In my studies at Lewis & Clark College, one of my largest focuses of study is the idea of perspective: in specific, attempting to break down various subjects, ideas, or social phenomena/systems in order to better understand the process that led us to where we are today. In the case of the "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 Program, this process of breaking down perspective seems to be, in one form or another, essential to the practice of environmental thought.
Over the course of this semester, we as students have attempted to break down the theory that finds itself within two main realms of environmental thought: Classical and Contemporary. Differentiating these two realms is quite valuable in and of itself, as it helps us reflect on how the practice of environmental thought has developed across the greater portion of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Classical environmental thought, which generally emerged in the 60’s and 70’s, has essential ties to environmental movements: protesting climate change, preserving mother Earth’s resources, and attempting to slow damaging human activity such as logging, drilling, and so much more.
Contemporary environmental studies, as one would expect, has emerged in more recent years: this realm of thought could be interpreted as a reaction to widespread intellectual development in a constantly evolving world, built upon a foundation of ever-changing and dynamic elements in order to better reflect the world around us.
This isn’t to say, however, that the realm of classic environmental thought has been entirely replaced by the realm of contemporary thought. Both areas are still very much present in our world today, and are equally important to how we approach environmental thought in the world today.
Liquid Modernity: accounting for change
The idea of accounting for a dynamic, ever-changing world requires an equally malleable concept used to understand it: this is the idea of liquid modernity, that was introduced by sociologist Zygmunt Bauman. The idea of liquid modernity, characterized within the contemporary realm of environmental thought, can be similarly contrasted by solid modernity, as largely characterized within classic environmental thought.
While it’s difficult to truly summarize the idea of liquid modernity, it’s much easier to view it from what it’s not. Solid modernity considers environmental thought and action as a chronological timeline, ever-progressing forward until we reach a singular goal of “saving the environment”. There’s a definitive answer to everything, heeded by the idea that we must fight to preserve the purity of the world around us.
The ideas that embody this form of environmental action only seem to emanate from a singular perspective within a particular context, determining right vs. wrong with little ability to shape itself to best account for the world around it.
The practice of environmental thought: Approaches and Process
These ideas of classic vs. contemporary environmental thought and solid vs. liquid modernity are important to think about, but how are they manifested within the actual practice of environmental theory? As contemporary thought emerged from classical thought, it should be apparent by now that the lines that divide each type of thought are incredibly blurred. How is this reflected in the academic practice itself?
In order to ensure that we are able to properly navigate through our studies we must consider our approach, process, and end goal of environmental theory – the goal of environmental theory being, after all, to produce coherent frameworks by which we can properly address the myriad of environmental, social, and political issues that face our world today.
If one wants to actively “do” environmental theory, one must also “do” interdisciplinarity. Doing interdisciplinarity is weaving together a complete range of processes and perspectives in order to build a more holistic framework.
This can be separated into two ideas: Inclusivity and Coherence. Inclusivity is situating our approach from the standpoint of including diversity, ensuring to the best of our ability that we may be able to account for the incredible variety of contexts and perspectives. Coherence comes into play when we actually go through the act of weaving together everything into a coherent whole, a framework by which we can work with.
On our path to coherence through the idea of inclusivity, it’s clear that an active effort needs to be made in order to recognize the fact that it needs to be done in the first place. The classic realm of environmental thought does this in large, unintentionally taking shortcuts in the creation of frameworks that leaves them with an overall lack of coherence.
Shortcuts, as unintentional as they may be, need to be avoided at all costs in order to succeed in the goal of environmental theory.
Common shortcuts may be found in the form of:
- Reductionism: reducing complex ideas to a detrimental point
- Essentialism: communicating that all of something is the same, that no variance in opinion or experience lies within individuals of a larger group
- Apocalypticism: having a nihilist attitude, that everything is destined to end bad
Other possible issues of coherence might be:
- Producing a theory of everything, compounding essentialism and reductionism into a singular, all-encompassing idea, meant to summarize everything in one small idea
- A just-so story, a narrative explanation for a practice or element of animal behaviour (including humans!) that is untestable, that isn’t provable or possible to meaningfully reason through
The act of avoiding shortcuts is certainly hard, requiring a great amount of consideration and thought to establish any theory or idea with the confidence that one isn’t taking shortcuts.
This is exactly why ruminating over the development of environmental theory itself from classic to contemporary is so valuable, in that we may be able to take a step back and make a structured attempt to produce results that are truly interdisciplinary.
Defining Environmental Thought: Concepts and Approaches
Environmental thought can not only be divided between Classic and Contemporary realms of thought, but in terms of concepts and approaches: concepts being an abstract idea or general notion, and approaches focusing on application of ideas within a real-world context. With all that has just been discussed, how may we be able to define various concepts and approaches to environmental thought, in terms of the classic vs contemporary realms?
This can be carried out as we have done in ENVS 350: Environmental Theory, which involves working through and processing a variety of readings that particular realms of environmental thought – whether it be an approach or a concept itself, and examining how they may fit within the two areas of environmental thought.
As opposed to the complex and blurred lines of these areas, it’s rather easy to distinguish the structural intent of a piece as either a concept or approach. Given that this is the case, it makes sense to compare and contrast environmental theory within these groupings.
All of the readings I will be taking from are found within the Companion to Environmental Studies, a textbook that contains a large collection of short readings, the first four sections of which are categorized within the different categories of classic and contemporary concepts and approaches.
Let’s begin by taking a look at two classic and two contemporary environmental concepts: 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, 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 being classic and 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 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 being contemporary.
Environmental catastrophe itself discusses how the idea of catastrophe has been “inscribed in modern and contemporary discourses on the environment” (Bettini, 39) using concepts such as the Anthropocene and Catastrophism to communicate a ridgid idea of how we see catastrophe in the future as caused by environmental issues. This idea takes shortcuts through apocalypticism, assuming that there has to be environmental catastrophe in the future.
Ecological footprint concerns the popular idea of determining an individual’s “ecological footprint”, or total impact on the world. It places the emphasis on the individual, pushing them to personally reduce their impact on the world. This idea is guilty of reductionism, in practice often failing to take into account greater cultural or socio-economic influences such government systems or economic issues
In contrast to the previously mentioned concepts, contemporary issues take an immediate consideration of how others of different contexts may understand a concept, and then attempts to frame them with respect to how it may be applied to different cultural, social, and economic contexts.
The social construction of nature, while relatively limited in greater application to the world arounds us, concerns the western idea of nature as a socially constructed concept: as a term that only exists to differentiate us from the “natural” world around us, drawing a barrier between us (humans) and them (the world’s ecosystems and environment).
Wicked environmental problems deal with boiling down the base arguments of opposing groups on a particular environmental, cultural, or economic issue in order to draw on the fact that opposing parties may in fact be arguing over entirely separate issues that simply conflict with each other in terms of public action or policy.
Both the social construction of nature and wicked environmental problems inherently account for a difference in perspective at some level, attempting to build frameworks that allow us to operate outside of the limitations of individual perspective and context. When the classic concepts previously discussed attempt to explain a singular issue within a generalized context, contemporary concepts propose ways to step outside a singular, general narrative in order to treat an issue.
Approaches, as opposed to concepts, concern the application of environmental theory in context. 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 and 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 are two classic approaches of environmental thought, that focus on a common issue that may face a wide variety of groups.
Ecotheology focuses on the framing of environmental issues from a spiritual perspective, making sure to include not only religious groups but non-denominational spiritual groups. Ecofeminism discusses issues of social justice and injustice within an environmental context, making sure to include the widest possible variety of marginalized groups in the modern day.
In terms of contemporary approaches to environmental thought, 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 and Earth system science emphasize a different style of approach. Queer ecology examines how sexual and environmental issues intersect, emphasizing the two as an ever-changing relationship that must be expanded upon and developed into the future.
Earth system science deals with identifying the relations and feedbacks of explaining how energy flows throughout the biosphere, not so much as “a single coherent research approach as a set of approaches to research… to provide a holistic analysis of Earth surface change.” (Castree, 406)
Classic approaches almost take a level of depth similar to what we may see in contemporary concepts – steps are made to apply ideas to contexts, which will definitely greatly differ in treatment. While classic approaches are certainly a step forward, contemporary approaches go a step beyond in constantly questioning what defines the very scholarship the approach is based upon. Where ecotheology and ecofeminism attempt to frame their respective issues within the widest possible audience who may relate to the issue, the previously mentioned contemporary approaches bring their efforts to a scale that reaches towards the all-inclusive, constantly questioning their own methods and the implications of actions.
In Summary: Perspective
In my personal approach to the question of how we may define classic vs contemporary environmental thought, as well as in nearly all of my studies throughout my time at Lewis & Clark, I keep coming back to the idea of perspective.
While I certainly wish to avoid taking shortcuts when it comes to summarizing the ideas that I have presented above and generalizing the relationship between these two realms, I do find it valuable to emphasize their common linkage. After all, concepts and approaches are nothing without placement in the greater context of the world.
Readings that I haven’t mentioned previously, such as the classic concept of environmental politics, the classical approach of animal studies, and the contemporary concept ecosystem services all deal with basic issues of perspective in some form or another.
Environmental politics deals with differences in perspective in politics and its relation to environmental policy (similarly to wicked environmental problems), animal studies focuses on the separation between humans and other animals (similar to the social construction of nature), and ecosystem services concerns how different groups and populations might value various ecosystem services, and how that concerns our personal perspective on the value of said service.
In all reality, I believe that the questions that arise from the idea of perspective are a great starting point in revealing the differences between classic and contemporary environmental thought, as well as potential shortcuts, a lack of interdisciplinarity, and beyond.
Bettini, Giovanni. 2018.“Environmental Catastrophe.” Companion to Environmental Studies, edited by Noel Castree, Mike Hulme, and James D. Proctor, (39-42). New York City: Routledge.
Castree, Noel. 2018.“Earth System Science” Companion to Environmental Studies, edited by Noel Castree, Mike Hulme, and James D. Proctor,(399-408). New York City: Routledge.
Dalton, Anne Marie 2018.“Ecotheology” Companion to Environmental Studies, edited by Noel Castree, Mike Hulme, and James D. Proctor,(271-274). New York City: Routledge.
Ekers, Michael 2018.“Social Construction of Nature” Companion to Environmental Studies, edited by Noel Castree, Mike Hulme, and James D. Proctor,(243-247). New York City: Routledge.
Emel, Jody and Taves, Ilanah. 2018.“Animal Studies.” Companion to Environmental Studies, edited by Noel Castree, Mike Hulme, and James D. Proctor, (368-372). New York City: Routledge
Gaard, Greta. 2018.“EcoFeminism” Companion to Environmental Studies, edited by Noel Castree, Mike Hulme, and James D. Proctor,(286-290). New York City: Routledge.
O’Lear, Shannon. 2018.“Environmental Politics” Companion to Environmental Studies, edited by Noel Castree, Mike Hulme, and James D. Proctor,(321-324). New York City: Routledge.
Rees, William . 2018.“Ecological Footprint.” Companion to Environmental Studies, edited by Noel Castree, Mike Hulme, and James D. Proctor, (43-47). New York City: Routledge
Seymour, Nicole. 2018.“Queer Ecology.” Companion to Environmental Studies, edited by Noel Castree, Mike Hulme, and James D. Proctor, (448-453). New York City: Routledge.
Thompson, Michael. 2018.“Wicked Environmental Problems.” Companion to Environmental Studies, edited by Noel Castree, Mike Hulme, and James D. Proctor, (258-262). New York City: Routledge.
Whitehead, Mark 2018.“Sustainable Development” Companion to Environmental Studies, edited by Noel Castree, Mike Hulme, and James D. Proctor,(110-114). New York City: Routledge.
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