Environmentalism and Eurocentrism

By Blaut, James M. | The Geographical Review, July 1999 | Go to article overview

Environmentalism and Eurocentrism


Blaut, James M., The Geographical Review


ABSTRACT. Environmental determinism has served to validate a Eurocentric world history for several centuries, and it continues to do so today. This essay looks briefly at the historical marriage between environmental determinism and Eurocentric history, then develops a detailed critique of the environmental determinism put forward in two recent world-history books: Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997) and David Landes's The Wealth and Poverty of Nations (1998). Keywords: Jared Diamond, environmentalism, Eurocentrism, David Landes.

Most geographers think of the theory of environmental determinism as a musty, fusty relic of the past. But most geographers do not pay much attention to the bestseller lists. Jared Diamond's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (1997), argues that the natural environment, unmediated by culture, explains all of the main trends in human history and accounts for Europe's rise and triumph. Another new and popular book on world history, David Landes's The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are so Rich and Some so Poor (1998), argues that Europe has been more progressive than have all other civilizations for thousands of years and that the superiority of Europe's natural environment is a major part of the explanation. Landes's book was favorably reviewed in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the Washington Post before it even arrived in bookstores. So the old theory of environmental determinism is alive and thriving, not in geography but in history.

The environmentalistic arguments advanced by Diamond and Landes need to be looked at critically, and I will do so in this essay.[1] It also merits asking why these arguments -- most of them very traditional -- are, today, the stuff of best-selling books. The answer lies in the long-standing and happy marriage between environmentalism and Eurocentrism. It was a marriage, so to speak, made in heaven. In the days of Ritter, and before him Montesquieu and Herder, most European intellectuals took it for granted that a Christian god would favor his own people, Christian Europeans, providing them with racial, cultural, and environmental superiority over all others (Ritter 1865; Montesquieu 1949; Herder 1968). Environmental determinism in those days was not seen as atheism and materialism: It was simply one of God's strategies. Later, overtly religious explanations became unpopular, and Europe's (or the West's) superiority was attributed mainly to race and environment, held jointly to have created a uniquely progressive culture. Now racism has been rejected, and Eurocentric history stands on just the two legs: environment and culture. But culture itself is problematic. If there is no appeal to underlying religious or racial causes, can it be argued convincingly that Europe, long ago, somehow acquired cultural qualities that led it to develop faster and farther than every other society? It is conventional to argue this way, but we notice that historians cannot agree among themselves as to whether the causes of Europe's (supposed) precocity are mental, social, economic, technological, or something else -- within culture. Therefore, Eurocentric history needs environmental determinism as much today as ever it did before, and so the doctrine remains influential and popular.

I have had occasion to look at a fair number of Eurocentric interpretations of world history, from the time of Max Weber down to the present, and nearly all of them make some use of environmentalistic arguments for Europe's historical superiority or priority. There is nothing wrong with an argument that (validly) shows how some environmental quality was useful to Europeans and helped in their development. The argument becomes environmentalistic if it either claims that an environmental quality existed in Europe when it did not exist there, or claims that an environmental quality was an important cause of European progress when the truly important causes were cultural, or -- most crucially -- makes a false comparison with the environments of other places and then proclaims that the differences between European and non-European environments explain, or help to explain, the differential rise of Europe.

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