Environmental Determinism

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Environmental Determinism

Environmental determinism, also known as climatic determinism or geographical determinism, relies on an approach which implies that individuals are bound to their environmental settings, especially climate. These forms of physical geographies determine human behaviour,the existence of different forms of societies etc. This is defined by a stimulus-response reaction. [1]. It is very much related to behaviourism in the discipline of psychology, which in the 20th century became the basis of thought for the geographical approach called Behavioural Geography. The approach argues that causal mechanics for behaviour are to be found in the environment (Mitchell, 2000, p. 17). Therefore, all our behaviour is a result of some environmental determination or stimulus. Because of this determination, this approach does not allow for speculations, since stimuli of the environment cause certain reactions and behavioural responses, the human behaviour.

Example of environmental determinism

So environmental (climatic) determinism implies that a society is formed and determined by the physical environment, especially the climate. The climate influences the psychological mind-set of individuals which in turn then defines the behaviour and therefore also the culture of the society that those individuals form. For example, we all know the stereotype of Jamaicans with their relaxed, laid back and 'lazy' attitudes. Environmental determinists would argue that this has to do with the fact that Jamaica is based in a tropical climate. On the other hand, environmental determinists say that a climate which has a frequent variability in the weather, such as in the Netherlands, will lead to more determined and driven work ethics.


Environmental determinism rose to prominence in the late 19th century and early 20th century, partly through the work of human geographer Friedrich Ratzel. Ratzel collapsed society into nature through the concept of Lebensraum. Thus he argued that the concept of state was a natural link between people and environment (Mitchell, 2000, p. 18). Although environmental determinism is seen as a relatively new approach its origins go back to the ancient times. Aristotle climate classification system was used to explain why people were limited to living in certain areas due to the climatic conditions. Yet as mentioned above, the approach was rediscovered during the 20th century in the approach of Behavioural Geography, believing in determination and learning of behavior by exterior stimuli as well. Pratical applications can be found in Spatial Planning wherein project planning might be based on investigation of spatial perceptions (e.g. cognitive mapping) and respective behavioural responses.



Environmental determinism caused a lot of critique by those who could not agree with the determination component. Carl Sauer for instance stated in the early 20th century 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. This eventually resulted in a shift from environmental determinism to environmental possibilism (Briney, n.d.). Environmental possibilism leaves more space for the element of chance. Agency and the role of the subject which are central to the approaches of Action theory are completely neglected in Environmental determinism.


Briney, A. (n.d.). Environmental Determinism: The Controversal Topic.

Mitchell, D. (2000). Cultural geography: a critical introduction. Blackwell: Oxford.


Edited by --NielsVanLiessum 21:18, 8 September 2011 (UTC)

Enhanced by Janna Völpel, s3015041JannaVolpel 14:49, 7 May 2012 (CEST)

Edited and improved by Lars-Olof Haverkort --LarsHaverkort 16:35, 13 September 2012 (CEST)

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