Featured photo from the United Farm Workers, found here
This paper discusses what our team has learned concerning classic and contemporary environmental thought. We begin by defining each of these categories, by drawing on highly influential writing from both camps. Next, we discuss them in the context of EcoTypes, which allow us to examine our views along fifteen fundamental axes of environmentalism. We go on to compare classic and environmental thought in the real-world issue of air pollution, which relates to our group’s central focus on health. Finally, we discuss our group’s own viewpoints and takeaways from our discussions and exploration of classic versus contemporary thought.
Defining Classic vs. Contemporary Thought
Classic and contemporary environmental thought can be described as the two categories that people can fall into when regarding their perspectives on environmental situations. Classic environmental thought is more traditional; those thinking about the environment in a more classic way are typically more urgent and often speak about environmental topics in very “apocalyptic” terms. A good example of this is shown in “Limits to growth: the 30-year update” (Meadows et al. 2004), where computer software calculates proposed rates at which environmental problems will grow, showing that we are growing infinitely in a finite world, therefore if we do not change our lifestyles now, we will face an inevitable demise. Classical philosophers root their thinking in facts based on studies that try to illustrate the future trajectory of our environment given our current state/rate of operations, such as “Limits to Growth”. The conclusions drawn from those observational and predictive studies are often bleak. These apocalyptic terms have the ability to scare the reader enough that they are motivated to try and help solve environmental problems, such as climate change. However, this approach many times leaves the intended audience feeling hopeless, as opposed to empowered.
Classic environmental thought has a higher likelihood to propose definite limits on growth, as seen in “Tragedy of the Commons” (Hardin 1968), in which the author is quick to assert that the only solution to our “population problem” is through “mutual coercion”. Contemporary environmental thought, although built off of classical thought, is more nuanced and adaptive. Those approaching a situation in a more contemporary style are more likely to be solution oriented and proactive.
Contemporary thinkers engage in multiple approaches and ideas as well, demonstrating they’re open-minded and flexible. For example, “Strawberry Fields Forever” (Guthman 2018) explains the problem with our current state of agriculture and strawberries, and outlines all the possible ways we could attempt to change our way of farming, and how each one would have different impacts. This same pattern of ideas can be seen in “What on earth is sustainable?: toward critical sustainability studies” (Greenburg 2013) when the author discusses how we should contemplate our approach to the concept of “sustainability” in its entirety and the many different components that would have to be considered.
Additionally, those who identify more with contemporary environmental thought tend to acknowledge not only the successes, but the failures or missteps. They realize that just as much can be derived from an approach that may not have worked, as one that did. In the reading “Love Your Monsters” (Shellenberger Nordhaus 2011) the authors describe how although the misuse of technology played a role in getting us where we are today with climate change, it will not help to halt our use of technology when trying to fix it, simply because we abused it in the past. Instead, they argue that it is a significant tool in how we will face the rapidly changing future.
Oftentimes, contemporary thinkers acknowledge that it’s nearly impossible to predict what may happen in the future, therefore placing definite boundaries is not as common in contemporary thought as it is in classical. This can be seen in “The challenge of common-pool resources” (Ostrom 2008), who emphasizes the importance of keeping up with current data and adapting to adequately deal with the ever-changing world.
It is also crucial to recognize how liquid modernity plays a prominent role in contemporary environmental thought. Classical thought is more grounded in the idea of solid modernity; the concept of there potentially being a definite solution may be comforting, but in today’s day and age it can be perceived as unrealistic. Contemporary thought has risen out of the idea that our world is in a state of liquid modernity. Contemporary thinkers claim that our approach to environmental thought and action must align with the idea that everything is constantly changing and new situations develop in our environments daily (scientifically, socially, etc) and we must account for this when forming solutions to these issues.
Classic vs. Contemporary Thought in the Context of EcoTypes
The differences between classical and environmental thought can also be broken down and explained by EcoTypes. This system scales and categorizes various facets of environmentalism into fifteen central axes, each divided along opposing poles (EcoTypes Website, accessed 9/27/20.). Our class took the survey and discussed our individual and averaged results. These scores were informative as to how we approach specific topics and issues, such as social scale and spirituality.
EcoTypes allows us to break down the huge and complex concept of “environmentalism” into real-world situations and debates, and give a clearer picture of how these themes operate. The two schools of thought have important differences across all fifteen EcoTypes, but here we discuss three axes which we felt highlighted their central differences most clearly.
First, is the axis of ecosystems. Classic thought tends to view nature as a static and delicate balance, in which disruption causes catastrophic collapse. Therefore, it focuses on planetary limits based on rigid sets of scientific facts, which predict crises when these boundaries are overstepped. In contrast, contemporary thought sees the world as a dynamic system, and values resilience, rather than resistance.
These views are closely tied to the future axis. As explained, classical thought often falls on the “crisis” end of the scale, while contemporary leans toward the “possibility” pole. Classic thought focuses on absolute boundaries, and doesn’t plan for action, or hope, when these boundaries are crossed. We discussed how this static, and often gloomy, view towards ecosystems and the future can stall progress rather than inspiring it. Unfortunately, mass media also gravitates towards the classic outlook. On the other end of the spectrum, Michael Shellenberger discusses this issue in his article, “On behalf of environmentalists, I apologize for the climate scare.” He argues that “climate alarmism” (Shellenberger 2020) is counterproductive and unhealthy, and instead proposes a more opportunity based environmentalism.
Finally, we discuss the technology axis. In general, classic thought values the natural systems and aesthetics of the past, and resists the integration of nature and technology. Contemporary thought usually embraces technology and hybrid ecosystems. One example is David Latour’s “Love Your Monsters” (Latour 2011). He argues that our ecological problems are not caused by technology itself, but In this way we have failed to nurture and guide it.
In our discussions, we were relatively conflicted about technology, but our average survey score still leaned to the technophilic pole. We felt that its potential for construction and for destruction, makes it difficult to judge as a whole. Technological advances are integral to our current way of life, and at the same time are responsible for our most pressing ecological problems. However, we felt that because it is so tightly woven with human life, rejecting it may be counterproductive. One of the most important components of contemporary thought is using technology to build resilience. An example of this is seen in Italy, where they built automated gates to protect Venice from flooding (Shellenberger, Nordhaus 2011).
Classic and contemporary thought are divided relatively clearly within the three axes described above, but not every axis is like this. Many have examples of classic and contemporary views represented in each of their poles, such as the axes of change (incremental versus radical), and social scale (individual versus institutional) and spatial scale (local versus global). Classic thought tends to advocate institutional change on a large scale, but is also known for promoting small scale action, and individual lifestyle changes. Contemporary thought is similarly divided across poles, since it leans toward localised community driven change, while also critiquing the classical theme of individual action.
In sum, classic and environmental thought differ across every axis of environmentalism. Here, we discuss these differences within the axes of Ecosystems, Future, and Technology. As we discussed these issues as a class and in our small team, we found that our initial survey results averaged to be fairly neutral, with varying levels of individual variation. After discussing classic and contemporary thought in the context of EcoTypes, our results would likely shift more contemporary if we were to take the survey again.
Classic vs Contemporary Thought in the Context of Health
For our focus on health we decided to explore a topic relevant to the past few weeks on the west coast as well as a number of countries around the world, air quality. Indoor and outdoor air quality are something that affect everyone especially in the event of something like the recent fires that have ravaged areas like the west coast. The fires have increased undeniably and are becoming more difficult to predict in recent years. Most environmental scientists are in agreement that the fires are increasing drastically but when it comes to solutions to wildfires and air quality issues they cause there’s a variety of ideas out there.
This variety of ideas can be seen in the techniques and strategies other countries have taken in response to the steady increase in wildfires around the globe. In Australia the devastating fires that continued into this year prompted a plan of lowering greenhouse emissions by 15% and introducing more resilient plant species to the environment (Australia 2020). This plan has a mix of both theories but seems to side towards classical perspective because it falls closer inline with solid modernity, viewing the solution to be a decrease in emissions. However the use of resilient plants does borrow in part from contemporary thought attempting to adapt rather than changing the growth pattern, but over all the plan is based in classical thought and solid modernity.
The precautions that have been taken in Canada look very different from Australia’s plan, in part because of the large array of solutions environmental scientists have proposed. Canada has invested millions into technology for tracking fires before they spread in hopes of stopping them before they’re too large to contain (Dimitropoulos 2019). This technophilic proposal falls closer in line with contemporary thought, viewing technology as a tool for preventing wildfires without attempting to slow growth. Similar to liquid modernity this plan sees progression to be better detecting fires rather than something broader like lowered emissions.
Most countries environmental plans tend to center around classical thought, for example the net zero emission plan accepted by Britain which is a more intensive version of the plan that Australia utilized. Reaching a net zero of carbon emissions is one of the purest forms of solid modernity, in that it views the solution to be less about adaptation and more about preventing an environmental apocalypse by whatever means necessary. However some contemporary theorists have raised red flags about not only the impossibility of zero emissions but also the lack of an effect this will have on global carbon emissions when only three countries have adopted this agreement. Plans like the zero emission proposal are in line with solid modernity.
Another response that has received quite a bit of traction but less mainstream attention is a return to native burn techniques. A study from San José University criticizes the Eurocentric fire fighting technique most countries have taken on, calling for a return to controlled burns (Lane, et al. 2016). This approach is certainly a more contemporary response that views old world technologies as something that can help significantly reduce the risk of fires throughout areas prone to wildfires, land that the natives were able to handle and maintain with less resources.
The many perspectives on a solution to the increasing wildfires are classified concisely in an article from nature.com that describes the many approaches and their effectiveness across three planes, human exposure, fire severity, and fire novelty. The article shows how most solutions fall into three categories of being adaptive, transformative, or resilient. While classical and contemporary forms of thought can bleed across these lines for the most part resilient proposals are contemporary while transformative are more classical. Adaption most often falls inline with contemporary thought but some proposals like the one taken in Australia, while adaptive is more classical.
All of these varying solutions to the issue of wildfires across the globe share a theme of trying to improve living conditions for people. Hazardous air quality is something that affects everyone’s health in a number of ways, many of which we haven’t fully studied yet. The uncertainty of long and short term effects of exposure to hazardous air is not something to be taken lightly and the solutions both contemporary and classical hope to improve the quality of life affected by wildfires.
It is important to consider how and why classic and contemporary thought differ so greatly and how this might affect the perception of complex environmental issues and solutions within ourselves and within the public realm. One tool which helped allow us all to better understand and analyze these variances was learning about Ecotypes. The ability to explore our individual Ecotypes results and then discuss them with team members helped us to develop a greater understanding of where our personal views fell, relative to one another.
Macie’s scores on many Ecotypes axes displayed a strong sense of a classic-oriented perspective, but her inclination toward contemporary thought grew as she read pieces like Tragedy of the Commons (Hardin 1968), Love your Monsters (Nordhaus and Shellenberger 2011), and the End of Sustainability (Benson and Craig 2014). Kaylee felt similarly- after reading some classic pieces of environmental literature (especially ToC), a closer look at classic ideas led her to realize that she doesn’t totally identify with this mode of thought. Jackson, through the aforementioned literature and supplemental research, came to recognize that his ideas fall more closely in line with those of contemporary thought. Laria acknowledges that learning more about contemporary ideas was new to her and she appreciates the new lens, which has led to a shift toward contemporary thought in how she thinks about environmental concepts.
All of our group members feel similarly in that our individual approaches to environmental thought have evolved throughout this unit.
Each of us entered this course with ideas indicative of a more classic approach and almost no knowledge of the realm of contemporary thought.”
We have discussed the possible role of the media here- the idea that our perspectives may have been shaped or influenced by the fact that a majority of environmental media and literature out there is more representative of classic ideas (after all, Tragedy of the Commons is THE most cited piece of environmental literature ever).
As we have advanced through the unit and worked through the various readings and materials, we’ve gained considerable exposure to contemporary ideas. The unit was structured so that we were consistently reading pieces representative of both classic and contemporary thought, which licensed us to extensively compare the two and confront the limitations/boundaries set forth by classic thought while embracing the adaptive and solution-based approach embodied by contemporary thought.
Our initial perceptions were challenged by the new ideas presented in contemporary thought. We were prompted to reconsider how we think about and approach environmental issues and solutions, which has led to a significant shift in perspective for us all. We have come to realize that our views now align more precisely with the solution-oriented approach of contemporary thought than they had before completing the Ecotypes quiz and reading pieces like Limits to Growth, Planetary Boundaries (Steffen et. al. 2015), Tragedy of the Commons, Love your Monsters. Moreover, we initially identified more closely with classic environmental thought because that was really all we knew!
- 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.
- Greenberg, Miriam. 2013. “What on Earth Is Sustainable?: Toward Critical Sustainability Studies.” Boom: A Journal of California 3, no. 4 : 54–66. https://doi.org/10.1525/boom.2013.3.4.54.
- 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.
- Hardin, Garrett. 1968. “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Science 162, no. 3859 (December 13): 1243–48. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.162.3859.1243.
- Lane, Taylor, Greg Spellman, Will Stewart, and Danny Brown. 2016. “Indigenous Fire Management.” Solving California’s Catastrophic Drought & Wildfire Problems. San José State University. http://www.tcrcd.net/fsc/pdf/AMS_159_Wildfire_Article_NFMT.pdf.
- 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.
- Ostrom, Elinor. 2008. “The Challenge of Common-Pool Resources.” Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development 50, no. 4: 8–21. https://doi.org/10.3200/ENVT.50.4.8-21.
- 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.