5 Nature & Society

Environmental Perspectives

One thing that should become clear from cultural landscapes is that the environment both influences and shapes humans and is influenced by and shaped by humans. The environment provides both opportunities and constraints for humans. This is known as possibilism: the theory that the environment offers human culture multiple possible ways to develop, and choices made by humans are guided by cultural heritage. This contrasts with ideas other perspectives about how humans relate to the environment including the following:

Environmental determinism: human experience and traits of society are determined by environmental factors; contemporary geographical thought cautions against adopting an “environmentally deterministic” attitude/perspective, as it can lead to false and damaging claims such as associating human characteristics with climate type for instance.

Environment-as-backdrop: human experience and traits of society are not at all influenced by the environment, which is thought of as a passive backdrop to human activity; contemporary geographical thought cautions against fully adopting the environment-as-backdrop perspective in favor of recognizing the opportunities and constraints that the environment poses for humans and human systems (i.e. possibilism).

There are many examples throughout history documenting how humans have undergone adaptation to their environmental surroundings, which demonstrates both 1) how the environment does indeed influence and shape human possibilities/outcomes and 2) how humans do exercise some ability to manipulate their environments.

Examples of Human Adaptation to the Environment

Click the links below highlighting a few examples of human adaptations to various environmental circumstances.

Resources & Human Impact

Resources refer to substances that have utility for humans in some way. They include sun, wind, water, trees and vegetation, land, soil, minerals, and oil and gas, among other things. Resources are renewable if they can replenish and non-renewable if there is a finite amount of them. It can be helpful to examine land cover and land use types to gain insight into the presence of various resources and how they are used by humans. See the maps below for a look into how oil reserves and land cover types in terms of level of human modification are distributed globally.

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_proven_oil_reserves
Source: https://sedac.ciesin.columbia.edu/data/collection/lulc/maps/gallery/search

Human impact to the environment is unevenly distributed across the world and often results in depleting resources in an unsustainable way (example: over fishing to the point that the fish cannot replenish) and prompting or amplifying environmental hazards (example: making previously arable land unsuitable for agriculture). One way we can measure or assess that impact is by relying on the IPAT framework, which holds that the degree of environmental impact is a mixture of how many people are in a place, how they use resources, and how affluent they are.

If two countries have the same population and access to/use of the same types of technology, the more affluent country will have a higher impact. Why?  Because generally more affluent lifestyles take more energy and use of resources to support. If, however, two countries have about the same level of affluence and the same number of people, the country with the least efficient technology will have a higher impact; this is why sometimes non-core countries actually have high overall impact.

Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology
Another way to measure impact is through ecological footprintwhich examines the degree of resources needed to support an individual’s lifestyle.
DEEPEN YOUR UNDERSTANDING: Read more about IPAT and ecological footprint here, under the “Measuring our impact” section. Also consider assessing your own ecological footprint, specifically your carbon footprint, by using this calculator.

Researchers who examine human impact to the environment have noted that the extent and depth of impact nowadays is so great, that humans are the greatest source of impact to the environment. They call this time period the anthropocene, which is different than past geologic time periods regarding the scale of human impact. If you’re interested to learn more, skim this article and see the embedded interactive graphic.

Humans have the capacity to modify the landscape in ways and at rates never before seen. Let’s look at a few examples of this and think through related socio-cultural issues that arise with this level of human impact.

Deforestation, which refers to the clearing of trees, is one of the principal processes involved in converting or modifying landcover. Why does deforestation happen? It happens to make way for some new kind of land use, most typically, some kind of agriculture (cattle ranching and soya cultivation primarily) or infrastructural development. A common way to clear forests is by setting fires; the Amazon experienced uncontrolled burning in 2019. Remote sensing is often used to capture information about landscape change. See below for a breakdown of what’s going on in the Amazon in Latin America. 

Desertification refers to the extension of desert-like conditions into otherwise non-desert land. Causes include deforestation, drought, and sustained overuse/improper land use in some way. Greening, or adding vegetation to back to areas where it has been lost, is sometimes used to combat desertification. Learn about both of these processes by reading what’s going on in the Gobi desert, which straddles China and Mongolia.

Additional processes that result in heavy human impact to the environment include extractive practices like mining of metals, minerals, oil, and gas. See below for real-world examples.

Examples of Extractive Activities

Read up on the following examples and ask yourself: What are the socio-cultural impacts of these activities? Can diamonds be conflict-free? Who is effected most by diamond mining and fracking? What can be done to minimize impact for each activity?

  • Diamond mining, which happens in large part throughout South, Central, and West Africa but also in countries like Canada, Russia, China, Brazil, and Australia. Diamonds coming from African countries have classically been termed blood diamonds or conflict diamonds, reflecting diamonds that are produced by workers during wartime under duress, force, and violence. Many diamonds today are sold under the label conflict-free. Brands such as Brilliant Earth, among others, market their products accordingly.
  • Fracking, which refers to hydraulic fracturing or injecting water into underground rock layers to crack them and release natural gas, used for energy. Companies tend to go into towns, set up operations, and then leave when all the gas is extracted, which mimics a boom-and-bust economic cycle, as happened in Williston, North Dakota.


The degree to which humans impact the environment in sustainable and/or unsustainable ways is guiding by the environmental perspective held by individuals, societies, and cultures. If a culture views the natural world to be part of the human world, this prompts the society to care for the earth and its resources in a more gentle and sustainable way than if a culture views the natural world as separate from humans and existing only for human consumption. Traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) refers to knowledge of the environment often acquired and shared orally from generation to generation; TEK may provide the foundation for the environmental perspective characteristic of a particular culture. As compared with Western scientific knowledge, TEK tends to be more focused on the kinds of solutions and adaptations to environmental challenges that span time and generations as opposed to producing a quick fix. In addition, TEK tends to be more interrelated to individual and cultural identity and spirituality that Western scientific knowledge and practices.

Watch the linked and embedded videos below and reflect on the following:

  • How do people in the videos explain the importance and value of TEK as opposed to Western knowledge? What does it provide?
  • How is TEK transmitted and how can this transmission be disrupted?

First Stories: Nganawendaanan Nde’ing (I Keep Them In My Heart)



Tragedy of the Commons–Too Much Impact?

How do we know how much is too much when it comes to humans using resources? One way is through the concept of carrying capacity. Carrying capacity refers to “the maximum population size of a biological species that can be sustained in that specific environment, given the food, habitat, water, and other resources available” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carrying_capacity). When carrying capacity is exceeded, degradation to natural and human systems results.

Garret Hardin forwarded the notion of the tragedy of the commons as a way to understand the impacts of regulating and not regulating common resources. The basic idea is that enclosing (i.e. putting up a border or fence around; privatizing) common resources (land, water, forests) and attaching some kinds of regulations on their use is the only way to conserve that resource, prevent depletion, and prevent the carrying capacity from being exhausted. See image and video below to learn more.

DEEPEN YOUR UNDERSTANDING: Learn more about this concept by reading the “Tragedy of the Commons” section here.


Do you concur with concept of tragedy of the commons? Can you think of an example that supports its claims and and example that challenges its claims?

Which kinds of resources do you think benefit most from being enclosed/regulated? Which kinds of resources do you think societies should NOT enclose/regulate?

Environmental (In)justice

Not all people nor cultures and societies feel environmental hazards or the human impact on the environment in the same way or to the same degree. Once again, the key geographical concept of unevenness is key to examining matters regarding the intersection between humans and the environment. Environmental justice is a framework to examine the (un)evenness and fairness of how environmental hazards and human impacts to the environment are distributed and felt by people. A related concept is environmental racism, which is defined as:

“Racial discrimination in environmental policy-making and enforcement of regulations and laws; the deliberate targeting of communities of color for toxic-waste facilities; the official sanctioning of the presence of life-threatening poisons and pollutants in communities of color; and the history of excluding people of color from leadership in the environmental movement” (Source: Camacho, 1998, as quoted in Ruffin, S. (2012). Royal Dutch Shell environmentally degrades Nigeria’s Niger Delta Region. Environmental Justice,(5)3, 140-152).  


  • Shell oil in Nigeria: Oil producers in the Niger Delta routinely conduct hazardous practices (ex: gas flaring, overground gas pipes) that they do not in more developed, core countries with majority white populations. Because of this, their practices are often examined with environmental justice and environmental racism lenses.
  • Pollution hazards in DC: Note the spatial distribution of trash transfer stations among Percent Black census tracts.
  • Uranium mining on Navajo land: Note the uneven exposures to Navajo miners and the locations of Uranium mines within the US.
DEEPEN YOUR UNDERSTANDING: Read more about environmental justice by reading ONLY “The unavoidability of the justice question” section here; other sections are optional.


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Human Geography Copyright © by Christine Rosenfeld & Nathan Burtch is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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