Sustainability  Opinion 

Nature or Culture

Against Environmental Determinism

Felipe Fernández-Armesto 

Shibam, Yemen

Environment always clings to culture, conditioning people’s responses, limiting their potential, stimulating their inventiveness. It seems reasonable to suppose that in the early stages of cultural divergence environment drove innovation, as human communities left their homelands to traverse or colonize unfamiliar habitats. There is, however, no predictable correspondence between culture and environment. 

Years ago, when I worked as Professor of Environmental History in the University of London, I attempted a big thought experiment, trying to envisage what the history of the world would look like if one appoached it environmentally, biome by biome, rather than – as historians traditionally do – civilization by civilization, or region by region, or country by country. One of the most striking results was that, where human communities occupy identical or nearly identical environments, they respond in dazzlingly different ways, devising contrasting solutions to common problems of coping with the same resources, climate, topography, hydrography, diseases, and soil.

In the wastes of the Saharan Fezzan, the ancient Garamantes built cities and underground canals, whereas the Dawada clung to surface oases and fed on the plankton they dredged from the water. In medieval Greenland, Norse colonists attempted a daring and ultimately unsuccessful project to modify the environment for farming, whereas the Thule practised traditional foraging. In Mesoamerican seasonal rain forests, city Maya and forest Maya led contrasting, mutually baffling ways of life.

These examples can be multiplied almost indefinitely from the lessons of modern life. Farmers of German descent in Freiburg, Pennsylvania, operate different inheritance patterns from Yankee neighbours on identical soil in an identical environment a few miles away. In the Upper Amazon, the Jívaro protect their traditional way of life by keeping outsiders at bay with ferocious violence, while the Nukak avoid conflict by minimizing contact. In adjoining quaters of every big, modern, Western city you can find people transposing ways of life from distant environments almost without modification, and pass, say, from Little China to Little Italy across the width of a single street. Political frontiers, flanked by constrasting institutions and customs, cut through otherwise uniform deserts, forests, valleys, and ridges all over the world. This does not mean that cultures are uninfluenced by their physical surroundings and the eco-systems of which they form part. On the contrary, there are plenty of examples of such influence on record. But there is no reason to privilege environment as the supreme determinant. As we have seen, culture and environment interact mutually transforming effects.

This text is part of A Foot In the River. Why Our Lives Change – and the Limits of Evolution (Oxford U. Press, 2016).  

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