When we began this unit I had a loose understanding of 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. The concepts were not new to me this semester since all ENVS students at Lewis & Clark learn about these terms their freshman year in ENVS160. It had been a long time since I covered these terms in an academic setting, at least since my sophomore year in ENVS220. However, learning these terms was quite formative to my experience as a student of Environmental Studies so I thought of them often. When this unit began I described classic environmental thought as often white and middle class and believes that humans are harming nature, or approaches these issues with tantamount binary thinking. I also was confident that contemporary thought escapes the scientific limitation and incorporates humanities, social sciences, and philosophy. It concerns itself with the entanglement of humans and non-human actors which comprise the environment. Most contemporary environmental thought knows problems are ‘wicked’ and not binary. And many, but not, contemporary environmental thinkers are critical of classical thought for its doom-like fatalism with 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. Though much of this rings true throughout the past two weeks of intensive study on these topics, my initial understanding of these different modes of thought lacks nuance and fluidity.
Though categorical thinking is valuable and important, I quickly realized that it is challenging to define classical and contemporary thought without recognizing that the two modes of thought often bleed into one another and cooperate. The most obvious fluidity between these two categories is temporal. It is clear that classic environmental thought happened first and contemporary environmental thought happened subsequently as a response and reaction to classic thought. Though this does not mean all classic works were written between 1960-1980 and then everything after that was contemporary. Classic environmental thought is still highly circulated and written today, and contemporary environmental thought has its roots earlier in time than we might suspect.
Not all classic thought seems classic in nature. Not all contemporary thought seems contemporary in nature. A thorough understanding of these modes of thought leads one to discover that they are not as distinct as we initially suspected.
To gain a more nuanced and fluid understanding of these modes of thought, it may be helpful to review our trusty EcoTypes, which provide us with fifteen sliding axes to help us understand how we approach environmental issues. Clicking around this website and following your curiosity is super helpful, but Jim Proctor has already created a separate page specifically for understanding classic and contemporary environmental thought. I found that the most helpful Ecotypes for understanding these differences to include Time: Past vs. future, Nature: Pure vs. hybrid, and, Future: Crisis vs. possibility. Though there are eight axes which Jim highlights as being the most helpful. To quote from the hyperlinked website above: “For the axes below, there is a tendency for the left pole to reflect classic thought, and the right contemporary thought.”
Aesthetics: Wild vs. crafted
Diversity: Low vs. high priority
Ecosystems: Stable vs dynamic
Future: Crisis vs. possibility
Nature: Pure vs. hybrid
Society: Consensus vs. conflict
Technology: Technophobia vs. technophilia
Time: Past vs. future
The best place to learn about these ecotypes is the website itself, but I will provide a helpful summary of the Time, Nature, and Future axes. The Time axis asks if we should look to the past for a more harmonious time, or if we should just move to the future. A strong example from the companion which relates to this axis is 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. Ecotheology is a classic approach that aims to view religious texts to either critique humanity’s disregard for the natural world or support responsible environmentalism using ancient wisdom (Dalton 2018, 271-274). Whether Ecotheology is used to criticize or support our modern condition, it overwhelmingly relies on the past for answers. Often classic approaches and concepts align with the left side of the Ecotype Axes, so a contrasting chapter from the companion would be 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. Resilience Science is all about adaptability and possibility. Its goal is to adapt to changes while maintaining core characteristics, which can be applied both to ecosystems and society (Milkoreit 2018, 454-459). As a contemporary approach, this provides a contrast to Ecotheology in a manner that is typical of contemporary environmental thought.
Resilience Science also is a good example of the Future Ecotype axis. Resilience Science sees the future as containing possibility rather than inevitable destruction. The chapter on Environmental Catastrophe obviously embodies the other side of the axis. In the Anthropocene represented in this chapter, humans have gone too far and affected our planet beyond salvation (Bettini 2018, 39-42). This mode of thought is driven by works such as Tragedy of the Commons by Garrett Hardin which assumes a doomed future due to the overpopulation of our planet and destruction of nature (Harden 1968).
Much of classic environmental thought creates the dichotomy of humans vs. nature, or something that assumes a similar binary. Classic perspectives are typically on the left axis of the Nature ecotype. A contemporary concept key to the Nature ecotype axis is the chapter on 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. Hybridity deconstructs the notion that nature is pure, and offers perspectives from the social sciences and natural sciences which show that humans and nature are not on either side of a dichotomy, but often interlaced (Pollini 2018, 209-213). The notion of hybridity connects smoothly to the chapter on 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. Moving further away from the reductionist rhetoric of nature being pure, the thinkers behind this chapter argue that the phrase nature alone can be harmful and counterproductive to environmental goals. Many environmentalists in the school of thought would argue that “nature is dead”, which is a stark statement on the problematic assumptions of that word choice and its history.
Many of the key differences have been covered in the first two sections of this post, though there are still some clarifications to draw. Below is a figure that situates five classic concepts/approaches and five contemporary concepts/approaches in their similarities and differences. A few of these have already been mentioned in this post (Ecotheology, Hybridity, Environmental Catastrophe) and the rest have yet to be defined. But you will find the connecting lines to be helpful enough to draw distinctions and similarities between most of these terms.
It will be helpful to know more about Ecological Footprints and “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 to better understand the figure. Ecological Footprints are a tactic associated with classic environmental approaches to environmental problems which places the responsibility on the individual to account for the quantity of resource exploitation and greenhouse gas emission for which they are responsible in their lifetime (Rees 2018, 43-48). I call this approach reductionist because it does not pay proper respect to complex nature of environmental problems such as resource exploitation and GhG emissions. Many of the problems are results of systemic complications and international affairs, an approach such as Ecological Footprints does not get to the heart of the complexity of these issues. A popular contemporary concept applied to this issue is Wicked Environmental Problems. Wicked Environmental Problems direct addresses the reductionist solutions such as Ecological Footprints, it suggests that environmental problems are wicked and require wicked solutions: ones that approach problems from as many angles as compatible and possible (Thompson 2018, 258-262).
In conjunction with Hybridity and Wicked Environmental Problems, Animal Studies approaches an issue from many academic angles to gain the best understanding of the subject. Animal Studies uses social sciences, humanities, and natural sciences to understand the issues that are faced by animals, this is a prime example of an interdisciplinary approach to doing environmental studies (Emel 2018, 368 – 372) Another term which is essential to understanding contemporary environmental studies 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. An easy way to understand this term with what I have already said in this post is to replace “environment” with “nature” and the thinkers in classic and contemporary groups have pretty similar positions. Post-environmentalists work to reconceptualize nature as well as the environment by rejecting the binary understanding of humans vs. nature (Buck 2018, 238-242).
The differences probably seem quite clear, and quite similar to how I initially framed these modes of thought at the beginning of this post. Classic concepts/approaches are comfortable with binary thinking when it comes to environmental problems, and tend to think of the environment and nature reaching some impending catastrophe. While contemporary approaches/concepts understand the fluidity of many problems and are more optimistic about our future. For the most part, the ecotypes framing suits each topic I have discussed. But to illustrate that this is not always the case I was to end with one final example. 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, a classic environmental approach, is not guilty of reductionist solutions or scapegoats such as Ecological Footprints or Ecotheology. Instead, this classic approach embraces intersectionality and encourages thought pertaining to ageism, ableism, homophobia, and speciesism (Gaard 2018, 268 -290). It is easy to find traces of classic environmental thought among people in today’s age that identify as environmentalists! I learned about almost exclusively classic environmental thought during my senior year of high school and thought it was contemporary thinking. The classic movement of Ecofeminism goes to show that it flows both ways. Contemporary thought has its roots earlier than we suspect. Classic thought exists today. Not all classic thought seems classic in nature. Not all contemporary thought seems contemporary in nature. A thorough understanding of these modes of thought leads one to discover that they are not as distinct as we initially suspected.
Bettini, Giovanni, 2018. “Environmental catastrophe.” In Companion to Environmental Studies, edited by Castree, Noel, Hulme, Mike, and Proctor, James D, 39-42. New York: Routledge.
Buck, Christopher 2018. “Post-environmentalism.” In Companion to Environmental Studies, edited by Castree, Noel, Hulme, Mike, and Proctor, James D, 238-242. New York: Routledge.
Dalton, Anne Marie. 2018. “Ecotheology.” In Companion to Environmental Studies, edited by Castree, Noel, Hulme, Mike, and Proctor, James D, 271-274. New York: Routledge.
Ekers, Michael. 2018. “Social Construction of Nature.” In Companion to Environmental Studies, edited by Castree, Noel, Hulme, Mike, and Proctor, James D, 243-248. New York: Routledge.
Emel, Jody and Taves, Ilanah. 2018. “Animal Studies.” In Companion to Environmental Studies, edited by Castree, Noel, Hulme, Mike, and Proctor, James D, 368 – 372. New York: Routledge.
Gaard, Greta. 2018. “Ecofeminism.” In Companion to Environmental Studies, edited by Castree, Noel, Hulme, Mike, and Proctor, James D, 268 -290. New York: Routledge.
Hardin, Garrett. 1968. “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Science 162 (3859): 1243–48.
Milkoreit, Manjana. 2018. “Resilience Science.” In Companion to Environmental Studies, edited by Castree, Noel, Hulme, Mike, and Proctor, James D, 454-459. New York: Routledge.
Pollini, Jacques. 2018. “Hybridity.” In Companion to Environmental Studies, edited by Castree, Noel, Hulme, Mike, and Proctor, James D, 209-213. New York: Routledge.
Rees, William. 2018. “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.” In Companion to Environmental Studies, edited by Castree, Noel, Hulme, Mike, and Proctor, James D, 43-48. New York: Routledge.
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.