The Environmental Influence Theories


            Concepts on the geographic basis of national and international power date far back in history.  The early vague formulations were based on the relationships noted between humans and their natural environment.  These concepts might be called environmental political theories.  For example, the early Greek scholars noted relationships between the physical environment and human development.  Hippocrates (460-376 B.C.), the Greek physician known as the "Father of Medicine," compared the stature and attitudes of people from different areas of the known world.  He believed that people who live in warm, humid climates are tall and handsome, but also lazy and lacking in valor.  People of cold climates are also large, but are lethargic, indolent, and not very prolific.  However, people in lands of changing seasons (such as Greece) are slender, well jointed, sturdy, intelligent, and high-spirited.  Hippocrates was trying to be scientific even though we note a high degree of "territoriality" in his ideas; he obviously favored his homeland.  Although Hippocrates did not translate the skills and attitudes of people into political factors, his ideas were used by other Greeks for that purpose.

             Aristotle (383-322 B.C.) lived in the Greek city-state of Athens.  In addition to numerous works on a variety of subjects, he wrote a series of books called Politics.  In Chapter 7, book VII, Aristotle states:

  The people of cold countries generally, and particularly those of Europe are full of spirit but deficient in skill and intelligence; and this is why they remain comparatively free, but attain no political development and show no capacity for governing others.  The people of Africa are endowed with skill and intelligence but are deficient in spirit: and this is why they continue to be peoples of subjects and slaves.  The Greek stock, intermediate in geographical position, unites the qualities of both sets of people.  It possesses both spirit and intelligence: the one quality makes it continue free; and the other enables it to attain the highest political development, and to show a capacity for governing every other people--if only it could achieve political unity.  [1, p.296]

             Aristotle also noted that Athens had hills for protection and a harbor for sea commerce.  He could not see why such a nation should not expand and become powerful.  The natural environment, he believed, prepares humans for political status; thus, a state is a "product of nature."  By "natural environment," Aristotle meant essentially climate and topography.  He noted that regions of diverse topography develop a number of political areas (states), whereas large states develop on the large expanses of level land.  The small countries in the mountain areas and the large countries in the flat areas of South America are good examples of this idea, which in a general sense can be shown to be true in other areas of the world.

             Another Greek scholar, Lucretius (99-55 B.C.), believed that there is an innate hostility between nature and humans.  Nature, he thought, is always ready to take advantage of human weaknesses, and humans must resist nature continually.  In the areas of the world where nature is extremely harsh, humans develop strength through this resistance.  Thus, unfavorable natural conditions produce strong fighting men, and the better they can fight, the more likely they are to rule other people.

             The Greek scholar, Strabo (63 B.C. to 24 A.D.), is considered by some as the first geographer, even though Eratosthenes had coined the term "geography" three centuries earlier.  In a series of books called Geography, Strabo continued with Lucretius' ideas on the conflict between humans and nature, saying that "armed warfare" exists between humans and nature, and that one can "relate the growth of potential power [of Rome] to man's overcoming of nature."  Strabo believed that large political units require a strong central government.  The central government should be headed by a monarch, he believed, because individuals can function "quickly and properly."  He insisted, however, that geography is the strongest influence on the political needs of a state.  He considered the political power of the Roman Empire to be logical because of the location, climate, and resources of Italy.

             The early Greek scholars tried to correlate cultural differences with differences in physical phenomena.  They thought that particular cultural groups developed certain political systems according to certain iron laws of nature.  Thus, they not only described cultural and political diversity throughout the world, but attempted to explain the causes for this diversity.  Some of their environmental relationship theories lasted well into the twentieth century.

 [Political Geography, Robert E. Norris and L. Lloyd Haring, Bell and Howell Company, Columbus, OH, 1980, p.41-42.]