humans have the ultimate power to adjust to their environment. This is opposite the theory proposed by environmental determinism, which suggests that the environment itself shaped our social behaviors.  Theory by Strabo in 64 BC argued that, humans can make things happen by our own intelligence over time. Strabo cautioned against the assumption that nature and actions of humans were determined by the physical environment they inhabited. He observed that humans were the active elements in a human-environmental partnership.


About Kehinde Richard Fashua
I am a passionate citizen who loves solving challenges and answering geo-questions via research & analytics for insight delivery and goodwill of brands. My specialties are in Research, Quantitative & Qualitative Data Analysis, GIS Analysis/Geo-analytics, Remote Sensing, Digital Communication, Public Relations and Graphics Design


  1. saheed says:

    Lovely piece from a great geographer in d making.thumbs up


  2. SodTos says:

    Nice 1 bro. Keep it up…u will bcom great Geographer that everybody will know on the field. Once again, nice piece.


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  4. cyhana williams says:

    a very educative site.keep it up.i love nature and God too.all the best.


  5. Rajashree says:

    Satisfied notes.thank you.


  6. james yebei says:

    your work has beneficial to my ongoing studies.Please may i get importance of the two theories in abundance


    • Admin says:

      I apologize for the late reply. It could be argued for or against. It only help to stir ones imagination on the geographic questions of (why? Where? How? What?) That is, why are their differences in settlements even though they have similar natural resources. Could it be climatically tied? Is it just differences in human nature or culture? Why is the global North more developed than the global South etc….


    • Hi,
      I apologize for the late reply. It could be argued for or against. It only help to stir ones imagination on the geographic questions of (why? Where? How? What?) That is, why are their differences in settlements even though they have similar natural resources. Could it be climatically tied? Is it just differences in human nature or culture? Why is the global North more developed than the global South etc….


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