Environmental geography

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Environmental geography examines interlinkages between human and natural systems. This discipline combines parts of human geography and physical geography, serving not only as an important link between the two but also to generate new understandings of the ways environment and society are related and affect each other.


History of environmental geography

Early history

Geography's origins lay in the linkages of human and natural systems. Early geographic study was tied to exploration and cartography as well as understanding the distribution of natural phenomena.

Environmental determinism

For more information, see: Environmental determinism.

In the early twentieth century, environmental geography was strongly tied to the single idea of environmental determinism, the doctrine that human activities are controlled by the environment. Scholars in this field attempted to create a causal science creating ties between environmental causes and human results.This belief has waxed and waned over the years, but found dominance within the field of human geography in the work of such scholars as Americans Ellen Churchill Semple and Ellsworth Huntington, and Briton Halford Mackinder whose work traced linkages between natural and human patterns, following in the tradition of the German Friedrich Ratzel. The theories of environmental determinism are quite controversial and linked to Social Darwinism, utilized to justify colonial expansion and racial typecasting, and Ratzel, as Hitler's geographer, was influential in German expansionism.

Today, environmental determinism is disfavored, replaced by ideas of environmental influence (where nature shapes but does not mandate human activity), and complex multi-directional influences between nature and society. Carl Sauer's work was important in showing how humans change nature as well as nature shaping humans.

Separation of human and physical geography

The twentieth century saw increasing specialization within the discipline of geography. Scholars began to study either human or physical geography, but rarely blended both. Notable exceptions to this rule include Gilbert White whose work on hazards linked both human and natural influences into the study of disasters.

Renewed study in nature-society relations

Branches of environmental geography


For more information, see: Hazards.

Hazards research includes study of human-made (anthropogenic), natural environmental and blended disasters. Hazards frequently studied include: fire, drought, earthquakes, floods, volcanoes, hurricanes, tornados, toxins, pollution, and more. This study is intricately tied to risk analysis.

Energy and resource geography

For more information, see: Energy and resource geography.

Energy and resource geography studies the spatial placement, interrelations, place-based effects, and human-environment connections of natural resources and energy generation.

Political ecology

For more information, see: Political ecology.

Study in political ecology incorporates political, economic, cultural, and social systems into the study of the environment and ecological change. Much work in this field focuses on the complex interdependences and interrelationships between human and environmental systems.

Environmental perception

For more information, see: Environmental perception.

Environmental perception is the study of both individual and group understandings of the environment, the creation of those understandings, and their impacts on decisionmaking.

Systems theory

Landscape studies

Landscape studies involves the interactions between humans and the environment in concrete areas. The term landscape comes from the German Landschaft, referring the the area that one's eye can comprehend in a single view. This work includes study of both physical and human systems, with much attention paid to cultural, political, and aesthetic aspects. Carl Sauer's work traced the transition from a physical landscape to a cultural landscape, marked and defined by human activity.

Marxian environmental geography


Environmental geography is one of many disciplines active in the study of sustainability and sustainable development. Work in this branch includes economic, social, and environmental development. Specific topics include food, energy, the built environment, population, consumption, modernization, conservation, globalization, and others.

Environmental governance

Environmental justice

For more information, see: Environmental justice.

Environmental justice is a term that includes both the academic study of disparate environmental impacts as well as activism to address those impacts. This body of study grew out of the anti-toxic movement of the 1980's, and the findings of the time that environmental harms often correlated with race, class, or other axes of difference.

Selected list of notable environmental geographers

  • Gilbert White (1911-2006) - central figure in natural hazards research
  • Carl Sauer (1889-1975) - developed idea of cultural landscapes which evolved into cultural ecology
  • Yi-fu Tuan (1930-) - seminal work in environmental perception
  • Michael Watts - political ecology and development

Related disciplines


Johnston, R.J., D. Gregory, G. Pratt, and M. Watts (eds.) (2000) The Dictionary of Human Geography. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing. 958 p.

Castree, N. (2005) Nature. New York: Routledge. 281 p.