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Example 2: Environmental determinism

Environmental determinism, or the idea that the environment (including geography and climate) determines the character and attributes of cultural and ethnic groups, was historically used to justify Western colonisation.

In the article below, Matthew Kearnes critiques the theory of “environmental determinism” through a discussion of two well-known, twentieth-century texts. Specifically, he explores how racism is entangled with these determinist narratives.

Determinist trajectories

A particularly strong lineage that runs through the development of modernist environmental thinking is the theory of environmental determinism — the broad claim that environmental conditions determine the character and attributes of (geographically distinct) cultural and ethnic groups. While this deeply problematic theory has enjoyed a level of currency throughout Western philosophical and cultural history, it was particularly evident in the early part of the twentieth century, shaping the development of the modern disciplines of area studies, anthropology, geography and environmental studies.

Civilisation and Climate, a well-known text of this era by Ellsworth Huntington, is a particularly striking example of this genre of environmental thinking. First published in 1915 (and re-printed at least ten times), Huntington’s text opens with perhaps the clearest expression of environmental and climatic determinism, arguing that “the races of the earth are like trees. Each according to its kind brings forth the fruit known as civilisation” [1].

Have a quick browse through the early pages of Huntington’s work. What do you note about the chapter headings and themes of the book?

Huntington’s race theory is clear from the start. If different races can be distinguished by the sophistication of their culture and civilisation, it is a short step for Huntington to pose his central theory — that climatic conditions influence the cultural sophistication of different racial and ethnic groups. Perhaps predictably, racial groups residing in temperate climates appear rather positively in Huntington’s account, while in comparison the “denizens of the torrid zone are slow and backward, and we almost universally agree that this is connected with the damp, steady heat” [2].

Huntington’s climatic determinism is of course a thin veil for a virulent form of Euro-centric racism. It is important to note that Huntington’s theories of racial superiority are an expression of the emergence of fascist political movements in Europe and America (Huntington was a noted supporter of eugenics and wrote sympathetically about Hitler and the onset of German National Socialism) [3]. They point to a broader geopolitical discourse of Western colonialism that, in the words of Denis Cosgrove, “sought to base political and military strategy on what were regarded as enduring patterns of lands, seas, climates, and resources across the terrestrial sphere”. [4]

Huntington’s particular mode of reasoning, which seeks to establish the causal relations between environment and civilisation, is by no means unique to the disciplines of geography and environmental science. For example, Peder Anker, in his study of the development of the discipline of ecology — Imperial Ecology: Environmental Order in the British Empire, 1895–1945 — demonstrates that the consolidation of the ecology discipline coincided with the final years of the British empire. Anker focuses on two central figures — the British ecologist George Tansley and the South African Botanist, politician and advocate of racial segregation Jan Christian Smuts — each of whom deployed ecological thinking to “solve the empire’s environmental, social and racial problems” [5]. Smuts in particular developed an eco-philosophy he termed “holism” that influenced the development of botanical science in South Africa and the discipline of ecology more generally. For Smuts:

Every organism from the lowest microorganism to the highest mind represented a whole, and all these entities were connected into greater wholes, which in turn constituted the greatest whole. [6]

To this vaguely mystical conception of the unity of the natural world Smuts gave a distinctly political twist, arguing, in Anker’s words, that:

Human freedom is dependent on humans’ place in ‘the causal chain of Nature,’ which grants them ‘degrees of freedom’ according to the perfection of their respective whole. The organic process of selection caused this degree of freedom. To Smuts the mind is an organ of wholes with the ability to organize a social self and social environment, and an ability that results in ‘different levels of culture’ depending on the ‘level of mental culture’ and the holistic urge.[7]

In the same way that Huntington’s explicitly racist theory of environment sought to establish causal relations between climate and cultural sophistication and expression, in Smut’s ecological vision everything (both human and nonhuman) has a unique place in a greater whole. The danger for Smuts was when this order was disrupted, which prompted the projects of environmental conservation and racial segregation. In the words of Anker again,

[Smuts’] ecophilosophy served him as a glorification of white supremacy, with a division of society into high and low personalities, while still defending unification of South Africa, the British Empire, and ultimately the world through the League of Nations. [8]

One way of reading these connections is simply that they are an expression of the co-joined histories of colonialism and the modern environmental sciences. Might we conclude that the theories of environmental and climatic determinism simply sat alongside the colonial experience but did not add materially to it? Or might we find some comfort in the suggestion that the explicitly racist connotations of both theories were simply a by-product of the personal predilections of their chief proponents? Surely this mode of thinking isn’t evident in contemporary environmental politics and practice?

Of course, in reality the argument that the colonial race theory, ecological holism and environmental determinism were simply accidental bedfellows is a profound mis-reading of entangled histories of these projects.

A number of contemporary scholars have begun to identify what we might think of as a “climatic determinism” in the public discussion of global warming and climate change. This determinism is characterised by images of climate-induced warfare, conflict and migration.

– Matthew Kearnes


  1. Ellsworth Huntington, Civilisation and Climate (Honolulu: University Press of the Pacific, 2001 [1915]): 1.
  2. Ellsworth Huntington, Civilisation and Climate: 2.
  3. Jonathan Spiro, Defending the Master Race: Conservation, Eugenics, and the Legacy of Madison Grant (Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England, 2009).
  4. Denis Cosgrove, Apollo’s Eye: A Cartographic Genealogy of the Earth in the Western Imagination (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2001): 222.
  5. Peder Anker, Imperial Ecology: Environmental Order in the British Empire, 1895-1945 (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2001): 2.
  6. Peder Anker, Imperial Ecology: 71.
  7. Peder Anker, Imperial Ecology: 71.
  8. Peder Anker, Imperial Ecology: 75.

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