The world of environmentalism involves a myriad of discussions surrounding the best approach to solving environmental problems. A highly divisive ongoing debate is that of classical versus contemporary thought. These two different ideas perceive environmental issues from contrasting frames of thought, including where they place humans in the order of things. In order to ground understanding in this ongoing debate, it is beneficial to first define the two ideas with the aid of ecotypes and situate them into a real-world context. As a result, what follows are definitions of the classical and contemporary thought as well as a modern example, which in this case concerns nuclear energy. Finally, we will conclude with our analysis as a sustainability task team.
Classical & Contemporary Defined
What do we mean when we say classic or contemporary thought? The debate between classic and contemporary environmental thought is a way of thinking about solutions to environmental problems. Classical environmental thought emerges in the mid-20th century (Proctor 2020) although some have argued that it actually emerged around the 18th century in the form of Romanticism (Gwozd 2015.) It is important to recognize that even though classical thought is older than contemporary thought, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we should dismiss classical thought. Classical thought is critical in the idea that we, as humans, have a role to play in preventing environmental degradation and minimizing the effects of future problems that may arise. This will be seen in the examples listed below.
Contemporary, on the other hand, has only come into the mainstream discussion of the environmental movement in the last few decades. Contemporary thinkers, while they may seem to disagree with what Classical thinkers have to say, simply disagree with how they look at environmental problems and tend to be more “outside the box” thinkers. Contemporary thinkers embrace the world as a continually changing biosphere, and that humans must change and adapt with it in order to survive.
Another way to look at it is through the lens of solid versus liquid modernity. Solid modernity sees the world and the facts that help us understand it as a settled and understood matter. Liquid modernity, however, tells us that facts are not always as they seem and that there is a post-truth to the way we understand the world. Zygmunt Bauman, the author of Liquid modernity defines liquid modernity “is the growing conviction that change is the only permanence, and uncertainty the only certainty.” (Bauman, 2000)
This idea of humans needing to adapt in order to survive can be easily seen in Love Your Monsters by Bruno Latour. In his essay, Latour compares technology as Frankenstein’s monster by saying “our sin is not that we created technologies but that we failed to love and care for them.” (Latour 2011) Latour says this because the most popular interpretation of Frankenstein is that Dr Frankenstein ignored his creation, and that is why it became destructive; this is what Latour predicts is happening to new technology today. Latour also confirms that we must adapt with nature in saying that modernization, in his view, is a way of “becoming ever-more attached to” nature. His idea of this is “modernizing modernization.” in which “the process of human development as neither liberation from Nature nor as a fall from it” but that human development integrates into nature.
Other people are more cautious of technological modernization. Julie Guthman in her Strawberry Fields Forever? Article details how some “sustainable” solutions & technologies are not always as reliable as they seem. Guthman uses an example of the California strawberry industry, which has been dealing with tighter restrictions on fumigants, and presents issues as the industry competes with a growing market of indoor-grown soilless strawberries. (Guthman 2018) Her definition of sustainability not only means eco-friendly but in terms of agriculture also includes the use of resources, social goals around working conditions, farmer livelihoods, and affordability. Using this definition, Guthman argues that any decision made around the cultivation of strawberries “entails sustainability trade-offs.”
For example, soilless systems tend to be set up next to population-dense areas, meaning that transportation to markets has reduced greenhouse gas emissions. There is also the obvious reason to adopt soilless systems in that they do not require fumigants to curb soil-borne diseases. The trade-offs, however, are that indoor systems require “massive amounts of materials, not all of which are easily disposed of or recycled.” They also need more energy to run since they require year-round lighting and temperature controls.
Ecotype Differences & Unkowns
Examining what it means to hear classical or contemporary thought, we have derived the defining aspects to be between singular and plural solutions as well as solid and liquid modernity, with the former of both relating to classical thought. We can further decipher classic and contemporary thought by aligning them with ecotypes axes (Proctor 2020). While most poles do show a disparity between classical thought on the left and contemporary thought on the right, not all are so distinct.
Technology is an axis that fits well into this two view approach, with those who are technophiles being predominantly contemporary thinkers and technophobes classical. In terms of society, much more conflict is associated with contemporary thought while a consensus is more often reached through classical thought. Contemporary thinkers often speculate into the future in order to solve issues, highlighting the time axis, whereas classical thinkers rely on already known facts and wisdom. Contemporary thinkers interpret our ecosystems as dynamic and ever-changing rather than the classical notion of stable until perturbed. The discussion of nature and whether it should remain pure (separate from society) or become a hybrid (integrated society) is often a difference between the two, with classical thought advocating the latter. Aesthetically, contemporary thinkers generally believe a world crafted by humans is just as, if not more beautiful as one left untouched. When analyzing the diversity axis, classical thinkers typically suggest diversity to be an afterthought of environmental issues and are not as worried about extending the movement to others of different race or ethnicity.
Some axes, however, do not align with either way of thinking particularly well. Change is one in which either pole could be fitted to either body of thought. When change is proposed incrementally, it may be a pragmatic method of getting the entire population on board with tackling the issue. A large-scale change is generally a riskier proposition that is made when there is assumed greater support. Similarly, social scale is another axis that can be moulded to fit classical and contemporary thought.
For instance, when attempting to solve the issue of population growth, Hardin, a revered classical thinker, affirms the institutional pole which states that we need social and political institutions as opposed to individual actions (Hardin 1968). Spatial scale is another axial outlier whose poles can be argued by either body of thought. Despite the difference in a bottom-up and top-down approach to solving issues, the local pole and global pole are fundamentally interconnected (Massey 1991). The poles of other axes such as science, domain, and spirituality can also be adopted by both types of thought since they are not excludable. This was much the case with Shellenberger and Hardin, where they appeared to convey contrasting thought while supporting heterodoxical science (Shellenberger 2020).
Delving into our own ecotypes survey scores, we determined that we are in disagreement over nature, change, and spatial scale. While these differences in change and spatial scale may not imply different modes of thought, as neither thought aligns solely with a pole, the difference in our view of nature may separate us slightly (Proctor 2020).
Classical & Contemporary in Energy Debate
Decarbonizing our energy system is another contentious topic in the domain of environmentalism, and as we can see, contemporary and classical thinkers both have their own idea of the best way to do so. Environmental Progress believes that nuclear is the best solution for multiple reasons. In their The Complete Case For Nuclear, they list that nuclear is less expensive, less land-intensive, and less reliant on fossil fuel than both solar and wind energy. Greenpeace, on the other hand, has been fighting against nuclear power since 1971. They say “The catastrophic risks of nuclear energy — like the meltdowns of nuclear reactors in Japan or Ukraine — far outweigh the potential benefits.” (Greenpeace n.d) The reason why this debate represents contemporary and classical thought is that proponents of nuclear would expect us to be able to adapt to the problems that nuclear energy might bring, while people who are less willing to adopt nuclear would rather not solve problems while creating new ones.
Looking deeper into the argument in favour of nuclear energy, Karin Kirk, in We’ve Been Having The Wrong Debate About Nuclear Energy, makes the argument that nuclear energy satisfies the need for non-intermittent energy. He says “conventional nuclear is steady rather than responsive,” meaning the energy production from nuclear is steady and requires no back-ups such as solar. Looking at the contemporary aspect in the need to adapt to problems, Kirk mentions how nuclear can “encompass a host of emerging technologies potentially offering bold promises in improvements in safety, waste reduction, and flexibility.” (Kirk 2020) Some of these technologies, he says, can help us find better ways to cool reactors, create safer nuclear waste disposal, and reduce emissions in other industries such as steelmaking.
There are, however, several arguments that nuclear energy is not the way forward is solving energy issues. In Joe Romm’s The Self-Limiting Future of Nuclear Power, Romm argues that proponents of nuclear energy miss the fact that for the U.S to mirror France in its nuclear use, we would need “several Yucca Mountain-sized nuclear waste storage sites by 2050 at a total cost of more than $4 trillion.” (Romm 2008, 2) Arguments against nuclear also include the speed in which we can build new plants, and how building new plants will take too long to make a difference against climate change. Assuming that we need to achieve a high percentage of nuclear energy production, Romm states “an average of 14 new plants each year for the next 50 years, as well as approximately 7.4 plants a year to replace those that will be retired.” (Romm 2008, 9) In Romm’s view, there are too many factors that would make this unachievable. This includes building supplies that are limited and expensive, uranium becoming more of a scarce resource and the probability that water shortages will hamper growth and increase costs. Romm represents the classical way of thinking in that, looking at the present, he doesn’t see it possible that new technology can make nuclear a viable option.
Task Team Assessment
As we have discussed, classical thought has aged more than its counterpart, but that does not make it any less valuable. Contemporary thought simply adapts and changes, along with issues that plague our environment. Conversely, classical thought seeks to prevent those issues from initially arising. To understand how these two bodies of thought influence our positions on a number of areas of environmental debate, we glanced at which pole of ecotypes axes each thought correlates with.
The two generally differ in their adoption of technology, resulting in contemporary thinkers to be more technophilic. Another major distinction is that classical thought believes that the Earth’s ecosystems are still stable and not dynamic, adhering to heterodoxical science once again. However, we examined a few outlying axes that do not fit into the dichotomy that the two areas of thought present, including such controversies as change, spirituality and domain. Nevertheless, we determined our own underlying positions in each camp of environmental thought through the results of an ecotypes survey.
With my scores skewed to the right, I identified most nearly to a contemporary thinker. Alex’s scores were more skewed to the left, labelling him a classical thinker. Having taken part in a take-sides debate during class over the topic of sustainability, Alex and I have gained more insight as to how these bodies of thought can be used in action. Our position related most to the classical approach of sustainability, that dealt more with the prevention of future environmental problems and stated: “everyone must do their part”.
Alternatively, the other positions more relied on the contemporary thought of resilience as a means of adapting to change. An important aspect of contemporary thought to Alex from our discussions was eco-modernism, which states that we live in a world of constant change that needs to be frequently recreated. He discovered that while contemporary thought was more suited for finding middle-ground between alternative approaches, he still leans toward classic environmental thought. Personally, the distinction for me lies in that classic thought refers more to solid modernity in which we are certain of the problems that exist, whereas contemporary deals much more with liquid modernity and uncertainty. I would claim contemporary thought to be more beneficial in understanding multiple perspectives on solving environmental issues, but ultimately classic thought brings a more focused approach to dealing with environmental issues.
As an example, Hardin and his “Tragedy of the Commons” (Hardin 1968) has been explored in relation to classical thought. Hardin advocated for a more institutional social scale that outlaws the birth of more than two children per family in an attempt to solve what he claims to be the “population problem”. This focused, silver-bullet approach is what primarily classifies him as a classical environmental thinker. Ostrom, as mentioned, would dissent towards an incremental social scale requiring simultaneous, regional approaches to the population problem (Ostrom 2008).
Bauman, Zygmunt. 2000. Liquid Modernity. Cambridge U.K.: Polity Press.
Guthman, Julie. 2018. “Strawberry Fields Forever? — When Soil Muddies Sustainability.” The Breakthrough Journal 9 (Summer). https://thebreakthrough.org/index.php/journal/no.-9-summer-2018/strawberry-fields-forever.
Gwozd, Matt. 2015. “A Brief History On Environmentalism.” The Green Medium. The Green Medium. http://www.thegreenmedium.com/blog/2015/9/2/a-brief-history-on-environmentalism
Hardin, Garrett. 1968. “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Science 162 (3859): 1243–48. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.162.3859.1243.
Kirk, Karin. 2020 “We’ve Been Having the Wrong Debate about Nuclear Energy.” Yale Climate Connections. https://yaleclimateconnections.org/2020/07/weve-been-having-the-wrong-debate-about-nuclear-energy/
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.
Massey, Doreen. 1991. “A Global Sense of Place.” Marxism Today, pp. 1–8, http://www.aughty.org/pdf/global_sense_place.pdf
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.
Romm, Joe. 2008. “The Self-Limiting Future of Nuclear Power,” 25. https://cdn.americanprogress.org/wp-content/uploads/issues/2008/pdf/nuclear_report.pdf
Shellenberger, Michael. 2020. “On behalf of environmentalists, I apologize for the climate scare.” Quillette (blog). June 30, 2020. https://quillette.com/2020/06/30/on-behalf-of-environmentalists-i-apologize-for-the-climate-scare/.