When reading the Companion to "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 I am exposed to a multitude of different concepts, theories, and methodologies. We in Environmental Theory have spent the previous few weeks focusing solely on this diverse range of ideas and situated them within our context of “classic” and “contemporary” concepts. In some situations this was a simple task but that simplicity was quite rare, in reality the distinguishment between what we consider “classic” or “contemporary” can be quite fuzzy and require deeper investigation. The companion describes this differentiation as this,
“We differentiate here between classic instances, corresponding to early developments of environmental studies from the mid-20th century on (though some are even older), and contemporary instances, which have arisen in the last few decades in response both to intellectual developments and the ever-changing world” (Castree et al. pg. 3)
While this classification is useful, it is not inherently foolproof. Oftentimes what we consider to be classic concepts can prevail to this day and hold value in environmental studies discourse. Additionally it is important to acknowledge that many contemporary ideas build on classic ones making the two intertwined. So with all this complexity how do we distinguish between the two and is it even a worthwhile pursuit?
Understanding Differences Between Classic and Contemporary
In order to address these questions I am going to refer to the readings from the companion that we did and use those to exemplify the possible significant differences and whether the classification holds value. To do this I want to review the chapters we have read and analyze their classification as classic or contemporary specifically within the context of concepts such as solid vs. liquid modernity as well as the EcoTypes axes that we have become very familiar with throughout the ENVS program. Solid modernity is used to exemplify what we think of as classic concepts, solid meaning that the concept is well developed and stable within its context. Whereas liquid modernity acknowledges the factors of the unknown into its concepts, emphasizing that the concept is situated in possibly changing contexts. For example, chapter 1.8 of the companion is titled, “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”(Rees, 43-48) and describes the concept of individual or national impact and its contribution to various forms of degradation eventually leading to the possibility of a resource depletion or ‘overshoot’. This section holds many similarities to solid modernity, the most significant being that the concept is statically contextualized within specific actors such as individuals or nations. However, these actors no longer hold the same value when it comes to ecological impact whereas now few large transnational conglomerates are the significant actors when it comes to environmental impact. A more ‘liquid’ way of contextualizing ecological footprint could possibly be to address and accept the uncertainties such as the possibilities of new actors rather than focusing on the current ones. When thinking about this within the realm of EcoTypes, a major distinction that is noticeable within this concept is the focus on knowledge, old vs. new. This solidity and emphasis on older knowledge and concepts seem to be a running theme in concepts labelled as classic.
Another example of this solidity in classic concepts is ‘Sustainable Development’ (Whitehead, 110-114). This concept cites the UN Sustainable Goals that outline the prioritized list of goals that come with development in order to reduce ecological impacts that come with developing nations. However the prioritization is complicated and does not allow for the possibilities that some things will need to be prioritized more than others. For example, we are currently in an entirely unexpected pandemic that very much has reshaped what life looks like and has definitely influenced priorities moving public health to a higher position of importance. Does rigid ideas of sustainable development allow for these unprecedented circumstances? This example of our current circumstances can also be extended to ‘Environmental Catastrophe’ (Bettini, 39-42). In a classic mindset this type of catastrophe has very specific imagery, “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 means also something else, as it alludes more to post-apocalyptic Mad Max-like scenarios than to biblical plagues” (Bettini, 39). I wonder what this author is now thinking during this pandemic, since we are now facing something very similar to plagues of history in a way. This only impresses the issues of rigidity in allegedly classic theories.
This is contrasted with the flexibility of contemporary concepts that not only operate within a context of possible unknowns but also takes on classic ideas and adds more inclusionary concepts towards intersectionality. An example of this inclusion is shown in “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” in which “secual and environmental issues intersect – in cultural representation, scientific research, and other realms” (Seymour, 448). This inclusion is an emphasized theme within contemporary concepts in order to fill possible gaps that prevent intersectionality in classic ideas. Additionally, contemporary ideas allow for the possibilities of change in the future understanding that actors and concepts will evolve in unexpected ways. It seems more and more things are unprecedented lately, from natural disasters, to mega wildfires, to epidemics; in order to adjust to these constant unknowns contemporary concepts allow that breathing room for inevitable change.
Conclusion: Where the two intersect
Coming into ENVS 350 I thought I already knew the difference between classic and contemporary but as we read through the companion I find my previous ideas challenged. Where previously I saw classic and contemporary as distinctly different concepts on opposite ends of a spectrum similar to the EcoTypes axes, through these readings I realized that the distinction is not as significant as I thought. For example I referenced Queer Ecology as an example of contemporary thought based on its emphasis on intersectionality. However, intersectionality is not lost on many classic concepts such as In the conquest for modernization we’ve strayed so far from our natural world that we easily degrade and marginalize those with less power. Ecofeminism is a way of thinking and acting that aims to reconnect us with the natural world and recognize the societal power structures that relate social and... More, “climate change homophobia is evident in the media blackout of LGBTQ people in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which occured just days before the annual queer festival in New Orleans…” (Gaard, 288). It is evident that the two value queer or LQBTQ perspective despite being classic or contemporary, so when looking at ecofeminism it is difficult to assign it as classic despite its early development. What I have learned from this unit is that instead of viewing the two concepts as a classic vs. contemporary it could be useful to look at it as a more comprehensive web of shared ideas and conceptual progression and evolution. This means that the classic concepts are not inherently outdated or inapplicable but rather that these concepts can be used as a foundation for contemporary ideas. This is a reminder that contemporary concepts are not not created in an academic vacuum, but rather uses the gift of hindsight to utilize significant ideas from old knowledge for a co-creation of new knowledge.
Castree, Noel, Mike Hulme, and James D. Proctor. Companion to Environmental Studies. London: Routledge, 2018.
Castree, Noel, Mike Hulme, James D. Proctor, and Giovanni Bettini. “Environmental Catastrophe.” Essay. In Companion to Environmental Studies, 39–42. London: Routledge, 2018.
Castree, Noel, Mike Hulme, James D. Proctor, and Greta Gaard. “Ecofeminism.” In Companion to Environmental Studies, 286–90. London: Routledge, 2018.
Castree, Noel, Mike Hulme, James D. Proctor, and Mark Whitehead. “Sustainable Development .” Essay. In Companion to Environmental Studies, 110–14. London: Routledge, 2018.
Castree, Noel, Mike Hulme, James D. Proctor, and Nicole Seymour. “Queer Ecology.” Essay. In Companion to Environmental Studies, 448–53. London: Routledge, 2018.
Castree, Noel, Mike Hulme, James D. Proctor, and William Rees. “Ecological Footprint.” Essay. In Companion to Environmental Studies, 43–48. London: Routledge, 2018.