Are you a classic or contemporary environmentalist? Many may not have an answer to this question, or even understand what it is asking. My group and I have spent the past few weeks asking ourselves this question. We developed a full understanding of both classic and contemporary thought to create an educated opinion on the debate. To gain this apprehension, we decided we must clearly define the two thought processes, connect them to specific ecotypes, and find examples of these themes in current research.
Contemporary And Classic Thought Defined
“Companion to Environmental Studies” makes an important distinction between classic and contemporary environmental thought. The authors write that classic thought is “early developments of environmental studies from the mid-20th century,” (Castree, Hulme, and Proctor 2018, 3) while contemporary thought is a “response both to intellectual developments and the ever-changing world,” (Castree, Hulme, and Proctor 2018, 3). I agree with these definitions, however, I believe that they can be further explained.
The concepts of solid and liquid modernity are extremely relevant when distinguishing between classic and contemporary thought. Liquid modernity is “distant from ‘heavy’ and better still ‘hard’ and ‘solid’ modernity of yore: ours is not the ‘constructed’, administered, and managed, but a diffuse, all-permeating, all saturating kind of modernity,” (Bauman 2001). Moreover, liquid modernity represents the state of our social condition that is vague and unsettled, while solid modernity is defined and certain. Classic thought relates to solid modernity just as contemporary thought relates to liquid modernity. The distinction between solid and liquid is critical to environmental thought because the way that we view our state of modernity influences how we create solutions for our current problems.
Examples of liquid modernity include works such as “Evolve” by Micheal Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, where the authors try to persuade readers to become post environmentalists so that we see the future as an opportunity rather than our demise (Shellenberger and Nordhaus 2011). Also, in “The End of Sustainability” by Melinda Benson and Robin Craig write that sustainability is not the solution to the realities of the anthropocene (Benson and Craig 2014). Finally, “Planetary Opportunities” by Ruth DeFries et al. suggests we must move beyond biophysical limits to meet the needs of our ever changing environment, population, and world (DeFries et al. 2012). These authors see the world in a state of liquid modernity. Therefore, the solutions provided in these readings reflect contemporary thought.
Sources such as “The Tragedy of the Commons” by Garrett Hardin who explain how humans’ selfish tendencies cause shared resources to be overconsumed (Hardin 1968). “Planetary Boundaries” by Steffen Will et al. explains that we must be wary of the planet’s biophysical limits in order to create solutions for environmental issues such as climate change. “Limits to Growth” by Meadows et al warns us of the grim future we face as a result of growing population and overconsumption of limited resources (Meadows, Randers, and Meadows 2004). These authors view the world in a state of solid modernity, therefore the approaches found in these works mirror classical thought.
Understanding the ideologies of contemporary and classical individuals allows us to gather a more nuanced definition of these thoughts. We conclude that classic environmental thought can be defined as early environmentalism, viewing the world in a state of solid modernity, where solutions are concrete and solved through restrictive behaviors and small collective efforts. We define contemporary thought as postmodern environmentalism: understanding that change is ubiquitous, where we must adapt to this uncertainty through new developments and resiliency. Contemporary thought is not the opposite of classic thought, rather it uses fundamental ideas found in classic thought to develop its more progressive principles.
Classic And Contemporary Thought In EcoTypes
In environmental studies, many ideas are heavily influenced by the differences between classic and contemporary thought. The ecotypes axes aren’t an exception to this norm. Taking the ecotypes axis survey can give a significant insight to which mode of thought one agrees with more, and in what ways. However, not all the axes are a representation of classic vs. contemporary thought.
In some ecotype axes, classic and contemporary thought each heavily influence one side of the axis, but not the other side. This is most common in the large topic of place, more specifically the axes of aesthetics, future, ecosystems, and nature. This trend is also evident in the knowledge and action topics, but less profoundly. For every axis where this is evident, the left side represents the classic point of view, and the right side represents contemporary.
The society axis is a good and important example of this. The left pole, consensus, represents the classic view that every individual is partially to blame for environmental issues. The right pole, conflict, represents a more contemporary idea that those with a lot of power are more responsible for environmental issues, and therefore have more responsibility to fix them. However, even though these two ideas are nearly opposites, one is not necessarily more correct or better than the other. Contemporary thought may be more common with environmentalists today, but mainstream media still represents a very classic point of view, which influences many people’s opinions.
The ecotypes axis “future” is another example of this trend. The left side of the axis is crisis, which is characterized by the idea that complete disaster is inevitable. This panic-inducing idea is seen throughout famous classic writing, like The Tragedy of the Commons. The right side of the pole is possibility, which represents the contemporary point of view that there is potential to solve and to adapt to environmental issues in the future, and that having an optimistic point of view is more productive. Just like the society axis, these two ideas portray the future as bleak and inevitable on the one side, and on the other, as flexible and possible. This represents a stark difference between classic and contemporary thought.
However, with some axes, both sides are influenced by both ideologies. This is equally common within the knowledge and action themes, but is not seen at all in the place theme. Consider the change axis, for example: The left side is incremental change; small changes adding to make larger change happen, and the right side is radical change; focusing on large scale changes rather than individual ones. These two sides both represent classic ideologies, as classic environmentalism has historically led to both radical and incremental change. It can be argued that either side has a more classic point of view than the other, but in reality, classic environmentalism plays a large role in both.
Similarly, the domain axis in the knowledge theme also does not represent a simple classic vs contemporary outlook. The “ideal” side of the axis values focusing not only on changing our practices, but our paradigms and values as well. The “material” side represents the idea that just changing these things is not enough, but laws and policy need to change for real action to result. Both of these outlooks hold very similar values, just different extents of the same idea. Therefore, both are influenced more by contemporary thought than classic thought.
Overall, both classic and contemporary thought clearly play a large role in the idea of ecotypes. These different modes of environmental thought are the basis of differentiating opinions in the field of environmental studies, and are vital to understanding viewpoints that differ from one’s own. Having a concrete understanding of the differences that divide classic and contemporary thinkers can be extremely useful when approaching big environmental topics. Being able to recognize strengths and weaknesses in both sides of a discussion leads to more positive changes, and unanimous action. The best way to do this is to understand the differences in the two ideologies, and how that affects outlooks on different topics, like seen in the ecotypes.
Classic vs. Contemporary Thought Exemplified
The issue of overpopulation and its impact on resource availability presents a real-world example of the divide between the two frames of environmental thought. Many classic thinkers would advise us to do everything we can to curb the rapid consumption of natural resources that results from accelerated population growth, even if that means substantially altering our lifestyles. In some cases, they even go as far as to suggest measures of population control. On the other hand, contemporary thinkers focus more on ways that we can adapt human society to work with, not against, population growth. In fact, some even contend that overpopulation is being made out to be a bigger threat than it really is.
This New York Times article, titled “Overpopulation Is Not the Problem”, takes a contemporary position. The author, Erle Ellis, gives his take on the concept of the Earth’s “carrying capacity”, one that was discussed extensively in publications such as The Limits to Growth. Ellis writes “The planet’s carrying capacity for prehistoric human hunter-gatherers was probably no more than 100 million. But without their Paleolithic technologies and ways of life, the number would be far less — perhaps a few tens of millions. The rise of agriculture enabled even greater population growth requiring ever more intensive land-use practices to gain more sustenance from the same old land. At their peak, those agricultural systems might have sustained as many as three billion people in poverty on near-vegetarian diets.”
In other words, human-developed technology has allowed the planet to accommodate more and more people over time. Ellis uses this line of evidence to ultimately claim that there is no such thing as a human carrying capacity, meaning that overpopulation, as the title of his article suggests, is really not a problem.
Despite the fact that many of the more popular resources on the topic of overpopulation were written in recent years, the overwhelming majority of them take a classic stance on the issue. A website called Population Matters, for instance, is quick to present several numerical figures and graphs indicating the exponential rate at which our population is growing. According to one of their pages, this exponential growth means that humans “are consuming more resources than our planet can regenerate, with devastating consequences.” Despite making this claim, which is arguably true, browsing the site reveals that it is devoid of technological solutions, focusing instead on small-action type changes at the individual level (highly relevant to the “incremental” pole of the change EcoTypes axis), such as having smaller families.
Another website called Everything Connects cites overpopulation as “among the most pressing environmental issues” and openly proposes more restrictions in order to slow down population growth and the damage it is causing. Still, this latest resource may be an example of contemporary approaches finding their way into environmentalism, as they do propose big-picture solutions such as “ universal access to safe and effective contraceptive options for both sexes”, which would be made possible by large entities such as governments, and also by technology. This is also the case in this article from the Ecavo website. The problem of overpopulation is clearly acknowledged as a formidable one, but the solutions proposed, such as policy change and better education, are more contemporary in that they place more responsibility on systems rather than people.
As shown in the previous two examples, not every view on this issue is clearly separated as classic or contemporary. Some researchers do acknowledge an exponentially growing human population as a significant environmental issue, but propose contemporary solutions, such as better rural development and the use of energy-efficient technologies (Hunter 2000). Additionally, many environmentalists point out that while a growing population has the potential to erode natural resources at a fast rate, it is only one among many factors that contribute to environmental degradation. Rapid population growth itself does not necessarily damage the environment so much as it “simply exacerbates other conditions such as bad governance, civil conflict, wars, polluting technologies, or distortionary policies” (de Sherbinin et al. 2007).
Finally, although the idea that overpopulation needs to be controlled and slowed immediately to protect the environment is typically perceived as a classic idea, some researchers who discuss this diverge from the more classic-oriented call for individual lifestyle choices (eg. having smaller families) and instead emphasize the importance of both national and international institutions in mitigating the effects of overpopulation (Baus 2017).
In the debate of contemporary thought vs classic thought, we understand that classic and contemporary thought are not polar opposites, but instead two lenses of a problem focused on different elements. These two ideas are more intertwined than we originally believed, making it difficult to identify completely with just one. We find value in both modes of thought. Classic thought provides a necessary sense of urgency and a collective call to action. We see the benefits of preservation and classic sustainability but recognize that it is not the ultimate solution. While individual change is not enough to change things on its own, we still value these small scale changes and their attempt to prevent climate disaster.
We agree with contemporary thought because of the value placed on progress and the understanding that development can be a positive thing, and be more effective in adapting to a new state of the world. Contemporary thought also puts more of an emphasis on driving real, significant change, and is less restrictive while still creating more opportunity to move forward.
We recognize there are strengths and weaknesses in both sides of environmental thought, but our team still agrees most with a contemporary outlook, however, we would not define ourselves as radical post environmentalists. We believe that the best solution to environmental issues involves taking ideas associated with classic thought and intertwining them into contemporary environmental thought.
For instance, actions like trying to encourage individuals to change their behavior to benefit the environment in a small way while simultaneously encouraging and fighting for large scale systemic change represent this combination of classic and contemporary thought. We agree with working to adapt the environment in a way that values both humans and nature and finds a way to connect the two without encouraging a restricted lifestyle.
- Baus, Doris. n.d. 2017. “Overpopulation and the Impact on the Environment.” 60. CUNY Academic Works. City University of New York.
- Benson, Melinda Harm, and Robin Kundis Craig. 2014. “The End of Sustainability.” Society & Natural Resources 27 (7): 777–82. https://doi.org/10.1080/08941920.2014.901467.
- Castree, Noel, Mike Hulme, and James D. Proctor. 2018. Companion to Environmental Studies. Routledge.
- 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.
- de Sherbinin, Alex de, David Carr, Susan Cassels, and Leiwen Jiang. 2007. “Population and Environment.” Annual Review of Environment and Resources 32: 345–73. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.energy.32.041306.100243.
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- Hardin, Garrett. 1968. “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Science 162 (3859): 1243–48. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.162.3859.1243.
- Hunter, Lori M. 2000. “Population and Environment: A Complex Relationship,” January. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_briefs/RB5045.html.
- Meadows, Donella, Jorgen Randers, and Dennis Meadows. 2004. Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.
- Shellenberger, Michael, and Ted Nordhaus. 2011. “Evolve.” 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.
- 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.