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The Role of Environment in History

Mises Daily: Wednesday, December 01, 2010 by

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[Excerpted from chapter 15 of Theory and History (1957). An audio version of this article, excerpted from the forthcoming audiobook version, read by John Pruden, is available as a free MP3 download.]

The Deluge by Gustave Dore

Environmentalism is the doctrine that explains historical changes as produced by the environment in which people are living. There are two varieties of this doctrine: the doctrine of physical or geographical environmentalism and the doctrine of social or cultural environmentalism.

The former doctrine asserts that the essential features of a people's civilization are brought about by geographical factors. The physical, geological, and climatic conditions and the flora and fauna of a region determine the thoughts and the actions of its inhabitants. In the most radical formulation of their thesis, anthropogeographical authors are eager to trace back all differences between races, nations, and civilizations to the operation of man's natural environment.

The inherent misconception of this interpretation is that it looks upon geography as an active and upon human action as a passive factor. However, the geographical environment is only one of the components of the situation in which man is placed by his birth, that makes him feel uneasy and causes him to employ his reason and his bodily forces to get rid of this uneasiness as best he may. Geography (nature) provides on the one hand a provocation to act and on the other hand both means that can be utilized in acting and insurmountable limits imposed upon the human striving for betterment. It provides a stimulus but not the response. Geography sets a task, but man has to solve it. Man lives in a definite geographical environment and is forced to adjust his action to the conditions of this environment. But the way in which he adjusts himself, the methods of his social, technological, and moral adaptation, are not determined by the external physical factors. The North American continent produced neither the civilization of the Indian aborigines nor that of the Americans of European extraction.

Human action is conscious reaction to the stimulus offered by the conditions under which man lives. As some of the components of the situation in which he lives and is called upon to act vary in different parts of the globe, there are also geographical differences in civilization. The wooden shoes of the Dutch fishermen would not be useful to the mountaineers of Switzerland. Fur coats are practical in Canada but less so in Tahiti.

The doctrine of social and cultural environmentalism merely stresses the fact that there is — necessarily — continuity in human civilization. The rising generation does not create a new civilization from the grass roots. It enters into the social and cultural milieu that the preceding generations have created. The individual is born at a definite date in history into a definite situation determined by geography, history, social institutions, mores, and ideologies. He has daily to face the alteration in the structure of this traditional surrounding effected by the actions of his contemporaries. He does not simply live in the world. He lives in a circumscribed spot. He is both furthered and hampered in his acting by all that is peculiar to this spot. But he is not determined by it.

The truth contained in environmentalism is the cognition that every individual lives at a definite epoch in a definite geographical space and acts under the conditions determined by this environment. The environment determines the situation but not the response. To the same situation different modes of reacting are thinkable and feasible. Which one the actors choose depends on their individuality.