The debate over the best approach to preventing environmental problems is an ongoing and often frustrating conversation, as everyone has different values in terms of humanity’s relationship to their surrounding environment, the place of technology in our society, and the type of alarm that this crisis warrants. These different environmental perspectives can be categorized into two sides: classic and contemporary environmental thought. People differ in terms of whether they assume classic or contemporary thought in all sorts of environments: class-mates, conservation groups, companies, and the government. While there are two different sides to environmental thought, they are by no means limiting. As a group, we explored our opinions on classic vs. contemporary thought, how society has changed its perspective over time, and what perspective different groups around Oregon have taken.
What is Classic vs. Contemporary Environmentalism?
There are two general perspectives in environmentalism: classic thought and contemporary thought. While people do not fall strictly under one type or the other, each section has their own set of values, and people will lean towards one side or the other. Generally, classic environmental thought is more factually based, more focused on preserving a certain way of life, and more limiting and apocalyptic. Contemporary environmental thinkers are more skeptical of facts, focused on preparing for change, and open to solutions.
When environmentalist conversation started to pick up after the publication of Limits to Growth by the Club of Rome in 1972 – which discussed the potential crisis which could happen if exponential human consumption isn’t properly addressed – classic thought was the general approach which most environmentalists took. An example of this is Garrett Hardin’s piece called The Tragedy of the Commons, which was actually published four years before Limits to Growth in 1968. Hardin’s major concern is the overpopulation of humans on the planet, and he believes the only way to prevent this is to take away the commons because the human population is too large for a commons to work correctly (Hardin 1968).
His ideas reflect a solid modernity ideology: institutions/norms are relatively settled and clear (Classic & Contemporary Environmental Thought 2020, Proctor). It is an ideology of which things are very certain; facts lead to a clear outcome, as opposed to liquid modernity, where solutions and norms are more unsettled and unclear (Prof. Jim Proctor online lecture, “Classic and Contemporary Environmental Thought,” accessed Sept. 2020). Hardin’s proposed solution puts the responsibility and blame heavily on the individual, and it also requires very drastic changes which seem nearly impossible to do; therefore he is very pessimistic about the future.
Classic environmental thought goes hand in hand with the concept of sustainability, often described as a ‘stationary’ idea. In Benson and Craig’s piece The End of Sustainability, they write that sustainability “… inherently assumes that we a) know what can be sustained and b) have the capacity to hold onto some type of stationary and/or equilibrium” (Benson & Craig 2014, 5). This fits right into the category of classic thought. Sustainability – like classic thought – is oriented more towards what everyone can do now, and continue to do in the future, that will help the environment as well as work towards a healthy, balanced planet of human and non-human ecosystems. Classic environmental thought is not as popular as it once was, but it is still quite prevalent in environmental discussions.
Contemporary environmentalism is the more recent commentary of environmental thought today. Contemporary environmental thinkers want to recognize the constantly changing state of our planet and its ecosystems. They take on a more fluid approach to solutions for problems that arise. A great example of this type of contemporary environmentalism is the idea which Elinor Ostrom discusses in her piece The Challenge of Common-Pool Resources. Ostrom writes “Many government officials and policy analysts’ advocacy of a single idealized solution for all of these resources has been a key part of the problem instead of the solution” (Ostrom 2008, 4). Ostrom’s piece is contemporary because she recognizes that change will look different in different environments and circumstances. She is much more opportunistic and hopeful because there are many ways change can be made.
Another important aspect to contemporary environmentalism is its technophilia. Some contemporary environmentalists advocate for the adaptation of technology to solve environmental problems as they arise. Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus write about this in their piece Evolve. They argue that further advancement in technology is the only way to save our environment and the human race because “The solution to unintended consequences of modernity is, and always has been, more modernity – just as the solution to the unintended consequences of our technology has always been more technology” (Nordhaus & Shellenberger 2011, 13). This is a very contemporary approach because it is embracing the use of, and dependence on, technology in our society.
Classic environmental thinkers would disagree with this. In the piece What on Earth is Sustainable? by Miriam Greenberg, she writes “It is a generative fantasy – merging the environmental with the futuristic, the earthy with the high tech” (Greenberg 2013, 12). This is a technophobic approach in direct contrast with the technophilic one which many contemporary thinkers take. Contemporary thought is very human centered and recognizes human contribution to the deterioration of the environment, so therefore it emphasizes that we have a direct responsibility to facilitate the solutions towards improving it. It is a forward-looking, optimistic approach to solving environmental problems, rather than the stagnant, back-facing beliefs of classic thought.
Classic vs. Contemporary in Ecotypes
The concept of ecotypes was developed by Jim Proctor to help emerging environmentalist thinkers examine what types of beliefs they hold. They comprise three themes — place, knowledge, and action — with 15 axes, including change, ethics, society, and technology to name a few. On the various Ecotypes axes, classic and contemporary environmental thought often, though not always, find themselves on opposing ends. Of those axes, the most relevant ones are Ecosystems, Future, and Technology.
The Stable and Dynamic poles within the Ecosystems axis refers to thoughts about ecosystems’ propensity for change. People who support classic environmentalism (classicists) generally believe that ecosystems are driven towards equilibrium and balance. Because of this, they advocate for action that would preserve as much as possible within an ecosystem. Conservation and sustainability are a good example of classic environmental thought in action; they contribute to the belief that we should try to preserve our way of life as it is. Contemporary environmentalists disagree, arguing that ecosystems are constantly changing, so they advocate for preparation for change. In this same vein is the idea of resilience, or that we should create and plan systems that can withstand a certain amount of change in a safe manner. Resilience and sustainability are not necessarily conflicting, and we often see them intermingling in practice.
In the Future axis, classicists lean towards crisis, while contemporaries believe more in the possibility of solutions. The crisis pole indicates the belief that future environmental crises are inevitable, so classicists believe we should put all our effort into trying to prevent these potential crises as much as possible. This also demonstrates how classicists do not believe in dynamic environments; they believe that any change in our way of life would result in an environmental disaster. Contemporaries disagree that crisis is inevitable and instead believe that the future holds great possibility for solutions. They are much more willing to continue developing human society and to address problems as they occur. In this sense, contemporary environmentalism is paradoxically contradictory; while contemporaries believe that we should expect and prepare for problems and change, they do not believe that drastic environmental disaster and change is inevitable.
The Technology axis describes technology’s ability to solve environmental problems. Because contemporaries lean towards technophilia, they believe firmly in technology’s part in solving environmental problems. As part of their understanding of the environment as being dynamic and ever-changing, contemporaries think that technology is an integral part of managing our global environment. The importance of technology’s part to play differs among contemporaries, but in general they all agree it will be involved in the future. Classicists on the other hand are much more adverse to technology, as demonstrated above by Greenberg (Greenberg, Miriam 2013, 12). Many classicists believe that technology is only a tool that benefits those who create and develop it.
There are also ecotypes in which classic and contemporary thought underlie both poles. Many of these ecotypes fall under the “action” and “knowledge” themes. Most notably is the action theme; contemporaries and classicists vary a lot along the axis of large versus small scale change. The scale of change has developed from drastic institutional change to local incremental change over the past few decades, and both classicists and contemporaries have arguments and critiques for either side.
The debate between classical and contemporary thought is evident in various Oregon conservation efforts. Classical environmental aspects of conservation emphasize the return to a pristine, biocentric wilderness, which humans can use as an escape from “society”. These aspects are most present in conservation groups and opinions that focus on the broad ecosystems of Oregon, such as the forests, rivers, and foothills of the cascades. In contrast, contemporary environmental aspects of conservation emphasize adaptation and resilience in the face of impending environmental issues. Contemporary aspects are less common in conservation, due to its general goal of conserving pre-existing systems rather than inspiring new changes, but they are often found in conservation groups and opinions that focus on specific species or biomes instead.
Two examples of classical conservation in Oregon are Oregon Wild, a conservation group based in Portland that “Works to protect and restore Oregon’s wildlands, wildlife and waters as an enduring legacy for future generations.” (Oregon Wild, About Us), and the Oregon Wildlife Foundation’s “Oregon Conservation & Recreation Fund”, which has a very similar goal to “Protect, maintain and enhance fish & wildlife resources in Oregon.” (Oregon Wildlife Foundation, Oregon Conservation & Recreation Fund). Sharing the idealism of the early western naturalists like John Muir who inspired classical environmental thought, these groups are attempting to return Oregon ecosystems to a state of pristine wilderness, which Oregon Wild defines as “An area where nature is left to find its own path, without interference from logging, roads and dams.” (Oregon Wild, Wilderness). They see this form of wild as the best way of preserving habitats while still allowing for responsible human recreation.
A notable Oregon endorsement of classical conservation was from Governor Thomas Lawson McCall, who held office from 1967 to 1975. Governor McCall initially gained notoriety through a film he produced depicting the pollution in the formerly beautiful Willamette river. He encouraged tourism, but famously said “Come again and again. But, for heaven’s sake, don’t move here to live.” (Wells 2006), opposing private ownership and development of Oregon’s ecosystems.
Two examples of contemporary conservation in Oregon are Portland Audubon, a group which focuses on more specific goals of conserving bird habitats, and the Oregon Conservation Strategy, a framework for general conservation efforts in Oregon. The Portland Audubon leans towards contemporary conservation in its goal to “Fight the causes of climate change and create resilient landscapes to mitigate the impacts.” (Portland Audubon, Protect), which contrasts classical conservation in its emphasis on adaptive efforts. Similarly, the Oregon Conservation Strategy “emphasizes proactively conserving declining species and habitats to reduce the possibility of future federal or state listings.” (Oregon Conservation Strategy, Background)
In contrast with Governor McCall’s 20th century support of classical conservation, Robert W. Collin, a Willamette University Adjunct Professor of Law, has endorsed contemporary conservation. Collin criticizes classical environmentalism as a whole due to its inability to tackle environmental injustices, explaining that “The conservationist-based U.S. environmental movement instead focuses its work on so-called “wilderness,” wild places, and wild animals. This concept of the environment is sometimes considered racist because indigenous people who called these places home did not consider them wild.” (Collin 2008).
Generally our group members agree with contemporary thought, though there are particular aspects that we disagree with. We agree that the change oriented beliefs of contemporary thought are helpful for fully preparing for our future. We also agree that having a solution based, open possibilities future is more optimistic and will help us to solve problems.
Although contemporary thought disagrees with climate pessimism, SarahKate brought up the point that some alarmism can be a good thing, and that we shouldn’t let ourselves get too comfortable in the belief that we will have the ability to solve every problem that comes our way. In terms of public understanding about climate change, it might add fuel to the fire of climate denialism and lead the public away from the concern over our planet’s wellbeing.
Helen addressed the issue that the use of technology in solutions isn’t always so clear cut. Often technology is expensive or resource intensive, meaning that these solutions would be hard to adopt on a global scale. Carbon capturing technology is a good example of this issue. While it’s theoretically a good idea, it disregards the power of our planet’s natural carbon capturers — forests. Another example are solar panels, they let us utilize the sun’s natural energy, but the creation of solar panels involves limited resources and metals. These types of technological fixes might help, but we believe that they work only in tandem with other natural solutions, such as reforestation, or energy conservation.
Classic environmentalism has created a foundation for contemporary environmentalism to develop. So while our group agrees more with contemporary thought, we see the value in the facts, studies, and understanding that arose from classic environmentalist thinkers and believe that these helpful aspects of classic environmental thought should not be ignored or pushed aside.
- Benson, Melinda Harm, and Robin Kundis Craig. 2014. “The End of Sustainability.” Society & Natural Resources 27, no. 7 (July): 777–82. https://doi.org/10.1080/08941920.2014.901467.
- Collin, Robert W. 2008. “Environmental Justice in Oregon: It’s the Law.” Environmental Law Review 38 (2): 43.
- Greenberg, Miriam. 2013. “What on Earth Is Sustainable?: Toward Critical Sustainability Studies.” Boom: A Journal of California 3, no. 4 (December): 54–66. https://doi.org/10.1525/boom.2013.3.4.54.
- 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.
- 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.
- Shellenberger, Michael, and Ted Nordhaus. 2011. “Evolve.” 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.
- Wells, Gail. 2006. “Conservation Moves to the Forefront.” In The Oregon History Project. http://www.oregonhistoryproject.org/narratives/the-oregon-coastforists-and-green-verdent-launs/the-oregon-coast-in-modern-times/conservation-moves-to-the-forefront/#.X3THV2dKi3I.