Environmental Determinism and Cultural Ecology: Definitions, Relation & Adaptation

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  • 0:03 Cultural Geography
  • 1:08 Environmental Determinsim
  • 3:12 Cultural Ecology
  • 4:59 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

How do cultures develop? How does the environment influence culture? In this lesson, we'll examine some of the historical and contemporary approaches to those questions, including environmental determinism and cultural ecology.

Cultural Geography

Sandra is very interested in the environment and how people work within the environment. She's noticed some things that are very different about her friends from Hawaii and her friends from Alaska, and she thinks it might have to do with where they are from.

Cultural geography is the study of the impact of environment on tradition and vice versa. For example, Sandra's Hawaiian friends like to surf, and they wear jewelry made out of shells. These are Hawaiian traditions because Hawaii has great ocean waves for surfing and lots of shells.

But Sandra's friends from Alaska don't surf. They hike and do cross-country skiing, and they wear jewelry made of out gold. These are Alaskan traditions because Alaska has a lot of snow and gold.

In both cases, Sandra has noticed that the environment has influenced the traditions of the cultures. But how, exactly, does that happen? Let's look closer at two approaches to cultural geography: environmental determinism and cultural ecology.

Environmental Determinism

Sandra has noticed that her Hawaiian friends are very cool and relaxed. They say things like, 'Chill out!' and 'It'll be fine.' Sandra wishes she could be more like them and wonders how they got that way.

One idea about cultural geography that was popular in the 19th century is that of environmental determinism, which is the belief that the environment determines how a culture will develop. For example, with beautiful weather and lots of great surfing, the geography and climate could have a lot to do with how Hawaiian culture developed to be less stressed and more focused on enjoying life.

Here's the problem with environmental determinism, though: it says that the culture will always develop a specific way due to the environment. This was used a lot in the 19th century to justify imperialism and racism. For example, white European nations believed that people from warmer climates, like Africa, were lazier because they didn't have to work as hard to survive.

Of course, now we know that there are lazy people from all different places, but back then, environmental determinism was popular. In the first half of the 20th century, though, environmental determinism was replaced with environmental possibilism, which is the belief that the environment puts limits on people, but that it does not determine how they will behave.

A good example of environmental possibilism is what Sandra has observed with her Hawaiian friends. The environment in Hawaii makes it possible for people to be active and enjoy life. This, in turn, makes them less stressed out. Then, as the culture becomes known for being relaxed, it attracts more people who have a more relaxed personality. They move to Hawaii, and their children are likely to be like them, which makes the culture even more laid back. The environment has offered the possibility for the culture to be laid back, but it did not dictate that the culture would definitely be more relaxed. That came from people's decisions and reactions to their environment.

Cultural Ecology

Another way to approach cultural geography is related to environmental possibilism. Cultural ecology is the study of how people use culture to adapt to the environment.

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