Environmental determinism revisited

Photo by Nastya Dulhiier on Unsplash

Most people accept that Earth’s climate is changing. Many also readily accept that change is the direct result of human activity. What to do about it is the inevitable next question.

Part of the answer is a matter of daily debate. Most (but not all) of the problem is due to carbon dioxide, a long-lived greenhouse gas, which has altered atmospheric composition enough to interfere with the planet’s energy balance. Its principal artificial source is fossil fuel combustion.

Given how central coal, petroleum, and natural gas have been to modern industrialization it should be no surprise that economic emancipation from fossil carbon is the highest priority in all climate debates. With a number of countries and companies committing to pursuing carbon neutrality, it has now gone mainstream.

A less discussed, but increasingly urgent, part of the story is what people will have to do in their lives to adapt to the material changes brought by a changing climate.

Mean temperatures are already measurably higher than they were, on average, half a century ago. The dynamic behaviour of the atmosphere is following suit: weather patterns, annual and inter-annual climate variability are strongly dependent on the average conditions on the planet — as the latter change, the former respond.

The statistics of floods and droughts are changing measurably. Sea levels have begun to rise, as expected from the increased temperature. More is to come, as the biology and chemistry of the planet adjust to different temperature and moisture.

Material changes to our environment will warrant material changes to the way we live in it.

Part of what makes any systematic discussion of adaptation difficult is that planning for it may inadvertently undermine the case for action on reducing emissions: after all, it is the threat of substantial adaptation which ought to impel us to act to reduce them further. If we accept the need to adapt, it may dampen our willingness to address the root cause of the problem.

But that is not the only reason that discussions on adaptation are tricky. Having to adapt to change inevitably raises questions about the extent to which we, as a species and as individuals, have agency over our condition.

Most of us are used to thinking that our history is the product of ideas and beliefs, of human actions and decisions — not a consequence of the environmental conditions we face.

We readily accept that the ideological roots of the Glorious Revolution are to be found in a definition of sovereignty introduced by the likes of Hobbes and Locke. We also happily accept that the Ming’s collapse — more or less at the same time — had as its proximate cause an economic one, tied to fundamental shifts in the supply of silver. We have no problem accepting that it is ideas and economics that change our world.

But we struggle quite a bit more to accept that those events were all part of a generalized crisis, with suspiciously high correlation with the Maunder Minimum, a period of low sunspots that reduced the amount of energy reaching the planet from the sun, leading to particularly difficult climate conditions. The notion that a central driving force of the transformations of the seventeenth century may have been environmental is not a mainstream idea.

Many professional historians have written about this particular example, a long list of scholars that includes the likes of Geoffrey Parker and William Atwell. Arguably, the insight that environmental conditions are historically significant goes back at least to Emmanuel Roy Ladurie and even the great Marc Bloch.

But there again, professional historians are used to debating these sorts of issues. Indeed, from a materialist view of history, common to many academic historians, it does not take a gigantic leap to abandon Marx’s alienation from nature to embrace a definition of material conditions that extends beyond the means and modes of production to incorporate the environment.

However, mainstream history, the one learnt at school — the one that shapes our collective identity — resists the idea that a significant contributing driver of events is environmental condition.

A symptom of this is the charge of “environmental determinism,” typically used in a derogatory sense, towards those ideas that place geographical factors at the center of a causal chain of events. People like Jarred Diamond and Jeff Sachs have been amongst those accused of such determinism, because they point to geography and the environment as important contributing factors to significant historical events and economic conditions.

There are two reasons for this general resistance.

The first is that a certain type of environmental determinism has indeed a problematic, notorious political history. The basic reasoning goes as follows: if variation in the environment over time can explain human events, then why can’t variations in the environment over geography at any given time explain differences in human condition?

Such a line of thinking is innocuous when trying to explain why, say, Canadians are better at playing ice hockey than Egyptians: having an ice-rink in average Canadian climate conditions is quite a bit easier than maintaining one in the Egyptian desert.

The argument which limits itself to demonstrating that, because of their material conditions, Canadians have developed the practice of ice-hockey, and therefore a culture that embraces the sport, is an easily acceptable one. The argument clearly does not demonstrate that Egyptians couldn’t embrace the sport or even excel at it if they wanted and were given the opportunity.

But that is exactly how the argument has been used in the past. Its explanatory power has been over-interpreted— not by Diamond or Sachs it must be said, but by early geographers like Ellsworth Huntington or philosophers such as Montesquieu — to try and show that significant social conditions are primarily the result of environmental factors.

While sporting preferences may seem marginalia, the exact same argument has been applied to far higher order attributes of society. For example, the observation of endemic poverty in many tropical countries has led to racist explanations of the condition of poverty, and teleological arguments for the presumed superiority of imperialist countries that happened to develop in temperate zones.

So, this is one obvious reason why arguments that begin with geography tend to raise eyebrows: they are easily distorted beyond their reach for propaganda purposes. But there is also a second, important reason for the resistance to any form of environmental determinism, even those which avoid crude mistakes of over-interpretation.

All materialist explanations take away some agency from people, limiting the innately human aspiration of self-determination that is the foundation of western political philosophy. A deep tension exists between humanism and the notion that the environment plays any significant role in defining the evolution of our societies.

This second way in which environmental determinism is opposed, is philosophically understandable, but not entirely justified. After all, environmental changes, and climate changes in particular, exhibit coherence over large geographical areas: by their very nature they define material change at a scale that transcends the individual, encompassing instead a scale at which human agency must necessarily be collective if it is to be effective.

It is the agricultural system, not just the individual farm, that must adjust to changes in rainfall. It is the whole city, not the individual shopkeeper, that must prepare for flood. Environmental changes engage society as a collective agent.

Adaptation plans seem to be always couched in technocratic language. They describe levees, changes to agricultural practices, different forms of water management, in a positivist program of progressive improvement. They examine cost-benefits of each intervention, and couch their adoptions in terms of implementation plans.

But reducing the discussion to a set of technologies and technical interventions, as if the problem was individual adoption of measures, multiplied by the number of people, hides the fact that mass adoption of such approaches implies changes to institutions, to laws, and — ultimately — to culture. That societal change is politically salient.

That is not a bad thing, or at least it does not need to be. There is nothing intrinsically sinister about societal change. But if left unexamined, under-theorized, or undiscussed it can provide a dangerous vehicle for political distortion.

Policy makers and activists alike cannot escape the profound consequences of embracing plans for adaptation on a societal scale that, in effect, change our notions of self-determination and human agency.

I have written in a previous post that there is a lot to learn from the experience of the pandemic in this respect. The political legitimacy of the response to Covid-19 does not come simply from the technical literacy of its underlying plans. It also comes from the trust public health organizations have earned over decades, and from the institutional architecture that surrounds them. It is a response that rests on sophisticated political infrastructure.

If indeed the climate changes that we are going to experience in the coming years will force substantial changes to the behaviors and habits of communities — including the biggest transition in economic structure since the last industrial revolution — then we must surely accept that the social response to the environment is more than simply a technical problem.

Our polities will have to respond. The implications for the social and political contracts that bind us should be our most pressing concern.



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