In the early 21st century, a new era of environmental thought began to emerge which challenged the preexisting notions developed from the 1960’s onward. This questioning of classical ideas such as tragedy of the commons (Hardin, Garrett. 1968.) and limits to growth (Donella H. Meadows [and others]. (1972)) by the new contemporary thinkers created a choice for environmental thinkers, a choice between classical and contemporary thought..
However, although it is newer, it would be a mistake to suggest that the younger generations of environmental thinkers all use contemporary thought as concepts such as the aforementioned limits to growth and tragedy of the commons are still very popular today and yet come from classical thinkers.
An example of some distinctions between the schools could be that classical is future oriented and has more general solutions whereas contemporary is more present oriented and has more specialized solutions. It is hard to say either school is right or wrong. In both schools, thinkers base their conclusions on fact, but those facts can lead them down drastically different paths.
Defining classic vs. contemporary thought
Classic and contemporary thought are two different methods of thinking about and approaching environmental issues. While both classic and contemporary thinkers both agree that there is an environmental crisis that needs to be solved, they each have distinctly different methods for approaching a solution. Classic thought tends to be characterized by a more traditional approach to environmentalism. It emphasizes an adherence to facts that are treated as universal and concrete, and because of this the predictions made by classic thinkers often come off as being more pessimistic than those suggested by their contemporary counterparts. This can be contextualized by examining articles such as “Limits to Growth” and “The Tragedy of the Commons” -two staple documents in classic environmental thought.
In “Limits to Growth” Meadows et al. takes a rather pessimistic view of the future, citing predictions made by a computer model called World3 to suggest that humanity has far overshot our planet’s carrying capacity and that if we are to survive and maintain a reasonable quality of life we must reduce our population growth and material consumption drastically (Meadows et al. 2004). A similar prediction was made by Will Steffan in his article “Planetary Boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet.” Steffan references a planetary Boundaries framework, which he says “defines a safe operating space for humanity” which we are also dangerously close to breaching. Similarly, Hardin’s “The Tragedy of the Commons” concludes that in order to protect the integrity of nature it is necessary for humans to relinquish the freedom to breed (Hardin 1968). While many of these solutions may seem drastic, to classic environmentalists, it is the only way to solve these looming issues.
In contrast to classic environmental thought, contemporary thinkers tend to focus their efforts around solving the problems that the environment is undergoing. They attempt to compromise between an effective solution and quality of life in order to survive the time referred to as liquid modernity. This approach often makes their ideologies seem more optimistic because they try to propose solutions that would allow development and environmental stability to coexist, discarding the more black and white approach taken by contemporary thought. Contemporary environmentalists have critiqued the two classic articles previously discussed, and reviewing these critiques offers valuable insight into the distinction between classic and contemporary thought.
Current circumstances open critical research spaces for a solution-oriented focus on planetary opportunitiesDeFries 2012
In “The Challenge of Common-Pool Resources,” Ostrom suggests that rather than limit development altogether we should instead strive towards achieving more environmentally friendly methods of development (Ostrom 2008). These sorts of solutions are common in contemporary thought, and can also be observed in DeFries et al.’s article. Rather than halt development, as Hardin suggests, DeFries et al. writes that we should instead push for conscious design and policy decisions to ensure that future development is less harmful (DeFries et al. 2012). This illustrates the distinction between the pessimism and strict adherence to fact that is often presented by classic thinkers and the problem solving based approach taken by more contemporary thinkers.
While classic thinkers appear to see the environmental crisis as a near hopeless cause, contemporary thinkers approach it as a chance to innovate and solve the problems that have been created. In this sense, contemporary thinkers also offer a more future oriented take on environmentalism. An excellent example of this mindset can be seen in the article “Extinction is not inevitable. These species were saved.” In this article, Nuwer cites a few instances where scientists were able to rescue animals from the brink of extinction. Despite the short length of the article it effectively demonstrates contemporary thought through its optimistic take on environmentalism, with the author concluding that we should focus on the root cause of species loss and that it was not a hopeless cause (Nuwer 2020).
Classic/contemporary thought and Ecotypes
As two conflicting and yet cohesive ideologies, classic and contemporary environmental thought can be contrasted in a compelling manner by looking at some of their ecotypes. Even though they may not always be directly linked, ecotypes can often lean towards a certain opinion that is a general consensus among classic or contemporary thinkers. Perhaps the most impactful axis of ecotypes that reflects the differences between the two ideas is technology. Contemporary thinkers are highly invested in using technology to solve many environmental problems. Technology is a means to fix new problems. Contemporary environmentalists attempt to apply new technologies to developing situations. The example in our readings reflect the struggles that the city of Venice, Italy constantly faces and how new technologies are developed to solve new issues. Classic thought prefers to see technology as a hurdle in restoring the earth since they do not share similar views with contemporary thinkers.
Classical thought is different from the modern conception because currently there is a growing movement to add technology to our environments and live in this strange anthropocene where there is no distinction between nature and society. With this in mind, the future axis is highly controversial since the contemporary ideas of resilience do not look to eliminate problems for the future but rather adapt to them. This is due to the fact that most contemporary ideals are driven by a pessimistic notion that the earth is beyond saving. While classical ideals aim to restore the earth in the future, the modern leaders wish to solve pressing issues.
The nature axis is also an interesting ecotype because it brings the anthropocene into focus as society grows. Classic thought aims to keep much of nature away from human influence and let nature act on its own in peace as it has for centuries. The more contemporary view that exists in this changing world believes that the society and environment are one cohesive body. They think that humans have an impact on everything in the world and should be involved in helping all areas of the world.
The final axis that clearly splits the two thought processes is the ecotype of change and the impact of radical and incremental change. It is important to note that classic thinkers will make concrete goals and predictions based off of data and then try to execute these goals. This is a more incremental process in most levels of change where the contemporary stance shifts greatly. With a very uncertain future and present, contemporary thought tries to apply more radical change to pressing issues. They would like to eliminate the most immediate threats in our world. This is a valuable element to problem solving but both methods of radical and incremental change seem to be essential. If there was a balance between the views on change, and most other ecotypes as well, new ideas can be created and shared in the environmental community.
Examples of classic/ contemporary thought in climate change
The NASA website’s page on climate change is an example of the classical school of thought as it does not just present its concrete data, but also uses it to make predictions about the future humanity will face due to climate change.(Holly Shaftel, Randal Jackson, Susan Callery, Daniel Baily. (2020)).
By contrast, contemporary environmental thinkers tend to be more tentative with their predictions. The author Micheal Shellenberger is a contemporary thinker, as he rejects some of the predictions of the effects of climate change, such as the greater prevalence of severe weather events (Shellenberger, M. (2020, June 29)).
One the other hand, Shellenberger also has some of the traits of a classical thinker. Classical ideas such as limits to growth and tragedy of the commons have since been criticized by contemporary thinkers as over-simplifying the way ecosystems work and ignoring the nuances of a situation in order to fit everything neatly into a single chart.
Similarly, in a separate article, Shellenberger argues that the displacement of coastal Bangladeshis by rising oceans will not be an issue because many Bangladeshis have moved away from the coast in the past (Shellenberger, M. (2019, December 06)). However, it could be argued that this is a simplification of the issue considering that one group of Bangladeshis moved from the coast to cities of their own accord, likely with plans of how they could support themself in the city and the other groups of Bangladeshis would be forced out by the rising waters. It can’t be assumed that both groups are the same and would end up well-off considering their vastly different situations.
Similarly, the article “A New Actic is Emerging” by Chelsea Harvey in the Scientific American is another example of a combination of classic and contemporary thought. Its coverage of the Arctic is contemporary in that it mainly focuses on what is currently and concretely known, that the sea ice in the arctic is disappearing at a dramatically greater pace than what would have been observed decades ago but is more classic in its grim conclusion that, not only is the Arctic in peril, but it may be already too late for humans to save it (Harvey, C. (2020, September 15)).
Similarly to Chelsea Harvey’s article in the Scientific American, the paper “Climate Change: the evidence and our opinions” by Lonnie G. Tompson in the NCBI website also addresses the melting of glaciers and ice caps(Thompson, L. (2010)). However, Tompson takes a somewhat more classical approach than Harvey, with more detailed and certain predictions of what melting ice means for humanity’s future.
Other articles, such as “What is climate change? A really simple guide” in the BBC takes a primary classical approach. This is evidenced in the article’s future-oriented approach to explaining climate change, with the conclusion being that climate change will result in more severe weather, rising global temperatures, extinctions, and will likely be a primary challenge for humanity (What is climate change? A really simple guide. (2020, May 05)).
In summary, despite classical thought being more generally known by the public and despite both contemporary thought often being seen as more cutting edge, it is clear from their continued presence that both are still alive and well.
While these two methods of problem solving may differ greatly and present conflicting ideals, our group believes that elements of both are essential moving forward. Although our opinions on specific issues surrounding climate change may not always be the same, we all agree that there is not a concise answer on which thought process is better. Classic thought uses predictions and concrete facts as a way to make a plan to address climate change and this aspect of the older perspective is something we find valuable and necessary to build a stable future. Conversely, the tactic of quick and specific problem solving is a trait of contemporary thought that we feel helps as well since the modern world is in constant flux.
Since the future is uncertain, we see the need to focus on current issues and apply the contemporary practice of resilience but not with complete disregard for the future. If contemporary practices were approached with slightly more clairvoyance, the solutions used by modern environmentalists would shape a better future. Our group has decided that the clearest difference between the two methods is their approach to the future and their optimism or lack thereof. With this critical difference in mind, the two perspectives could work well together if some of their elements combine. If the classical thinkers employ a little more pessimism, their predictions may require more direct action and similarly, if contemporary thought attempted to solve problems with the future as a central focus, much would be different.
The main factor that prevents a merger of the two is the pressing idea of resilience that everyone is our group is against. We do not see why the practices of resilience are a main focus of some environmentalists when the future does not look entirely promising. As global trends continue, it will be increasingly difficult to stop problems from occurring and the solutions will also be more challenging. We know that as classical and contemporary thought co exist, a combination of the two will lead us into the future.
- Meadows, Donella, Jorgen Randers, and Dennis Meadows. 2004. Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.
- Smil, Vaclav. 2005. “Limits to Growth Revisited: A Review Essay.” Population & Development Review 31 (1): 157–64.
- Ostrom, Elinor. 2008. “The Challenge of Common-Pool Resources.” Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development 50 (4): 8–21. https://doi.org/10.3200/ENVT.50.4.8-21.
- Hardin, Garrett. 1968. “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Science 162 (3859): 1243–48. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.162.3859.1243.
- Holly Shaftel, Randal Jackson, Susan Callery, Daniel Baily. 2020. “Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet”. NASA . https://climate.nasa.gov/
- Thompson. L. 2010. “Climate change: The evidence and our options”. NCBI. Retrieved September 27, 2020, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2995507/
- 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.