Peet, R. 1985. The Social Origins of Environmental Determinism. Annals of the Association of Geographers 75: 309-33

Synopsis

The main argument in Richard Peet’s article “The Social Origins of Environmental Determinism” is that the science of society is closely related to Darwinism and Marxism, and to justify why Marxism dominates Darwinism in terms of defining social origins (social geography). Where Marx makes a comparison to provide a theoretical basis for scientifically comprehending relations between “nature, production, and society”, Darwin only generalizes environmental determinism “as its geographic version” to assume that nature was given a causal power that could not be “scientifically justified” (p. 309).  In fact, Social Darwinism has prevented geography from achieving a science of environmental relationships, for Social Darwinism was ideologically used to justify imperial capitalism only.

Peet states that the three elements of late-nineteenth-century society were the following: 1) imperialism as the urgent moment of sociopolitical necessity, 2) Social Darwinism as the compelling ideology of imperial capitalism, and 3) environmental determinism as the first version of modern geography (p. 309). Herbert Spencer, the godfather of modern geography, Ratzel and his student Semple, wildly advocated for Social Darwinist ideology, “… providing a naturalistic explanation of which societies were fittest in the imperial struggle for world domination” (p. 310).  For them, human behavior, and social and cultural values were determined by the environment humans live in. “Social evolution was conceptualized as a series of stages, with environmentally based racial characteristics determining which stage a society reached” (p. 318). They adopted Darwin’s theories of “Struggle for existence” and “Survival of the fittest” to support “hegemony of the capitalist” over the poor, which in Peet’s eyes Darwin’s Theory was only “a naturalistic explanation of which societies were fittest in the imperial struggle for the world domination” (p. 310).

For Peet, Marxism established a position of “an alternative perspective” that the structure of society and the cultural geography is determined by the human himself with “consciousness” (p. 326). Darwin’s religious and mystical oppression limited the potential liberation of consciousness while Marx proposes “the addition of a specific social dimension” which formed the “basis of society” (p. 326). For Peet, the important thing was that the level of consciousness man possesses enables him to “understand, control and destroy the nature” (329) and overhaul the environmental determinism over the human organism. Therefore, Peet asserts that adopting Marxism can better lead to achieving a science of environmental relation. 

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