In this post, we will discuss the differences between classic and contemporary environmental thought. To do this we will provide examples of each from in-class readings. Our goal is that by analyzing implicit and explicit examples of contemporary and classic thought we will give you, the reader, a solid foundational understanding of the two fields.
To further enforce the differences between the two schools of thought, we will give a prescient example of an environmental problem and the solutions proposed by both camps. Finally, we’ll describe how our own views have changed in the course of our research. We will state our current views on each and describe what type of thought we identify with most.
The purpose of this synthesis is to analyze and present our findings on classic and contemporary environmental thought. As the environmental world continues to evolve, we must have a framework for analyzing the myriad of perspectives on issues, ranging from deforestation to urban development. Classic vs. Contemporary thought gives us such a framework.
What Are Classic and Contemporary Thought?
In the world of environmentalism, there are two different types of thought, classic and contemporary. Classic environmental thought is less adaptive to change and presents a more straightforward way of thinking. Garret Hardin’s, “The Tragedy of the Commons” is a popular example of classic environmental thought. Hardin claims that shared resources must be controlled by outside influence to prevent humans from using them up completely. He specifically focuses on overpopulation, stating that we need the government to control how many children we are allowed to have (Hardin 1968). This is an important example of classic environmentalism because it assumes that his idea is the only solution to overpopulation.
Another example of classic environmental thought is the essay “Limits to Growth: a 30-year update” which uses a computer model known as World3 to predict the effects of overpopulation on our planet. One of the claims the authors make is that “waiting to introduce fundamental change reduces the options for humanity’s long-term future […and] the model world’s goal for industrial goods per capita […] cannot be sustained for the resulting population of more than seven billion” (Meadows et al. 2004). This is an example of classic thought as it’s very straightforward and focused on the problem.
One final example of classic environmental thought comes from the research group behind “Planetary Boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet.” They argue for the relevance of the Planetary Boundaries framework, stating that it “defines a safe operating space for humanity based on the intrinsic biophysical processes that regulate the stability of the Earth system” (Steffen et al. 2015). Essentially, they say that we need new policies that will regulate the planet to remain within strict planetary boundaries.
Classic thought is more pessimistic than contemporary thought, but it has a solid grasp on defining the problem and coming up with a solution. It offers a secure, factual version of the future in which the solutions are self-evident and only need to be implemented in order to be successful.
Contemporary environmental thought is much more focused on being resilient in a time known as liquid modernity. We live in a time of constant change that requires adaptation and flexibility, particularly in environmental thought. Since it’s more focused on resilience, it tends to be more optimistic than classic thought. Contemporary thought often claims that we will recover from climate change because humanity has always been able to recover from so-called catastrophes in the past.
One example of this is the article, “Extinctions are not inevitable. These species were saved.” The short article highlights a few case studies of species that scientists were able to prevent from going extinct. Nuwer claims that we should seek inspiration from the positive success stories and continue to address the “root causes of species loss” (Nuwer 2020). Her article strikes an optimistic tone but is a good example of contemporary thought in that it is incredibly different from anything in classic thought.
Another example of contemporary environmental thought is “Love Your Monsters”. The authors claim that we need to make use of technology to solve the climate crisis, rather than continuing to be afraid of its advances and the possibilities it provides. They also claim that the way forward relies on adaptation and resilience, two very common claims in contemporary thought (Latour 2011).
One final example of contemporary thought is the essay “Planetary Opportunities: A social contract for global change science to contribute to a sustainable future” (DeFries 2012). In opposition to the classic article mentioned earlier, “Planetary Boundaries”, the author of this article claims that there are in fact, no strict limits to growth that we cannot adapt to with the help of technology.
The problem with contemporary thought is that it can cause us to become complacent in looking for solutions in advance of the problem, rather than just adapting to changing circumstances as they appear. Classic and contemporary environmental thought are both valuable and important methods of addressing environmental issues.
Ecotypes and Environmental Thought
Since the world and its problems are incredibly complex, we need an equally complex solution. This is where technology can play a big, and possibly world-saving role. Using the EcoTypes axes as a frame of reference, we can see solutions echoed in the Technology axis. Classical thought regards technophilia (one of the axis’s poles) as a recipe for disaster. It believes that technology will only create more problems and will only be beneficial to the corporations that built them.
While images of nuclear power plants or coal may pass through your head, humans have found better ways to maximize the efficiency of technology. A good example of this would be the products coming from the CEO and architect of Tesla, Elon Musk. He demonstrates regard for taking care of the environment with his technologically advanced products.
We as humans have also used dams and wind turbines to make energy without creating any pollution. For this reason, we believe that we need to make use of new technologies to solve the climate crisis because we live in the future now, and therefore hold greater and more complex responsibilities.
Technology will either be our savior or our downfall, it just depends on whether we neglect it, or nurture it. In the words of Bruno Latour, “the moral of the story, where saving the planet is concerned, is that we should treat technological creations as we would treat our children…” (Latour 2011). But if we ignore technology then it will turn into a monster that will destroy us all.
This gives us a good segway into the EcoTypes Future axis. The Future EcoType’s left pole says there is an environmental crisis brewing, which correlates with classic thought. The right pole holds a more liquid modernity point of view. In classical thought, environmentalists tend to see the future as an unavoidable crisis. This is a good example of how classical thought is rigid and based on the past and this is why contemporary environmental thought thinks that classical environmental thought is part of the problem when it comes to beating these issues.
Classic environmental thought likes to use older forms of thinking in order to find solutions for modern-day problems. The issue, however, is that society of the past had different issues than the society of today. Therefore, it is necessary to look at the world through the lens of liquid modernity to find creative solutions to the intricate problems we are facing today. This also relates to the Time EcoType since the left pole is focused on the past, and thus follows classical thought. The right pole relates to the future and therefore is more contemporary.
In addition, in the Nature EcoType, contemporary environmentalism contemplates the idea of having a hybrid society. We can use technology to support the Earth but only if we use it wisely. According to contemporary environmental thought, it is pointless to let nature do its own thing since we have already passed the point of no return. Humans and nature are already interwoven. Therefore, contemporary thinkers would say this opens up the possibility that in having a hybrid relationship with nature, it’s very name may disappear.
The Rising Tide of Climate Thought
Classic versus contemporary thought in the context of sea-level rise isn’t as clear cut as most issues. On the classic front, there is a push from organizations like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to disseminate information. According to NOAA, seas are rising an average of ⅛ of an inch per year due to thermal expansion (volume of water growing in heat) and arctic melting. This is increasingly inundating coastal communities, risking the homes of the 40% of Americans who live on the coast (NOAA).
In an analysis of sea-level rise, researchers John Church and Neil White call the recent 30-year acceleration a confirmation of climate change models. They predict at the current acceleration rate, oceans could rise as much as 13 inches by the end of the century (Church and White 2006). This linear cause and effect analysis is a clear example of classic thought.
Similarly, according to The Balance, a popular market analysis website, sea-level rise would be disastrous for coastal properties around the world, costing billions in flood damage. The article analyzes the statistics of sea-level rise while recognizing the range of possible solutions. Their main point is that current measures are about coping with sea-level rise, not preventing it. This includes building seawalls and drainage systems. These ideas suggest we are approaching a climate disaster, and that radical solutions are our only hope.
The article also addresses measures like carbon sequestration, which could reverse thermal expansion, a permanent and classically-minded solution. Unlike the two previous articles, The Balance recognizes that sea-level rise is a complex issue with many possible solutions.
In these two environmental analyses of what the future might look like, National Geographic and The Independent explore several massive sea-wall projects already underway which hope to mitigate the effects of sea-level rise. One stretches 250-miles along the coast of Japan, and the other is a Bird Shaped Island in Jakarta, Indonesia.
In contemporary environmental fashion, these projects are controversial. Jakarta’s rampant groundwater pumping is sinking the city, making it more susceptible to flooding. To prevent this, authorities want to build a series of large barrier islands in order to prevent flooding (National Geographic). Issues of class, water rights, and waste management combine to make this project even more complex than it would be otherwise.
In Japan, many people feel that a sea-wall isn’t the best solution. They ask, “why not move people inland?”
Yet another perspective on the Jakarta crisis from Wired Magazine highlights a classic approach to the issue. Wired reports that the Indonesian Government is preparing to build a new capital. The solution, the author suggests, is to move residents, rather than try to mitigate or reverse the problem, which is rife with humanitarian dilemmas.
In truly classic form, expert Michael Kiparsky says, “[t]he message here is that technology can’t get us out of this […] you need institutional solutions” (Wired). The article follows up this strongly technophobic stance by claiming that the only viable solution is to move the population inland. Rather than adapting through measures like sea-walls, the author makes it clear that the way forward is a unilateral decision to abandon the city and move inland.
Finally, a more geographically significant case of a classical and contemporary approach to dealing with sea-level rise. E&E News, a publication focused on environmental issues, examines how sea-level rise is affecting a Californian community on Balboa Island, which for years now has dealt with progressively worse flooding. For some contemporary-minded residents and city planners, the solution is to raise the entire island, which is astronomically expensive but could be achieved over time. Similar lines of thought promote slowly adding to the sea-wall. Others seem to outright ignore the fact that there is a problem, complaining that the solutions are unrealistic. This bickering is accompanied by more classical thinkers who believe that the solution is ultimately to reverse the causes of climate change. They’re advocating for an action-driven plan to reduce local carbon emissions (E&E News).
The myriad of opinions on Balboa Island alone demonstrates the complexity of the problems, ideas, and solutions shaping environmental thought. It’s hard to imagine a consensus can be reached. Classicalists are determined that action-oriented problem solving is the solution, but they ignore the incredible complexity of problems, and how rapidly they are changing. Contemporary thinkers, while creating ingenious new solutions to the problems facing our planet, tend to get tripped up by a lack of broad consensus. As our oceans continue to rise, we can only hope some change will be made.
Are sea walls the future? According to one dystopian sci-fi movie they are. The film Blade Runner 2049 eerily depicts what a massive sea wall might look like surrounding a city like Los Angeles.
As a group, we have had varied opinions on environmental thought from the outset. One of our members, Sydney, is an advocate of classic thought, though she appreciates the adaptability of contemporary thinkers. What she has come to like about classic environmental thought is that it doesn’t automatically believe there is a solution to everything. She agrees with practitioners’ common belief that we have already caused enough harm to the environment that there will be irreversible consequences.
One problem she has with classic thought, however, is that it tends to assume there is one solution that applies to all situations, rather than addressing the complexity in our world. Contemporary thought understands different places have distinct circumstances. Contemporary thought tailors solutions to fit those individual problems. Sydney believes the logical approach of classic thought combined with the adaptability of contemporary thought will present the best solutions to environmental issues.
For Sawyer and Sam, they were generally arrayed around the middle-classic end of the spectrum. They believed that the solid, classic approach was an effective means of analyzing environmental problems. Upon further reading, however, it left a lot to be desired. After several weeks of study, and synthesizing this exploration, Sawyer and Sam now share a more contemporary view of Environmentalism.
There are a plethora of poorly thought out and politicized arguments that have come out of classic thought. “Limits to Growth” and “The Tragedy of the Commons” to name a few. There is also a tremendous amount of false information and junk science which plagues the contemporary field. But it’s plural, amorphous nature means contemporary thought is adaptable to the rapid changes of our culture and planet.
Furthermore, we believe the optimism of contemporary thought is an important but neglected part of environmentalism. How can we survive crises like sea-level rise if we don’t have hope?
- Church, John A., and Neil J. White. 2006. “A 20th Century Acceleration in Global Sea-Level Rise.” Geophysical Research Letters 33 (1). https://doi.org/10.1029/2005GL024826.
- DeFries, Ruth S. et al. 2012. “Planetary Opportunities: A Social Contract for Global Change Science to Contribute to a Sustainable Future.” BioScience 62 (6): 603–6. https://doi.org/10.1525/bio.2012.62.6.11.
- Hardin, Garrett. 1968. “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Science 162 (3859): 1243–48. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.162.3859.1243.
- Latour, Bruno. 2011. “Love Your Monsters.” In Love Your Monsters: Postenvironmentalism and the Anthropocene, edited by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus. Oakland, CA: Breakthrough Institute. http://www.amazon.com/Love-Your-Monsters-Postenvironmentalism-ebook/dp/B006FKUJY6.
- Meadows, Donella, Jorgen Randers, and Dennis Meadows. 2004. Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.
- Nuwer, Rachel. 2020. “Extinction Is Not Inevitable. These Species Were Saved.” The New York Times, September 12, 2020, sec. Science. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/12/science/extinction-species-conservation.html.
- Steffen, Will, Katherine Richardson, Johan Rockström, Sarah E. Cornell, Ingo Fetzer, Elena M. Bennett, Reinette Biggs, et al. 2015. “Planetary Boundaries: Guiding Human Development on a Changing Planet.” Science 347 (6223): 1259855. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1259855.