Revisiting roots in "Environment" is a word so embedded in environmental discourse and scholarship that it has effectively disappeared. We all know what the environment is—or do we? And what do our unexamined assumptions about environment mean for how we approach environmental issues? A careful examination of the word might lead us to... More Studies
The theme of classic and contemporary environmental thought runs through the ENVS program. My peers in ENVS and I were first introduced to these strands of thought in our 160 intro class, and thinking through this division and getting exposed to multiple and conflicting ways of thinking and doing environmental studies challenged the assumptions I came to college with. This exposure allowed me to have more informed opinions and better analyze situations through these many lenses, as well as get a better understanding of where others are coming from in their thinking about environmental issues.
This post presents an opportunity to go deeper still into environmental theory. In 350, we’ve been challenged to complicate the division between classic and contemporary environmental theory through an exploration of Companion to Environmental Studies, which houses a vast collection of essays on classic and contemporary environmental concepts and approaches (Castree et al. 2018).
After reading over 20 essays on classic and contemporary concepts and approaches, I am much more versed in who is doing environmental studies and how they’re going about it. Throughout this process, some differences and commonalities between the concepts and approaches arose, some of which fell along the classic/contemporary division, while others complicated it.
At the very beginning of the semester, we evaluated and reflected on our interdisciplinary experiences in ENVS through the frame of inclusivity and coherence. Theory that is inclusive incorporates a wide range of knowledge approaches, and theory that is coherent finds a way to weave these into a framework. Keeping these in mind while reading Companion was one way to analyze the distinction between classic and contemporary concepts and approaches. Theories that take shortcuts create the appearance of coherence but fail to be inclusive. Some shortcuts that appear too often in ENVS are reductionism, essentialism, apocalypticism. As I read more and more of Companion, it became apparent that many more of these shortcuts were taken to establish coherence in classic concepts and approaches than in contemporary ones, though this is not a hard and fast rule.
Two classic concepts, bioregionalism and Ecological footprint is a classical environmental concept that seeks to define humans' biophysical connection to the planet, specifically our demand on natural capital (Castree et al. 2018, 43). The term ecological footprint was first introduced by Wackernagel and Rees in 1996 as a simple measure of the sustainability of a... More, take essentialist shortcuts (Evanoff, Rees 2018). Bioregionalism seeks to reduce the impacts of global markets on place-based communities, but its method of imagining communities fails to account for transnational communities and those who rely on migration for their livelihoods (Evanoff 2018). By bounding in this way, they essentialize populations, by imagining uniformity within them. Experiences I’ve had and contexts I’ve learned about in various courses complicate the assumptions bioregionalism takes for granted, and offer different ways to imagine how communities can interact with their environments. I’m left wondering, how can bioregionalism account for those peoples who have been or are currently being displaced? Some people have been historically denied a just and symbiotic relationship to place and the environment, and it doesn’t seem like they have a place in bioregionalist thinking.
Ecological footprint runs the risk of being essentialist by equating those actors it measures (Rees 2018). Reality is not in fact a vacuum but instead, relations are mediated by power and hierarchy which affect access to resources. As a method of measurement, ecological footprints can only represent a limited number of things. The consequence of framing resource use in this way is that historical and current injustices and iniquities can fall out of the picture. Without this context, it appears that ecological footprints are created in a political economic vacuum, instead of the reality that certain factors have granted some more access to larger footprints than others. Ecological footprint assumes that access to resources is equal between individuals and that each person’s footprint is the result of actions taken by that individual alone.
Other classic concepts exhibit apocalypticism, another shortcut. The classic concept, Environmental catastrophe is an idea that relies heavily upon the greater concept of catastrophism, which is not limited to the decline of the natural environment or disasters, but a complete and sudden collapse of the earth on a planetary scale. Instead of a gradual decline, "..catastrophism is rather the act... More, takes the shortcut of apocalypticism, in that it asserts a vision of the future that can only end in complete destruction (Bettini 2018). Bettini explains that while in the past, the term was most commonly used in reference to acute events like earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and hurricanes, today it is most commonly understood in reference to a persistent condition of crisis. Bettini explains of apocalypticism,
“It casts a dystopic vista over the possibility, detected with the tools of modern science, of a human-induced planetary collapse,” (Bettini 2018).
While apocalypticism has a certain draw, namely as a method of mobilization or raising awareness, oftentimes taking this shortcut can have a disempowering effect.
A complicated, fuzzy boundary
Where contemporary concepts and approaches take shortcuts they complicate the idea that it is only classic ones that do this. Ecosystem services is a contemporary concept that arguably takes essentialist shortcuts. According to Companion’s entry, ecosystem services “articulate a strategy for making nature valuable, recognizably worthy to society, and investable by the state and finance,” (Chiu Suarez and Dempsey 2018). This concept risks the assumption that where the environment doesn’t benefit humans, it is worthless, and further, that approaches to environmental studies that do not center human interests, and especially those human interests that are easily assigned a dollar value, are inefficient, less valuable, and even wasteful.
The boundary between classic and contemporary environmental thought also becomes fuzzy where their concepts and approaches are imbricated. Oftentimes, methodologies and disciplines utilized by classic and contemporary environmental thinkers overlap. Certain concepts that are classic could be utilized by contemporary approaches, while some concepts that are contemporary may complement classic approaches. For example, depending on who is using it, the contemporary approach, Queer ecology pushes back against the dominant binary theory of environmental discourse and expands previous theories of ecofeminism to be more inclusive and contemporary. This framework emphasizes the intersection of sexual identity and environmental issues within cultural ideas and the scientific realm (Seymour 2018). An important aspect within this framework... More, can rely heavily on western hegemonic thought to make its contemporary arguments (Seymour 2018). Seymour explains, “many scholars attempt to naturalize phenomena such as human sexuality, by, for example, pointing to the aforementioned evidence of same-sex behavior among nonhuman animals. However, others note that such moves run counter to the anti-essentialism of queer theory,” (Seymour 2018). In this idea, the imbricated nature of classic and contemporary thought is demonstrated through the hybrid methods of queer ecology.
In my mind, contemporary concepts like In our current moment, discrete boundaries and truths that once felt solid are now shaken. After the Brexit referendum and the 2016 US presidential election, the usage of the term ‘post-truth,’ (that objective facts have little influence on public opinion) spiked, warranting selection for the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the... More, Post-Environmentalism is a concept that has emerged in environmental discourse to challenge the classic dichotomy between the biophysical world and humans’ relation to it. Advocating for the rejection of narrow-minded environmentalism, post-environmentalism promotes the use of technology and urbanization to protect the environment. While its anthropocentric ethical implications raise concerns... More, and The concept of reality is vague and the concept of nature is even more so, so how can these terms be grounded by universal definitions? Simply, it cannot and must be evaluated along a continuum of ambiguity grounded in different perspectives of reality. Nature is not defined solely in its... More take few shortcuts (Pollini, Buck, Ekers 2018). They seem to embrace the challenge of inclusivity, even though there is not a consensus on how best to get there. In this way, these concepts do follow the general classic and contemporary pattern.
Finally, some classic concepts and approaches have evolved with environmental thought. Sometimes, it can be easy to fall into the pattern of thinking that classic and contemporary can be defined chronologically. Where is the line drawn then, between the classic era and the contemporary era? Environment, a classic concept, and environmental politics, a classic approach complicate the classic/contemporary division through their dynamism (Sörlin, O’Lear 2018). In the case of environment, the way the concept has been imagined and utilized over time has not been static, but instead dynamic, (Sörlin, 2018). Environmental politics has been given new meaning as the definition of ‘politics’ has been adapted to encompass more than formal politics. O’Lear explains that more interesting questions can come out of environmental politics when politics is imagined “as a process to manage a variety of interests among groups of people,” (O’Lear 2018).
While I think there is some use in the classic/contemporary division, delving deeper into it makes me want to move beyond it. What becomes most important to me is not whether concepts and approaches are classic or contemporary, but whether or not they offer something meaningful for scholarship, and for whom.
Bettini, Giovanni. 2018. “Environmental catastrophe.” In Companion to Environmental Studies, eds. Castree, Noel, Hulme, Mike, and Proctor, James D, 39-42. London: Routledge.
Buck, Christopher. 2018. “Post-environmentalism.” In Companion to Environmental Studies, eds. Castree, Noel, Hulme, Mike, and Proctor, James D, 238-242. London: Routledge.
Castree, Noel, Hulme, Mike, and Proctor, James D. Companion to Environmental Studies. London ; New York: Routledge, 2018.
Chiu Suarez, Daniel and Dempsey, Jessica. 2018. “Ecosystem services.” In Companion to Environmental Studies, eds. Castree, Noel, Hulme, Mike, and Proctor, James D, 173-178. London: Routledge.
Ekers, Michael. 2018. “The social construction of nature.” In Companion to Environmental Studies, eds. Castree, Noel, Hulme, Mike, and Proctor, James D, 243-248. London: Routledge.
Evanoff, Richard. 2018. “Bioregionalism.” In Companion to Environmental Studies, eds. Castree, Noel, Hulme, Mike, and Proctor, James D, 13-16. London: Routledge.
O’Lear, Shannon. 2018. “Environmental politics.” In Companion to Environmental Studies, eds. Castree, Noel, Hulme, Mike, and Proctor, James D, 448-453. London: Routledge.
Pollini, Jacques. 2018. “Hybridity.” In Companion to Environmental Studies, eds. Castree, Noel, Hulme, Mike, and Proctor, James D, 209-213. London: Routledge.
Rees, William. 2018. “Ecological footprint.” In Companion to Environmental Studies, eds. Castree, Noel, Hulme, Mike, and Proctor, James D, 43-48. London: Routledge.
Seymour, Nicole. 2018. “Queer ecology.” In Companion to Environmental Studies, eds. Castree, Noel, Hulme, Mike, and Proctor, James D, 448-453. London: Routledge.
Sörlin, Sverker. 2018. “Environment.” In Companion to Environmental Studies, eds. Castree, Noel, Hulme, Mike, and Proctor, James D, 27-32. London: Routledge.