AP Human Geography Review - Unit 1
The following discussion was adapted from a lesson created by Oakland teacher Heather Merovich.
- Read the article below.
- Post your reaction to this question
Are human settlements more shaped by geography or human innovation and adaptability?
Learn more about environmental determinism & environmental possibilism
The study of the interactions between humans and their surroundings, and the observed effect of such interactions is called human geography. Studies related to this field attempt to establish the human or natural factors underlying the environmental changes occurring at a site. It also tries to understand the sociocultural evolution of humans based on the stimuli provided by their physical living conditions. Environmental DETERMINISM and Environmental POSSIBILISM are theories, put forth in order to comprehend and understand the role played by the physical environmental conditions in the emergence and progress of any human culture or society in a particular location.
What Is Environmental Determinism?
Until 1950, the majority of philosophers believed that human civilizations form and proliferate in certain parts of the world due to the direct influence of the natural physical environment found in those places, an idea called environmental determinism. Environmental determinists put forth these beliefs in the form of theories which claimed that the environment (most notably its physical factors such as landforms and/or climate) determines the patterns of human culture and societal development. The natural environment posed a limiting factor for the development and progress of people inhabiting the particular area. Environmental determinists believe that it is these environmental, climatic, and geographical factors alone that are responsible for human cultures and individual decisions and/or social conditions have virtually no impact on cultural development.
The main argument of environmental determinism states that an area’s physical characteristics like climate have a strong impact on the psychological outlook of its inhabitants. These varied outlooks then spread throughout a population and help define the overall behavior and culture of a society. This provided logical reasoning for diversity that was observed among the various civilizations and settlements of humans across the globe. These theories reinforced the idea that human-environment interactions were solely driven by the physical conditions, and that they were one-directional. For instance, it was said that areas in the tropics were less developed than higher latitudes because the continuously warm weather there made it easier to survive and thus, people living there did not work as hard to ensure their survival. 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, a writer from East Africa, for instance, 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.
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. As time elapsed, scholars and scientists began to question the validity of these theories, as they did not account for the impact of humans on the environment. They also did not take into account the essential factor of human ingenuity and advancement in technology. Due to the availability of advanced technology, humans could have a larger impact on the environment and easily adapt themselves, if not overcome, to the physical conditions.
In addition, critics claimed it was racist and perpetuated imperialism. 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 turned to the theory of environmental possibilism to explain cultural development.
What is Environmental Possibilism?
Environmental Possibilism also has roots in ancient Greece, first ideated by philosopher Strabo in 64 BCE when he stated that humans can make things happen by their own intelligence over time, cautioning 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. Much later, the idea was elaborated on by the French geographer Paul Vidal de la Blanche, who 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. Thus, humans can alter the environment to best serve their needs, through the use of technology.
Possibilism in human geography is the theory that the environment sets certain constraints or limitations, but culture is otherwise determined by social conditions. The idea really took hold in the post-colonial 20th century when it became a popular alternative to the determinist view and took into account humankind’s resilience and determination to adapt to the environment rather than be solely controlled by it.
Examples of Environmental Possibilism
Humankind has clearly changed the environment and has brought changes to the environment by increasing its capacity to meet their needs and demands. The most visible and common examples in this regard are the Industrial Revolution, Agricultural Advancement, and Technological revolution. The Industrial Revolution began in the 18th century in Great Britain & it truly changed the way people lived. It was not an overnight phenomenon but rather was the end result of a series of inventions. It originated in Great Britain in 1750 and from there it spread to North America and Europe during the 19th century. The invention of the steam engine gave a boost to the iron and textile industries. Now industries have a share of more than thirty percent in the world’s GDP.
Additionally, the agricultural advancement of the Green Revolution, the invention of fertilizers and pesticides, modern irrigation methods, and the organic farming methods have also contributed to the high output of crops and other products related to agriculture to meet the high food demands across the world. All these efforts were done by humans to meet their increased demands indicating the influence of Possibilism. Lastly, modern means of communication such as computers, internet, smart/mobile phones, cable TV, etc. has changed the world into a global village. The Nano technology has given birth to revolutionary inventions which have made the life of a person easy and complicated as well. Now within seconds, you can see and talk to your loved ones who are thousands of miles away from you. These revolutions have helped humans to make their lives easy and comfortable. These revolutions very clearly show that human activities affect the natural environment.
The controversy between geographical possibilism and determinism might be considered as one of (at least) three dominant controversies of contemporary geography. Possibilism in geography is, thus, considered as a distinct approach to geographical knowledge, directly opposed to geographical determinism. Possibilism directly contradicts the previous claim of the deterministic nature of the environment and in its stead proposed that while the environment did pose a few limiting factors to the prosperity of the inhabiting people, the people or society was also capable of having an impact on the surrounding and molding it as per their needs.
By the 1950s, environmental determinism was almost entirely replaced in geography by environmental possibilism, effectively ending its prominence as the central theory in the discipline. Regardless of its decline, 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.