Environmentalism is a complex concept that is often placed in two separate schools of thought: classic and contemporary. Classic environmental thought is thought of as the more “old fashion” way of environmental thought, while contemporary environmental thought is the more modern way of thinking, both are very prominent in today’s world, and daily life. The concepts have similarities and overall want the same goal: to create a “better” environment, though they have different definitions of a “better” environment. While classical thought focuses on environmental degredation, contemporary thought focuses on on human growth potential and the ability to improve the world. When it comes to ecotypes, the two align with contrasting views.
What is Classic and Contemporary Environmental Thought?
Classic environmental thought originated in the 1960s as a resurgence of environmental issues. A prime example of this environmental thought was The Tragedy of the Commons by Garret Hardin. This book outlined the idea that individuals acting rationally and independently according to their own self-interest will deplete shared resources. The point was that humans are selfish and do things for their own good, which will eventually lead to world destruction (Hardin 1960). This reading reflects classical thought because it is a very all or nothing, one-sided argument, that suggests the worst will happen. Classical environmental thought is based on singular facts and actions.
Another example of classical thought can be shown through The Limits of Growth. In The Limits of Growth, Donella Meadows argues that if the population continues to grow, the number of natural resources will not be able to support the number of people, and will eventually reach an “overshoot” point that will lead to an inevitable plummet and destruction of the world (Meadows 1974). Meadows believed that the world has an inability to absorb human population growth, production, pollution, and economic growth in general.
Classic thought presents an alarming topic and offers somewhat “obvious” solutions. Steffen applies this idea by claiming that the world needs “Quantitative limits for biosphere integrity, Ocean acidification, biochemical flows, and much more. They argue for a “safe operating space for global societal development” (Steffen 2015). This form of environmental thought is grounded in agreement and certainty focusing on limits. It is based on the idea of solid modernity, settled, singular and universal truth.
On the other side, contemporary thought supports the idea of an ever changing world that can adapt to new challenges and economic growth. This form of thinking is based on the criticism of classical thought and believes that we can make changes in more ways than one. For example, In Shellenberger 2020 publication, he spends time emphasizing how humans are not causing a “sixth mass extinction” but that is rather a classical environmental idea meant to scare people into change.
Contemporary ideas promote a more positive, optimistic outlook on change and human growth potential. Defries’ Planetary Opportunities promotes an optimistic viewpoint that growth, even urbanizing growth can be sustained as long as conscious design and policy decisions are implemented (Defries 2012). He discusses the idea that human societies “adapt” and change over time. This represents contemporary thought in the way that it addresses a problem, but offers hope that things can change and get better at local levels.
Ostrum in The Challenge of Common-Pool Resource critiques Hardin’s classic way of thinking by explaining that not all commons are the same. While Hardin only posed one possibility, Ostrum suggested that some are “joint property commons” with rule regulating action. This brought plural facts and actions, that not everything is the same. In addition to hopeful ideals, contemporary thought is based on the idea of “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Ben and Craig 2014). Contemporary environmentalists know the world has things that need changing, but believe in the ability of change at different speeds and implementation of the new technologies our world has to offer, living in parallel with our challenges, not against them.
Relating To Ecotypes
“Is nature typified by its own inherent order and harmony separate from humans, or is it now fully hybrid, interwoven with humanity?”- Ecotypes: Exploring Environmental IdeasProctor, 2020
Environmental thought is focused on how we can fix the environment’s state of being in order to have a future. We ask ourselves: How will my actions affect the environment? Is hope lost, or do we have opportunities to improve? Should we carry on addressing environmental issues with modernized solutions, or resort back to traditional, preindustrial ways?
The environmental Ecotypes axis allow us to explore these environmental ideas and questions. Classic environmental thought focuses on the big picture of environmental degradation. It resides on the Crisis Pole, and infers that we have a crisis we must try to fix on the global scale rather than incremental. However, contemporary environmental thought resides on the Possibility Pole, and serenades on growth and the opportunities we have as a society to improve how we coexist with nature. The Possibility Pole leads into the Hybrid Pole on the Nature Axis. Contemporary thought inhabits the Hybrid Pole and exercises the idea of a hybrid world involved in technological development and preservation of earth’s natural systems. In Latour’s article, Love Your Monsters, he provides an example of contemporary thought. Latour claims that we should learn to love our technology and our creations. He believes that we should have patience for our creations as a God would, instead of shaming what we have created (Latour 2011). If we place more attention into technologies, they will be able to flourish like Frankenstein would have if his creator valued him. In other words, if we put more time and effort into the systems we create, they can evolve into environmental support systems that allow us to continue the lives we have built while building back what we have lost in ecosystems.
On the other hand, Classic environmental thought promotes the reverse of development. It leans towards a technophobic state of mind, on the Technology Axis, with efforts to minimize the use of nonrenewable resources. It promotes a completely natural way of living. In regards to nature, classic leans towards the Pure Pole; untouched by humans; and contemporary leans towards the Hybrid Pole; human involvement in nature. This is obvious due to their preferences on the existence of technology. The pure, technophobic, and crisis state of thinking represents a world in a state of solid modernity.
One way solutions work for singular types of societies, but our society is fluid with complex ways of living. Contemporary thought respects the fluidity of modern times and tries to maintain it through pluralistic ideas. Rather than promoting radical change singularly, contemporaries promote both incremental and radical change in order to coincide with the complexity of the environment.
The Time Axis represents past and future modes of thought. Classical leans towards ideas we can generate by learning from the past, and contemporary thought leans towards a future oriented approach to solving issues. It is unrealistic to turn back the clock, in the eyes of contemporaries. Their method is to use our potential for future creativity to create better circumstances in the environment. However, classicists believe that human’s creativity created our problems in the first place, so technological ingenuity is more harmful than good. The opposing thoughts represent conservative and progressive views. As society continues to evolve and become more fluid, progressive modes of action will be favored. If society holds to conservative views, all that was lost and degraded could be lost forever.
Relating to Portland, OR
Portland is well known for its biking infrastructure, and prides itself on the large population of bike commuters, relative to other American cities. This issue has a range of classic and contemporary approaches with a similar goal – reducing Portland’s carbon emissions.
The city government in Portland share a contemporary environmentalist approach to the issue of biking infrastructure development and the reduction of carbon emissions. According to Portland, Oregon governmental website page titled “Bicycles in Portland Fact Sheet”, “As of 2017, 6.3% of Portland commuters go by bike. This is the highest percentage of bike commuters for a large American city and means that approximately 22,647 workers in Portland choose to bicycle” (City of Portland, OR 2019). Portland city planners approached the cities relatively flat topography as a great opportunity to introduce biking infrastructure. They represent a governmental strain of contemporary environmental thought. The city of Portland pushes for the idea that each individual should do their part, rather than seeking dramatic institutional change, as a step-by-step approach to reducing Portland’s carbon emissions. Incremental change in indicative of contemporary thought because it offers small-scale changes to address a larger issue.
The “Green City Times” writes in their web page titled “Green City: Portland Oregon”, “Portland has developed over 92,000 acres of green spaces in the city with a connected system of trails and parks ideal for walking and biking” (Green City Times 2020). This is symbolic of contemporary environmental thought; it highlights the ways human development has adapted to become “green”, rather than pushing for eliminating human involvement in nature. Similarly, the “Willamette Week” published a technophilic article called “PBOT Rolls Out Electric Bikes in Huge Expansion of Biketown Into East Portland” by Nigel Jaquiss, highlighting how the expansion of electric bike infrastructure will be the future of reduced carbon emission in Portland. Technophillia is associated with contemporary thought because it can provide solutions (or create problems) to discrete environmental issues.
The Portland city government’s hubris has been challenged by classic thought environmentalists, accusing the city of naivety and glossing over insufficient change. The article “Portland’s Climate Fail: More Driving” by Joe Cortright responds, “The failure to make progress in the transportation sector is especially apparent when we look at the change in carbon emissions by source” (Cortright 2019). He continues later, “Transportation is now far and away the largest source of Portland’s greenhouse gas emissions, and they will only be reduced if we change the price of driving to reduce vehicle miles traveled” (Cortright 2019). This critical assessment mirrors classic environmental thought in that it demands that not only biking be introduced, but cars be made less desirable; people need personal incentive to not drive. Similar to Hardin’s writing on the nature of man to choose immediate personal gain at the cost of contributing to a larger societal problem, Cortright believes that asking people to “do their part” by biking will not do enough to reduce emissions.
The Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, affiliated with the government, carries a different tone then the governmental website. A report titled “Multnomah County 2017 Carbon Emissions and Trends” by the bureau writes, “We are in a climate crisis,” as the opening line (Bureau of Planning and Sustainability 2019). It then details the plateau of emissions decline in Portland, and illuminates a “daunting” statistic about how much emissions need to be cut in 11 years. It does not go into the consequences of what will happen if that deadline is not met, but uses dramatic diction to imply a horrible outcome. This environmental alarmism is suggestive of classic environmental thought, but their measures for addressing which they later describe are (as-expected) less dramatic, and more bureaucratic, suggesting the practice of contemporary environmental thought.
The opinion piece “Is Portland, Oregon, a green city?” by Britany Robinson states, “perhaps the city I moved to five years ago is just really good at green-washing incremental policy changes that aren’t actually effective—or possibly counterproductive—to seem like the type of drastic changes that are now essential in avoiding the worst of the climate crisis” (Robinson 2020). Her writing demonstrates a radical classic view that dismisses all of the incremental change made by the city governmental and calls for drastic systematic change.
So, what do we think?
Contemporary environmental thought meshes well with the liquid modernity state that our society is in. There are many moving factors in the environment and the economic systems humans have created. Singular thought and regulations cannot cover, or possibly aid the complexities of earth’s ecosystems and human developed ecosystems.
Contemporary thought analyzes the significance of special niches around Earth, and makes relevant the individual attention they need. Singular, broad change can support the environment in regards to emissions across the globe, but it cannot take into account the small changes that each ecosystem is experiencing. A mixture of singular and pluralistic point of views can support the complexity of our environment. Instead of having a singular point of view, like classical thought, singular and pluralistic points of views can coexist as demonstrated by contemporary thought.
Naledi tends to lean towards contemporary thought, thinking that complex issues need complex solutions. Lauren thinks that contemporary thought is the most achievable approach, due to the many different ways of looking at a certain problem. The world is always changing, and keeping a thought that embraces this change and growth is important for the future. Kennedy also leans towards contemporary thought because it is concerned with both radical and incremental change. Both large and small scale change are necessary in a world of liquid modernity. Although we all lean towards contemporary thought, we are attracted to it for different reasons revolving around its capability to solve complex problems, its function in today’s world, and its ability to create both radical and incremental change.
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.
Hardin, Garrett. 1968. “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Science 162, no. 3859 1243–48.
Smil, Vaclav. 2005. “Limits to Growth Revisited: A Review Essay.” Population & Development Review 31, no. 1: 157–64.
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, no. 6223.
DeFries, Ruth S. et al. 2012. “Planetary Opportunities: A Social Contract for Global Change Science to Contribute to a Sustainable Future.” BioScience 62, no. 6 : 603–6.
Ostrom, Elinor. 2008. “The Challenge of Common-Pool Resources.” Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development 50, no. 4.
Benson, Melinda Harm, and Robin Kundis Craig. 2014. “The End of Sustainability.” Society & Natural Resources 27, no. 7: 777–82.