Classic and contemporary thought are two different approaches one can take in order to address the environmental issues which surround us today. Classic environmentalism focuses more on preservation of natural spaces and reverting back to older states of the world. Contemporary environmentalism sees the changing world as an opportunity for progress. Ecotypes also play a key role in classic and contemporary thought as many of the spectrums of the topics correspond to either classical or contemporary thought. There are many examples in the world where we see classic and contemporary thought come into play. Food is a necessity and huge part of our world, but food production and consumption has many negative effects on the environment. These two types of environmental thought are being used to change the way the food industry works.
Defining Classic vs Contemporary Environmental Thought
Classic and contemporary thought are two opposing ends on the spectrum of environmental thought, that establish how our environmental issues should be solved.
Classical environmental thinkers argue that future maximum resource availability can be predicted today based on current knowledge and therefore radically conserved, while contemporary thinkers argue that such predictions are impossible to make and that problems should have specific solutions.
Classical thinkers support the idea that humans can use models and equations to predict the amount of resources we have left and how long we have to use them. They argue that there is a budget of resources that humans have to use forever can it be predicted today using equations and data about resource use. Steffan, a proponent of classical thought, argues that in order to regulate the functioning of the earth’s systems, humans must follow a strict regulation on their usage of resources. Classical environmental thinkers, such as Steffan, use equations and technologies to develop an “improved understanding” of how Earth’s systems operate in order to predict the boundary of human usage of different resources before that usage “threatens the resilience” of our Earth’s systems, to a point of no return (Steffen 2015).
Limits to growth, a classical approach to environmental thought sets one equation to figure out the finite amount of resources we have to use, and how long we will have left to use them. The paper supports that limiting our population and consumption is the only way to solve our environmental problems (Smil 2005). Similarly to LTG, Hardin’s idea of the tragedy of the commons demonstrates classical environmental thought. He applies one model of common resource use to all resources, common or not common, and provides one outcome, that we will use up all of our resources and are doomed (Hardin 1968).
Contemporary thinkers support the opposing argument that these predictions cannot be accurate.
Contemporary thinkers, like DeFries, argue that we need to develop solutions while “helping societies advance” and radical global restriction is not the answer. She shows contemporary thought because she argues that growth and urban expansion can be possible and done “sustainably” if done with well thought out ideas and thorough planning. This is contemporary because it supports growth instead of limiting growth. Contemporary thinkers also support finding solutions that are “specific and particular” to problems (DeFries 2012).
Contemporary thinkers argue that yesterday’s solutions can not fix today’s problems, and each environmental issue requires its own unique solution. Shellenberger & Nordhaus are contemporary thinkers who argue that we live in a world that is constantly changing and therefore our solutions and development also need to be constantly evolving. Similarly, Ostrom advocates that as the environment changes and new problems arise, different and specific solutions will be created to solve them, and will ultimately be a more productive solution (Ostrom 2008).
Classic environmental thought is the idea that the environmental problems our world faces have set solutions that will solve all problems once implemented. The solutions that classical thinkers support involve conservation and decreasing demand on resources. Classical thinkers support reverting back to older practices in order to conserve and slow development. These thinkers also supports limiting population growth and slowing industrial development.
Contemporary environmental thinkers, however, support a more dynamic approach to our environmental problems. They believe that there are many moving parts to the issues our environment faces and these specific problems each have to have their own unique solutions. Many contemporary thinkers support the idea that as our available resources change, our use and demand for them changes in response. Contemporary environmentalists support smaller-scale solutions to problems and argue that blanketing problems together and having one solution to solve everything won’t work.
Classical environmental thought focuses on how we can revert back to old practices and limit development while contemporary thought focuses on moving forward in the most productive way and evolving development methods as resource availability changes.
Classic and Contemporary Thought and EcoTypes
Classical thought is more technophobic and wants to revert back to old ways and contemporary thought is more technophilic and wants to use new technologies to build the most productive and waste-less systems possible. One way to approach EcoTypes axes is to view their poles as evidencing a tendency toward classic vs. contemporary environmental thought. There are many different ways to think about environmental issues, which is where axes come into play. A pole is used to measure where one is on a scale, determine either a classic or more contemporary view. More left to the pole represents classic thought.
Some of the most classic outcomes were ecosystems, spatial scale, and spirituality. Earth’s ecosystems tend toward stability and balance among the animals and plants that comprise them and when abrupt change is detected in ecosystems, the cause is almost always some form of human disturbance. The scale leans more classic in this case as we want to focus on the impact that humans have had on the environment rather than just blaming it on the natural cycle of life.
Spatial scale refers to what we are doing which has an impact on the planet. The common belief is that, “…green lifestyle changes are a better focus for our ecological energies than trying to change larger systems and that individual actions like recycling can actually accomplish more than collective actions like working to pass green laws”(Proctor 2020 ). This disregards incremental change as we need to focus on large scale change if we really want to make global change.
To the left pole of spirituality it is thought that nature contains an important spiritual dimension that we must not ignore when coming to terms with the environment and that nature is very sacred; this means we truly need to invest out time into this issue and take it very seriously.
Some of the more contemporary axes are nature, diversity, and technology. We discussed how humans are part of the natural world and that at what point is interference too much. We lean towards more contemporary as we believe humans sometimes improve the beauties of nature by careful practice. Many landscapes have already been affected by humans, so it’s naive to just let nature take its course. We also talked about the different ways we are using land today such as natives on their land and big cities.
Diversity can be viewed many different ways but the most important need in environmentalism today is to, “diversify the movement beyond white, middle-class participants”. We must focus more on environmental issues “affecting poor and nonwhite populations, and less on traditional issues like wilderness protection”(Proctor 2020). In the technology axes, we all agreed that in order to use technology efficiently we need to lower the demand and create more sustainable ways to function as a society.
Technology can have many positive impacts on our lives such as making it healthier, easier, and more comfortable with minimal adverse environmental impact. Given the complexity of today’s world, technology will play a key role in how we manage our global environment. Also, big corporations tend to not care what they are doing to the environment as they are too focused on the economic standpoint. When looking at the society axes, corporations would fall more contemporary, putting them mostly at fault.
“A small, powerful subset of society, not each one of us, is mostly to blame for our environmental problems”(Proctor 2020). Corporations can fall under the subset category and all the individual corporations end up creating an industry which is forever growing and heavily contributing to the environmental crisis.
“As our world is constantly changing, we need to be able to change our approach if necessary.”– Sophia Young
Classic and Contemporary Environmental Thought in Food Systems
Nowhere is the battle between classic and contemporary environmental thought more evident than in the “green consumption” movement as it pertains to our individual food choices. What we eat and where our food comes from has always been important, but has become a rather politicized and corporate issue in recent years. You walk into a grocery store and are bombarded with messages of “sustainably grown”, “non-GMO organic”, “local”, and “farm-raised”. But, the question is: Does the food we buy matter for the planet?
From a classic perspective, food is a very personal decision in which choosing what to buy at the grocery store has clear guidelines and either a positive or a negative ecological impact (HOPE the Project: 2018 vegan activism film and website). Contemporary environmentalism pushes back against this idea. Contemporary environmentalism argues that our food systems are incredibly complex and are not changed on a consumer level, but rather, require a diversity of large scale changes in order to affect the large power systems at play (Floros: 2009 essay by food science professor at Penn State University).
In general, here, classic thought embraces preserving a past ideal for food where everything one eats is grown in the ground, without pesticides, and locally, which, they argue is better for a multitude of environmental issues and for human health (TIME, Rosen 2007). Contemporary sees this as an unrealistic solution towards feeding an exponentially growing population and suggests, instead, embracing new technologies and ways of thinking that can increase food yield while decreasing land usage and impact (Balmford 2005).
Steve Martinez, a subscriber to classic thought purports the importance of local food in his book, Local Food Systems. Martinez emphasizes the benefit of everyone eating locally by stating its decreased carbon footprint; “transportation CO2 emissions were found to be greater for imported produce than domestic produce” (Martinez 2010). In opposition, Julie Guthman argues that “sustainable” or local systems such as these can only work if “everyone has equal access to production” (Guthman 2018).
She continues, “[W]e must find ways to transform the vast majority of agriculture for the many rather than build perfect systems for the few. For that reason, I remain skeptical of marketing systems that depend on well-off consumers paying for more-perfect forms of production” (Guthman 2018). While Martinez had a singular clear cut solution, which is a good representation of classic thought, Guthman sees the issue as more complex and suggests more broad solutions are necessary to make food systems more eco-friendly, the diversity in her argument exemplifies contemporary thought.
Again on the classic side, in Helena Norberg-Hodge’s paper Think Global… Eat Local, the director of “Local Futures” writes “Given the widespread destruction wrought by globalisation, it seems clear that the most powerful solutions will involve a fundamental change in direction – towards localizing rather than globalising economic activity. In fact, ‘going local’ may be the single most effective thing we can do.”(Norberg-Hodge 2014).
Guthman again kicks back against this sentiment by claiming simplistic solutions such as “just eating sustainably” or “just eat local” are in fact much more complex issues and require a more fine magnifying glass than simply buying one food over another – there are deeper power systems at play (Guthman 2018). Nordberg-Hodge boils down all the problems created by rapid globalization into a solution of eating local food and Guthman believes the solutions should be as widespread as the problems.
We can see here that contemporary and classic often have very conflicting ideas about how to best solve environmental problems. But, while contemporary and classic environmentalism differ greatly in their approach to food, they do agree on one point: something needs to change. We need our agriculture practices to not contribute to deforestation, water pollution, and carbon emissions. The population is only going to grow larger and our demand for available and nutritious food is only going to increase. Though these two thought systems differ, it is possible for classic and contemporary to come together and form a solution that has both anthropogenic and ecological benefits.
Classical and contemporary environmental thought are two different systems we use to approach ecological problems that arise in the world. The classical system is rigid and focused on past states of the world. The contemporary thought system allows for a greater degree of change and diversity within our scope of the environment and encourages forward-thinking. Classic thought leans more towards pure nature, biocentrism, technophobia, and local and individual change ecotypes. Contemporary thought falls more within hybrid nature, anthropocentrism, technophilia, and global and radical change ecotypes.
These differences in thought are evidenced by the way classical and contemporary environmentalists approach our food systems. The agriculture industry is what sustains humanity, but it also puts a huge strain on the Earth and is an important issue that must be handled well. Classical thought argues that food systems should be reformed from the bottom up, with consumers eating only products that are, in their eyes, responsibly raised, produced, and packaged. Contemporaries believe that agriculture needs to be changed at a global scale and diverse solutions need to be implemented in order to be able to move forward and, not only feed a growing population, but also create healthier ecosystems.
Our team generally agrees that contemporary environmental thought is the best way forward, but concedes to some level of classical thought as beneficial. Aubrey believes that contemporary thought will achieve the most progress because it allows solutions to change as the world changes. She believes, though, an element of classical thought is also necessary because we must preserve nature while we are also making improvements for the long term state of our planet.
Sophia, similarly, strongly feels that contemporary thought is the most beneficial way to address the environmental issues that surround us today. She sees that contemporary thought gives us room to grow when we are forced to adapt in a changing world. As our world is constantly changing, we need to be able to change our approach if necessary. Sophia believes classic thought is, in some cases, acceptable – however, the thought system doesn’t give us the room for change and new ideas.
Ruby has a special affinity for classic environmentalism, though she doesn’t see it as a realistic path forward. She likes the clarity and certainty classic thought provides. She likes conservationism and the stable view of pure nature. Though she believes, behind all this, is a plea to move backward, to regain the past. And so, she believes that the space for change that contemporary thought allows is what is needed in the world today.
In the end, we can’t ever move backward in time. We must move forward. Our contemporary world is a state of liquid modernity – everything is constantly changing. We have uncertainty about where we are going and so we must create dynamic and diverse solutions to plan for a future that is unknown to us. Though there is value in protecting natural areas, we see the contemporary environmental movement as the path that will lead us most gracefully into the future.
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