Does Environmental Determinism mean we’re destined to destroy the planet?

Why have some cultures over the course of history managed to create sustainable communities while others exploited the resources to maximum effect, branching out to new worlds as soon as they could?

The popularist Jared Diamond, and his rather more rascist predecessors such as Elsworth Huntington, have argued that climate and geography, and the resources (in crops and animals) that these provide, were the determining factors in limiting the development of certain societies. This boils down to the idea that the highly productive crops and very useful animals which were to be found around the fertile crescent in the middle east, and which spread to the rest of Eurasia, gave these societies a distinct advantage. This subsequently allowed them to conquer much of the rest of the world through the technology this advantage allowed them to develop (See Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond).

The theory of Environmental Determinism lost favour towards the middle of last century (for good reason, since it has historically been used to justify some pretty terrible colonial activities, and arguable still allows for retrospective justification in Diamond’s framing[1]). Instead, mainstream theory moved towards the idea that development of societies was more heavily influenced by culture and community interaction with their neighbours, rather than in fixed stages which could be accelerated through with the help of a favourable environment (see for example Frank Boas).

So how does this relate to my first post “We are hunters”? If we take the environmental determinists view, then as long as society has resources to exploit, it will do so to the greatest extent possible. We will continue to deplete our resources and pollute our atmosphere until the moon becomes economic to mine and living in Space seems like a good option (the Disney film Wall-E builds thought provoking narrative around this idea). Essentially, we have no motivation to change, and we won’t.

Diamond argues this is not the case, instead proposing that responsible exploitation can allow us a sustainable future. He cites examples such as Japan’s Shungong dynasty who banned deforestation, maintaining the environment. But as pointed out by J R McNeill[2] this was only possible due to their exploitation of minority communities within Japan (such as those on outer islands) and later in neighbouring countries through Japanese imperialism, as well as suppression of their own community through abortions and infanticide.  And looking at climatic environmental degradation, is it really likely that a profit driven oil company will suddenly stop drilling for oil on its own accord? And can we really expect nation states to agree on the level of emission reductions necessary to truly limit the impact of climate change, considering the effect such policies could have on their own economies?

But environmental pessimism won’t help. What if we instead take a Boasian view of societal development? Frank Boa suggested that culture plays a much more important role in how societies progress and develop. Perhaps by thinking of global development through the lens of a changing culture, rather than assuming that the human race is designed to consume, we can maintain some optimism in our future[3].

Maybe the answer to the Energy and Climate Change problem is not in developing “benign” technological solutions (if that is ever possible), but instead to work to develop our culture so that we no longer exist to exploit, but instead exist to sustain. Any ideas on how to do that without throwing away our freedom?

Further, better informed reading:

Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond

Guns Germs and Steel in TV documentary form:

Collapse, Jared Diamond

A very interesting paper which looks at how the climate change narrative is taking an environmentally deterministic view of adaptation.

[1] As one irate blogger summarised Diamond’s thesis: “There, but for the grace of geography, go I.”

[3] This clearly also has some implications on evolution, and what drives a species to continue, but I’m going to ignore this.


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