Two major paradigms have animated theories of the conceptualization of the relationships between humans and the natural environment: environmental determinism and possibilism, even though other debates in the social sciences should not be dismissed. Environmental determinism holds that the physical environment is a factor that shapes human occupation of the land and the use of resources, determining the course of history, the culture of an area, the settlement pattern, and human behavior. The people inhabiting a region are constantly adapting to the changing nature of their environment. The controversial aspect of this theory, which was used as a rationale for racism and imperialism, led some authors to accept the idea that the environment imposes constraints, but does not override human potential to adapt, approaching possibilism.
Thus, environmental historians, evading determinism, have neglected the study of nature's influence on populations. From the perspective of environmental possibilism, nature constraints allow for a range of possibilities or opportunities for development, so that a variety of human responses are practicable in a certain physical environment, as a function of its culture and history. The relationships between culture and the environment are flexible. The particular arrangement between a certain land and a culture was termed genre de vie (way of life) by the French geographer Paul Vidal de la Blache, the result of the people's response, configuring the personality of the region. His influence in the Annales School of history was decisive.
George Perkins Marsh, who published Man and Nature or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action in 1864, observed and analyzed the historical impact of civilization, particularly deforestation and watershed degradation, in various regions of the world, arguing for a moral compromise with the land to ensure human survival. Aldo Leopold, a conservationist who worked for the U.S. Forest Service, published his thoughts in the book A Sand County Almanac (1949). His major contributions were his understanding of environmental change as a historical process, and his concept of the land ethic. According to Leopold, human ethical values and responsibility could be extended to land, by enlarging the community to include environmental components. This attitude does not prevent nature exploitation, but affirms its right to be preserved.
Lynn Townsend White, a historian of the technological innovations in medieval society, thought that history could shed light on contemporary problems. In his paper in the journal Science, entitled "The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis" (1967), he examined the role of religion in the formation of a Western perception of nature and its control through technology. He traced back to the Judeo-Christian ethic, the trigger of the exploitative attitude, based on the dominion of the resources on Earth that God gave to humankind, which led to the contemporary environmental crisis. The work initiated an inflamed debate inside and outside the academic world, with arguments against non-Western or pre-Christian cultures that support human control of nature.
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