Ellsworth Huntington Essay

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Ellsworth Huntington (1876 -1947 ), American geographer, was best known as the leading proponent of a school of thought commonly known as environmental determinism. Environmental determinism claimed that geographic controls and related environmental conditions dictated a predictable human response and, consequently, had a profound influence on the development of societies and the course of history. Professional scholars were critical of his work; nevertheless, his ideas had a certain force in the academic world. In addition, the sheer volume of these writings and their popularity with the public ensured a prominent place in the geographic and environmental intellectual milieu of the time.

Between 1897 and 1906, Huntington spent six years teaching, traveling, and exploring in Asia, where he conducted fieldwork in some of the most desolate and inhospitable deserts and mountains on the continent. He became convinced that the climate of Central Asia had become drier and that such desiccation had had a profound impact on the course of history and the development of civilization. These ideas formed the content of his first major book, The Pulse of Asia, published in 1907.

Huntington continued to develop his ideas that reached their pinnacle in 1924, in his work, Civilization and Climate. In his view, climate had not only impacted the course of history and civilization, it had also affected the character of societies and even individual human behaviors. He argued that civilization had moved from the salubrious climates of the subtropics like Egypt and Greece to the colder, but more “stimulating,” climates of northwestern Europe. The cyclonic storm systems of the midlatitudes affect northern Europe throughout the entire year but only affect the Mediterranean region in the cooler part of the year. In his view, these frequent changes of weather provided a psychological stimulus lacking in warmer climates where the weather was more monotonous.

Huntington’s last major work was Mainsprings of Civilization (1945), in which he argued that civilization derived from three principal pillars. These were genetic heritage, environmental situation, and cultural endowment. Critics came to question these three “pillars,” as well as the relationships among them. For example, the critics claimed that Huntington’s emphasis on heredity was, in reality, thinly veiled racism. His speculations about environmental cycles of various periodicities further compromised his credibility, especially as paleoclimatology matured. His work was dismissed for drawing too many conclusions from too few facts and for never letting contrary facts get in the way of his sweeping conjecture.

Huntington’s work remains important for a few reasons. Writing at the time that he did and, with the recent colonization of much of the world by European powers, his work sheds light onto the relationship between global political economy and the academic and ideological systems that often undergird them. In addition, the work serves as a reminder that strongly held convictions cloaked in scientific credentials can have a strong hold over the popular press and media, as well as circles of policy. Finally, Huntington’s work is a study in the dangerous elegance of simple arguments; environmental determinism maybe a discarded relic of the not-soremote intellectual past, but no one did it better or more convincingly.

Bibliography: 

  1. Ellsworth Huntington, Civilization and Climate, 3rd ed., (Yale University Press, 1924);
  2. Ellsworth Huntington, Mainsprings of Civilization (John Wiley & Sons, 1945);
  3. Ellsworth Huntington, The Pulse of Asia (Houghton, Mifflin, 1907);
  4. Geoffrey Martin, Ellsworth Huntington: His Life and Thought (Archon, 1973).

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