In the course of "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, we have thoughtfully considered different concepts within environmental classical and contemporary thought began crafting frameworks from our capstone projects and critically assessed the criteria that define environmental theory. This post highlights the connections between these topics and commences our journey into our final frameworks as they relate to our senior capstone.
Below I will describe that theory is broadly defined but has limits on its effectiveness if concepts of inclusivity and coherence are not considered. Additionally, we can use the idea of ‘systematic reflection’ to build frameworks with guiding assumptions. These criterium helps build more holistic frameworks that contribute to a profound understanding of solutions and in depicting realities. As theory is often limited to its beholder, meaning that personal biases are inevitable, it is worth noting the goal of the theory is not perfection, but representing the many realities we face in human and natural environments.
Environmental Theory is inherently interdisciplinary as it touches upon various social science, humanities, and natural sciences. We have focused on interdisciplinarity as a function of coherence and inclusivity. Bringing in these varying approaches and making connections between them to provide an inclusive and coherent framework for environmental theory. In class, we have discussed that these approaches aim to minimize shortcuts like reductionism, essentialism, or catastrophism which typically lack nuanced analysis. These ‘isms’ are referred to as shortcuts, which should be minimized for a more holistic analysis. As this relates to the capstone project, theory helps us build frameworks on different topics we compile together with the use of ‘Better Big words’ or guiding assumptions.
Eagleton 2004, thinks of theory as a,
reasonably systematic reflection of our guiding assumptions
A system of ideas or approaches, with a topic or goal in mind, is reflective of the frameworks we are building in environmental theory. As people and society evolve so does theory, along with the hindsight of inclusivity and coherence. In a system of reflection, our guiding principles inherently reach these goals providing an eloquently profound understanding of the dynamics at play to represent reality. This idea is fundamental in creating a framework for my capstone project. Down below I will further demonstrate how our guiding assumptions can be used and the value of deeper reflection in building a framework.(Using an example from Companion to Environmental Studies)
Theoryizing My Area of Interest
From the beginning of this semester, I have drastically shifted my Area of Interest from water resources in high altitude mountain environments to a focus on imaginaries. In my passion to understand what forces act upon communities for them to employ different mechanisms of environmental actions, I have decided to focus on the intersection of love, science, and identity. Additionally, I have been fascinated by the socio-political climate within the United States by which it seems we are living in a post-truth or post-science world. At this point, I feel that I may situate this project in Oregon’s Klamath Basin as it has been privy to many different environmental actions due to the diversity in stakeholder interests.
In theorizing my area of interest I ask two broad guiding questions; How does the intersection of science and identity impact decision-making in the ways different communities respond to environmental action? And, How do people express their love of nature differently? These questions are guiding my project as they highlight my main themes of science understanding and implementation across different cultural identities. My updated Area of interest focuses on the imaginaries discussed in “The flow between classical and contemporary thought”. This framework considers specific concepts systemically linked in a rough framework through environmental theory.
In reflecting upon this framework, I have begun to engage with the shortcuts in my guiding assumptions. As I consider the meaning and role of science as it relates to cultural identity and decision making, questions of value, and nature arise. To incorporate the inclusivity aspect of theory, I ask- What factors are considered valuable to different communities?- More specifically, at what scales, via direct and indirect social interaction, do we learn about the environment in which we live? Allowing the assumption of ‘scientific’ value to be vague incorporates inclusive ideas of voice giving agency within communities to conceive and confront the identifiable values impacting their decision-making towards different environmental actions. Reflecting upon the values that dictate how we live and interact with our daily surroundings is vital in completing an inclusive theoretical analysis and framework.
Another guiding assumption paramount to my project is the role of nature as it should not be assumed as perpetually stagnant but rather continuous and ever-changing. Classic contemporary thought often falls within the realm of being reductionist and essentialist in terms of environmental actions. This stems from the idea of humans and nature, and humans as nature and humans as interconnected in both built and natural socio-cultural realities. In reflection of my project, this provides context upon which my project situates.
The Social Construction of Nature Perspective
“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,” examined by Ekers, 2018, applies to the assumptions discussed above. The idea considers the role of humans and nature and the interactions between them. Further, the word nature is ambiguous and suggests that it cannot be defined solely in its existence through pragmatism or natural sciences, but instead regarded in terms of its representation of nature. (Proctor, 1998). Thus, the naturalness of nature is hard to pinpoint and can be represented and interpreted by many different communities of people. This concept confronts the idea of objective truth through science as it places a more dynamic approach to the perceived ‘outside world.’
Here the idea of nature is abstract, as it breaks away from the purely scientific description. Natural sciences typically attempt to explain nature through human determined metrics perceived and therefore created through the knowing subject, humans, which tends to focus on ecological processes separate from social interactions with nature. (Cronon, 1996). Typically this separation of social interactions and natural sciences leads to a reductionist conclusion which undervalues the socio-cultural interactions with the people and nature. It is also worth noting that this can lead to a binary argument of nature as cultural or spiritual versus economic or utilitarianism. The idea of ‘objective truth’ varies amongst socio-cultural values, and mainstream natural science interpretations are perceived differently because of those values. Additionally, science education is difficult to define as knowledge is passed along social, cultural, and structured environments like curriculum.
It is important to decipher where there might be shortcuts in theory in order to minimize them. In many aspects of life, there are often more pressures impacting our decisions and interactions with nature which can be supported, contented, or overlooked in mainstream narratives of environmental action. Thus, there are layers of complexity that impact people on profound scales which impact their decision making that is not always explained with binary (cultural or spiritual versus economic or utilitarian) persuasions.
This contention is key to my area of interest, as I evaluate how the perception of the “social construction of nature” impacts decision making. The experiences which make up our identities and how one perceives their identity is crucial in understanding why people act or do one action over another. The analysis and consideration of identity, and the values by which they are made, are crucial to analyzing the role of human interactions with nature, and their perceived role in environmental action.
It is important to remember that environmental theory does not have a singular definition, instead, it has goals oriented toward better representing the complex dynamics of an infinite amount of realities. I have suggested that guiding assumptions have goals toward inclusion and coherence which helps guide us in forming criteria that minimizes shortcuts. Specifically, my area of interest cites questions of identity and nature to evaluate the mechanisms and perspectives that push people toward different environmental actions. In doing so, I ask guiding questions to include different perceptions of human-nature interactions as well as the ways in which science is taught and how this assumption can be interpreted differently amongst different cultural identities. In a closer analysis, I use the example of the “social construction of nature” to assess these dynamics and alternatively address how audiences respond to this concept.
Cronon, William. 1996. “The Trouble with Wilderness: Or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.” Environmental History 1 (1): 7–28. https://doi.org/10.2307/3985059.
Eagleton, Terry. 2004. After Theory. Penguin UK.
Ekers, Michael 2018. “Social Construction of Nature” In Companion to Environmental Studies, edited by Noel Castree, Mike Hulme, and James D. Proctor,(243-247). New York City: Routledge.
Proctor, James D. 1998. “The Social Construction of Nature: Relativist Accusations, Pragmatist, and Critical Realist Responses.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 88 (3): 352–76. https://doi.org/10.1111/0004-5608.00105.