Philosophers and scientists have long pondered the domains of mind vs. matter. The EcoTypes Domain axis likewise ponders our emphasis on ideal vs. material dimensions of environmental issues—what we think vs. what we do.
- Environmental problems will only go away if we focus on our values and paradigms, not just our practices and behavior.
- The best way to change damaging ecological practices is to reexamine basic ideas about our relationship to nature.
- Environmental solutions require changing things that govern what we do, like laws and policy, not just changing our values.
- Environmental problems are less due to our shortsighted values than our economic and political practices.
This histogram shows the overall distribution of averaged responses, from fall 2018 to now, to the survey statements above. Which side are most responses on? Is there general agreement or disagreement among responses so far?
How do your own responses compare with these overall results? To answer this question, find the personal report you received by email and compare your average response to this axis.
Do most respondents agree with you? Disagree with you? Are most responses to the right or the left of you? What does this say about your responses as compared with overall responses?
If one pauses for a moment to consider the causes of, and solutions to, environmental problems, our answers can be organized under two broad conceptual domains, here called ideal vs. material realms. In brief, the ideal domain refers to things we think or feel, whereas the material domain refers to things we do. (Note that this difference is not exactly the same as being idealistic vs. practical.) While both domains are arguably of environmental significance, relatively little environmental scholarship attends to both realms equally, and distinct patterns of emphasis or deemphasis can be traced in many popular environmental movements. It is worthwhile, therefore, to pay attention to how we give priority or (de)emphasis to these two domains.
First, some broad background. The distinction between ideal and material domains has important metaphysical and theological roots, ultimately resonating with certain forms of dualism present in a wide range of philosophical and religious traditions, where dichotomies between mind and body, or consciousness and matter, are common—indeed, some well known approaches to religion (e.g., Eliade 1959) are inherently dualistic along broadly material/ideal lines. But material/ideal dualism has a particular history, and in the case of western scholarship has been evident at least from the mid-17th century, inheriting “…an overall framework of ideas about humanity and nature, rational mind and causal matter…that we may refer to as the Modern world view” (Toulmin 1992, 107-8).
In the social sciences, the relationship between material and ideal domains (given various names, such as action vs. consciousness) has been a key area of debate. On the one hand, the classic social theorist Max Weber claimed “Very frequently, the ‘world images’ that have been created by ‘ideas’ have, like switchmen, determined the tracks along which action has been pushed” (Weber et al. 1991, 280), whereas the notion of base and superstructure in Marxist theory is generally understood to accord causal priority to the material realm; Marx (1904, Preface) famously said “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.”
More commonly, however, various scholarly subfields emphasize one or the other of these two domains, and here we can find clues toward their relative role in the context of environmental issues. In many humanities and interpretive social science fields the emphasis has long been on the ideal realm (e.g., thought, emotion, culture, religion), and even more recent theories in these fields such as new materialism (e.g., Bennett 2009) still carry a strong focus on meaning. Whether at individual or institutional scales, insights from these fields generally point to the significance of ideas in the context of environmental issues. One key example, for instance, is the role of nature religion and spirituality (e.g., Albanese 1991, Pepper 2005, Taylor 2010).
In contrast, other social science fields such as economics or political science focus primarily on behavior and material (e.g., economic or political) relations between people. Insights from these fields often suggest important material dimensions of environmental issues, i.e., what we do and not just what we think or feel. The material domain is the primary realm in which environmental policy is generally discussed and debated, including, for instance, economic pricing and (dis)incentives (Goodstein and Polasky 2014), or international laws and regulations (Chasek, Downey, and Brown 2017).
Perhaps more than other EcoTypes axis, it would initially seem that the ideal vs. material binary is an artificial one, that in fact both are equally significant. But these respective domains still very much influence the ways we approach environmental issues, leading scholars like David Pepper to adopt idealism vs. materialism as two contrasting “ways ahead” in resolving ecological crises (Pepper 1996, 295-322).
This EcoTypes axis, then, is an opportunity to reflect on our basic assumptions about mind and matter—the ideal and material domains—and how they differentially shape our approach to environmental issues. Though everyone may broadly agree that both are related and significant, many of us actually lean one way or the next in the environmental context—thus this longstanding debate continues!