Environmental Determinism: Idea & Definition (2023)

The natural environment is all around us, and we as a society interact with the natural environment on a day-to-day basis, but does this interaction with the environment influence and limit us? Are societies controlled by the physical features of the environment? Environmental determinism is all about the theory of how human interaction with the natural environment influences civilizations. Keep reading this explanation to understand the theory of environmental determinism, its criticisms, as well as a theory that opposes environmental determinism.

Environmental Determinism Definition

Environmental determinism is a philosophy within human geography based on how society interacts with the physical environment, but what actually is the definition of environmental determinism?

Environmental determinism is a geographical and philosophical theory which claims that physical attributes of the environment, such as landscapes and climate, can significantly influence humans and therefore, the ability to impact society and development.

Essentially, this means that the environment can control (or determine) how a population behaves. The theory states the physical makeup of an environment can psychologically influence individuals within a population, and this can spread within a population to ultimately define the society’s behavior and culture as a whole.

Let’s examine environmental determinism more closely, looking at its history.

History of Environmental Determinism

In terms of the history of geography, the philosophy of environmental determinism dates back to the Ancient Greeks, although the term environmental determinism wasn’t officially formalized until the 1860s, by a geographer named Friedrich Ratzel.

The theory became most prevalent in modern geography during the early 19th century, due to geographers such as Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Ritter who heavily advocated the theory. Herbert Spencer used Darwinism (the theory of evolution, by natural selection) to explain social progress through a theory of social evolution in order to justify environmental determinism. However, modern scholars largely disregard this theory now. In the late 20th/early 21st century, Ellen Churchill Semple became another leading player in environmental determinism.

Environmental Determinism: Idea & Definition (1)Fig 1. Hebert Spencer.

However, the theory's popularity rapidly declined as critics such as Carl Sauer began suggesting the theory of environmental determinism was incorrect. (The criticisms of environmental determinism will be made clear later in the explanation). Eventually, the theory saw a more recent revival around the late 20th/early 21st century, mainly because of the geographer Jared Diamond.

(Video) Environmental Determinism Vs Possibilism

Jared Diamond is a geographer who brought contemporary environmental determinism to popularity with his book ‘Guns, Germs, and Steel’ in 1997. His book discusses early civilizations and how they came to be based on natural elements such as soil quality, climate, and geographical barriers.

Features of Environmental Determinism in Human Geography

The main features of environmental determinism are climatic, ecological and geographical factors. These different factors are said to influence human factors in society. They are:

  • Economic Development - this is the economic progress within a community.
  • Cultural Development - this is when a society has an array of cultural activities. The more diverse the activities, the more cultural development within the society.
  • Societal Development - this is measured by the quality of life in a society. Therefore, if the quality of life within a community is high, societal development is also considered high in that community.

Let’s take a look at some examples to see how these factors are said to be influenced.

Example of Environmental Determinism

Environmental determinists believe that the environment’s physical features can influence an entire culture.

One example claims that people who reside in the tropics are lazy because of the hot climate, whereas those that live at a latitude outside the tropics are hard-working due to the variation in climate. This suggests that the environment, more specifically the climate, influences the cultural and societal development of a civilization, and this can sometimes be called climatic determinism.

Climatic determinism is also similar to the concept of the equatorial paradox. Which is the idea that countries that are located close to the equator are poor and less developed, whereas countries further from the equator are richer and more developed. This is based on the suggestion that civilizations that are found close to the equator have a physical environment that is not suitable for economic development to occur. Therefore, this example focuses on the human aspect of economic development.

Environmental Determinism: Idea & Definition (2)Fig 2. Farm Laborers in Argentina Where The Climate Can Get Very Hot.

(Video) What is environmental determinism?

Another example of environmental determinism is that island societies do not share the same traits as people from continental societies because of the remoteness of island societies. This proposes the idea that geographical factors of environmental determinism influence cultural and societal development.

Environmental Determinism Criticism

Environmental determinism saw a significant decline in the early 20th century. The decline is largely attributed to the increasing criticisms of the theory. The main criticisms were that the philosophy encouraged racism, colonialism, Eurocentrism, and imperialism. Overall, the claim is that environmental determinism devalued non-western societies in preference for Western societies, particularly former empires.


Environmental determinism has received many criticisms for being racist, and this is mainly what led it to lose popularity in the early 20th century. This can be seen in the examples of environmental determinism, in particular the idea that civilizations in hotter countries are lazy. It was mostly criticized for promoting white supremacy, as it was suggested that geographers were rationalizing and condoning colonialism and Western thought.

One particular critic, Carl Sauer, proposed that environmental determinism made rash generalizations about societies. He claimed that observation and research were not considered by environmental determinists. Sauer instead advocated the concept of possibilism. He studied the impact society had on the environment, instead of focusing on how the environment controlled society's behaviors and actions.

Consequently, the concept of environmental determinism became a widely rejected philosophy within geography.

(Video) Environmental Determinism

Difference Between Determinism and Possibilism

The criticisms of environmental determinism brought about the notion of possibilism. Around the 1950s, the idea of environmental possibilism was introduced as a reaction to environmental determinism. This concept rejects the notion that humans are ruled by their natural surroundings and instead claims that human society develops alongside the environment, let's take a look at the definition.

Environmental possibilism is the geographical theory that society is not completely influenced by the environment and instead can meet societal needs and development regardless of the location and environment through adaptation.

Possibilism proposes that although the environment can set some limitations in society, it does not completely control culture, and civilizations can overcome the environment. The main ideas of possibilism are that society can utilize the possibilities nature provides, rather than nature limiting society (which is proposed by environmental determinism).

An example of possibilism is the ability of society to build infrastructure in landscapes and climates that would otherwise be considered inhabitable. For example, Palm Jumeirah in the United Arab Emirates. These islands are completely artificial and were built as a new land mass for humans to use. This shows society not being limited by the environment and instead modifying the lands to suit society.

Environmental Determinism: Idea & Definition (3)Fig 3. Palm Jumeirah in the United Arab Emirates is an Example of Possibilism.

Environmental possibilism is now much more widely accepted than environmental determinism. This is because many popular geographers pursued the idea of possibilism after critics recommended environmental determinism was inherently racist and imperialist.

Supporters of possibilism suggest that the theory allows for society to have more control and freedom over their behaviors and actions, whereas the theory of environmental determinism limits human behaviors and actions to the environment that they are in.

Additionally, human geographers typically favor environmental possibilism over environmental determinism because it suggests the idea that humans rely more on the environment for survival and development. However, even in geography today, there are still debates regarding both of these theories.


Take a look at the explanation of Possibilism to understand more about this concept.

The table below shows the main differences between environmental determinism and environmental possibilism.

Environmental Determinism Possibilism
The physical environment determines society's behaviors and actions.There is a range of possibilities within nature that humans can use to function as a society.
Society adapts to the environment.Society modifies the environment.

Environmental Determinism - Key takeaways

  • Environmental determinism is the theory that the physical environment determines society.

  • The main features of environmental determinism in human geography are climatic, ecological, and geographical factors, which influence human economic, cultural and societal development.

  • Examples of environmental determinism include the equatorial paradox and the idea that countries with hotter climates have lazier societies than countries with cooler climates.

  • Another example of environmental determinism is that island societies are separate from continental societies; therefore they do not share the same traits.

    (Video) Approaches to Man - Environment Relation (Determinism, Possibilism & Neo determinism)

  • Criticisms of environmental determinism include racism, colonialism, imperialism, and Eurocentrism.

  • Environmental possibilism is the idea that the environment can influence society, but it does not limit it, and that society can meet its needs irrespective of the physical environment, providing opportunities for society.


  1. Fig 1. Herbert Spencer. (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:HERBERT_SPENCER.jpg), By Power Renegadas (https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=User:Power_Renegadas&action=edit&redlink=1), Licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en).


What is environmental determinism short answer? ›

Environmental determinism asserts that physical geographic features such as climate and terrain exert a strong and unmediated influence upon human affairs, although it need not be, and usually is not, deterministic in the strict sense of the word.

What is the main idea of environmental determinism? ›

Environmental determinism argues that both general features and regional variations of human cultures and societies are determined by the physical and biological forms that make up the earth's many natural landscapes.

What is a good example of environmental determinism? ›

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

What do you understand by environmental determinism explain with example? ›

It explains how local, regional and global environmental factors shape and determine a particular society's cultural, economic, political development, and evolution. Examples of some key environmental factors involved in environmental determinism are: Global, regional and local climate (e.g., arctic vs.

Who first explained environmental determinism? ›

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 the hot climate of Sub-Saharan Africa caused dark human skin.

Why is environmental determinism important? ›

The importance of environmental determinism is that it places human culture in its appropriate context. Humans are animals, mammals specifically, residing in various environments around the surface of the Earth. These environments provide the food and other resources necessary for humans.

What are the two characteristics of environmental determinism? ›

Features of Environmental Determinism in Human Geography

The main features of environmental determinism are climatic, ecological and geographical factors. These different factors are said to influence human factors in society. They are: Economic Development - this is the economic progress within a community.

How do you use environmental determinism in a sentence? ›

1. Based on the theory of environmental determinism, it is believed that all the natural disasters will take place as scheduled and can't be stopped.

What are 5 environmental examples? ›

Air, water, climate, soil, natural vegetation and landforms are all environmental factors.

What is an example of environmental determinism in psychology? ›

Environmental determinism posits that our behaviour is caused by previous experience learned through classical and operant conditioning. For example, Bandura (1961) found that children with violent parents are more likely to become violent parents themselves, as a result of observational learning.

Who is the father of determinism? ›

Determinism was developed by the Greek philosophers during the 7th and 6th centuries BCE by the Pre-socratic philosophers Heraclitus and Leucippus, later Aristotle, and mainly by the Stoics.

Why is environmental determinism wrong? ›

Environmental determinism has been widely criticized as a tool to legitimize colonialism, racism, and imperialism in Africa, The Americas, and Asia. Environmental determinism enabled geographers to scientifically justify the supremacy of white European races and the naturalness of imperialism.

Who is the father of determinism in geography? ›

Answer. d) Friedrich Ratzel was a German geographer and considered the father of determinism in geography.

What are the benefits of determinism? ›

These benefits include being more accepting, less judgemental, leading a better emotional life, expecting less, and understanding oneself.

What are the three theories of determinism? ›

Three definitions of determinism for a theory: DEQN, based on equations; DMAP, based on mappings between linear temporal realizations; and DBRN, based on branching models.

What is environmental determinism psychology? ›

Environmental determinism is the view that behaviour is determined or caused by forces outside the individual. Environmental determinism posits that our behaviour is caused by previous experience learned through classical and operant conditioning.

Are there different types of determinism? ›

The types of determinism mentioned in the specification are: Hard determinism, Soft determinism, Biological determinism, Environmental determinism and Psychic determinism Hard determinism rejects free will and assumes all behaviour and thoughts are determined by internal or external influences which we have no control ...

What is the limitation of environmental determinism? ›

Environmental Determinism's popularity began to decline in the 1920s as its claims were often found to be wrong were led to premature generalizations about an area's culture and did not allow for results based on direct observation, and as a result of criticisms, geographers developed the theory of Environmental ...

How does determinism apply to human behavior? ›

The determinist approach proposes that all behavior has a cause and is thus predictable. Free will is an illusion, and our behavior is governed by internal or external forces over which we have no control.

What are the 3 main types of environment? ›

The three types of environment are: Internal environment. External macro environment. External micro environment.

What are the 4 types of environments? ›

Four Components of Environment

The four major components of environment include lithosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere and biosphere, corresponding to rocks, water, air and life respectively. Lithosphere is the outermost layer of earth called crust, which is made of different minerals.

What are the 3 main types of environmental issues? ›

The list of issues surrounding our environment go on, but there are three major ones that affect the majority of them overall: global warming and climate change; water pollution and ocean acidification; and loss of biodiversity.

What is environmental determinism for kids? ›

For those who don't know — that is to say, most people — environmental determinism is the belief that the physical features of an environment determine the patterns of human culture and societal development.

What is environmental determinism Class 12 example? ›

Human beings were greatly influenced by nature and adapted to dictates of the nature. This type of interaction when, human society was at primitive stage of development and hence adapted itself as per the nature, is called naturalization of humans also known as environmental determinism.

What do you mean by environmental determinism Class 11? ›

Environmental determinism is the belief that physical elements can influence the lifestyle of humans in society such as the climate, landform of a particular place, etc.

Who did environmental determinism? ›

Environmental determinism went beyond these early forms of probablism and imposed a yet greater rigidity upon human development. The father of the paradigm (and some would say of geography itself, Holt-Jensen, 1988, p. 31) was the German geographer–anthropologist Friedrich Ratzel (1844–1904).

What are the three types of determinism? ›

  • Issues & Debates.
  • Soft Determinism.
  • Psychic Determinism.
  • Hard Determinism.
  • Free Will.
22 Mar 2021

What is the definition of determinism and free will? ›

Determinism is the view that free will is an illusion, and that our behaviour is governed by internal or external forces over which we have no control. Consequently, our behaviour is viewed as predictable. The causal laws of determinism form the basis of science.

Why is environmental determinism a problem? ›

Environmental determinism has been widely criticized as a tool to legitimize colonialism, racism, and imperialism in Africa, The Americas, and Asia. Environmental determinism enabled geographers to scientifically justify the supremacy of white European races and the naturalness of imperialism.

What is the determinism theory? ›

determinism, in philosophy and science, the thesis that all events in the universe, including human decisions and actions, are causally inevitable.


1. What is Determinism? (Determinism Defined, Meaning of Determinism, Determinism Explained)
2. Environmental Determinism
(Boss Dee)
3. Environmental Determinism vs. Possibilism
4. Environmental Determinism | Class 12 Geography
(Lucky Education)
5. Environmental Determinism, Possibilism, & Land Use [AP Human Geography Unit 1 Topic 5]
(Mr. Sinn)
6. Determinism vs Free Will: Crash Course Philosophy #24
Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Aron Pacocha

Last Updated: 02/10/2023

Views: 6624

Rating: 4.8 / 5 (48 voted)

Reviews: 95% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Aron Pacocha

Birthday: 1999-08-12

Address: 3808 Moen Corner, Gorczanyport, FL 67364-2074

Phone: +393457723392

Job: Retail Consultant

Hobby: Jewelry making, Cooking, Gaming, Reading, Juggling, Cabaret, Origami

Introduction: My name is Aron Pacocha, I am a happy, tasty, innocent, proud, talented, courageous, magnificent person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.