Environmental Determinism Essay

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The Average Swede will live 80 years while the average person in Malawi will live half as long. Why do Scandinavians live longer than residents of Malawi by a factor of two? A proximal reason is that European countries have more productive economies, higher incomes and better healthcare, which all contribute to increased longevity.

The more complex task is to explain why some countries are rich and others poor in the first place. Recently, scholars have reprised a “geography is destiny” argument that concludes that the natural environment ultimately determine a region’s eventual level of economic prosperity. This essay explores the 19th century origins of environmental determinism as an explanation for 21st century socio-economic disparities.

Environmental determinism attributes economic inequalities to natural laws, and the uneven distribution of land and temperate climates. The notion that some countries have natural advantages over others is ascribed to German geographer Friedrich Ratzel, who was influenced by the concept of social Darwinism. British philosopher Herbert Spencer promoted social Darwinism as an altered interpretation of the theory of evolution, which Charles Darwin outlined in his 1859 book Origin of the Species (Livingstone 1992). Hence, this essay first explores Darwin’s theory of evolution as the inspiration for social Darwinism, which in turn will be explained as the theoretical precursor to environmental determinism.

Social Darwinism as Precursor

Darwin argued that species evolve over generations through the natural selection of physical traits and competition between species for scarce resources. Organisms undergo spontaneous genetic mutations that might, for example, enhance their ability to compete for food. Better nutrition will improve the chances an organism has to reproduce and transmit the improved trait to future generations. A mutation that hinders the animal’s ability to compete will likely not be “naturally selected” for future generations because the animal will not survive long enough to reproduce.

Darwin’s emphasis on biological competition inspired Herbert Spencer to promote “social Darwinism” as a socio-political counterpart to British economic philosophy. In 1776, Adam Smith outlined the philosophical foundation for Britain’s unrivalled 19th century economic prosperity. He argued in Wealth of Nations that capitalism worked best when guided by the “invisible hand” of a marketplace comprised of individual buyers and sellers acting out of “enlightened self-interest.” The state should stay out of the marketplace so that it does not disrupt the natural competition between individuals needed for a healthy market. Seen in this light, social Darwinism appears to be a natural theoretical extension of Smith’s “invisible hand” and Darwin’s “natural selection.”

British economist David Ricardo extended the notion of competition between individuals to explain trade relations between nation-states. Writing in 1817, Ricardo articulated a theory of comparative advantage that justified why countries should eliminate governmental barriers to trade. Countries should instead engage in free trade, even if one trading partner is more productive and technologically advanced than the other. Thus both Adam Smith and David Ricardo promoted laissez-faire or “leave us alone” capitalism that emphasizes free markets devoid of government interference.

Herbert Spencer wanted to develop a political theory to complement laissez-faire economic theories. Spencer borrowed from Darwin’s theory of evolution, based as it was on biological competition, to argue that society was a competition between individuals for scarce resources such as income and political power. As in any competition, there is going to be winners and losers. Society should accept social inequality as a natural outcome of a process he was the first to describe as “the survival of the fittest.”

By framing social inequality as a natural process, Spencer could use the scientific trappings of Darwinism to argue against government intervention to help society. The implication is that people succeed or fail entirely because of their own hard work or personal failings. Congenital infirmity, gender, or class origins can be conveniently overlooked as factors contributing to one’s social status. This rhetoric ultimately served to maintain the status quo conditions of social inequality expressed through class, gender and racial divisions. The rhetoric of “naturalized” competition between individuals was extended to explain success and failure in the business world. Industrialist John D. Rockefeller cited “survival of the fittest” to explain the economic success of Standard Oil during the Gilded Age of late 19th century America.

Importance of Geography

Environmental Determinism can be simply defined as the territorial manifestation of social Darwinism. Herbert Spencer made the biological analogy that society is a living organism governed by natural laws. Friedrich Ratzel went one step further to argue in his 1897 book Political Geography that nation-states were analogous to living organisms. Like any organism, a healthy nation-state could expect its population to grow as long as it had access to adequate natural resources and room to expand. When territorial or resource limits are reached, Ratzel argued that a country must expand its lebensraum, or “living space,” to survive. The finite supply of land means that countries must compete with each other for territorial supremacy. As with any competition, there will inevitably be winners and losers, with “higher forms of civilization [expanding] at the expense of the other.”

Ratzel echoes Spencer to imply that when one country expands at the expense of another, it is nothing more than a spatial expression of “survival of the fittest.” Territorial realignments resulting from interstate rivalries and wars are “environmentally determined” by natural laws akin to natural selection.

Environmental determinism is geopolitically significant because it allowed Europeans to justify colonial and imperial land grabs as merely being the outcome of objective natural laws. This excused them from viewing colonialism and imperialism through the moral lens of Judeo-Christian values. Instead, they could see their actions through the amoral lens of the marketplace, where natural or environment laws determine social and regional inequalities. From this perspective, the question of why some countries are rich while others are very poor is beside the point because inequalities result from natural laws.


  1. John Agnew, David Livingstone and Alisdair Rogers, Human Geography: An Essential Anthology (Blackwell Books, 1999);
  2. James Blaut, The Colonizers Model of the World (Guilford Press, 1992);
  3. Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (Norton, 1997);
  4. Richard Hofstader, Social Darwinism in American Thought (Beacon Press, 1992);
  5. David Landes, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are so Rich and Some Are so Poor (Norton, 1999);
  6. David Livingstone, The Geographical Tradition: Episodes in the History of a Contested Enterprise. (Blackwell, 1992);
  7. Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2001); Christopher Merrett, “Debating Destiny: Nihilism or Hope in Guns, Germs, and Steel,” Antipode (35 (4));
  8. Kevin Phillips, The Politics of Rich and Poor: Wealth and the American Electorate in the Reagan Aftermath (Harper Perennial, 1999);
  9. Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (Simon and Schuster, 2000).

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