Throughout the duration of this ENVS-160 course, we have touched base on a number of concepts and theories popularly discussed within environmental science. Amongst these topics is the complex, and often frustrating, dispute between classic and contemporary environmental thought. As we have come to learn, classic and contemporary ways of thinking are the subject of many biases, thoughts, and opinions; therefore, it is important to clarify that regardless of our personal stance on the subject matter, there is no definitive right or wrong – we encourage learning and breadth of knowledge across both disciplines. That being said, both members of this Task Team, Yajaira Cobian and Midge Barger, have taken the last several weeks to read and digest information provided by a multitude of authors and environmentalists alike in order to provide a scholarly and virtuous explanation of the two.
One key distinction between classic and contemporary thought is how they address issues contextually; classic thinking is often pessimistic and technophobic in its approach, whereas contemporary thinkers offer optimism towards the future and are generally technophilic. By technophobic, this means that classical thinkers most often see the negative side of technology and its respective advances due to an attribution of blame placed on corporations and industries as a whole for excess modernization. Contrastingly, technophilia from the perspective of contemporary thought is likely accredited with the value placed in progression and advancement which, of course, also pertains to technology.
Classic and Contemporary Thought: What Does This Mean?
Beginning with an explanation of classical thought, this approach––specifically pertaining to environmentalism, can be defined as the perspective generally fixated on past knowledge. More precisely, a fixation on prior scientific successes so much so that there is often no progression in thought. Classical thought is confined within the boundaries of technophobia and, thus, is stuck in the past. Without an acceptance of advancements in technology, society is unable to move forward and solve the newly arising issues within environmental change.
With these potential negatives, though, there are a number of potential pros in the mix as well. For example, it offers a plethora of insight and references for a wider variety of intellect. Even further, beginners in the field can reap the benefits of the sense of wisdom and guidance that classical thought has to offer. Limits to Growth: the 30-year Update is a perfect example of a classical viewpoint on how society should enforce environmental protection as well as the climate and direction it is heading (Meadows et al. 2004).
Meadows articulates in this paper her stance on how consistency, yet also urgency, with regards to overgrowth. Considering this, Meadows and others also deliver their thoughts on a direct path to climate security by widely barring and inhibiting the exponential growth that they so fear. Planetary Boundaries, written by Will Steffen and others, similarly provides a feasible representation of classical thought that expresses the need for fast-acting solutions that revert back to scientific solutions that had worked in the past (DeFries 2012).
However, with both Meadows and Steffen there is a lack and necessity for attention to a more holistic approach of environment and society in conjunction with one another. This is often resolved by the perspective of those following a more contemporary ideology due to its intent for integration and widening horizons regarding problem-solving. Garrett Hardin’s The Tragedy of the Commons proves this point of how classical thought can warp into a precariously idealistic and fixed mindset (Hardin 1968).
To elaborate, Hardin suggests loaded concepts of how the issue of destruction or overconsumption of public lands and waters can only be resolved through a singular set of regulations and repercussions. His claim that privatization, in addition to blame on individuals, exemplifies this imbalance and absence of fairness between actors. Overall, classical thought carries weight in both action and knowledge, but with a distinction of past poise and subtleties along the lines of obstinacy.
Adversely, contemporary thought is that of a largely adaptation-centered approach in which greater value is held in change in and for the future. The main rationale for this way of thinking is due to the belief that the environment is perpetually changing, thus, our mindset and solutions should also be changing at the same rate, if not faster. Another outcome of this is an ideology rooted in innovation and a partiality for technological advancements.
Benson and Craig perfectly articulate this outlook in their writing, The End of Sustainability, by explaining that a one-path solution simply does not exist with an issue as wide-ranging as environmental destruction. They also include a contrast among the terms sustainability and resilience and present an emphasis on differentiating between them as well as using them properly (Benson and Craig 2014).
Similarly, Elinor Ostrom’s paper, The Challenge of Common-Pool Resources, also goes over the concept of no cure-all solution with this matter. More specifically, she refutes Hardin’s ideas by discussing how she sees that shared lands do not explicitly lead to abuse of consumption, but instead could lead to an even better, more nurtured common space (Ostrom 2008).
Limits to Growth Revisited focuses more on technology and solutions to population growth and the planet’s carrying capacity. As an influential scientist, Smil utilizes this opportunity to show his preference for technology with regards to innovational shifts in environmental sustenance. In other words, he insists that progression in this modern and contemporary way is vital for actual, impactful, and positive change for our planet (Smil 2005).
While it does have a number of benefits, contemporary thought can be a difficult ideology for the average person to grasp because it implies, or rather insists, that more must be done when considering solving our environmental problems. Whereas classical thought focuses more on a simpler concept of past success. Yet, this does not make contemporary thought any less significant of an approach.
In Relation to EcoTypes
With relation to EcoTypes and the classifications that come along with that, classic and contemporary thought can be further clarified to fit into their respective categories within the site. For example, results on the left pole tend to be more closely related to classic thought and–vice versa–results on the right pole tend to be more closely related to contemporary thought. This is intentional to more easily decipher between ideology types.
Looking at our own survey results, at a glance, Midge’s data appears to agree most closely with the classical approach. However, her overall way of thinking aligns most with contemporary. Yajaira’s survey results, though mostly neutral, do place her slightly more towards the right indicating contemporary thought.
More specifically, Midge’s scores on knowledge, technology, ethics, and aesthetics pertain to classical thought, but fit more into contemporary with her scores in time, domain, diversity, and social scale as well as its relation to large-scale change. Similarly, Yajaira’s scores within these categories also fit a contemporary description, despite her scores within the scientific, spiritual, and aesthetics categories which may suggest otherwise she agrees and relates more with a contemporary view.
In addition to all of this, we both were typified as mild egalitarians. Imposing emphasis on explicitly this fact, we accordingly hold value in the social aspects of environmentalism as well as reject the appointed prevalence of authoritarian-adherence. As shown on the EcoTypes site, 63.6% of those surveyed were labeled as egalitarian. This is clearly a much more common categorical label.
Solid and liquid modernity, respectively, function to reflect the ideologies of classical and contemporary thought. This conceptualization is represented in the EcoTypes survey and around the site. Solid modernity absolutely falls into the category of the classic approach because––just as it sounds––it concentrates on consistency. Contrastingly, liquid modernity vastly directs the attention to an ever-changing society fit best for adaptation and evolution. When considering both of these ideologies in conjunction with one another, one can see the clear distinctions and, therefore, grow closer to fully comprehending each side of the debate.
So, what does this bring to the table?
To provide further conceptual clarification on the different ways classic and contemporary thinking can be applied and approached within specific issues we are going to apply these methods of thinking to a large scale environmental issue — factory farming. Factory farming plays a central role in a multitude of environmental problems currently threatening humans and other species. It is an unsustainable method of raising livestock that concentrates large numbers of animals into confined spaces. Factory farms pollute the environment and our drinking water, ravage rural communities, and harm the welfare of animals— all while increasing corporate control over our food.
Although this problem clearly needs to be addressed, there are many opposing thoughts and ideas as to how, when, and even why we should resolve this problem. One utilitarian argument presented in classic thought is that it may be better to leave issues regarding specific populations untouched, as it can meddle with natural population and life cycles. For example, if we focus on decreasing beef or pork consumption the amount of chicken and fish consumed will likely increase significantly because they provide less “substance”. Therefore, leading some to believe that regardless of what we do to try to change factory farming systems there will always be consequences to our actions––this is also strongly based on the premise that humans are unable or unwilling to make the choice of greener eating (Lempert 2015).
However, a more contemporary perspective imagines a system that adheres to ecological, social, and economic boundaries. This looks like increased support for free-range livestock and individual veterinary care for livestock. Many contemporary environmentalists today actually view factory farming as a unique opportunity to resolve one of our greatest sustainability concerns today. Many refer to this ‘opportunity’ as “The Food & Farming Revolution” where healthy and affordable food can be produced and made accessible to everyone through systems that are safer, fairer, and greener. This means establishing a system that can promote our welfare and that of farm animals, support rural livelihoods, and protect the planet and its natural resources (Murdoch et al. 1999).
Simply based on this example, the difference between classic and contemporary methods towards a solution is quite clear; classic environmentalists feel it is better to leave these food systems untouched considering that humans will not change their eating habits, and more or less feel factory farming is a sustainable means of food production. Contrastingly, contemporary authors feel change is necessary not only to food systems, but also to economic and ethic issues that contribute to our “need” for factory farms. Additionally, contemporary thinkers do not view these intensive farming systems as a sustainable method of food production.
One scholarly article we read which presents this form of classic thinking is Garrett Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons, In his article, Hardin addresses issues of overpopulation in both an overwhelming and close-minded way. On multiple occasions, he states his position against our dependency on technology to solve these issues and states that they can only be solved through “a fundamental extension in morality” (Hardin 1968). In contrast, authors such as Elinor Ostrom offer a wide breadth of ideas and perspectives towards solutions that better fit our contemporary definition of environmental thought.
In her rebuttal “The Challenge of Common – Pool Resources”, Ostrom ascertains that there is a viable future for greater resource availability and improved ecological standards, through the use of feasible technology and institutional and individual collaboration. Another strong distinction between classic and contemporary environmental thought is the point in time their perspectives, thoughts, and opinions are based on. For example, classic thought is based on a view that has been around for a while and has not changed much, whereas contemporary thought offers a more modern take on these ideas and presents new innovative ways we can solve environmental issues. Undoubtedly both classic and contemporary environmental thought challenge one another in quantitative and qualitative ways which can make them difficult concepts to understand.
With a focus on our stance on action and the societal presence within the issue of environmental change, we can decipher between our own opinions as well as their relation to the different categories of thought. Fortunately––for conciseness sake––we both scored higher on the question of society’s consensus versus conflict. Because of this, we can safely say that our position on this matter lands more equivalently to the contemporary approach’s concept of corporations’ much larger impact on environmental issues than the average individual. Examining pointedly just action––small or big––Midge scored a 2.0 and Yajaira scored a 2.1. This is important to acknowledge because it exemplifies the personal differentiation in thought on action.
Midge’s reasoning for holding greater value in large-scale and institutional change is due to her reasoning on how corporations––which are shown to be the main contributors to pollution and a number of other substantial environmental problems today––will most likely only deflect the direction that they are continually heading is through vast, governmental regulation. Yajaira’s reasoning lies within the lack of moral and ethical standards amongst these multi-million dollar corporations. As the main contributors to serious environmental issues today it is important that big businesses take and address these issues honestly and publicly.
Altogether, the process of taking the survey in conjunction with comparing results with one another as well as their connections to real-world contexts helped to bring about a better, more holistic idea of how classical and contemporary thought can play a part in our views on environmentalism. Taking this from a more positive perspective on the matter, it is always important to consider both sides. Therefore, with this assessment relating classic or contemporary approaches on environmentalism to a long list of EcoTypes, we were more effectively able to review our own opinions, in addition, to simply understand the spectrum as a whole.
- 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.
- Hardin, Garrett. 1968. “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Science 162 (3859): 1243–48. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.162.3859.1243.
- Lempert, Phillip. 2015. “Why Factory Farming Isn’t What You Think.” https://www.forbes.com/sites/phillempert/2015/06/15/why-factory-farming-isnt-what-you-think/#5330db7f6065
- Meadows, Donella, Jorgen Randers, and Dennis Meadows. 2004. Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.
- Murdoch, Jonathan Mara Miele. 1999. “Back to Nature: Changing Worlds of Production in the Food Sector.” https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9523.00119
- 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.
- Smil, Vaclav. 2005. “Limits to Growth Revisited: A Review Essay.” Population & Development Review 31 (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 (6223): 1259855. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1259855.