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Environmental Determinism and Possibilism:

Historical Background:

It is the doctrine that human activities are controlled by environment. This belief has deep roots in ancient history. For example, Hippocrates linked the characteristics of people in a particular place to the influence of environmental factors such as terrain, altitude and humidity. Similarly Aristotle also said that the world’s climatic zones determined global habitability. Later on, Montesquien in his book, ”The Spirits of the Laws”(1748), disclosed that how climatic conditions governed both degeneration and persistence of cultural traits. Later on, several other writers, sociologist, ethnologist and scientists also highlighted a strong link between environment and the habits of people. For example victor Cousin Said:

“Give me the map of a country and i pledge myself to tell you, a priori, what the mean of that country will be and what part that country will play in history not by accident but by necessity.” Similarly, A.R Wallace, Sir John Lubbock and A.H. Keane also emphasized the role of environment in shaping racial achievement. Ellen C. Semple in her book titled “Influences of Geographic Environment” and Ellsworth Huntington in his writings on climate and civilization explained influence of environment on civilizations.

Thus majority of writers agreed that environment determines man’s needs. Darwin’s theory also emphasized relationship between man and nature. Determinism highlights the dominant influence of physical forces in shaping man’s characteristics and his modes of life and thought. The habitat forces mode of life on the people. This doctrine was developed by Ratzel and then Huntington further explained it.


Possibilism is a doctrine which claims that the human beings have the capacity to choose between a range of possible responses to physical conditioning (environment). A French geographer, Vidal de la Blache first put forward this concept. Later on, a historian Lucien Febvre emphasized it. Possiblism is opposite to environmental determinism. According to possibilism, there are no necessities but everywhere possibilities and man as master of the possibilities is the judge of their use. Thus man and no longer the earth nor the influence of climate nor the determinant conditions of localities, has the upper hand. As such, according to possiblism the pattern of the human activity is the result of the initiative and mobility of man operating within natural framework.

According to Blij, ”Possibilism emerged, made up of geographers who argued that the natural environment’s role amounts to no more than to limit the range of choices available to a culture. Thus, the natural environment is viewed as affording opportunities rather than imposing limitation. The choices that a society makes depend on teh people’s requirements and the technology available to them. One obvious conclusion is that the degree of influence of the natural environment declines with increasing modernization and technological sophistication”.

For example, we can face cold and hot climate by using gas heated houses and airconditioners. Thus humans have the capacity to modify or transform their environments. However, in regions where the environment is not favourable there the choice of man becomes limited.

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