Environmental studies is a complex and diverse field of study. With ideas and views constantly changing with the times, people have now chosen to side with either classic or contemporary environmental thought. The process of deciding which side to stand with takes time that people may go back and forth with and cannot be deemed concrete. This is how ecotypes came to be, which are a range of topics in which we are placed on an axis from -10 to 10 to show us which side we lean towards more. In this synthesis paper, we will discuss the differences between the two opposing thoughts, how they connect to the above mentioned ecotypes, and how prominent the debates stand in differing forms of activism regarding climate change.
Defining classic vs. contemporary
Throughout the history of environmental thought, people established a certain set of ideals and beliefs to operate around. Essentially, there is an established “reality” to operate within. Included in this are limitations, such as what is considered to be “radical”, and what may have been considered to be “behind the curve”. The first article that we will look at is James Dyke of the Atlantic’s “Climate change: Why we need a fundamental shift in how we think about this crisis”. In this article, Dyke discusses his experience with regards to the issue of climate change in order to explain how we need to fundamentally change the way we approach this issue(Dyke 2019). In the current way that western society operates, true change with regards to combating climate change is impossible. His argument represents the argument for contemporary thought, which is that we must shake whatever ideas and constructs we may have had and establish that we need fundamental changes.
The next article that exemplifies this debate through the lens of climate change is Michael Shellenberger’s “On Behalf Of Environmentalists, I Apologize For The Climate Scare”. In this article, Shellenberger really goes at the current establishment’s thought with regards to climate change. His argument is that scientists have misled the public about the urgency of climate change and that it is not nearly as much of an issue as people say it is. He argues that what we are currently doing to combat climate change is all wrong. He takes on several issues, including the use of fossil fuels, and describes how we need to change the way we think about them(Shellenberger 2020). This part of his writing is very much an example of contemporary thought, and it exemplifies the idea that we have to break away from the typical confines of environmental thought in order to bring about real change.
The next example is Melinda Harm Benson’s “The End of Sustainability”. This writing seeks to say that the current idea of sustainability is no longer a viable goal. Benson believes that the idea of finding sustainable solutions to climate change is unrealistic, and that instead we should aim towards “Resilience” over sustainability(Benson 2014) . In this instance, the classical thought is the idea of sustainability as the solution. Sustainability is a concept that lots of people have become comfortable with and it provides a visible and achievable goal. Meanwhile, the more harsh reality that Benson presents represents contemporary thought. The interesting thing about classic vs. contemporary thought is that things may initially represent contemporary thought, and be considered very radical, but then after enough time has passed they become dated.
A good example of this is Donella and Dennis Meadows’ The Limits to Growth. For years, this was considered a very groundbreaking work that challenged the way we live. But over time, it became part of everyone’s basic understanding of environmental thought(Meadows 2004). People became comfortable with the issue of a “carrying capacity”, and it became something that did not require any fundamental change. Eventually it became something that was challenged by contemporary thought. Now the ideas central to The Limits to Growth have become classical thought. This exemplifies the main idea that is central to contemporary thought. Another example of this process is seen through Garrett Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons”. This example is interestingly both very contemporary and also very classical. The idea central to it, that human nature will inherently lead to the depletion of all resources, is still a fairly radical idea(Hardin 1968). What is especially contemporary is the idea that the practices that we think are helping the environment are not the change we need. The most interesting part of all of this is that you could argue that “Tragedy of the Commons” should be categorized as classical thought. Even though it shares many of the same ideologies that current contemporary thought has, it has been an established idea within environmental thought for over 50 years. So while lots of its radical ideas are still considered contemporary thought, “Tragedy of the Commons” has become something that exists to be contested and challenged by modern contemporary thinkers.
The final example of this conflict of classical vs. contemporary thought is a much more simple and specific one. It is seen in Julie Guthman’s “Strawberry fields forever? — when soil muddies sustainability”. Its purpose is to highlight an issue strawberry growers have been having for decades. Essentially, there was a fungus, they used fungicides to kill the fungus, but then consumers learned of the downsides of chemicals, and they had to stop using them. This led them to begin to look for new methods to combat the fungus. Eventually, the best solution became the idea of indoor “soilless” farming(Guthman 2018). The idea of produce being grown indoors, under grow lights, with no soil was hard for many people to swallow. They were faced with a dilemma. The resistance to soilless agriculture is rooted in the idea of classical thought. In this example, classical thought represents the insistence on “natural” practices. Contemporary thought is recognizing that the reality is that what is best for the environment is more important than our infatuation with nature. Classically, these two ideas do not conflict. But realistically, they do. That is the main idea of Classic vs. Contemporary.
Classic/contemporary with ecotypes
The ecotypes are fifteen topics with each having a left and right pole to show just how diverse the field of environmental studies is. For some of the topics, the left aligns with classic thought and the right pole with contemporary thought, but for others the poles have to do with the action being taken and the type of knowledge being learned.. As seen through the ecotype survey, there is a very slim chance that multiple people have the exact same results. Even though many have the goal of becoming educated on environmental issues, we still have different ways that we believe are the right way to solve them. The terms solid and liquid modernity also pop up while discussing individual results. Solid modernity aligns with classic thought, as it means facts and can be things that everyone can agree on. Liquid modernity can be seen with contemporary thought, as this is more of a gray area where people have different opinions for right versus wrong.
On the technology axis, the right pole being technophilic sides with contemporary, while the left pole of technophobic is a classical frame-of-mind. Classical thinkers would side more with technology not being involved in changing or trying to help the environment since that may further damage it. Contemporary thinkers feel as if we have input too much technology so far and we cannot go back and leave nature weak and we must now use it to prepare for the future.
The diversity axis has it so classical thought believes the number of BIPOC within environmentalism is not a priority, while contemporary thinkers want more diversity to expand on their studies so that they no longer exclude certain communities strongly affected by environmental issues.
With the society axis, contemporary thinkers feel as if the issues we face are not everyone’s fault, and that we have to work together. Governments and the top 1% are most to blame, according to contemporary thought. Classical thinkers put the blame on the general people equally, saying that everyone is at fault.
For the ethics axis, the right pole is biocentric and the left pole is anthropocentric. This means that classical thinkers are more in favor of letting nature function on its own, while contemporary thinkers feel human impact can be helpful to the environment if it is done right.
Other ecotype topics include ecosystems, science, and social scale. Looking at results from the various topics can sometimes even be a bit surprising since one may think they sided with individual change for social scale but instead the axes could show a positive score towards institutional.
The idea of classical vs. contemporary thought can be seen today through the activism surrounding the issue of climate change. There are several examples of national and global organizations and movements that’s goals can be traced back to both classical and contemporary environmental thought.
The first example is the climate strike movement Fridays for Future. They are a global movement that started last year that are built around weekly strikes every Friday mainly by students. Their methodology is contingent on putting pressure on policymakers to influence environmental policy. They believe that it is on the governments of the world to combat this crisis. They make three very simple demands: first that “the global temperature rise” is kept below “1.5 °C compared to pre-industrial levels”. Second, that “climate justice and equity” be ensured. The final demand is that governments listen to the advice of the “best united science currently available”(Fridays for Future 2020). There exist both classical and contemporary aspects of this movement. The main classical idea is that they can inspire change through putting pressure on the government. While this is not a clear cut classical issue, it is still a much more classical idea. Where they are more contemporary is with their approach to the actual issue of climate change. They all but acknowledge that they do not have the solutions, and they do not pretend like any particular methods will solve the issue, all they are calling for is action from the people in charge.
The next group is a global group known as the Union of Concerned Scientists. The organization is a group of scientists from around the world that call for change. They share Fridays for Future’s view regarding the global temperature. Unlike them, however, UCS has a clear-cut approach they believe will solve the issue. They believe that in order to combat climate change, we must reach “net zero” for global emissions by 2050(Union of Concerned Scientists 2020). This is an idea that is agreed-upon by many scientists, but that does not make it fact. Their solution is very scientific, and pretty straightforward, which makes it a little bit classical. They believe that in order to achieve “net zero” we must convert to clean energy sources and remove heat trapping emissions from the air. In this case, their solution is pretty classical and straightforward. Their motivation for engaging in activism is that they believe they know what we must do, and they know the urgency of it. They are classical in that they provide a simple, scientific solution, but that does not mean that they are wrong.
The next group is a global campaign organization known as Greenpeace. They largely focus on influencing public policy surrounding environmental issues(Greenpeace 2020). Their calls for action by politicians are a bit contemporary. They are very aggressively against the way things have been going, and they call for fundamental change from our leadership. While that is seemingly contemporary, they do still support some classical ideas. They too point the finger at fossil fuels and say that the government needs to stop the use of them. While this is totally true and a big issue, it is still a pretty classical idea.
Another environmental activism group that shares classical and contemporary beliefs is The Sierra Club. The Sierra Club is a grassroots activist organization that has been around for a really long time. The classical idea that is central to them is really just the idea of achieving change through public policy. Their goal is really just to put pressure on leaders to take action to help the environment(The Sierra Club 2020). They are pretty versatile in that they focus on specific legislation or specific issues and just continue to work with that. They have a variety of methods in which they believe that climate change can be combated.
The next group would definitely be considered more “radical” and contemporary. This group is known as the Extinction Rebellion. Their structure is based on the idea that we need sweeping, fundamental change to address the climate crisis(Extinction Rebellion 2020). Their motivation to partake in activism is very contemporary.
The final group is the National Wildlife Federation. The NWF is a national environmental activist group. They too have a blend of both classical and contemporary beliefs(National Wildlife Federation 2020). Like The Sierra Club they address a wide variety of environmental issues, and use both classical and contemporary methods to do so.
As seen through one example of many, classic versus contemporary thought causes huge discussions to erupt and can prove to be both helpful and hurtful. Having classic environmental thought brings in facts and for-sure points against contemporary which is more hopeful and flexible.
Kieran: Kieran sides more with contemporary environmental thought, believing that in order to fix or attempt to come up with solutions, then we have to look into the future and focus on the possibility of positive outcomes. Though, both classical and contemporary environmental thought are both vital so it’s important to look at both sides.
Sara: Sara leans more towards contemporary thought as well, though she is more in favor of also keeping/ slowly decreasing human impact in certain environments. Being more in favor of pure nature rather than anthropologic views causes a slight lean to classical thought, but Sara still fully agrees with Kieran that it is important to focus on the future in general and have a more positive outlook.
Our thoughts: We decided that it was important to study both sides of the debates, and also important to retake the ecotypes survey every now and then after becoming more educated on the topics. Doing this can help us see much more clearly our opinionated views after reading unbiased or biased works.
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