human-environment relationships

THE ENVIRONMENTAL approach in geography, history, anthropology, psychology, and other spheres of humanitarian thought remains one of the most alluring and unequivocal since its origin in ancient times. At the beginning of the 21st century, interdisciplinary studies of cultural history using contemporary methods of instrumental analysis are often bringing scientists to the necessity of taking environmental issues into account when conceptualizing local peculiarities of cultural evolution. As a result, an impressive variety of theories and concepts has been elaborated in the framework of scientific and humanitarian thought during the second half of the 20th century.

Trying to navigate in this boundless theoretical space, an inquisitive researcher inevitably faces the necessity to create some kind of exploratory structure encompassing these approaches and notions. Here, comprehension of human agency in natural environment evolution has been chosen as the main criterion of examination of human-nature interaction. On this base, three main directions of environmental thought development can be distinguished in contemporary humanitarian and scientific thought.

human-environment relationships

One of them, known as geographical determinism, concentrates on the environmental impact on human history. The second, concerning human agency in nature development, became popular alongside global reconsideration of the human role in the universe, which took place at the time of the scientific revolution. Adepts of a third direction tend to interpret human-environment interaction as an integrated system, all elements of which are of equal importance and are engaged in complicated reciprocal influence.


Geographical determinism comes from the “man as sufferer” paradigm in the adaptation concept. Interpretation of a human being as a passive sufferer originated in ancient natural philosophy. Since its very beginnings, the human being was regarded as a creature deeply dependent on its natural habitat.

As early as at the middle of 4th century B.C.E., geographic determinism had been designed as a specific direction of philosophic thought with at least two extreme schools: one of climatic psychology and another of climatic ethnology. Later climatic astrology also originated.

The Enlightenment ideology reconsidered these ideas about total human dependence on nature and elaborated the wide circle of geographically and climatically deterministic theories (C. Montesquieu, L. Mechnikov, E. Semple, E. Huntington, E. Reclus).

At the second half of the 20th century, this idea was treated in the framework of the adaptation concept, which is interpreted by representatives of “new” (L. Binford) and behavioral (B. Schiffer) archaeology, environmental psychology (A. Bell), and phenomenological (T. Ingold) and actional (E. Markaryan) approaches to culture studies as phenomena inherent for an active and creative human being.

In Soviet science, most attention was paid to the biological aspects of adaptation, with an emphasis on the human capacity to fit the requirements of natural environment.

At the end of 20th century, adaptive reaction has become the subject of special attention. As a result, general theory of stresses and ecological stress concept were elaborated (P. Bell). To identify the possible character of human beings and human society in response to natural environmental changes, the concept of social and ecological resilience was introduced (A. Neil).

Thus, the idea of humans as nature modifiers and creators came to be. Roots of the idea of human domination over nature are traced as early as the Enlightenment times, when the human ability to solve rationally all his or her vital tasks was declared for the first time (T. Hobbes, C. Linney).


Along with the beginning of industrial development and the origin of first ecological crisis at the middle of 19th century, scientists study the results of a transforming impact from human activity on the natural environment (J. Marsh, A. Voyeikov). During the 20th century, the idea of humans as nature-creators was conceptualized in the context theories of cultural (O. Schluter, C. Sauer) and anthropogenic (in Soviet science) landscape, and the notion of landscape as series of sequent occupancies (D. Whittlesey).

In frameworks of postmodern methodology, this idea is conceptualized in the idea of landscape as artifact, based on two ideas (T. Darvill, P. Criado Boado). One of them is that landscape should be interpreted as a mental image, which could not exist without human beings who elaborate it. At the same time, humans consciously and purposefully form their geographical environment, and their decisions about living space ordering are deeply motivated by their vital needs. Consequent application of these postulates inevitably results in partial or total negation of the natural landscape existence.

This idea has become the starting point for the theory of human ecodynamics, which concerns the analysis of changes made by humans in the landscape in a long-lasting perspective.

In spite of principal differences in theoretical backgrounds of the “human as nature-creator” concept, they incorrectly tend to date the beginning of the human impact on nature with the origin of agriculture and farming. Thus, the possibility of hunters and gatherers substantially reshaping their landscape is practically excluded or regarded as a minimal and non-permanent one, displayed only in connection with so-called secondary landscape components.

There is also the idea of mutual creativity in human-environment interaction. The process of formation of so-called integral direction of man-environment interpretation is long and ambiguous. These ideas, originating for the first time in ancient natural philosophy, obtained theoretical scientific background during the second half of the 19th century (J. Raskin, K. Ritter).

The fundamental theoretical background for this idea was elaborated during the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the framework of anthropogeography (F. Ratzel) and biosphere theory (V. Vernadsky). The traditional variant of anthropogeography envisages attention to all spheres of human culture and to humanity itself, taken as social and biological creature (F. Ratzel, A. Hettner, A. Grigorev, A. Borzov). At the same time, some researchers proposed to limit their subject field by the phenomena, which directly and materially display themselves in the landscape (O. Schluter, O. Brun) or by the human being as an organic form of life (W. Davis).


Intensive deepening of our knowledge about climate, relief, flora, and fauna and their chronological and spatial distribution, which took place at the middle of the 20th century thanks to active development of environmental archaeology, geoarchaeology, and paleogeography, has created an empiric background for theoretical conceptualization of the “man in nature” idea in Western European and American archaeology, prehistory, and paleogeography. In Soviet science, such ideas were reflected in research activity of proponents of the socalled paleoenvironmental approach to prehistoric studies (S. Bibikov).

As a result, at the beginning of the 21st century, one can trace the gradual growth of popularity of the idea of mutual and interdependent evolution of nature and society. A specific form of its interpretation is proposed by representatives of mainly postmodern directions of contemporary geography, scholars who have introduced a wide spectrum of variants of landscape understanding.