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Environmental determinism

Environmental determinism, also known as climatic determinism or geographical

determinism, is the view that the physical environment sets limits on human
environment. A nineteenth- and early twentieth- century approach to the study of
geography which argued that the general laws sought by human geographers
could be found in the physical sciences. Geography therefore became focused
on the study of how the physical environment affected, or even caused, human
culture and activities.


Environmental determinism's origins go back to antiquity, where it is first
encountered in a fifth-century medical treatise ascribed to Hippocrates: Airs,
Waters, Places. [1] In Roman times it is, for example, found in the work of the
Greek geographer Strabo who wrote that climate influences the psychological
disposition of different races. Some in ancient China advanced a form of
environmental determinism as found in the Works of Guan Zhong (Guanzi ),
perhaps written in the 2nd century BCE. In the chapter "Water and Earth" (Shuidi
), we find statements like "Now the water of [the state of] Qi is forceful, swift
and twisting. Therefore its people are greedy, uncouth, and warlike," and "The
water of Chu is gentle, yielding, and pure. Therefore its people are lighthearted,
resolute, and sure of themselves." [2]

Another early adherent of environmental determinism was the medieval Afro-
Arab writer al-Jahiz, who explained how the environment can determine the
physical characteristics of the inhabitants of a certain community. He used his
early theory of evolution to explain the origins of different human skin colors,
particularly black skin, which he believed to be the result of the environment. He
cited a stony region of black basalt in the northern Najd as evidence for his
theory: [3]

The Arab sociologist and polymath, Ibn Khaldun, was also an adherent of
environmental determinism. In his Muqaddimah (1377), he explained that black
skin was due to the hot climate of sub-Saharan Africa and not due to their
lineage. He thus dispelled the Hamitic theory, where the sons of Ham were
cursed by being black, as a myth. [4] Many translations of Ibn Khaldun were
translated during the colonial era in order to fit the colonial propaganda machine.
[5] The Negro Land of the Arabs Examined and Explained was written in 1841
and gives excerpts of older translations that were not part of colonial
propaganda. [6]

Ibn Khaldun suggests a link between the decline of Ghana and rise of the
Almoravids. However, there is little evidence of there actually being an Almoravid
conquest of Ghana. [7][8] Ibn Khaldun also anticipated the meteorological climate
theory later proposed by Montesquieu in the 18th century. Like Montesquieu, Ibn
Khaldun studied "the physical environment in which man lives in order to
understand how it influences him in his non-physical characteristics." He
explained the differences between different peoples, whether nomadic or
sedentary peoples, including their customs and institutions, in terms of their
"physical environment-habitat, climate, soil, food, and the different ways in which
they are forced to satisfy their needs and obtain a living." This was a departure
from the climatic theories expressed by authors from Hippocrates to Jean Bodin.
It has been suggested that Ibn Khaldun may have had an influence upon
Montesquieu's theory through the traveller Jean Chardin, who travelled to Persia
and described a theory resembling Ibn Khaldun's climatic theory. [9]

Environmental determinism rose to prominence in the late 19th century and early
20th century when it was taken up as a central theory by the discipline of
geography (and to a lesser extent, anthropology). Clark University professor
Ellen Churchill Semple is credited with introducing the theory to the United States
after studying with human geographer Friedrich Ratzel in Germany. The
prominence of determinism was influenced by the high profile of evolutionary
biology, although it tended more to resemble the now-discredited Lamarckism
rather than Darwinism.


Between 1920 and 1940, environmental determinism came under repeated
attacks as its claims were found to be severely faulted at best, and often
dangerously wrong. Geographers reacted to this by first developing the softer
notion of "environmental possibilism," and later by abandoning the search for
theory and causal explanation for many decades. Later critics charged that
determinism served to justify racism and imperialism. The experience of
environmental determinism has left a scar on geography, with many geographers
reacting negatively to any suggestion of environmental influences on human
society. Some believe this rejection has gone too far, and that incorporating
environmental factors into explanations of social outcomes is not only useful but
necessary. [10]

The fundamental argument of the environmental determinists was that aspects of
physical geography, particularly climate, influenced the psychological mind-set of
individuals, which in turn defined the behaviour 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. Key proponents of this notion have included Ellen
Churchill Semple, Ellsworth Huntington, Thomas Griffith Taylor, and possibly
Jared Diamond or Philip M. Parker. Although Diamond's work does make
connections between environmental and climatic conditions and societal
development, it is published with the stated intention of disproving racist and
eurocentric theories of development. [11]

While this accurately reflects the popular belief and perception in the geographic
community towards environmental determinism, the debate was overlaid with
hues of gray. Rostlund pointed out in his essay in Readings in Cultural
Geography: "Environmentalism was not disproved, only disapproved." He also
points to the fact that the disapproval was not based on inaccurate findings, but
rather a methodological process which stands in contrast to that of science,
something the geographers have arguably sought to ascribe themselves to. Carl
O. Sauer followed on from this in 1924 when he criticized the premature
generalizations resulting from the bias of environmentalism. He pointed out that
to define geography as the study of environmental influences is to assume in
advance that such influences do operate, and that a science cannot be based
upon or committed to a preconception."

A variant of environmental determinism was popular among Marxists, employing
the dialectical materialism concept of history. To Marx's basic model of the
ideological and cultural superstructure being determined by the economic base,
they added the idea that the economic base is determined by environmental
conditions. For example, Russian geographer Georgi Plekhanov argued that the
reason his nation was still in the feudal era, rather than having progressed to
capitalism and becoming ripe for the revolution into communism, was that the
wide plains of Russia allowed class conflicts to be easily diffused. This Marxist
environmental determinism was repudiated around the same time as classic
environmental determinism.

Revival The late 20th century saw a revival in environmental determinism as a
branch of the new, broader study of environmental history. This has been helped
by the quantitative revolution in geography and demography by authors such as
Braudel, and several popular accounts such as the works of Jared Diamond.


Climatic determinism is an aspect of economic geography, also sometimes called
the equatorial paradox. According to this theory, about 70% of the economic
development of a country can be predicted from the distance between that
country and the equator. In other words, the further from the equator the more
developed a country tends to be. The paradox applies equally well both north
and south of the equator. Australia, for example, has a higher level of economic
development than Indonesia. The paradox also applies within countries the
northern U.S. states are more developed than the southern U.S. states.

Singapore is a notable counter-example: it is located at 1.22 N and is one of the
world's most prosperous countries. This prosperity is based on its position as a
port. Other exceptions to the paradox tend to have large natural resources.
(Although Singapore's strict and no-nonsense government system matches the
"strict and authoritarian" system that Montesquieu cited as being necessary for a
country in warmer areas to succeed by counteracting the environmental
complacency of the tropics with human-induced strictures. Saudi Arabia is a
good example.)

One popular theory to explain this phenomenon is that development is less
necessary in tropical regions - "you can lie in a hammock and pick bananas,"
[citation needed]

as opposed to the need to invent agriculture and economy in order to prosper
and survive. This explanation, while convenient, may not be sufficiently complex
to truly explain the equatorial paradox.

Another theory is that tropical countries tend to be plagued by more diseases
(such as Malaria, whose transmission depends on a warm climate). Since the
tropical country's workers tend to be sicker and die sooner, they will be less
productive, and over many centuries the cooler and more disease-free
economies will tend to have faster economic growth.

It is noteworthy that the equatorial paradox only emerged from the Modern Era
onwards, with more highly developed cultures and economies being present in
the tropical and subtropical regions than outside it. In the context of a statistical
analysis, the paradox is probably more a consequence of subjugation and
colonization. The latter all but arrested economical and infrastructural
development, except as needed to fulfil the colonial power's aims. Climatic
Determinism was intensely studied by Ellsworth Huntington.

Economic Development

How big of a role does geography play in determining the economic growth of
places? This idea that geography and nature matters to global development was
shaped by notable scholars, Paul Krugman, Jared Diamond, and Jeffrey Sachs.
The theory of Environmental determinism can be used to explain economic
development of places at local, regional, and global scales. Using the principals
from Environmental determinism, and identifying where population densities
cluster, trends in worldwide economic development can plausibly be accounted
for. Economic growth is measured nationally to quantify material wealth, using
GDP per capita and is adjusted for purchasing power parity (PPP). [12] These
universal units quantify qualitative differences in equality. The direct variables
that account for Environmental determinism are; climate, location (close to coast
and or river) combined with land composition, latitude, if land locked, and
presence of infectious disease. [13] Economies need labour to be productive and
increase development, thus a population is vital for economic growth. There is no
simple relationship for the distribution of population density and economic
development, however conclusions can be made with reference to the above


Climate and agriculture work hand in hand with the output of production. After
controlling variables such as labour, machinery, soil treatment, and irrigation,
agriculture in the Tropics suffers a 30% to 50% decrease in productivity relative
to temperate- zone agriculture productions. [14]

Without ideal weather conditions, agriculture wouldnt produce the surplus supply
needed to build and maintain economies. Locations with hot tropical climates
lead to underdevelopment through the following mechanisms: Low fertility of
soils, excessive plant respiration and lower rate of net photosynthesis, ecological
conditions favoring infectious diseases, and high evaporation and unreliable
supply of water. [15] Population densities are usually lower and not efficient in
interior locations, however densities seem to be higher in inland areas that are
suitable for agriculture settlements; with fertile soil, rivers close by, and climatic
and ecological systems promoting of rice or wheat cultivation. [16]

Thus due to climate contributions, good soil and water supply give way to dense
inland populations.

Location and Land Composition

Coastal regions are common areas for providing capital goods in global trade,
are points of financial centers, and are essential to lower transportation costs.
[17] Living on the coast has proven to be advantageous for centuries with
peoples livelihood depending on the coastline for trade, irrigation, and fish
resources. It has only been in the last few generations that railroads, cars, air
transit, and telecommunications have decreased humans dependence of coast
location for economic edge. [18] However population densities still seem to
concentrate on coastlines and provide many economic and social benefits for
human wellbeing, including higher incomes for people compared to people in
land locked countries. [19]


As latitude increases from the equator, levels of real GDP per capita increase.
[20] The average GDP per capita in 1995 for tropical (low latitude) countries was
$3,326 and for non-tropical (wid-high latitude) countries was $9,027. [21] It holds
true that places in higher latitudes especially in the northern hemisphere
experience higher standards of living, reap climatic advantages and better
opportunities to input resources.


Landlocked countries are surrounded by borders with no direct access to the
ocean of their own. The exception to stagnated economies for land locked
countries are Austria and Switzerland whose proximity to European markets
make them unmoldable to typical geographic explanations for
underdevelopment. [22] Cross border migration of labour is more difficult than
internal migration because coastal countries will most likely have military or
economic motives to install taxes for the land locked country when crossing for
job opportunities or resource trafficking. These countries with neither coastlines
nor ocean navigable rivers often have less urbanization and less growth due to
the slow movement of informtaion, therefore they are slower in technology
advances and communication. They also lack access to regional and
international markets. [23]

Infectious diseases

This is another large dimension of economic growth. Almost all of the 200-500
million per year malaria attacks occur in the tropics where the climate is hot,
moist and in near the equator. [24] This is not an inequality problem that persists
in poorer countries because solutions havent been put in place, these critters are
increasing their resistance to insecticide, while at the same time the effectiveness
of treatment is decreasing. [25]

Malaria hasnt flourished in mid-high latitudes because the ecology of parasites
and vectors which it relys on, thrives in hot climatic conditions, thus enclosing this
disease and many alike to lower latitudes with warmer climates.

Briefly, looking at a space and place at a smaller scale, correlations between the
success of an urban area can be linked with the basket of attributes it possesses
and if they enhance or decline the growth of the economy. An urban area is likely
to flourish if exposed to a bundle of favourable location attributes. [26] For
example, growth would be reinforced if close to a major city, situated on flat
topography and fertile soil, near an airport or international border.


Africa is an example of a combination of unfavorable variables from the theory of
environmental determinism and poor economic development. Africas per capita
income has been decreasing for the past 40 years, with Sub-saharan Africa as
one of the poorest places. [27] It has a large majority of land mass in the tropics,
the population is concentrated in the interior with more than one fourth residing in
land locked countries, and it has a low population density in the coastal regions.
[28] Table 1 and map 1 from Geography and Economic Development outlines the
geographic factors associated with development. For example, decent
agricultural land is patchy, climate conditions bring low rainfall and risks of
drought, high disease rates with malaria are prevalent, and Africa contains many
small countries landlocked by borders which brings high tansportation costs, and
little cohesiveness amongst policies and governing. [29]

There are many theories that incorporate factors of the environment into the
consideration of why certain places develope faster than others, but
environmental determinism in economic terms puts nature and geography at the
focus when understanding the distribution of growth and development.


Main article: Architectural determinism

Environmental determinism has been adopted by the urban design field to
describe the effects the built environment may have on behaviour. This is the
basis of the concept of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design
(CPTED) which attempts to modify disruptive behaviours through appropriate
design of the physical environment. This concept is also the basis of active space
which tries to encourage activity through the design of a space.