The ongoing debate between classical and contemporary environmental thought is primarily recognized as it unfolds in the public arenas of policy and regulation, scientific research, and private initiative; however, it is a debate that also occurs in the hearts and minds of every human being who begins to contemplate our place within nature. Here, the two schools are compared and contrasted, connected to polarized stances on various EcoTypes axes, and finally removed from theoretical discussion and applied to the all-too-real issue of air pollution and human health.
Defining Classic vs. Contemporary Environmental Thought
Classical environmental thought generally came about in the 1960’s and ‘70s, while contemporary environmental thought encompasses more modern approaches and ideology – although both exist today and can be seen within policies and action plans.
A helpful concept to reference when learning to distinguish between classic and contemporary environmental thought is the concept of liquid modernity which defines the present as constantly being in a state of instability and uncertainty, which contrasts solid modernity which defines the present moment as being rigidly grounded. Classical thought embraces solid modernity while contemporary thought embraces liquid modernity as the basis of the environment’s naturally dynamic state and urges humans to be just as dynamic in their approaches to solving environmental issues.
Many contemporary thinkers argue that, because the environment is ever changing, it’s impossible to predict the future state of the environment as classical thinkers attempt to do with theories such as Hardin’s (1968) “Tragedy of the Commons,” which suggests there is a carrying capacity of earth’s resources based on the demands of the human population. Ostrom (2008) suggested in her essay “The Challenge of Common Pool Resources” that his study overgeneralizes when referring to “common resources” and urges that we must have regional perspective when searching for solutions to unsustainable resource practices, making her thoughts more contemporary.
There is no technical solution to the population problem….A finite world can support only a finite population; therefore, population growth must eventually equal zero.Garrett Hardin (1968, 1243)
We should not act as if we know for certain how to achieve sustainable development. We can, however, recognize our growing capabilities and those of the individuals we study….(and) gradually improve outcomes so they are sustainable over time.Elinor Ostrom (2008, 19)
In the essay “Limits of Growth: the 30-year Update,” Meadows et al. (2004) use computer data to support their warnings that there will be detrimental planetary consequences if we do not slow down our exponential population growth. Smil (2005), in a very passionate disagreement articulated in “Limits of Growth revisited: A Review Essay”, argues that humans are capable of adapting to any environmental challenge, and that we cannot even try to predict the future because of liquid modernity. Similarly, classically thinking Steffen et al.(2015) focuses on the limits to which we can push the earth and its natural resources in “Planetary Boundaries: Guiding Human Development on a Changing Planet”. On the other hand, DeFries et al. (2012) have more of a contemporary take in his “Planetary Opportunities: A Social Contract for Global Change Science to Contribute to a Sustainable Future” where they focus on the opportunities we have as humans to beneficially grow with the environment and adapt to any environmental challenges we face by relying upon continued development and new technology. Clearly, classical thinkers seem to maintain a pessimistic view of the state of the human/environmental relationship, while contemporary thinkers think optimistically about the future.
Classical environmental thought generally relies more heavily upon dramatic scientific statements without much room for complexity. Contemporary thinkers don’t try to apply overly simplistic models to our complex and deeply interconnected planetary system. In addition, classical thinkers support an idea of an equilibrium state of nature where human interference causes a deviation from that natural state. In general, classical thought is more predictive of ecological crises and contemporary thought is more responsive and adaptive to said problems, seeking to capitalize on planetary possibilities which involves a general acceptance of technology and urban development.
Classic/Contemporary Thought & EcoTypes
Classic and contemporary thought can be better understood by looking at the EcoType axes. The EcoType axes are divided into poles and themes. Similarly to classic versus contemporary environmental thought, there is no right or wrong stance on the axes, but rather, different ways of thinking and perceiving the issues in question.
People today are more evenly split between both poles of the EcoTypes axes; whereas, historically, most leaned primarily toward the classical side of issues due to the attractive stability of solid modernity. Although numerous EcoTypes axes demonstrate the dichotomy of the two worldviews, the contrast between classical thought as it is grounded in solid modernity, and contemporary thought as it pertains to liquid modernity is extremely visible among EcoTypes axes such as Technology, Time, and Nature.
Classical environmental thought views Nature as something that should be wild and untouched by humans, whereas contemporary thought emphasizes the importance of a dynamic, hybrid environment. On the Technology axis, classical thinkers are generally technophobic – they believe that human technologies are inherently destructive and have no place in nature. Contemporary environmental thought tends toward the opposite pole: technophilia, which embraces technological solutions to environmental problems. Lastly, because they tend to believe that humans must collectively reject our current, environmentally detrimental lifestyles and return to more traditional methods of coexisting with nature, Classical thinkers gravitate towards the “Past” side of the Time axis. Contemporary thinkers – who acknowledge the dynamic nature of the present and promote development and technological progress – lean towards the “Future” side.
In class, we discussed our EcoType test results. We saw that our team, overall, wasn’t strongly inclined towards the left or the right poles on the majority of the axes. On the Nature and Tech axes our team was split evenly between pure and hybrid nature; while, on the Time axis, we all gravitated towards the “Past.” This indicates a slight partiality (or at least predisposition) to classical thought. On the Change axis we all favored radical change, except for Rhi, who places more stock in more incremental action. Interestingly, for each of us, there were contradictions in our overall results – that is, no one answered consistently in a contemporary or classical manner, but we all share a mix of both views.
That’s why it’s best to take all this debate about classic vs. contemporary thought with a grain of salt! Although, in general, classical and contemporary thought are polar opposites on the EcoTypes axes; this is not always the case, as no environmental issue is black and white. Both the left and right poles can have elements of classic and contemporary environmental thought embedded within them. Looking at Change axis, for example, one can readily observe that the two poles, incremental and radical change, could both be interpreted through either classic or contemporary environmental thought. A classical thinker often believes that radical change is necessary to change current (allegedly flawed) systems; however, they may still embrace incremental changes – which are more often promoted by contemporary thinkers – as long as these small changes align with classical values. It is important to note this overlapping of classical and contemporary thought throughout different EcoType axes. It reiterates that neither classic nor contemporary environmental thought is concretely the correct way to interpret environmental issues.
Example: Air Pollution – The Health Threat No One Can Avoid
One environmental issue that has massive implications for human health is air pollution. Anthropogenic sources of air pollution are numerous and affect humans in the forms of indoor and ambient (outdoor) pollution, which may be anything from cigarette smoke, to CO2 fumes, to carcinogenic nanomaterials (Prüss-Üstün et al. 2016, 46-68; WHO n.d). According to the World Health Organization (WHO n.d), the aggregate effect of air pollution is 7 million premature deaths each year, with the majority of those most affected belonging to impoverished countries undergoing the growing pains of industrialization. This brings additional concerns about environmental justice into an already sensitive and complex debate: namely, how much is anthropogenic air pollution to blame for human illness and what should we do about it?
Most sources seem to agree that there is a causal link between increased levels of air pollution and decreased human health quality. In their comprehensive WHO study, Prüss-Üstün et al. (Prüss-Üstün et al. 2016, 46-86) attributed several ailments to anthropogenic air pollution, including lung cancer, heart disease, stroke, asthma, congenital birth anomalies, and even mental health disorders. Concerned as it is with global human health, the WHO tends to adopt a more classical perspective on the issue, favoring international bans on harmful air pollutants and increased air quality regulation (Prüss-Üstün et al. 2016, 103-105). This exemplifies classical thought because it seeks to establish boundaries for human behaviors – especially regarding the processes of industrialization and development – in order to maintain some perceived “safe”/ideal state within the environment.
In fact, much of the discourse surrounding air pollution and human health takes this classical approach. Younger et al. (2008) get very specific in their argument, blaming globally rising levels of greenhouse gases for interrelated issues broadly called climate change, sea-level rise, abnormal weather, drought, etc. The issue, they continue, is humans: our factories, agricultural practices, vehicles, energy production, buildings, and forestry are all problems to be fixed by reducing or abandoning the faulty methods altogether. In a similar study, Power et al. (2018) condemned rapid population growth and urbanization as the primary causes of unhealthy air, firmly arguing that “air pollution remains an inevitable consequence of global industrialization.” Both these arguments are grounded in the solid modernity of classical thought, which relies heavily upon relatively simple representations of reality to make unequivocal assertions about the ideal state of the environment, its future, and our impacts upon it.
This need for certainty and order is embedded in the most influential institutions of the environmental field. The EPA, for example, sets universal air quality standards and imposes uniform sanctions, regulations, and standards for “non-attainment” zones, despite the widely varied circumstances that must exist based upon an area’s unique natural and sociopolitical environments. Recognizing the negative human health impacts of air pollution, the EPA suggests that citizens limit their exposure and adopt at-home strategies like reducing automobile use, again demonstrating the classical attachment to simplistic, restrictive solutions. Such sentiments are equally embedded in popular media, such as the New York Times, which urges its readers to reduce their carbon footprint by going vegetarian, ditching cars, and taking fewer plane trips.
Concern about air pollution has been profitable for firms engaged in green capitalism. As consumers absorb the warnings of classical thinkers, they eagerly reach for products sold by “low-carbon footprint” companies. Forbes magazine offers a list of businesses allegedly taking steps to eliminate their emissions.
Other companies take a more adaptive approach, selling air purifiers to cleanse household pollutants. This is where we start to see a slow transition to contemporary thinking, which maintains that human and natural systems are too complex to form definitive conclusions or establish restrictions. Adaptation and compromise are two essential components of contemporary thinking, and several organizations worldwide are adopting this method of handling the issue of air pollution. Architect Stefano Boeri has begun an initiative called “Urban Forestry” dedicated to building vertical, skyscraper-like gardens to naturally purify air in smog dense cities. Innovative organizations like Graviky Labs and Studio Roosegaarde have developed technologies to absorb air pollution and convert it into products like ink or jewelry, respectively. Bhattacharya et al. (Bhattacharya et al. 2018) explored the potential applications of nanotechnology to remove toxins from within the human body.
Meanwhile, heterodox approaches are being created (or, in some cases, returned to) to help individuals do what they can to adapt to living in polluted air. In India, for example, citizens of the notoriously smoggy Delhi are encouraged to practice yoga, take steam baths, and eat a detoxifying diet in order to protect their health.
These wildly diverse approaches share one thing: they all embrace the uncertainties of liquid modernity with forward momentum. Contemporary thinking like this sees air pollution and its impact upon human health and seeks creative solutions that don’t necessarily involve making sacrifices or establishing boundaries based upon limited knowledge; it doesn’t ashamedly denounce human development of nature; instead, it aspires to a hybrid nature in which human technology and ingenuity are utilized to their fullest extent.
As we see from the example of air pollution, we now subsume different concepts, policies and even household products under the umbrellas of either classical and contemporary thought. But they don’t have a life on their own. Rather, it is us leaning towards one side or the other, and sometimes also drifting in between. We allude to that in our discussion of the Ecotypes in the respective chapter, where it becomes clear that there is no black and white line, and that the Ecotypes system can be viewed from different angles. Consequently, even strong differences in the Ecotypes schools didn’t necessarily represent stark disagreement regarding contemporary vs classical thought in our team. Therefore, our group had mixed feelings about this debate with its sharp contrast between the two schools of thought.
We all agreed that
- nature is adaptive and that change is a part of that in the Age of Anthropocene
- there is a lot of value in the contemporary thought with its concept of liquid modernity and that the factor change has to be incorporated into a modern concept
- much of the early work done by classical thinkers in Environmental Studies is very valuable and should be appreciated
- the concept of planetary boundaries seems still very useful to employ, and we appreciate the strong scientific basis for many of the classical works
Especially Olivia and Moritz valued classical thought over contemporary, as they
- feel that contemporary thought often comes across as giving up the fight and research on the major environmental problems that the world is facing
- perceived that the foundation in science is lacking with contemporary thinking, and that proactive solutions are more often found in classical thought
- favor policies to limit the concentration of pollutants in the air for the example of air pollution. For them, it seems a privileged standpoint to assume liquid solutions to this and call bad air quality an opportunity for human ingenuity
On the other hand, Rhi and Anélyse were much more leaning towards contemporary thought, as they
- don’t want to take the static classical perspective as the only and definite perspective on our environmental problems
- believe that our concepts and theories need to align with the fluidity of the outer world to be useful
- think that it would be foolish to tackle the example of air pollution just by setting a limit to permitted air pollution given our current lifestyles
- would much rather see a world where we embrace change and integrate new technical solutions like skyscraper gardens and air filters
Overall, Moritz and Olivia both feel that the solid scientific data of classical thinking, as well as its proactive approach to environmental issues are stronger responses to the issues we are facing. Anelyse and Rhi were more supportive of the contemporary approach, because of its acknowledgement of the complex, interconnected nature of the relationship between human and non-human environments. Still, we often find that the disagreement is not very large and we don’t consider each other in opposed camps.
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Younger, Margalit, Heather R. Morrow-Almeida, Stephen M. Vindigni, and Andrew L. Dannenberg. 2008. “The Built Environment, Climate Change, and Health: Opportunities for Co-Benefits.” American Journal of Preventive Medicine 35 (5): 517–26. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.amepre.2008.08.017.
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Table of Figures
FIG 1. Anna-Lena. 2020. [Demonstration Fridays For Future Berlin]. Photograph.
FIG 2. World Health Organization. n.d. Air Pollution – The Silent Killer. Infographic. World Health Organization. Accessed October 2, 2020a. https://www.who.int/airpollution/infographics/Air-pollution-INFOGRAPHICS-English-1.1200px.jpg?ua=1.