READ THIS SECTION ON DETERMINISM CAREFULLY. Geographic determinism continues to create problems with geo-spacial and geo-cultural research and analysis.
Geographers influenced by Semple and Huntington tended to describe and explain what they believed to be “superior” European culture (civilization) through the application of the theory of “environmental determinism.” From their writings, it does not seem that they ever recognized the inaccuracies of their position, let alone the arrogant, racist foundation upon which it rested.
Although modern geographers rarely discuss the impacts of environmental determinism except to note its serious flaws as a model for spatial analysis, its basic concepts were used by the Third Reich to justify German expansion in the 1930s and 1940s. Friedrich Ratzel, a German geographer (American geographer, Ellen Churchill Semple was one of his students) argued that nation states are organic in nature and therefore, must grow in order to survive. In other words, states must constantly seek additional “lebensraum” (living room). The state, a living thing, was a natural link between the people and the natural environment (blood and soil). Moreover, the state provided a living tie between a people and a place. This application of environmental determinism (and Social Darwinism) eventually came to be more than a mere academic exercise because it was used to justify, or legitimize, the conquering of one people by another. At the height of European imperialism, academics depicted the great colonial empires as natural extensions of superior European cultures that had developed in the beneficial natural surrounding of the mid-latitudes. The concept of “manifest destiny” was used in similar fashion to justify the expansion of the United States from the Atlantic to Pacific shores, at the expense of indigenous people.
Although Ratzel, Semple, and Huntington never expected their ideas to be used to justify Adolf Hitler’s conquest of Europe, Nazi geographers and political scientists built upon their work to develop theories of Nordic racial and cultural superiority. In fact, Semple and Huntington wanted nothing more than to define the boundaries of their discipline and to explain the differences in “cultures” and “places” throughout the world. They were simply striving to carve out a piece of academic or intellectual turf for themselves and like-minded colleagues.
By the 1920s, environmental determinism was already under attack by people such as Carl Sauer (at the University of California, Berkeley). Nevertheless, many scholars continued to base their work on the belief that human beings are primarily a product of the environment in which they live. Frederick Jackson Turner, the American historian who eloquently described the westward expansion of the United States, and Sir Halford Mackinder, the British political scientist who developed the “Heartland Theory,” explained away the conquering of indigenous people by Europeans as perhaps regrettable, but nonetheless, natural and unavoidable (given the superiority of cultures spawned in the mid-latitude environs of Western Europe).