When I hear the word ‘theory’ my mind immediately jumps to the theory of evolution or the Big Bang theory. With a background in the natural sciences my previous perception of theory meant a broad explanation for an observation of the natural world that is repeatedly tested and supported using the scientific method. Theory is generally accepted as fact. "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 and the application of environmental theory has since challenged my previous interpretation. While environmental theory shares some characteristics with scientific theory, I have found it to be more subjective and engaging.
What is environmental theory?
Like scientific theory, environmental theory begins with an observation, usually relating to a relationship between humans, nonhumans, and the surrounding environment. However, environmental theory goes beyond this. Instead of using a strict scientific method to validate the theory, interdisciplinary lenses are used to analyze, question, and expand on our understanding of a relationship. Theory is no longer stagnant, but an ever evolving analysis.
We often use the phrase “doing environmental theory” and I find that this emphasizes the active role we play in theory, and why I find it to be more engaging. In the analysis of a relationship, we are pushed to think beyond our expertise and consider other perspectives, even those that contradict ours. Environmental theory can then either build off prior frameworks or dismantle them. A theme we saw amongst some classic to contemporary theories.
A large part of doing environmental theory includes reflecting on our assumptions. Trying to explore every aspect and perspective of just one relationship would lead to an incoherent mess due to the inherent interdisciplinary nature of environmental studies. We end up needing to define boundaries to our theory while still gaining a deeper understanding. This is an element of environmental theory I find to be more subjective, as the shortcuts and assumptions we choose are likely influenced by our experiences and opinions.
What assumptions do I make in my area of interest?
As we have been working through theories, we have begun to consider which theories apply to our areas of interest. Since we have defined theory as more of an active analysis, I have been reflecting on my own assumptions. Initially, I really struggled with this concept as I was not sure whether to look for assumptions within my own thoughts, the theories I want to apply or both.
One of my largest assumptions will be reducing organisms down to either charismatic or non-charismatic species. I have made progress in my area of interest, in that, I want to distinguish between non-charismatic and despised species, which I imagine as endangered and unpopular organisms. This does still present the issue of possible reductionism, but using such labels will allow me to compare their perception. I will also need to define what I mean by charismatic species as the definition has shifted over time. For me, it will likely emphasize species that have been anthropomorphized in order to spotlight conservation efforts.
Another guiding assumption is focusing on the value placed on animals in terms of ecosystem services. This an environmental metaphor for valuing animals for the products (physical and not) produce that humans benefit from. In regards to bats, they provide ecosystem services such as insect control, which reduces the use of pesticides, pollination, and more. While I do view intrinsic value in bats, I do not think this approach to advocating for bat conservation would resonate with many people.
I will expand on my last assumption below, but I have found myself largely critiquing classic conservation. I think this will guide much of the literature I read and approaches to mitigating conservation efforts that I propose in my capstone.
How will I theorize conservation?
A central aspect to my area of interest is conservation. In his prior work from 2015, Companion contributor, Sandbrook, broadly defines conservation as “actions that are intended to establish, improve or maintain good relations with nature” (Sandbrook 2018, 17). It is a theory that I continue to grapple with, as well as the academic community. There are heated debates on where, why, and how conservation should be applied and these are characteristics I will need to define in my capstone. In the spirit of doing environmental theory there are different features of conservation I will apply and critique.
What – Historically, conservation has emphasized the protection of charismatic species. There has been a shift towards also conserving habitats and ecosystems (Sandbrook 2018, 18). My area of interest directly questions why charismatic species are prioritized for conservation and resented species are overlooked despite sharing an endangered status. Organizations like the World Wildlife Fund and Wildlife Conservation Society market fundraising with images of pandas, gorillas, tigers, and whales. My area of interest critiques typical applications of conservation towards organisms that are publicly favored, as this biases conservation practice.
How – The classic Western approach to applying conservation to a species or threatened habitat is to restrict human access to an area of land, usually considered to be pristine and untouched by human land use changes. This can be problematic for many reasons, particularly, the exclusion of locals. In regards to conservation, I am typically an advocate for a local based approach that takes the needs of the impacted population into account. However, in the context of my area of interest I have felt conflicted.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19 the world has taken interest in disease ecology. Bats are uniquely adept at carrying and transferring disease, and have come into increasingly closer contact with humans. Many popular newspapers reporting on COVID-19 have included possible solutions to prevent crossover events. When I attended the ENVX Symposium session on Conservation and Coronavirus, discussion led to many of the same solutions.
The commonly proposed solutions include better regulating wet markets, restricting access to heavily populated bat habitats, and reducing hunting practices. These are local based approaches in that they are situated in the towns of Southeast Asia. However, I find myself rejecting these proposals as they place the burden of change on marginalized populations. I do not think enough people are discussing the changes that countries like the United States can make to reduce the global transmission of disease. Companion mentions an anthropological approach to urban conservation that I think could begin this conversation.
Why – The main debate in conservation over why to conserve is between intrinsic value and anthropogenic value. This aspect of conservation I feel more settled on in regards to my area of interest. Bats are a despised species and thus are unlikely to gain much intrinsic value in the eyes of the public. However, education could provide an avenue to express the value bats bring to human communities, ecosystems, and economies.
What have/will I learn from this process?
The process of reflecting on our work, critiquing it as we go, and acknowledging our assumptions will be extremely important as we move towards constructing our capstones in ENVS 400. I think we will apply theory with more purpose and greater depth through systematic review of our writing. Since I first formulated my area of interest I was afraid of getting lost in the many directions I could take it, but this process provides a framework by which we can guide our capstone project. I think I was also initially intimidated by acknowledging my assumptions as they sound like flaws in my thinking. However, we must define the boundaries in which we study our areas of interest and make our readers aware of our assumptions.
Sandbrook, Chris. 2018. “Conservation.” In Companion to Environmental Studies, edited by Noel Castree, Mike Hulme, & Jim Proctor, 258-262. New York: Routledge.