Introduction to Unit 2
In the second unit of our ENVS 350 class, we are diving into "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 theory. For the time being, we are putting our Areas of Interest, the subject of my last post, on the back burner and directing our attention to developing a deeper understanding of concepts and approaches to environmental studies.
Throughout the Unit, we have read 20 chapters of the Companion to Environmental Studies, each serving to provide students with a baseline knowledge of a key idea central to the development of environmental studies. We are then asked to situate these essays as reflecting either “classic” or “contemporary” thought. This process, however, was not exactly cut and dry, however, as I quickly learned that the defining characteristics of the two predominant categories were rather complicated, and that the reality is that the distinctions between the two are rather fuzzy, begging the question of whether there is merit to separating concepts in this way at all.
Classic vs Contemporary
In order to explore this subject, we must set a basis for what classic and contemporary mean in this context. The term “classical” refers to trends typical of the early surge in environmental studies during the 1960s and 70s, where “contemporary” suits environmental thought shaped by the intellectual developments of the most recent decades.
To say that classic and contemporary can be demarcated solely on chronological setting, however, would not be entirely correct. Though environmental thought has evolved greatly since the 60s, classic ideas remain present in more current discussions. Rather than being an entirely new direction for environmental theory, contemporary is often heavily influenced by its antecedent, building off of or refuting certain ideas but with a focus on diversifying the field (Castree et al. pg. 3).
“In many ways, then, classic concepts can somehow be both out of date and ubiquitous, in particular among popular environmental movements, if not current environmental scholarship”(Castree et al. pg. 7)
Our professor also introduced to us the concepts of solid and liquid modernity, of which I was unfamiliar. Solid modernity views the present systems and institutions as “settled, singular, [and] universal”, whereas liquid modernity is “unsettled, plural, [and] particular,” aligning with ideas of a Post-Truth world (Proctor 2020). Proctor presents that there is a great deal of intersection between the notions of solid and liquid modernity and classical and contemporary thought. I find this an interesting argument, and in many respects I agree with that correlation.
Thinking back on the first times that I read the classical heavy hitters such as Hardin and Muir, I found that I was often bothered by the rigidness of their convictions. The authors often seemed to wield their perspective like some god-given truth while overlooking nuance and other narratives of reality. There is certainly an attractive simplicity to this solid interpretation of modernity, where norms and institutions are settled and clear. But these blanket truths are not necessarily true across the board. They neglect diversity of opinions and varying truths of others, preferring their preferences.
For this reason, I find that liquid modernity, the truth of uncertainty and change, is more appealing. Despite lacking the comfort of solidity, the liquid modernity involves complexities and mixes different perspectives in a way that can hopefully reach deeper into environmental thought.
We were also asked to look at the ways in which Ecotypes could be effective in distinguishing Classical from Contemporary. Of the ecotypes axes, I find that the most useful were Society, Aesthetics, Future, and Diversity. The society pole (consensus vs. conflict) reflects much of what I said above, where varying truths were often neglected in classical works. The contemporary pieces often acknowledge the complexities and contradictions that come with identifying a singular truth. One such example is 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, where solutions, even if they are messy, can be found despite a lack of consensus.
The nature theme, which examines pure vs. hybrid nature, I also find particularly relevant. Viewing wilderness as a place without humans and human intervention is a simplistic and untrue perspective, yet ideas like this remain frequent in discussions of conservation. Alternatively, contemporary authors often point to the anthropocene, and the vast human impacts on the planet. Though it can sometimes be viewed negatively, such as in discussions of climate change or pollution, human 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 with the biosphere has always existed. Playing a role in the global ecosystem is not innately bad.
Emphasis on diversity of participation across race and class is also an interesting indicator of classic vs contemporary. Similar to the society lens, this theme has to do with complexity, since often what makes the contemporary truths complex and conflicting is the introduction of viewpoints outside of the mainstream.
The map to the right illustrates a web of some of the readings that we have looked at during this unit, and is color labeled to indicate a subject as being either classical or contemporary. This map is interesting to me because of the high amount of connections between the pink and blue.
Why draw the lines?
As I was reading from the Companion, I found that it was harder to categorize the ideas than I expected, particularly when it came to identifying classical concepts. Perhaps part of it was that the essays that we were reading were written recently, and therefore there was an emphasis on or addition of contemporary aspects to keep them relevant. When viewing a classical approach to environmental studies that has been adapted, improved upon, and supplemented to be more accurate by today’s standards, at what point does it become contemporary? Are classical works only, then, the ones who either come from the mid 20th century or those who choose not to acknowledge the developments of the contemporary?
Viewing these ideas in terms of classic vs contemporary can be useful, however, especially when looking for common trends in environmental literature. Though the overall goals may not be outdated, the classic literature that sits at a concept’s core might be. Knowing what potential faults to watch out for can ultimately strengthen our understanding of an issue and will ensure that we have sure footing as we progress deeper into Environmental Theory.
Proctor, Jim. 2020. “Classic and Contemporary Environmental Thought.” Vimeo. October 20. https://vimeo.com/457611118/fc8a03f019.
Castree, Noel, Mike Hulme, and James D. Proctor. 2018. Companion to Environmental Studies. London: Routledge.
This remains a work in progress