In the last few weeks, we have spent a lot of time in ENVS 350 discussing classic and contemporary "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 thought, a distinction that was first introduced to us our first year in ENVS 160. This time around, we have had the advantage of using Companion to Environmental Studies, a book that contains hundreds of short entries about different topics pertaining to environmental theory. Through reading 20 entries over the past two weeks, we have been able to build a base of knowledge surrounding the topics that the entries cover and the distinction between classic and contemporary environmental thought.
In my opinion, the biggest distinction between classic and contemporary concepts is the degree to which they avoid using common environmental studies shortcuts, as outlined in the video by Professor Proctor, below.
To summarize what Jim said in the video, there are three main shortcuts when it comes to doing environmental theory. They are: reductionism, essentialism, and apocalypticism. Reductionism is non-inclusive in that it ignores various factors that play a role in an issue. Reductionists claim that a complex issue is actually much simpler than it seems, and that everything boils down to one concept. Essentialists argue that all members of a certain group or category are the same. This is an over-simplification of the complexity that exists in our world and in environmental problems. Apocalypticism is a fatalist view that whatever is coming in the future will be disastrous. Many Apocalyptists would lie on the “crisis” pole of the Ecotypes future axis, meaning that they have a very pessimistic view of the future.
In this post, I will give some examples of theories that fall into these shortcuts and ones that do a good job of practicing inclusion and discussing the complexity of their topic. I will also discuss further how the usage of shortcuts relates to distinctions of classic and contemporary environmental theory.
The entry on 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) was placed in the “classic concepts” section of the book, and I would agree with this classification due to the reductionist nature of this topic. Ecological Footprint is reductionist because it boils global 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 down to each person’s consumption and does not consider the nuances of institutional and/or corporate impacts. It is incredibly focused on individual action and champions the idea that we, as individuals, are ruining the Earth (a thought that has been disproved, see here for information about how corporations are really fueling climate change).
Ecotheology is a classical approach to environmental discourse. In its most basic form, it is defined as “the construction of religious doctrines and teachings to emphasize the human relationship to nature,” contributing to the concern for the environment from a moral standpoint (Dalton 2018, 271-274). This approach has evolved significantly... More (Dalton 2018) lies in-between the poles of reductionism and non-reductionism. At its start, ecotheology was reductionist in that it considered Christianity to be the root of all environmental ills. This is especially exemplified in Lynn White’s “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis.” However, in more recent years, ecotheology has been tied to liberation theology and is more intersectional in its treatment of environmental problems. This reduces the reductionist nature of ecotheology, making it somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between classic and contemporary environmentalism.
I think that the concept of “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 does a good job of rejecting reductionism, and is therefore aptly placed in the “contemporary concepts” section. According to Companion, wicked problems have a variety of defining characteristics. The one that I think is most prominent, however is the idea that wicked problems have “no ‘stopping rule’ (every attempt at resolution leads to new problems)” (Thompson 259). Wicked problems are steeped in complexity and inclusion of a variety of factors, which helps reduce reductionism. However, it should be noted that wicked problems may fall into another shortcut trap, which is the creation of a “theory of everything.” When using this concept, I believe that it is important to recognize that the wicked problem framework is not a be-all end-all.
One entry that exemplified essentialism to me was Cultural Theory, specifically grid-group theory (Boholm 2018). This concept was listed as “classic,” which I would agree with. Grid-group theory is an oversimplification of the many complex factors that lead individuals to make certain decisions. It places all people into four categories: egalitarians, individualists, hierarchists, and fatalists (267). Although somewhat tacitly, grid-group theory implies that all egalitarians, fatalists, etc. are the same and will behave in a similar fashion if presented with the same issue.
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 (Gaard 2018) lies somewhere in between an essentialist and non-essentailist theory. At its start, ecofeminism was definitely essentialist in that it considered ecological degradation and the subjugation of women to be the same. Inherent in this comparison is the idea that all ecological degradation and all gender-based subjugation is created equal. However, in more recent years, ecofeminism has become more intersectional, considering how colonialism, race, gender, and environmental crisis all intersect. Therefore, this theory has aspects of both classic and contemporary environmental ideas.
One entry that was able to avoid essentialism was 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, listed as a contemporary concept. As discussed in Companion, “the hybridity argument claims that there are as many natures as there are cultures that interact with it, that nature is not separate from culture, that it may even be misguiding to distinguish the two realms, and that all cultures have the same legitimacy to define what nature should look like and how it should be managed” (Pollini 2018, 211). In this way, the concept of hybridity recognizes that not all “natures” and “cultures” are the same and that we should explore and embrace differences in how those words are used.
One concept that unsurprisingly falls prey to this shortcut is environmental catastrophe. As discussed by Bettini in Companion, the concept of environmental catastrophe focuses on the idea of ecological collapse on the planetary scale. It is staunchly apocalyptic, it seems in the hope of spurring people into action, but it has been shown that these scare tactics are not that effective in getting people to care about their impacts on the climate or planet. Therefore, I believe that it is quite classic.
Another concept that has elements of apocalypticism is natural hazards research (Bankoff 2018). The concept of resilience looms heavy in discussions on natural hazards. The concept of resilience is inherently a bit pessimistic because it implies that disasters will inevitably happen, and that all we, as humans, can do is to try and mitigate the negative effects that they will cause. Because of this, 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 (Milkoreit 2018) is also somewhat apocalyptic, but perhaps less so because it spends more time on focusing on positive aspects of a community rather than its vulnerabilities.
A concept that avoids the apocalypticism trap is 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 (Buck 2018). Although this school of thought could take the shortcut of apocalypticism, since it believes in “the end of nature” as described by Bill McKibben, it takes a more optimistic outlook on the future, focusing instead on technology and innovations that can help different societies achieve their ecological goals.
It should be noted that this idea of shortcuts being an overarching framework for determining classic and contemporary theory is perhaps a shortcut within itself. As discussed in Professor Proctor’s video, it is very hard to avoid using all shortcuts and that what we can do, as doers of environmental theory, is to try and reduce the impacts of the shortcuts we must take and to expose the complexity that lies at the root of every topic.
Bankoff, Greg. 2018. “Natural Hazards Research.” In Companion to Environmental Studies, edited by Noel Castree, Mike Hulme and James D. Proctor, 354-355. New York, NY: Routledge
Bettini, Giovanni. 2018. “Environmental Catastrophe” In Companion to Environmental Studies, edited by Noel Castree, Mike Hulme and James D. Proctor, 243. New York, NY: Routledge
Boholm, Åsa. 2018. “Cultural Theory.” In Companion to Environmental Studies, edited by Noel Castree, Mike Hulme and James D. Proctor, 266. New York, NY: Routledge
Buck, Christopher. 2018. “Post-Environmentalism.” In Companion to Environmental Studies, edited by Noel Castree, Mike Hulme and James D. Proctor, 241. New York, NY: Routledge
Dalton, Anne Marie. 2018. “Ecotheology.” In Companion to Environmental Studies, edited by Noel Castree, Mike Hulme and James D. Proctor, 271. New York, NY: Routledge
Gaard, Greta. 2018. “Ecofeminism.” In Companion to Environmental Studies, edited by Noel Castree, Mike Hulme and James D. Proctor, 271. New York, NY: Routledge
Milkoreit, Manjana. 2018. “Resilience Science.” In Companion to Environmental Studies, edited by Noel Castree, Mike Hulme and James D. Proctor, 457. New York, NY: Routledge
Pollini, Jacques. 2018. “Hybridity.” In Companion to Environmental Studies, edited by Noel Castree, Mike Hulme and James D. Proctor, 212. New York, NY: Routledge
Rees, William. 2018. “Ecological Footprint.” In Companion to Environmental Studies, edited by Noel Castree, Mike Hulme and James D. Proctor, 43. New York, NY: Routledge
Thompson, Michael. 2018. “Wicked Problems” In Companion to Environmental Studies, edited by Noel Castree, Mike Hulme and James D. Proctor, 43. New York, NY: Routledge