The most obvious answer is that it is the result of humans living under different material conditions. Other possible explanations for variations in cultures include a supernatural force providing divine guidance or simple randomness. Theological explanations—that there is some nonmaterial force that dictated or set these patterns in motion—are based in faith claims and don’t rely on evidence. We have never identified any compelling reasons to accept supernatural accounts of natural phenomena. Nor have we ever heard a coherent argument for how cultural differences are simply random.
So, we conclude that the type of living arrangements that groups of humans develop arise from the differences in geography, climate, and environmental conditions. Absent any other credible explanation, we assume that the different material realities under which humans have lived have shaped the variations in human culture. People make choices to build cultures in specific ways, but if all people are basically the same animal, then the differences in those choices around the world are most likely the product of those different conditions.
This shouldn’t be a surprising conclusion. From our own experience, we all know that we make decisions, individually and collectively, in ways we do not and cannot fully understand. Our experience of freely choosing does not mean that all of our choices are 100 percent freely made. Without attempting to resolve the age-old debate on free will, all of us can reflect on how often we come to recognize that past choices, which we believed we made freely at one moment in time, were shaped and constrained by material conditions that we could not understand at that moment and may never fully understand. While we continue to act day to day on the assumption of free will, we also should continue to be alert for ways behavior is to some degree determined.
In short, we need to use whatever free will we have to understand the determinism that is at work to shape our choices. This is of course a logical conundrum, but it is an apt description of the human condition. Centuries of philosophical and scientific inquiry haven’t done much to change this. We try to deepen our understanding of deterministic forces while living as if we have expansive free will. That doesn’t end the debates about free will and determinism, but it captures our experience.
What are the implications of all this? Before we condemn the unsustainable and unjust actions of others, we should be critically self-reflective about our own contributions to the current degraded state of the ecosphere and the inequality around us. That’s the first step. The second step is to go beyond the failures of individuals to assess the political and economic systems that reward pathological behavior and impede virtuous behavior, especially the systems we live in and tend to take for granted. The third step is to think historically, recognizing that any group of humans living under the same material conditions would most likely have developed in roughly the same way. There is nothing intrinsically special about any one of us or any one group of people.
This cautious approach is a way of extending the adage “There but for the grace of God go I” beyond individuals to cultures. That phrase emerged from a Christian assertion of humility in the face of God’s mercy, but we use it here in a secular fashion. If one has lived an exemplary life, that’s great, but be aware that life might have been very different if some of the material conditions in which one lived were different. Those who believe they have accomplished something and made a positive contribution to the world should remember that a change in any one of the conditions in our lives, especially in our formative years, may have meant failing instead of succeeding. We are not suggesting that we have no control over our lives but simply that we likely don’t have as much control as many people would like to believe.
This is true of us individually and collectively. The conditions under which a culture emerged may have led to ecologically sustainable living arrangements, but those living arrangements would have been different if initial conditions had been different. If Culture A created an ecologically sustainable way to live and Culture B created an unsustainable system, it is important to highlight the differences, endorse Culture A, and try to change Culture B. But if the geography, climate, and environmental conditions out of which the two cultures emerged had been different, then what would A and B look like?
In our secular analysis, there but for the specific geography, climate, and environmental conditions go we. For example, because of the differences in initial conditions, not all cultures developed the technologies to plow the ground, smelt ores, or exploit fossil fuels to do work in machines. The cultures without those technologies have not depleted the carbon in soils, forests, coal, oil, and natural gas in the ways that societies with those technologies have done.
The development of those technologies was not the product of inherently superior intelligence of people in particular regions of the world—remember, we are committed to an antiracist principle that flows from basic biology. That means the forces that led to the creation of those technologies must have been generated by the specific environmental conditions under which that culture developed over time. Likewise, the lower rate of carbon depletion that results from the absence of those technologies cannot be a marker of inherently superior intelligence of people in particular regions but is instead the product of environmental conditions. In a significant sense, the trajectory of people and their cultures is the product of the continent and specific region in which they have lived.
Many who consider themselves antiracist might bristle at this analysis. So, we want to be clear about how we understand racial and ethnic differences in the context of political and economic history. Europe is not rich because Europeans are racially superior. Europe is rich because it developed on a different trajectory from that of the Americas, Africa, and Asia as a result of geographic and environmental differences. That trajectory made it possible for Europeans to conquer and exploit the people and resources of those other continents. At one point, Europeans believed themselves intellectually and morally superior because of racial differences that were assumed to be immutable. We know that to be false. But if that’s false, then so is any other claim by any other group to be intellectually or morally superior on any criteria by virtue of a racial or ethnic identity.
If history was not shaped by the minor genetic differences that are associated with our ancestors’ region of the world, that leaves us with geography, climate, and environmental conditions, unless we want to argue that history is directed by God/Goddess or gods/goddesses, or is simply random. We really are one species.
Scholars who have presented compelling data and arguments for what is typically called geographic or environmental determinism point out that these forces do not act in simple, linear fashion. Geography shapes people, and people act to shape the meaning of geography, making choices along the way. But not all people throughout history and around the world have been presented with the same choices by the landscapes on which they have lived. Again, we need not resolve the larger philosophical debate on free will versus determinism to recognize that these material realities are a driving force in shaping human history.
This shouldn’t be a surprising claim. All organisms adapt to, and are shaped by, their places. There is no reason that humans should be exempt from that observation. While it’s true that humans’ physiology and cognitive capacity allow us to live almost anywhere on land on Earth, that doesn’t mean that geography has no relevance in how we have organized societies and developed new technologies.
We have met many people—including those who share our point of view on social justice and ecological sustainability—who are nervous about any exploration of this analysis. This resistance seems based in the fear that acknowledging the role of geography in human history somehow denies people any sense of agency and/or provides absolution to those people who have exploited other people and the nonhuman world. We understand that fear but believe that understanding contemporary problems and planning for the future requires that we not ignore relevant information and analyses.
Nothing we have argued relieves individuals or societies of moral accountability for unjust and unsustainable actions. We cannot know precisely what level of determinism is at play in our lives, but we can continue to assess our choices and act according to moral principles of dignity, solidarity, and equality. But as we judge human failures—our own and of others—and take corrective action, we should remember to be humble.
[This essay is adapted from An Inconvenient Apocalypse: Environmental Collapse, Climate Crisis, and the Fate of Humanity.]