Sometimes, it may seem like the population is split between those who think the world is ending and those who believe we will have colonies on Mars within the decade. Well, maybe that's an exaggeration, but there is nothing like a little helping of possibilism to show us we are neither helpless nor all-powerful. Geographers have been saying this seemingly forever: human survival depends on adaptation. We shape the Earth and it shapes us. We're quite good at it, really; we just need to get better at it.

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Possibilism Possibilism

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Table of contents

    Possibilism Definition

    Possibilism has been a guiding concept in human geography ever since it displaced environmental determinism.

    Possibilism: The concept that the natural environment places constraints on human activity, but humans can adapt to some environmental limits while modifying others using technology.

    Features of Possibilism

    Possibilism has several salient features. First, a short history:

    History of Possibilism

    "Possibilism" was an approach utilized by the influential French geographer Paul Vidal de la Blache (1845-1918). The term was invented by historian Lucien Febvre.

    In the US, geographers like Carl Sauer (1889-1975), looking for an alternative to the environmental determinism of Ellen Churchill Semple (1863-1932) and her followers, adopted possibilism.

    The work of Jared Diamond (e.g., Guns, Germs, and Steel1 in 1998) popularized a more determinist approach to historical geography than had been seen in generations in the US. Though it is not strictly environmental determinism, it does give environmental constraints far more agency than most human geographers have been willing to afford them.

    On the other side of the spectrum, social constructivism, associated with the postmodern turn in human geography in the 1980s, affords the natural environment little agency.

    Six Features

    1. Natural systems set certain constraints on human activity. For example, humans breathe air and thus have not evolved to survive in airless or highly polluted environments.

    2. Humans often adapt to these constraints. We seek to live where the air is breathable. We pollute less.

    3. Some of the constraints can be overcome by human technology. Humans can overcome the lack of air by creating new technology that allows us to breathe underwater or in outer space. We can adapt by polluting less but we can also use air filters, breathing masks, and other technologies while we continue to pollute.

    4. Environmental constraints people overcome may have undesired or unplanned effects. We can survive using technology in areas with polluted air because we filter and clean it in our living spaces, but if the air remains polluted it can have negative effects on natural ecosystems and can end up harming us anyway.

    5. Time scale is of the essence. Humans can create technology to conquer or control a natural force in the short term, but it may fail in the long term.

    We think we can live in floodplains permanently because we have enough financial resources to build flood control structures that can hold back flooding with a one in 1,000 chance of recurring in a given year. But eventually, a flood will happen (or an earthquake, hurricane, etc.) that will overwhelm our defense system.

    6. Some environmental constraints cannot be overcome by technology. This is debated: people who believe in "technofixes" such as geo-engineering suggest that we can always find new energy sources, new food sources, and even, eventually, new planets to live on. We can stop asteroids and comets from hitting the earth; we can stop and reverse global climate change; and so forth.

    Difference between Determinism and Possibilism

    The heritage of determinism is mixed up with eugenics (the pre-World War II term for genetics), race science, and Social Darwinism. That is to say, it has been put to some very unpleasant ends.

    The Stained Legacy of Environmental Determinism

    In the late 1800s, environmental determinists pointed out that warmer, tropical countries did not have the levels of industrial progress that northern areas of the world had. They concluded this was because people native to tropical and subtropical areas, who generally were not white, lacked the intelligence that European and northeast Asian people had.

    This racist idea had come to be widely believed as a way of justifying slavery and colonialism, though to believe it you had to diminish, deny, and ignore all the achievements of these "inferior" people before they were subjugated by people from northern climes (i.e. in Egypt, India, Angkor Wat, the Maya, Great Zimbabwe, and so forth).

    Possibilism Angkor Wat StudySmarterFig. 1 - Angkor Wat in Cambodia is an amazing example of what societies in tropical climates achieved

    The environmental determinists took this a bit further. They said that the climate itself was a factor: it somehow made people less intelligent, a trait that then was heritable. Thus, even Europeans who settled in tropical countries would end up like other people there, because the climate would affect them and they would pass the trait on to their children.

    Environmental determinism contributed to the convenient idea that northern "races" were the ones destined to control the world and decide how the "inferior" parts and peoples of the world were to think and act. But climate, they thought, could be overcome: by "race science" and eugenics.

    Eugenics involved breeding people for "superior" traits and stopping others from breeding, a genocidal practice in every state in the US as well as in Europe and elsewhere.2 Since they thought climate led to lower intelligence and lower intelligence led to poverty, the solution was to stop the poor and "inferior races" from having children, or more drastic solutions. To make a long story short, the entire mindset was a contributing factor to the Holocaust.

    The post-1945 world, eager to distance itself from the Nazis' application of race science and eugenics, progressively abandoned determinism wholesale. People were now said to be the products of socioeconomic constraints, not environmental/genetic ones.

    Possibilism thrived in the post-war environment, though it did not plunge into the extremes of social constructivism and techno-futurism, cognizant of the fact that though the environment doesn't determine us at a genetic level, it does place constraints on our activities.

    Environmental Possibilism

    Carl Sauer and the Berkeley School of geographers, and many who followed in their footsteps, documented complex adaptive systems practiced by traditional, rural people in Latin America and elsewhere. The Sauerians were always on the lookout for local ingenuity, fully aware that most domesticated crops had not been created in laboratories or by people in northern countries, but rather by farmers and foragers thousands of years ago. Environmental determinists would have called these people "primitive," at the mercy of planetary forces. Possibilists knew differently.

    Rice terraces in Southeast Asia are examples of complex adaptive systems micro-managed by human beings and lasting for millennia. Terraces are cultural landscapes exemplifying environmental possibilism: they turn sloping hillsides into flat spaces (limiting erosion), employ irrigation (limiting susceptibility of droughts), use natural methods of pest control and soil fertility, and so forth.

    Possibilism Ifugao rice terraces StudySmarterFig. 2 - Ifugao rice terraces in the Philippines are a complex adaptive system

    Geographer Gilbert F. White (1911-2006) offered another approach, involving the management of natural hazards. He was less interested in Indigenous and traditional approaches to adaptation and more focused on how modern technology could work with nature, particularly in floodplains, rather than against it.

    Respect for Nature and Local Knowledge

    Environmental possibilism elicits a healthy respect for the forces of nature and looks for sustainability and balance in humans' shaping of natural landscapes into cultural landscapes.

    The forces of the Earth, such as the changing climate, are neither something we are helpless to stop nor anything we will ever be able to fully control. We will never stop earthquakes, but we can build better-adapted landscapes (White) and we can learn how people have adapted to earthquakes for thousands of years (Sauer). The same goes for droughts, floods, volcanoes, soil erosion, desertification, and salinization; the list goes on.

    Examples of Possibilism

    There are examples of the possibilism mindset at work all around us; we just have to know what to look for.


    When water flows, it meanders. The water in streams, and the particles in the water, move in such a fashion that they create a dynamic, unstable environment if you happen to be anywhere in the path of where the river "wants" to go. Not only do most rivers flood on an annual basis, but they also eat away at their banks and change their courses.

    People want to associate with rivers for their resources and their uses as transport arteries. People also want to live and farm near rivers because of the fertile soils, even amid deserts. Think Nile Valley. Ancient Egyptian farmers were able to constrain but not stop the annual floods of the Nile, and instead use them for agriculture.

    Flood control is the ultimate battle of humans against nature. Humans set out to keep floods away and rivers in controllable channels. But from the Yellow River in China to the Tigris and Euphrates in Mesopotamia, the fate of whole empires and civilizations can turn on the whims of a river in flood.

    In the Lower Mississippi Alluvial Valley, a complex system of levees, locks, floodways, and other structures constitute the largest engineering project in human history. The system has held up to multiple "100-year" floods in the last century. The mainline levees along the Mississippi River have not failed since 1927. But at what cost?

    Possibilism Mississippi levee StudySmarterFig. 3- Mississippi River levee protects town (left) from river in flood (right). The Mississippi's levee and floodwalls are 3 787 miles long

    The system is built to get floodwater down and out of farming areas as quickly as possible, so soil is mostly no longer replenished by annual floods. In New Orleans, the lack of flooding has kept the city safe...and sinking! The land has dried out and the soil contracted, literally meaning the land has dropped in elevation. Wetlands in the Mississippi Valley which should serve to filter contaminants upstream are gone, so coastal Louisiana is one of the biggest environmental catastrophes in the US as everything ends up here.

    Point 4 under the Features, above: the law of unintended consequences. The more we tamper with and control the Mississippi, the more we create problems along with solutions. And someday (ask any engineer), a flood so large will come that the whole system will be overwhelmed. We can think of this as unsustainable possibilism.

    Coastlines and Hurricanes

    Now let's pick on Florida. Sun and fun, right? You need to have a beach for that. Turns out sand is migratory, and if you build a lot of structures on a beach, it will pile up in one area while disappearing from another. So you truck in more sand. You're not adapting to nature, but you are solving your short-term problem. Unfortunately for snowbirds and sun-worshippers, there is a bigger problem looming.

    Year after year, we see the destruction caused by hurricanes in highly developed Florida coastal communities. When a hurricane like Ian in 2022 wreaks havoc, we see so many flaws that it seems the environment is too much for us and is determining our fate. With global warming promising to make things worse, better to give up and abandon the whole Florida coast to nature, right? The following example suggests that a possibilist approach can also be sustainable.

    Ian breezed right through Babcock Ranch with minor damage. This is because the development, near Fort Myers, was specifically built to withstand hurricanes. This involves not only the quality of building materials but the channeling of floodwater, the use of native vegetation, solar power, and other innovations. It received a lot of press after the storm because it was so successful.

    The lessons of Babcock are likely to spread elsewhere, and perhaps will someday become the norm: we can adapt to nature, neither by giving up nor by conquering it.

    Possibilism - Key takeaways

    • Possibilism sees the environment as constraining but not determining human geography.
    • Possibilism is a midpoint between environmental determinism on one hand and social constructivism on the other.
    • Possibilism is associated with Carl Sauer, Gilbert White, and many other geographers focused on adaptation to natural hazards and complex adaptive systems in traditional societies.
    • Examples of possibilism at work include flood control in the Lower Mississippi Alluvial Valley, and building to withstand hurricanes in Florida.


    1. Diamond, J. M. 'Guns, germs and steel: a short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years.' Random House. 1998.
    2. Lombardo, P. A., ed. 'A century of eugenics in America: from the Indiana experiment to the human genome era.' Indiana University Press. 2011.
    3. Fig. 1, Angkor Wat (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ankor_Wat_temple.jpg) by Kheng Vungvuthy is licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)
    4. Fig. 2, Ifugao rice terraces (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ifugao_-_11.jpg) by Aninah Ong is licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)
    5. Fig 3, Mississippi levee (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mississippi_River_Louisiana_by_Ochsner_Old_Jefferson_Louisiana_18.jpg) by Infrogmation of New Orleans (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Infrogmation) is licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)
    Frequently Asked Questions about Possibilism

    What is the concept of possibilism?

    The concept of possibilism is that nature constrains but does not determine human activity.

    What is an example of possibilism in geography?

    An example of possibilism in geography is the hazards research of Gilbert White, focused on floodplain management.

    How is possibilism different from environmental determinism?

    Environmental determinism states that the natural environment, for example climate, determines human activity can even directly influence human genes.

    Why is possibilism important?

    Possibilism is important because it recognizes how well adapted traditional societies are to environmental constraints and it inspires us to learn from them and to create our own adaptive solutions, rather than assume that the environment always conquers us or we can always conquer the environment.

    Who is the father of environmental possibilism?

    The father of environmental possibilism was Paul Vidal de la Blache.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    "Possibilism" is best defined as:

    The Mississippi River ________.

    Babcock Ranch _______.


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