What is Classic and Contemporary Thought?
People have always theorized about the earth in an attempt to understand it, and created narratives to explain what is happening. This theorization has evolved, and some would say recent "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 theories can be categorized as classic or contemporary thought. This approach is central to the ENVS program at Lewis and Clark, which creates a system for studying the vast, complicated history of environmental theory. Recently, our ENVS 350 class has been reading through Companion to Environmental Studies, choosing 20 passages which summarize different classic or contemporary concepts and approaches. These categories describe the era that theories were created, as well as their characteristics. As Companion to Environmental Studies defines it:
“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. It is important to keep in mind that the contemporary ﬁeld of environmental studies includes both classic and contemporary inﬂuences – thus, rather than wholly replacing classic notions, contemporary notions often further diversify the ﬁeld.”
(Castree, Hulme and Proctor 3, 2018)
This passage defines some key differences between Classic and Contemporary theories. Important distinctions include the time of the theory, the emphasis on one truth vs. multiple truths, and the use of intellectual shortcuts in theory. Classic concepts have a tendency to simplify concepts by using the shortcuts of essentialism, reductionism, or apocalyptic predictions. Contemporary theory employs a liquid modernity, meaning they support multiple truths and complexity between truths, while classic theory utilizes solid modernity which suggests one truth. Environmental thought as it relates to political and human issues can be categorized into one of these categories, but the line is often blurry.
How are these distinctions challenged?
One key challenge is that the aspects that make something classic or contemporary can overlap, since theories were not written to fit into a category. For example, some concepts may be written earlier but feature nuance and multiple truths, while some theories may offer nuance but an apocalyptic conclusion. Classic and Contemporary concepts all exist in discourse with one another, meaning that they respond and challenge each other. The classic concept of 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 dictates that humans each have a negative impact on the climate, that can be theorized as an amount of space on earth each person uses, based on the resources they consume (Rees 2018, 45).
There is even a theoretical online calculator model to inform people of their individual footprint. The Contemporary concept of Ecosystem Services, in response, suggests that the ecosystem provides beneficial “services” to the human population (Suarez and Dempsey 2018, 173). This flips the dynamic of humans degrading nature, to nature providing for human needs. In this case, the contemporary responds to the classic; in fact, many other theories in the book appear to respond directly to the question of what humans’ relationship to nature is, and what it should be.
What does Environmental theory say about Human’s Relationship to Nature?
Bioregionalism (a classic concept) suggests that humans should live in accordance with their local ecosystem, as defined by the watershed (Evanoff 2018, 13). This concept emphasizes a divestment from global trade, and an investment in local trade. The classic concept of Sustainable Development suggests that development should consider many different realities and stakeholders, and proceed in a way that is environmentally, economically and socially sustainable (Whitehead 2018, 112).
The classic approach of 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 seems to echo many of these sentiments, but adding the nuance that this is easier said than done, and that environmental issues such as pollution disproportionately affect some groups more than others, in a way that is intersectional (Gaard 2018, 288). It might seem that both Ecofeminism would be a contemporary response to an idea like bioregionalism, but these are both labeled as classic. Environmental politics, another classic approach, seems to be a response to Ecofeminism, by emphasizing not only disproportionate effects and opportunities, deconstructing what womanhood is, and by clarifying that the environment is inherently political and complex (O’Lear 2018, 323). These theories appear to be in dialogue with one another, by building and deconstructing the theory preceding it.
The idea of these distinctions are challenged by theory themselves; the contemporary concept of 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 is an example of this. Hybridity asserts that binaries are no longer useful in the context of liquid modernity, when multiple truths exist (Pollini 2018, 209). This concept seeks a more meaningful and nuanced understanding of theory itself. 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 is another contemporary concept that offers the end of intellectual shortcuts, and a future of theory that is more nuanced.
An important dimension of classic thought, apocalypticism, can be another way of seeing this dialogue. A well-known classic concept is 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. The concept that there will eventually be a terrible catastrophe may even have cemented the connection between classic thought and apocalypticism. Natural hazards research, a classic approach, responds to this by offering the concept that vulnerability to risk of natural hazards varies among groups of people (Bankoff 2018, 354); the contemporary approach of Resilience science is the study of how systems are able to adapt and transform following external change. Resilience measures how well a social-ecological system (SES) can return to a new or old stasis following a major shift to its core existence. The goal of studying resilience is to “establish the... More offers theory of how people can be resilient to environmental hazards (Milkoreit 2018, 456). In another sense, “Wicked environmental problems” is a contemporary concept that describes when there is a “contested terrain” that arises out of contending, incompatible certainties. While these voices disagree, they all bring a valuable perspective, “each distilling elements of wisdom and experience that are missed by the others” (Thompson, 2018). There are multiple... More (a contemporary concept), as the name suggests, are a more nuanced, realistic, and subtle form of catastrophe; they are environmental problems that are impossible to solve because they have so many different stakeholders, dimensions, and solutions that could not be utilized (Thompson 2018, 260).
Ultimately, it almost seems that there is no clear and substantial difference separating “classic” and contemporary” environmental thought. I found it to be very difficult to differentiate sometimes between what should be labeled classic and contemporary, with the only distinction being which section of the book the theory was found in. With so many overlapping ways that these concepts and approaches are connected, or contrasted, it is up for debate whether there is any value to creating a binary classification for theories, or whether the theories can speak for themselves in dialogue with one another. It may be more nuanced to study the ways that these theories are in dialogue with each other; who is responding to who, and what is being offered?
Rees, William. 2018. “Ecological Footprint.” In Companion to Environmental Studies, edited by Noel Castree, Mike Hulme, and James D. Proctor, 43-48. Milton: Taylor & Francis Group.
Suarez and Dempsey. 2018. “Ecosystem Services” In Companion to Environmental Studies, edited by Noel Castree, Mike Hulme, and James D. Proctor, 173-178. Milton: Taylor & Francis Group.
Evanoff, Richard. 2018. “Bioregionalism.” In Companion to Environmental Studies, edited by Noel Castree, Mike Hulme, and James D. Proctor, 13-16. London: Routledge.
Whitehead, Mark. 2018. “Sustainable Development.” In Companion to Environmental Studies, edited by Noel Castree, Mike Hulme, and James D. Proctor, 110-114. Milton: Taylor & Francis Group.
Gaard, Greta. 2018. “Ecofeminism.” In Companion to Environmental Studies, edited by Noel Castree, Mike Hulme, and James D. Proctor, 286-290. Milton: Taylor & Francis Group.
O’Lear, Shannon. 2018. “Environmental Politics.” In Companion to Environmental Studies, edited by Noel Castree, Mike Hulme, and James D. Proctor, 321-324. Milton: Taylor & Francis Group.
Pollini, Jacques. 2018. “Hybridity.” In Companion to Environmental Studies, edited by Noel Castree, Mike Hulme, and James D. Proctor, 209-213. Milton: Taylor & Francis Group.
Bankoff, Greg. 2018. “Natural Hazards Research.” In Companion to Environmental Studies, edited by Noel Castree, Mike Hulme, and James D. Proctor, 352-355. Milton: Taylor & Francis Group.
Milkoreit, Manjana. 2018. “Resilience Science.” In Companion to Environmental Studies, edited by Noel Castree, Mike Hulme, and James D. Proctor, 454-459. Milton: Taylor & Francis Group.
Thompson, Michael. 2018. “Wicked Environmental Problems.” In Companion to Environmental Studies, edited by Castree, Noel, Hulme, Mike, and Proctor, James D, 258-262. New York: Routledge.