Log In Start studying!

Select your language

Suggested languages for you:
StudySmarter - The all-in-one study app.
4.8 • +11k Ratings
More than 3 Million Downloads

Environmental Determinism

Environmental Determinism

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, Hebert Spencer, StudySmarter.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.

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, Farm Laborers in Argentina Where The Climate Can Get Very Hot, StudySmarterFig 2. Farm Laborers in Argentina Where The Climate Can Get Very Hot.

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.

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, Palm Jumeirah in the United Arab Emirates is an Example of Possibilism, StudySmarterFig 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.

  • 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).

Frequently Asked Questions about Environmental Determinism

Environmental determinism is the idea that the physical environment influences and limits societal development.

The main idea of environmental determinism is that societies are determined by their natural environment.

Friedrich Ratzel introduced the term environmental determinism, although the ideas of environmental determinism can be seen being discussed by the Greeks. 

An example of environmental determinism is that countries located in hotter climates, such as along the tropics, are less developed because they are lazy due to the climate. Whereas, countries that have a more variable climate are more developed as they work harder.

Possibilism is more accepted than environmental determinism because it does not limit human behavior and actions, but instead suggests nature a variety of possibilities that society can utilize. 

Final Environmental Determinism Quiz


Fill in the name. ____ ____ first used the term environmental determinism.

Show answer


Friedrich Ratzel

Show question


Name the criticisms of environmental determinism.

Show answer


Critics suggest that environmental determinism is racist and enforces colonialism, Eurocentrism, and imperialism. 

Show question


True or False? Climatic determinism is when climate is the main factor that influences a population.

Show answer



Show question


True or False? Carl Ritter was a critic of environmental determinism. 

Show answer


False, Carl Sauer was a critic of environmental determinism.

Show question


What is the title of the book that mentions environmental determinism, written by Jared Diamond in 1997?

Show answer


Guns, Germs, and Steel

Show question


Fill in the missing blanks. The equatorial paradox is the idea that the closer a country is to the ____, the ____ it is because the natural environment is not suitable for ____ development.

Show answer


Equator, poorer, economic

Show question


True or False? The main difference between environmental determinism and environmental possibilism is that environmental possibilism believes society cannot overcome the physical attributes of the environment, whereas environmental determinism believes society can overcome the physical attributes of the environment.

Show answer


False, environmental possibilism is the theory that societies are not fully controlled or limited by their physical environments. Environmental determinism is the theory that societies are controlled and limited by their physical environments.

Show question


What is environmental determinism? 

Show answer


Environmental determinism is the idea that the natural environment controls and influences societies development.

Show question


What is environmental possibilism?

Show answer


Environmental possibilism is the idea that although the natural environments might cause limitations to societies, they can overcome and adapt to these limitations.

Show question


Fill in the blanks. One example of environmental determinism is that civilizations in ____ countries are lazy, whereas countries with varied ____ are much more developed. 

Show answer


Hot, climates

Show question


Why is possibilism more widely accepted than environmental determinism?

Show answer


Possibilism allows freedom of actions of societies, whereas environmental determinism suggests society is limited. 

Show question


of the users don't pass the Environmental Determinism quiz! Will you pass the quiz?

Start Quiz

Discover the right content for your subjects

No need to cheat if you have everything you need to succeed! Packed into one app!

Study Plan

Be perfectly prepared on time with an individual plan.


Test your knowledge with gamified quizzes.


Create and find flashcards in record time.


Create beautiful notes faster than ever before.

Study Sets

Have all your study materials in one place.


Upload unlimited documents and save them online.

Study Analytics

Identify your study strength and weaknesses.

Weekly Goals

Set individual study goals and earn points reaching them.

Smart Reminders

Stop procrastinating with our study reminders.


Earn points, unlock badges and level up while studying.

Magic Marker

Create flashcards in notes completely automatically.

Smart Formatting

Create the most beautiful study materials using our templates.

Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.

Get FREE ACCESS to all of our study material, tailor-made!

Over 10 million students from across the world are already learning smarter.

Get Started for Free