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Environmental determinism is the theory that the physical environment, including the climate, sets hard limits on human society. Scholars and authors who subscribe to this theory, most notoriously Jeffrey Sachs and Jared Diamond (more on them later), argue that we can look to patterns of environmental change or geographical difference as a way to understand trajectories of human and social development and, by so doing, explain why some societies flourish while others languish in poverty or even collapse.
Tread carefully around such arguments.
It’s a compelling and seemingly intuitive argument but, like Social Darwinism for example, it is not the science it makes itself out to be. As geographer Dick Peet has described it, environmental determinism is not rigorous scholarship but rather the “ideology of an imperial capitalism.”
Environmental determinism plagued academic disciplines such as anthropology, economics and geography in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries where, according to the late geographer Neil Smith, it “had an obvious appeal as a kind of royal shortcut to human science.” Its adherents found success as the willing tools of empire happily explaining away the poverty and misery of imperialism (and its privileges) as a function of natural processes. Cold northern climates produce hardy and thrifty people who therefore flourish. Meanwhile, the unrelenting heat along the equator produces lazy people condemned to forever languish in patterns of poverty as predictable as the trade winds.
The theory lost its luster in the early to mid-twentieth century as decolonization scholars launched attack after attack. The intellectual backlash focused on geography, the discipline most closely associated with environmental determinism. Ivy league institutions in particular, embarrassed by such obvious associations with imperialism (they prefer their associations to be less transparent), dropped geography departments en masse. Chastened, the discipline back peddled, ashamed by geography’s enthusiastic service to imperialism.
The embarrassment meant that environmental determinism was largely ignored rather than buried, and as a result it has mounted a surprising comeback in recent years. Blame Sachs and Diamond for this. Sachs, while an economist at Harvard, repackaged old-fashioned environmental determinism as the “ecology of underdevelopment.” As he wrote in a 1999 article in The Economist, “If it were true that the poor were just like the rich but with less money,” he wrote, “the global situation would be vastly easier than it is. As it happens, the poor live in different ecological zones, face different health conditions and must overcome agronomic limitations that are very different from those of rich countries. Those differences, indeed, are often a fundamental cause of persisting poverty.”
Here Sachs, a key advisor to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, makes the crackpot but quintessential environmental determinist argument: the redistribution of wealth won’t resolve global inequality. Why? Because the geographical and unequal distribution of affluence and poverty is not a result of unequal power relations but rather is a function of complex geographic and climatic dynamics that have nothing whatsoever to do with histories of colonial conquest and capitalist expansion. The argument, of course, relies on a premise that ignores histories of conquest—what Karl Marx, in reference to colonialism, called primitive accumulation.
“In times long gone-by,” wrote Marx in Capital, Volume I, in a brilliant parody of determinist apologia, “there were two sorts of people; one, the diligent, intelligent, and, above all, frugal elite; the other, lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living…. Thus it came to pass that the former sort accumulated wealth, and the latter sort had at last nothing to sell except their own skins. And from this original sin dates the poverty of the great majority that, despite all its labor, has up to now nothing to sell but itself, and the wealth of the few that increases constantly although they have long ceased to work.”
For Marx, the unequal distribution of wealth was historically created in ruthless patterns of capitalist accumulation. In addition, as the quote above so sarcastically implies, the social relations that sustain this inequality require elaborate ideologies capable of explaining away plunder as the work of nature. Enter environmental determinism.
And so we get people like Sachs, who see “the poor” as an ecological category living far off in a strange land instead of, as Marx sees it, as a social relation. In Sachs’ world, the poor were always bound to be poor while the rich were bound to be rich.
Sachs was able to make this argument because Jared Diamond had more recently parlayed it into a Pulitzer prize in his 1997 book Guns, Germs and Steel. Here he argued that we need not look to histories of colonialism to understand “the Fates of Societies,” (his subtitle for the book), but rather we must focus on physical geography and climate if we hope to understand why the world is divided into rich and poor. In his hands Europe’s ability to subjugate and colonize Africa was merely an accident “of geography and biogeography—in particular to the continents’ different areas, axes, and suites of wild plant and animal species. This is, the different historical trajectories of Africa and Europe stem ultimately from differences in real estate” (p. 401).
In a funny way, Diamond is right. Though his glib reduction of the history of violent colonialism to mere “real estate” is meant to draw the reader’s attention away from history and toward nature, to the careful reader the reference does the opposite. Real estate is not a natural category. It is a thing of value only because it exists as private property. And property, of course, is all about the power to exclude, forever enforcing the unequal distribution of resources as a way to preserve class difference.
In a scathing review in the journal Antipode in 2003, a host of prominent human geographers pilloried Diamond’s work. Andrew Sluyter called it “junk science.” Paul Robbins, more kind than Sluyter, chided Diamond for harnessing “a thoughtful and fascinating body of evidence to an explanatory dead horse.”
But Robbins was just being clever. He knew full well that you can’t beat a dead horse. Academics attacked arguments such as those by Sachs and Diamond because the cruel logic of environmental determinism is, unfortunately, anything but dead. And, in a troubling development, it has found purchase recently among climate change scientists.
Environmental determinism, it seems, has found a new home. No longer housed in geography departments, it has taken up residence in geology, environmental science and earth science departments.
This new “scientific” version of climate determinism took center stage at last month’s annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. There researchers from West Virginia University described the results of recent tree ring data from Asia in which, they argued, a particularly wet period in the thirteenth century corresponded to the rise of Ghengis Khan and the spread of the Mongols. According to researchers, wet conditions would have been particularly advantageous to nomadic Mongol herders.
Well maybe, but more likely the rise of the Mongols had something to do with the enormous size of Khan’s army.
But no matter, apparently the past is littered with the wreckage of history’s climate victims. A host of recent studies have linked civilization collapse in Asia, South America and Africa to climate change. Just as in the past, we’d best tread carefully around such arguments.
For starters there may be a more useful correspondence to consider: the prevalence of claims by climate scientists of a link between climate and the collapse of past civilizations corresponds to the return of environmental determinist explanation in the mid-1990s. In 1995, around the same time that Diamond found success peddling his determinist snake oil, researchers reported in the prestigious journal Nature that population growth and drought was a likely cause of the demise of the Maya civilization. This work kicked off a cottage industry among climate scientists who suddenly found correspondences everywhere they looked: Mesopotamia, west Asia, Egypt, the Maghreb.
The recent raft of historical climate collapse stories are troubling for a number of reasons. First, what many of these studies refer to as “collapse” is in fact a slow population decline over a period of, often, hundreds of years. The “collapse” of the Maya occurred, for example, between 750 AD and 900 AD: hundreds of years of decline (what scientists mean by “decline”, by the way, is rarely defined in the scientific literature) that overlaps with a period of climate change. “Climate change,” like “collapse” also is frequently ill-defined; often these “abrupt” shifts in temperature and precipitation are, in fact, changes that occur over hundreds of years and millions of square miles. In the case of the Maya, the period of dramatic climate change occurred during a two-hundred year period between 800 AD and 1,000 AD—a period that marked the driest in the middle Holocene.
In addition, it should be noted that the increase in historical climate collapse research corresponds to the popularization of the wide acceptance of contemporary anthropogenic climate change research. Whether researchers are explicit or not, the rationale for historical work on the link between climate and collapse, particularly among funding agencies and the general public, has everything to do with the current climate crisis. These are the what’s-in-store-for-us stories peddled in the hope that it may galvanize a broad-based movement to interrupt current patterns of global greenhouse gas emissions.
There are two problems with this thinking. First, we may want to ask what kind of contemporary climate politics the rhetoric of collapse engenders. There is, no doubt, a real urgency to the problem posed by climate change. The climate is indeed changing and transforming in ways not conducive to humans and other beings. The idea of a climate catastrophism, however, so prevalent in the rhetoric of historical climate change research, displaces and defers this urgency. If our fate is apocalypse, after all, what good is grassroots organizing? Moreover, the false panic of apocalyptic rhetoric provides the rationale to ignore the current suffering of the marginalized and the disenfranchised. When we strip away the apocalyptic rhetoric, we can see that we are not all in this together. But apocalyptic rhetoric forecloses the possibility of radical democratic politics. It makes politics, in fact, impossible. In its place we are forced to entrust our futures to a non-democratic techno-managerial elite, to the apparatuses of state bureaucracies, to the military, and even to the corporations (Kyoto, for example) who profit from climate catastrophism.
As a result of this state of affairs, catastrophism research proliferates and finds purchase among a powerful minority who fear the potential of radical and democratic climate change struggle—particularly the possibility that it could challenge existing patterns of class and race privilege. And they can’t have that.
David Correia is an Assistant Professor of American Studies at the University of New Mexico.
This essay first appeared in La Jicarita: an Online Magazine of Environmental Politics in New Mexico (lajicarita.wordpress.com)