Just finished John Brooke’s Climate Change and the Course of Global History: A Rough Journey (Cambridge University Press, 2014). If nothing else, the book is a remarkable achievement with respect to the breadth and depth of literature and ideas brought to bear, including history, geography, geology, anthropology, economics, climatology, ecology, and archaeology. Brooke also makes a compelling case for a significant role for environmental change in general, and climate change in particular, in influencing human affairs and history (and, of course, vice-versa).
Brooks does not ignore, or even downplay, effects of culture, politics, power and social relations, economics, and technology. Yet he will almost certainly be accused, if not already, of being an environmental determinist. Environmental or geographical determinism is a set of ideas positing that physical geography is a (and in its extreme forms, the) major factor in determining human culture and societal development. Environmental determinist is used a perjorative in academic circles. Late 19th and early 20th century environmental determinism was used to support and justify racism and imperialism. This, plus its inherent scientific/intellectual flaws (some unique to ED, some shared by any explanatory frameworks that claim that it’s all about one set of factors), caused ED to not only fall out of favor, but to become a put-down applied to anyone or anything suggesting a major role for environmental and geographic factors in the course of human affairs.
Few (hopefully, no one) would deny that the physical environment poses both opportunities/advantages and constraints/disadvantages for various human affairs and activities in different locations and situations. Few would argue (and as far as I know, no scholar has in the late 20th and early 21st century has) that environmental factors influence humans independently of society, culture, politics, economics, and individual actions and decisions. Some human phenomena are very strongly influenced by physical geography; some hardly at all.
ED was practiced and espoused by anthropologists and economists, but most of all by geographers. The rejection of ED and the (understandable) revulsion toward its racist/imperialist past have caused some geographers to swing too far in the other direction—to seriously underestimate the role of the environment in some cases. Even more commonly, the tendency is to label scholars who choose to focus on environmental or geographic factors as environmental determinists and thereby dismiss their work as clueless, racist, or both (see, e.g., the vitriol aimed at Jared Diamond).
Arguments that projects such as Brooks’ do not do full justice to non-environmental factors are true enough, I suppose. But equally true are arguments that the work of, e.g., political ecologists, political economists, feminists, geneticists, etc. does not do full justice to factors other than their primary focus. Except perhaps for work of a very limited geographical and historical scope, I doubt that anyone can do full justice to all relevant explanatory factors. Yet few are ever accused of being political, genetic, or gender determinists.
I close with two points:
It is never “all about” anything. Whether we are dealing with the human condition, physical landscapes, ecosystems, or anything else, no single (set of) factors—climate, geology, topography, economics, politics, culture, etc.—tells the whole story and explains all that needs explaining.
Geography matters. Human survival and well-being affects, and is affected by, the non-human environment. Location, both absolute and relative, confers advantages and disadvantages. Natural resources provide the capital that underlie economies. As much as we might like to think that the human spirit and ingenuity can negate these facts, they can’t. And as much as we might like to place all the on blame humans and our institutions when things go wrong, (because we can potentially fix these, while we cannot fix insolation or tsunamis), we can’t always do so.