Climate Change Catastrophism: the New Environmental Determinism


Environmental determinism is the theory that the physical environment, including the climate, sets hard limits on human society. Scholars and authors who subscribe to this theory, most notoriously Jeffrey Sachs and Jared Diamond (more on them later), argue that we can look to patterns of environmental change or geographical difference as a way to understand trajectories of human and social development and, by so doing, explain why some societies flourish while others languish in poverty or even collapse.

Tread carefully around such arguments.

It’s a compelling and seemingly intuitive argument but, like Social Darwinism for example, it is not the science it makes itself out to be. As geographer Dick Peet has described it, environmental determinism is not rigorous scholarship but rather the “ideology of an imperial capitalism.”

Environmental determinism plagued academic disciplines such as anthropology, economics and geography in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries where, according to the late geographer Neil Smith, it “had an obvious appeal as a kind of royal shortcut to human science.” Its adherents found success as the willing tools of empire happily explaining away the poverty and misery of imperialism (and its privileges) as a function of natural processes. Cold northern climates produce hardy and thrifty people who therefore flourish. Meanwhile, the unrelenting heat along the equator produces lazy people condemned to forever languish in patterns of poverty as predictable as the trade winds.

The theory lost its luster in the early to mid-twentieth century as decolonization scholars launched attack after attack. The intellectual backlash focused on geography, the discipline most closely associated with environmental determinism. Ivy league institutions in particular, embarrassed by such obvious associations with imperialism (they prefer their associations to be less transparent), dropped geography departments en masse. Chastened, the discipline back peddled, ashamed by geography’s enthusiastic service to imperialism.

The embarrassment meant that environmental determinism was largely ignored rather than buried, and as a result it has mounted a surprising comeback in recent years. Blame Sachs and Diamond for this. Sachs, while an economist at Harvard, repackaged old-fashioned environmental determinism as the “ecology of underdevelopment.”  As he wrote in a 1999 article in The Economist, “If it were true that the poor were just like the rich but with less money,” he wrote, “the global situation would be vastly easier than it is. As it happens, the poor live in different ecological zones, face different health conditions and must overcome agronomic limitations that are very different from those of rich countries. Those differences, indeed, are often a fundamental cause of persisting poverty.”

Here Sachs, a key advisor to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, makes the crackpot but quintessential environmental determinist argument: the redistribution of wealth won’t resolve global inequality. Why? Because the geographical and unequal distribution of affluence and poverty is not a result of unequal power relations but rather is a function of complex geographic and climatic dynamics that have nothing whatsoever to do with histories of colonial conquest and capitalist expansion. The argument, of course, relies on a premise that ignores histories of conquest—what Karl Marx, in reference to colonialism, called primitive accumulation.

“In times long gone-by,” wrote Marx in Capital, Volume I, in a brilliant parody of determinist apologia, “there were two sorts of people; one, the diligent, intelligent, and, above all, frugal elite; the other, lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living…. Thus it came to pass that the former sort accumulated wealth, and the latter sort had at last nothing to sell except their own skins. And from this original sin dates the poverty of the great majority that, despite all its labor, has up to now nothing to sell but itself, and the wealth of the few that increases constantly although they have long ceased to work.”

For Marx, the unequal distribution of wealth was historically created in ruthless patterns of capitalist accumulation. In addition, as the quote above so sarcastically implies, the social relations that sustain this inequality require elaborate ideologies capable of explaining away plunder as the work of nature. Enter environmental determinism.

And so we get people like Sachs, who see “the poor” as an ecological category living far off in a strange land instead of, as Marx sees it, as a social relation. In Sachs’ world, the poor were always bound to be poor while the rich were bound to be rich.

Jared Diamond in New Guinea. Source: PBS

Sachs was able to make this argument because Jared Diamond had more recently parlayed it into a Pulitzer prize in his 1997 book Guns, Germs and Steel. Here he argued that we need not look to histories of colonialism to understand “the Fates of Societies,” (his subtitle for the book), but rather we must focus on physical geography and climate if we hope to understand why the world is divided into rich and poor. In his hands Europe’s ability to subjugate and colonize Africa was merely an accident “of geography and biogeography—in particular to the continents’ different areas, axes, and suites of wild plant and animal species. This is, the different historical trajectories of Africa and Europe stem ultimately from differences in real estate” (p. 401).

In a funny way, Diamond is right. Though his glib reduction of the history of violent colonialism to mere “real estate” is meant to draw the reader’s attention away from history and toward nature, to the careful reader the reference does the opposite. Real estate is not a natural category. It is a thing of value only because it exists as private property. And property, of course, is all about the power to exclude, forever enforcing the unequal distribution of resources as a way to preserve class difference.

In a scathing review in the journal Antipode in 2003, a host of prominent human geographers pilloried Diamond’s work. Andrew Sluyter called it “junk science.” Paul Robbins, more kind than Sluyter, chided Diamond for harnessing “a thoughtful and fascinating body of evidence to an explanatory dead horse.”

But Robbins was just being clever. He knew full well that you can’t beat a dead horse. Academics attacked arguments such as those by Sachs and Diamond because the cruel logic of environmental determinism is, unfortunately, anything but dead. And, in a troubling development, it has found purchase recently among climate change scientists.

Environmental determinism, it seems, has found a new home. No longer housed in geography departments, it has taken up residence in geology, environmental science and earth science departments.

This new “scientific” version of climate determinism took center stage at last month’s annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. There researchers from West Virginia University described the results of recent tree ring data from Asia in which, they argued, a particularly wet period in the thirteenth century corresponded to the rise of Ghengis Khan and the spread of the Mongols. According to researchers, wet conditions would have been particularly advantageous to nomadic Mongol herders.

Well maybe, but more likely the rise of the Mongols had something to do with the enormous size of Khan’s army.

But no matter, apparently the past is littered with the wreckage of history’s climate victims. A host of recent studies have linked civilization collapse in Asia, South America and Africa to climate change. Just as in the past, we’d best tread carefully around such arguments.

For starters there may be a more useful correspondence to consider: the prevalence of claims by climate scientists of a link between climate and the collapse of past civilizations corresponds to the return of environmental determinist explanation in the mid-1990s. In 1995, around the same time that Diamond found success peddling his determinist snake oil, researchers reported in the prestigious journal Nature that population growth and drought was a likely cause of the demise of the Maya civilization. This work kicked off a cottage industry among climate scientists who suddenly found correspondences everywhere they looked: Mesopotamia, west Asia, Egypt, the Maghreb.

The recent raft of historical climate collapse stories are troubling for a number of reasons. First, what many of these studies refer to as “collapse” is in fact a slow population decline over a period of, often, hundreds of years. The “collapse” of the Maya occurred, for example, between 750 AD and 900 AD: hundreds of years of decline (what scientists mean by “decline”, by the way, is rarely defined in the scientific literature) that overlaps with a period of climate change. “Climate change,” like “collapse” also is frequently ill-defined; often these “abrupt” shifts in temperature and precipitation are, in fact, changes that occur over hundreds of years and millions of square miles. In the case of the Maya, the period of dramatic climate change occurred during a two-hundred year period between 800 AD and 1,000 AD—a period that marked the driest in the middle Holocene.

In addition, it should be noted that the increase in historical climate collapse research corresponds to the popularization of the wide acceptance of contemporary anthropogenic climate change research. Whether researchers are explicit or not, the rationale for historical work on the link between climate and collapse, particularly among funding agencies and the general public, has everything to do with the current climate crisis. These are the what’s-in-store-for-us stories peddled in the hope that it may galvanize a broad-based movement to interrupt current patterns of global greenhouse gas emissions.

There are two problems with this thinking. First, we may want to ask what kind of contemporary climate politics the rhetoric of collapse engenders. There is, no doubt, a real urgency to the problem posed by climate change. The climate is indeed changing and transforming in ways not conducive to humans and other beings. The idea of a climate catastrophism, however, so prevalent in the rhetoric of historical climate change research, displaces and defers this urgency. If our fate is apocalypse, after all, what good is grassroots organizing? Moreover, the false panic of apocalyptic rhetoric provides the rationale to ignore the current suffering of the marginalized and the disenfranchised. When we strip away the apocalyptic rhetoric, we can see that we are not all in this together. But apocalyptic rhetoric forecloses the possibility of radical democratic politics. It makes politics, in fact, impossible. In its place we are forced to entrust our futures to a non-democratic techno-managerial elite, to the apparatuses of state bureaucracies, to the military, and even to the corporations (Kyoto, for example) who profit from climate catastrophism.

As a result of this state of affairs, catastrophism research proliferates and finds purchase among a powerful minority who fear the potential of radical and democratic climate change struggle—particularly the possibility that it could challenge existing patterns of class and race privilege. And they can’t have that.



  1. Good piece David. These guys will use anything to get away from seeing capitalism as the enemy. After all, if it is the environment, human nature, or some other determinate, then it isn’t capitalism, is it, and we complainers are just wrong. Jim

  2. Thanks dave! pithy, sharp: nothing like a bit of ridicule to slice through the rotting entrails of imperialist science. It is amazing that these ideas spring anew; as marx put it in his critique of bourgeois economic science ‘mortalem vitam mors cum immortalis ademit’ (sigh). But as you so nicely put it, spring anew they must, fed by the ideological requirements of imperialism. yet despite this, this essay has left me feeling good in a kind of Gramscian mode: what better defense of the writer’s role in class struggle than your own efforts here? hasta la victoria siempre!

  3. Good analysis but it does not solve the problem we face.Also, those who have been modeling climate for 40 years are the ones telling us that we are headed to the real cliff and that it may be too late to stop the train. I do not believe they espouse environmental relativism. 40 years of accumulated data shows that we are in big trouble. Whom do you suggest we pay attention to. What should we do? Critique without pointing to possible solutions is of no use to my children and grandchildren.

    Good intellectual gymnastics but I want more meet.


    • Eduardo,
      I say nothing about environmental relativism in my essay. I’m not even sure what that means. Neither do I suggest that climate change is not a serious issue. If you read closely (or read any of the other essays I’ve written on climate change science and politics for La Jicarita) you’ll see that I take this issue very seriously. The problem, however, as I and others see it, is that an (anti)politics of catastrophe has infected much climate change science and politics. The usual metaphor, and you use it above, is that we’re on a runaway train. I ask you, Eduardo: what work does such a metaphor do? If anything it makes the difficult political work we need to do around an effective and just response to a changing climate impossible. All we have time to do is scream and brace for the fall. But we’re not all on a runaway train–only some of us are. The effects of climate change will be experienced along class lines, no doubt. You may find this critique unhelpful, but I don’t believe we can craft a fair and just solution to the challenge of climate change until we foreground these issues. When those issues are ignored, we get things like the Kyoto Protocols–which merely reinforces neocolonial relations and puts our fate in the hand of corporate interests. So I reject your demand that I come up with “solutions.” Didn’t I offer a solution? Let’s take the politics of climate change seriously. Why is that not a solution? But you look for policy prescriptions that you trust could somehow be objectively scientific. That’s how the World Bank and the IMF operates. Politics is just too damn messy and besides a real politics of climate change would have to start by questioning the privilege of the few at the expense of the many–and the privileged don’t want that. So instead they offer “solutions” and it’s no accident that those “solutions” reinforce the very unequal relations of power that got us in this mess in the first place. Mine isn’t intellectual gymnastics, theirs is. And look to purveyors of green liberalism for an even more pernicious verison. They’re more than happy to give you all kinds of solutions. And they all revolve around a logic of “selling nature to save it.” Care about nature? Buy a prius. Frightened by climate change? Trust the engineers who want to seed the ocean with iron to soak up more carbon dioxide. And whatever you do, don’t believe the people who want to suggest that climate change is a political problem.

  4. You quote Diamond as saying: we must focus on physical geography and climate if we hope to understand why the world is divided into rich and poor. In his hands Europe’s ability to subjugate and colonize Africa was merely an accident “of geography and biogeography—in particular to the continents’ different areas, axes, and suites of wild plant and animal species. This is, the different historical trajectories of Africa and Europe stem ultimately from differences in real estate.” I’m not sure why Diamond is so wrong. As I understand it, the point of Guns, Germs and Steel is that different levels of technological advancement result from geographical factors, not racial differences. Diamond asks, why did Europe conquer North America? Why didn’t the North Americans sail across the Atlantic and conquer Europe? His answer: not because the Aztecs were intellectually or morally inferior to Europeans, but because the geography of North America made it impossible for its people to develop technology at the same rate as Europe.

    Your Marx quote makes fun of the idea that the rich deserve their wealth because they are diligent, intelligent, and frugal, as opposed to the lazy [non-European] rascals. IMHO, that’s exactly the racist argument – widely prevalent today – that Guns, Germs and Steel refutes.

    Diamond is not a Marxist. He doesn’t understand the role of imperialism or of class struggle. But he is not a racist.

    • Mr. P,
      And his “I’m not a racist” protestings rely on the same rhetorical ploy my 12-year old daughter uses when she’s says to her older sister “No offense but…” and then she says something that her sister rightly takes offense to.

  5. The only evidence to suggest that Diamond is not a racist is his assertion that he is not a racist. Instead of just believing him let’s look at the evidence. He makes an argument in GGS based on a racist premise, i.e., Europe owes its colonial superiority to luck. The luck of geography, technology, climate, etc. It’ a racist, neocolonial argument because it draws our attention away from ruthless patterns of colonial violence and resource expansion based on the very explicit White Man’s Burden stories colonialists told themselves. It’s a comforting argument for those of us in the West because it lets us off the hook. It’s not our fault, nor was it theirs. I offer a codicil to Diamond’s argument: we in the West owe our affluence to the luck of geography because we lived close enough to people we could conquer and whose resources we could plunder.

  6. I’ve never heard Diamond claim that he’s not a racist. I said that in my opinion he’s not a racist. The definition that I use is a belief in the intellectual, moral, physical (or other) superiority of one race over another. That’s the explanation that’s traditionally been used to explain why the west is technologically more “advanced” than the third world. Diamond refutes that argument. He says that there is no intellectual, moral, or physical difference between the races, and that differences in “development” are due to other factors. IMO – that’s an anti-racist argument. I think the theory is pretty good up to about 500 years ago. Today, differences in “development” – distribution of wealth, etc. – are principally not due to geographical factors but to the factors you stress – colonialism and the plunder of the third world by the (technologically advanced) west. That’s why it’s ridiculous, for example, to argue that the difference between the DR and Haiti is due to geography, not the history of the two countries. Diamond is wrong to focus his entire attention to geography. I remember as I approached the end of Guns, Germs, and Steel I thought, jeez, this is going downhill fast, I wish this guy knew some Marx. But heck – most people don’t understand these issues. That doesn’t make them racist.

    (Much of the left used to say stuff like – “he may be subjectively anti-racist, but his work helps prop up the system, so OBJECTIVELY he’s a racist.” I’m sure you’re not saying that, but IMO that way of thinking still exists and is not helpful.)

  7. “We in the West owe our affluence to the luck of geography because we lived close enough to people we could conquer and whose resources we could plunder.” I agree with your codicil, except I’d add that the same luck gave the West the technological (guns, steel) and physiological (germs) to do it.

    • Actually that technological superiority rose first in the East. It it’s technology then, according to Diamond’s logic, China should have developed the same kind of colonial empire as European countries–and earlier!

  8. So two years after this was written, have we seen a rise in climate activism by the disempowered across the planet, or have the ‘minority’ of elites usurped this power with the rhetoric of ‘climate catastrophisim’?

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