"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 — the practice of “reasonably systematic reflection on our guiding assumptions” (Eagleton 2004, 2) — is a crucial underpinning for research efforts in the field of environmental studies. A vast and diverse discipline, environmental studies necessarily relies upon a multitude of theories; each provides its own lens through which scholars can analyze and interpret issues pertaining to the biophysical world and humans’ relationships with it. It is beneficial to acknowledge, though, that these theories are not static. Theory, or perhaps more appropriately, theorizing, is an active process that compels the theory-doer to consider the nuances of their chosen lens and how it may apply to or illuminate the issue at hand.
Understanding and methodically implementing this process of theorizing is of the utmost importance for effective environmental research, but making these considerations is challenging (if not impossible) in the abstract. Thus, my thesis research on wildfire risk mitigation in Oregon can serve as a means to ground this process in a concrete issue that is salient in contemporary environmental discourses.
Multiple theories are prominent in this research, as wildfire risk mitigation represents a particularly complex issue that encompasses a wide range of topics spanning from fire ecology to colonialism to environmental politics. While many of these aspects of my research are beyond the scope of this argument, the theory of multi-level environmental governance is well-suited to exemplify the process of doing environmental theory as it applies to my thesis. A closer examination of this theory and its influence on my approach to the issue of wildfire risk mitigation will yield a more situated, practicable model from which broader conclusions on both environmental theory and my thesis research can be drawn.
Defining Environmental Theory
Before delving into my thesis research, however, it is instructive to consider environmental theory more broadly. Granting Terry Eagleton’s definition of theory as stated above, theorizing can be broken down into two interrelated parts: (1) “reasonably systematic reflection” and (2) “guiding assumptions” (Eagleton 2004, 2). The former is the process by which the theory-doer assesses the latter. The guiding assumptions to which Eagleton refers are the theories themselves, or rather, modalities of perceiving environmental issues that approach the subject in a distinct, particularized manner and frame it in accordance with their respective views.
Think of the assumptions as a lens through which environmental issues are refracted. The issue itself lies beyond the lens, and is ultimately separable from the one set of assumptions or another; the lens is merely one way of viewing the issue at hand, but whichever one is chosen has a significant impact on how the viewer understands that issue. The lens — “something that facilitates and influences perception, comprehension, or evaluation” (Merriam-Webster 2020) — should not be confused with the issue itself.
Reasonably systematic reflection, then, can be seen as the theory-doer’s analysis of the lens in its own right. This constitutes the active component of Eagleton’s definition, and requires the theory-doer to substantively engage their chosen lens (i.e. guiding assumptions) in methodical analysis. They must examine these assumptions and reckon with how they influence the framing of the issue. In doing so, they must account for the merits and shortcomings of their particular mode of understanding — taking great care to avoid the detrimental shortcuts of reductionism, essentialism, and apocalypticism (Proctor 2020).
While these shortcuts can, at first appearance, provide a sense of coherence to an argument, it is a misleading coherence that belies the true nature of the issue and ultimately weakens any resultant assertions. Therefore, theory-doers should remain mindful of their lens’ capacity for inclusivity, ensure that their application of it does not unduly exclude relevant voices and perspectives, and acknowledge its limitations.
Clearly, the process of doing environmental theory is neither simple nor effortless; yet remains an essential constituent part to the production of truly well-founded research. Indeed, environmental research relies on this methodology to hold the theory-doer to account and ensure that their findings are fairly representative of reality, regardless of which lenses they apply to their chosen environmental issue.
Theorizing Wildfire Risk Mitigation
Several environmental theories are firmly embedded in my research on wildfire risk mitigation and are laden with assumptions that, in light of the discussion above, require careful evaluation. As my area of interest has coalesced into a more cohesive thesis research plan, I have engaged with a variety of theories that each attempt to explain a certain facet of wildfire risk mitigation. These theories — such as socioecological systems (SESs), resilience, and multi-level environmental governance — necessarily rely upon key terms in wildfire risk mitigation discourses. Understanding these terms and their inherent assumptions is a crucial first step toward the systematic reflection that Eagleton promotes.
Consider, for example, the notion of wildfire risk. Defined as the “the probability and potential losses associated with fire” (Fischer et al. 2016, 276), wildfire risk is central to discourses regarding its mitigation. This definition constitutes one of the guiding assumptions of my research because this particular conception of risk influences the very subject of mitigation efforts. Notably, this definition employs an anthropocentric viewpoint as it values “losses” relative to human needs and desires, e.g. structures, lives, ecosystem services.
With this understanding in mind, it is clear that adopting such a definition and incorporating it into my research will axiomatically influence perceptions of the problem itself and what measures are appropriate to address it. The issue at the heart of my research would be quite different if, for instance, wildfire risk was defined in terms of risks to ecological systems, species, and individual non-human organisms.
Acknowledging and grappling with definitional assumptions does not by itself fulfill the mandate of reasonably systematic reflection, though. The theory-doer must assess the merits of various theories as a means of viewing their chosen environmental issue, and determine which ones are most applicable — both in terms of their inclusivity and ability to illuminate potential solutions.
Through concerted reflection on different ways of understanding the problem of detrimental wildfires, the theory of coupled socioecolocial systems has risen to the forefront of my research. A relatively recent development in the corpus of scholarship on wildland fires, its proponents emphasize its ability to account for human/environment linkages:
[v]iewing fire-related problems in the context of coupled socioecological systems (SESs), which explicitly recognize links between humans and their natural environments, provides insights into achieving a more sustainable coexistence with wildfire”(Moritz et al. 2014, 58)
This theory draws from the tradition of ecological modernism and, more specifically, post-environmentalism, to emphasize more holistic understandings of human/environment relations that reject the traditional dichotomy in favor of relational ontologies that embrace the interconnectedness of human and non-human actors.
In this sense, then, SES theory is quite inclusive; it enables more robust and representative analyses of wildfire risk in wildland-urban interface areas, and may indeed provide useful insights on potential mitigation strategies. While this theory will likely maintain a prominent position in my thesis research, it is incumbent upon me to continue interrogating it thoroughly and persistently as my research develops. Just as with the other theoretical underpinnings of my research, its utility and eventual application to my methodology and analysis is contingent upon this process of systematic reflection.
Multi-Level Environmental Governance
The theory of multi-level environmental governance further informs my research on wildfire risk mitigation, and provides another prominent example of what it means to “do theory” (Proctor 2020). Accounting for recent changes in governance practices specifically with regard to environmental issues, this theory acknowledges how “[g]overning now engages many more levels, actor types (private, public, etc.) and operates across complex vertical spaces” (Jordan and Benson 2018, 786). In the context of wildfire risk mitigation, multi-level environmental governance provides a more accurate rendering of the systems and processes by which management decisions are made.
This attentiveness to “networks of actors, often spanning different institutional levels and policy sectors” (Jordan and Benson 2018, 785) and their role in environmental decision-making is more inclusive than traditional top-down or ground-up conceptions of these same processes.
Multi-level environmental governance, therefore, helps to accurately depict the nuances of cross-jurisdictional management and the layers of federal, state, and local policy that ultimately dictate the management of active wildfires and proactive risk reduction efforts. Accordingly, this theory appears well-positioned to aid my analysis. The image on the right is a map that indicates the cross-jurisdictional composition of Oregon’s 2020 wildfires.
It is important to bear in mind, though, that this theory does not explicitly give agency to non-human actors and fails to account for the power dynamics between stakeholders at various levels. This reflection reveals that multi-level environmental governance may have points of conflict (or at the very least, incongruence) with the theory of socioecological systems. As I continue the process of framework-building, it will be important to persist in my evaluation of these theories, their relative utility to my research, and ways to reconcile their differences with a view toward the establishment of a truly cohesive framework.
Given this discussion of environmental theory in the context of my thesis, it is apparent that theorizing is a dynamic process. The theory-doer is not afforded a simple or clear-cut methodology for undertaking reasonably systematic reflection; instead, they must make a concerted effort to approach their constituent theories with a healthy skepticism — repeatedly questioning and evaluating their guiding assumptions from a diversity of perspectives. While demanding, this process enables the development of a legitimately inclusive and coherent framework. This is a goal to which all scholars of environmental studies should aspire, as it provisions for the accurate and effective representation of environmental issues with an eye toward instrumental outcomes.
Eagleton, Terry. 2004. After Theory. London: Penguin Books.
Fischer, A. Paige, Thomas A. Spies, Toddi A. Steelman, Cassandra Moseley, Bart R. Johnson, John D. Bailey, Alan A. Ager, et al. 2016. “Wildfire Risk as a Socioecological Pathology.” Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 14 (5): 276–84. https://www.fs.fed.us/pnw/pubs/journals/pnw_2016_fischer003.pdf.
Jordan, Andrew and David Benson. 2018. “Multi-level Environmental Governance.” In Companion to Environmental Studies, edited by Noel Castree, Mike Hulme, and James D. Proctor, 783-787. Milton: Taylor & Francis Group.
Moritz, Max A., Enric Batllori, Ross A. Bradstock, A. Malcolm Gill, John Handmer, Paul F. Hessburg, Justin Leonard, et al. 2014. “Learning to Coexist with Wildfire.” Nature 515 (7525): 58–66. https://doi.org/10.1038/nature13946.