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In this lesson, we will discuss the theory of environmental determinism and its argument for the effect the environment has on the human behavior and social development. Following this, you’ll be able to test your knowledge with a quiz.

Environmental Determinism Defined

Have you ever heard of the phrase ‘island time?’ This is sometimes used to describe the slow and carefree mentality of the cultures located in the tropical island regions. In comparison to a fast-paced metropolis, such as New York or Los Angeles, the idea of time and commitment is not as pertinent.

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What do you think caused such a huge difference in mentality? Is it the culture or perhaps is it the physical environment?Environmental determinism would go with the latter when faced with this scenario. The reason is that environmental determinism, also known as climatic determinism or geographical determinism, is the belief that a physical environment affects social and cultural development.

The Theory

The theory of environmental determinism dates back to the 15th century. Plato and Aristotle believed that the climate contributed to the Greeks being highly developed early on, as compared to other civilizations in hotter or colder climates. The Greek geographer, Strabo, also had similar ideas and wrote about climate affecting the development of human beings at the physiological level. This concept was developed further later on and proposed the idea that environmental factors were the origin of different skin colors.

In modern times, environmental determinism rose to popularity during the 19th and 20th centuries. Following Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, German geographer Friedrich Rätzel proposed that evolutionary biology and our environment play the most prominent role in our development as a species. This ideology eventually spread to the United States and remained popular there until the 1940s, when it was accused of supporting racism and imperialism.

Contributions to Culture

The theory of environmental determinism as human development’s sole contributor has been mostly abandoned.

However, it did play a large role in geographic history and helped us understand that the environment sets certain limitations that can affect a culture. To explore this further, let’s take a look at a couple different examples.The cultures of the Arctic region are very unique. A group of people called the Inuit inhabit the land just north of the Arctic Circle. Due to their frigid environment, they rely primarily on hunting local wildlife. This is because the ground is frozen all year round which prevents them from developing agriculture.

Additionally, the temperatures are so low that they have incorporated the use of fur into most of their clothing. These are examples of cultural elements inspired by environmental factors. These cultural traits developed over time to help ensure the group’s survival.Let’s switch gears now to consider the relationship between the environment and the economy.

In northern California, Oregon, and Washington state (also known as the Pacific Northwest), there was a thriving Chinook salmon industry that provided thousands of jobs in the area. This industry developed over the span of a century. As a result, a strong maritime culture structured around fishing and processing could be found in that region. In 2008, there was an inexplicable drop in the presence of Chinook salmon causing a dramatic impact on local economies. This is an excellent example of how the environment can inspire not only cultural traits but also affect economic systems.

Lesson Summary

Let’s review.

Environmental determinism is the belief that the physical environment affects social and cultural development. This school of thought can be traced back to ancient Greek times but did not become popular in the United States until the 1940s. Eventually, the idea that the environment was the only contributing factor to social development was dismissed as being racist and imperialist. However, the notion did play an important role in geographic history because it taught us that the environment can have an impact on culture and human development.

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