How do cultures develop? How does the environment influence culture? In this lesson, we’ll examine some of the historical and contemporary approaches to those questions, including environmental determinism and cultural ecology.
Sandra is very interested in the environment and how people work within the environment. She’s noticed some things that are very different about her friends from Hawaii and her friends from Alaska, and she thinks it might have to do with where they are from.Cultural geography is the study of the impact of environment on tradition and vice versa.
For example, Sandra’s Hawaiian friends like to surf, and they wear jewelry made out of shells. These are Hawaiian traditions because Hawaii has great ocean waves for surfing and lots of shells.But Sandra’s friends from Alaska don’t surf.
They hike and do cross-country skiing, and they wear jewelry made of out gold. These are Alaskan traditions because Alaska has a lot of snow and gold.In both cases, Sandra has noticed that the environment has influenced the traditions of the cultures. But how, exactly, does that happen? Let’s look closer at two approaches to cultural geography: environmental determinism and cultural ecology.
Sandra has noticed that her Hawaiian friends are very cool and relaxed.
They say things like, ‘Chill out!’ and ‘It’ll be fine.’ Sandra wishes she could be more like them and wonders how they got that way.One idea about cultural geography that was popular in the 19th century is that of environmental determinism, which is the belief that the environment determines how a culture will develop. For example, with beautiful weather and lots of great surfing, the geography and climate could have a lot to do with how Hawaiian culture developed to be less stressed and more focused on enjoying life.Here’s the problem with environmental determinism, though: it says that the culture will always develop a specific way due to the environment. This was used a lot in the 19th century to justify imperialism and racism. For example, white European nations believed that people from warmer climates, like Africa, were lazier because they didn’t have to work as hard to survive.
Of course, now we know that there are lazy people from all different places, but back then, environmental determinism was popular. In the first half of the 20th century, though, environmental determinism was replaced with environmental possibilism, which is the belief that the environment puts limits on people, but that it does not determine how they will behave.A good example of environmental possibilism is what Sandra has observed with her Hawaiian friends. The environment in Hawaii makes it possible for people to be active and enjoy life. This, in turn, makes them less stressed out.
Then, as the culture becomes known for being relaxed, it attracts more people who have a more relaxed personality. They move to Hawaii, and their children are likely to be like them, which makes the culture even more laid back. The environment has offered the possibility for the culture to be laid back, but it did not dictate that the culture would definitely be more relaxed. That came from people’s decisions and reactions to their environment.
Another way to approach cultural geography is related to environmental possibilism. Cultural ecology is the study of how people use culture to adapt to the environment.Ecology is the study of how living things interact with their environment, so cultural ecology is looking at how humans, and human traditions and beliefs, help people interact with the limits their environment places on them.What do I mean by that? Think about Sandra’s friends in Alaska. They don’t surf much, but they do like to go cross-country skiing. This is a very popular pastime in Alaska because there’s so much open land, and there’s a lot of snow for much of the year.
Often, skiing is the fastest and easiest way to travel, so the culture adapted to promote skiing as a good pastime.Another example of cultural ecology has to do with food traditions. Each culture has its own beliefs and traditions about food. In India, for example, cows were necessary for survival because they were used as work animals. They pulled carts and ploughs that helped feed people and provide transportation. A popular Indian religion, Hinduism, developed the belief that cows were sacred and should not be eaten. This was a good way to ensure that people didn’t eat the animals that were necessary for their survival.
In America, though, horses were used for ploughing and travel. Not only that, but fully-grown cows ate a lot of food and took up a lot of land. As a result, Americans developed the belief that cows should be eaten as meat. Despite the fact that there are better protein sources that require less land, Americans still eat cow meat often because it is part of their culture.
Cultural geography examines the interaction between environment and human traditions. There are many ways to approach cultural geography. In the 19th century, environmental determinism, which said that the environment determines how a culture will develop, was popular. In the 20th century, this idea was replaced with environmental possibilism, which says that the environment places limits on humans, but that it is not the only determinant of how a culture will develop.
Cultural ecology, meanwhile, is the study of how people use culture to adapt to their environment. Since ecology is the study of how living things interact with their environment, cultural ecology looks at how cultures react to the limitations set on them by their environment.
Once you’ve completed this lesson, you’ll be able to:
- Define cultural geography and ecology
- Differentiate between environmental determinism and environmental possibilism
- Explain what cultural ecologists study