This article will help you to understand the three major concepts used to explain the nature of the relationship and interrelationship between man and the Environment.
Essentially, the concept of environmental determinism was developed as a general theoretical framework to explain the pattern of human activities on the earth’s surface. That is, the way human activities are arranged and how they vary in space.
The essence of determinism is that every effect has a cause, and as far as human activities and human behaviour are concerned, all first causes lie in the physical Environment.
In other words, the concept of environmental determinism poses or regards the physical environment as the primary determinant of human behaviour and human activities.
Three components of the physical environment were particularly singled out in this regard as the principal factors. These include topography, climate, and soil.
The doctrine or concept of environmental determinism is an idea among geographers and is usually traced to Ratzel, but the widespread adoption of the concept is primarily associated with the three of the Ratzel disciples -Semple, Hunting Tin, and Demolins.
These three popularized the case of this concept in the field of geography. In the early time, the concept was largely abused because scholars tried to explain variations in human character, human behaviour, and human physique in terms of the physical environment.
For instance, Aristotle regards the inhabitants of the colder countries of Europe as brave, but lacking in thought, technical skills, and political organization.
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The Asiatic people were seen by him as thoughtful and skillful but without spirit. The Greeks who occupy the region in-between Europe and Asia were seen by him as combining the best qualities of both.
Many other scholars made such sweeping generalizations in the name of environmental determinism.
The common factor in most of these works is that their primary concern was to understand the variation in human nature and given these objectives, the earth as such is not their focus of interest except where it shed some light on some possible reasons for human variations.
Their approach was therefore not systematic and their conclusion was not consistent. Each scholar drew a conclusion based on personal experience and imagination (This conclusion was not based on scientific procedure).
It became clear later or subsequently that the physical environment cannot be as important as the early proponent of the concept of determinism would have us to believe.
In their thinking, the man was seen as a Passive agent in the man-environment system. That is, the environment was seen as a dictator.
In other words, the man was not seen as an active agent of geographic change. This position can be faulted on many grounds. The first is that a similar environment would not necessarily evoke the same response from the man. This means that the environment is not dictatorial. That man has a say in the choice of activities.
Even human physique and physical types vary in the same geographic settings. In other words, different human types and different activities are not generally found in the same environment.
Secondly, that man- environment relationship is reciprocal; a kind of two-way relationship. The interaction between man and the environment is intricate, and it is sometimes difficult to know when the influence of one seizes and the other begins.
It is difficult to demarcate. It is therefore impossible to stick one’s neck out that the environment is the most important factor.
Thirdly, man’s impact on the environment is not temporary or transitory but permanent for cities and most other forms of human settlements are permanent features of the landscape and their impact on local climatic conditions, local vegetation, patterns, local soil properties, and local hydrology are more or less permanent.
Fourthly, man’s decisions and tastes are becoming increasingly important in determining the pattern of agriculture, industrial location, and production.
Government policy and tariffs on the location of an industrial estate, tax concession, and so on can create a spatial pattern of industries completely out of harmony with environmental factors.
The fifth ground is that environmental factors by themselves can hardly provide an adequate explanation of the distribution of population. Invest which is a human factor is becoming more and more important in this regard.
There is also the factor of culture and technology. These can insult man from the direct impact of the environment, that is, through technology, man can protect himself by modifying the environmental dictates.
Also, like irrigation, man has been able to extend the frontiers of cultivation and human settlement. Air condition makes life comfortable in a desert environment.
Finally, towns site or the location of settlements, in general, are increasingly negating dictates of the natural environment. The migration of settlements to new roads, and the creation of new cities or national capitals are cases in point and examples of negating dictates of the environment.
All these other weaknesses in the concept of environmental determinism led to the development of a new concept relating to the influence of the environment on man.
One of the new concepts to take into account some of these shortcomings is the concept of possibilism.
Essentially, this concept of possibilism maintains the position that the environment offers mall a number of alternative options from which he can choose; that within the possibility, a man tries to find which one suits him most.
This concept accepts the fact that man is an active agent of geographic change.
Possibilism does not say that environmental factors are not important; but that environmental factors only set the broad limit within which man can find choice among alternative options.
Possibilism emphasizes the scope of man’s freedom of action rather than the limit set by the physical environment.
The core or essence of the possibilism philosophy is that nature is not mandatory but permissive.
It is more of an adviser than a dictator. The environment; offers a lot of opportunities from which man is free to choose. However, the environment places a limit on the number of these options and opportunities.
The limit set by the Environment varies on human activities, as well as in terms of time and space.
In marginal environments (swamp, desert, ice-cap, and fairly difficult environment), the opportunities and options are very restricted. That is taking the world as it is today, opportunities are better in the humid environment than in the desert or arid area. This is in terms of spatial dimension.
Talking about the time dimension, in the past, these opportunities and options were more limited than now, owing to the low level of cultural and technological development.
It is true today that in primitive societies, options and opportunities are limited. Certain factors are limiting the range of possibilism of options in any given area.
In this regard, the possibilism emphasizes the inhibiting power of custom, belief, habit, and prejudices. All of these places artificer on the extent to which man can utilize or fully exploit the potentialities of his environment.
That is the environment still places a kind of limitation on the choice of opportunities available to man in his environment despite the technological attainment.
The range of options can be limited by the price man is willing to pay. For instance, changing economic circumstances along with some technological development can lead to the exploitation of economic resources that could otherwise be very costly to exploit e.g. In the North Sea, when the price is very low for crude oil, it is not economic to exploit oil but when the price of oil is high, it becomes economic to prospect oil in the North Sea.
Finally, the level of technology is another important factor that can limit the range of options available to man in an area.
Technological development can lead to the discovery of new resources, the exploitation of hitherto inaccessible resources, or the development of new uses from existing resources. E.g. Livestock is formerly used as a beast of burden, later it is used for milk and skin, etc.
The collective effect of all these factors is the broadening of the resource base of an area. Some authors identified the shortcomings of the concept of possibilism and these shortcomings have to do with the fact that possibilism implicitly assigned the same probability of adoption to alternative options available to man.
That is, each of these adoptions is equally good and equally attractive to man, and that the options are not equally good, there are more attractive than others.
One of the criticisms is that all options or alternatives are not equally good. Some of the options are better than others. This means that the probability of adoption is not all the same for all the options. It is based on this that the concept of probabilism was formulated.
Essentially, possibilism and probabilism are not the same but are very close.
Probabilism argues or admits that it is possible that man has a choice and some are more likely to be adopted than others.
We know therefore that the move from determinism to probabilism represents a retreat from an ideal situation to one in which determinate solutions are available for all problems to a recognition that the total of man’s environment is far too complex for a determinate answer to be detected in all cases.
This move from determinism to probabilism is one of the main reasons why the development of statistical techniques have become important in geography in recent times.