EcoTypes includes a dizzying array of axes—15 total—for which the three EcoTypes themes may offer you and your students some clarity. But another way to approach EcoTypes axes is to view their poles as evidencing a tendency toward classic vs. contemporary environmental thought.
What is classic vs. contemporary environmental thought? One recent reference, Companion to Environmental Studies, organizes many of its over 150 contributions via these two categories (Castree, Hulme, and Proctor 2018), and defines them as follows:
We differentiate here between classic instances, corresponding to early developments of environmental studies from the mid-20th century on (though some are even older), and contemporary instances, which have arisen in the last few decades in response both to intellectual developments and the ever-changing world. It is important to keep in mind that the contemporary field of environmental studies includes both classic and contemporary influences – thus, rather than wholly replacing classic notions, contemporary notions often further diversify the field (p. 3).
Differences between classic and contemporary environmental thought amount to more than chronology, though—as the continued popularity of classic thought in recent times suggests. Ultimately, they may reflect differing approaches to environmental issues characteristic of eras of solid (classic) vs. liquid (contemporary) modernity (Bauman 2000; 2006). The distinction is intuitive: where solid modernity appeared, well, solid—clear truths, universal agreement, and secure if limiting life choices—Bauman and others argue that contemporary life is more characteristic of liquid modernity, with (for some of us) more choice but also more uncertainty and fear, and less agreement on what is true and right.
In this reading, classic environmental thought remains popular as a throwback to what seemed the more certain, unified times of solid modernity, whereas contemporary environmental thought is struggling to respond, in multiple ways, to these less certain, conflictual times of liquid modernity. As many EcoTypes survey scores suggest, classic thought is indeed popular among many of us, especially as we begin our academic journeys through environmental programs; contemporary thought tends to gain popularity among those who continue those academic journeys. Books like Companion to Environmental Studies, with its many contributed concepts and approaches, suggest that contemporary environmental thought, like liquid modernity, is highly plural, taking a number of forms.
Given that classic and contemporary environmental concepts are alive and well today, it may not be surprising that there are many ways to think about environmental issues—thus many EcoTypes axes, and two poles to each. But one may ask: how do classic and contemporary environmental thought map onto the fifteen EcoTypes axes? It’s a trick question, as classic and contemporary thought are by no means monolithic—especially contemporary thought, for which many variants exist. Here are a few initial thoughts.
Classic VS. contemporary axis poles
Some EcoTypes axes are better than others at suggesting key differences between classic and contemporary environmental thought. For the axes below, there is a tendency for the left pole to reflect classic thought, and the right contemporary thought.
- Aesthetics: Wild vs. crafted
- Diversity: Low vs. high priority
- Ecosystems: Stable vs dynamic
- Future: Crisis vs. possibility
- Nature: Pure vs. hybrid
- Society: Consensus vs. conflict
- Technology: Technophobia vs. technophilia
- Time: Past vs. future
Classic AND contemporary axis poles
The above picture of EcoTypes axes parsing out clearly, with the left pole representing classic thought and the right contemporary thought, is not, however, true of all axes. In some important cases, classic and contemporary thought may be found underlying either pole, albeit via differing approaches. Here are examples, bundled into their respective EcoTypes themes.
- Change, Social Scale, Spatial Scale: These all are part of the small/big Action theme. One might interpret the general mood of environmental action to have gotten smaller over time, as proposed large-scale, structural actions in the 1970s may have yielded to more pragmatic, incremental approaches. But an equally valid interpretation is that incremental approaches, also popular during the heyday of classic environmentalism, have been critiqued by contemporary scholars as limited, thus leading to calls for more institutional-scale change. So, small and big action seem possible in both bodies of thought, albeit framed quite differently.
- Domain, Science, Spirituality: These are all part of the old/new Knowledge theme. Here too, there are classic and contemporary variants, though in general the old Knowledge axis poles—ideal Domain, alternative Science, and sacred Spirituality—tend to lean back in time, toward a more solid modernity. Yet the material Domain, orthodox Science, and secular Spirituality are found in classic as well as contemporary environmental thought. Perhaps the difference lies in the claims of each, with classic thought making more settled, universal claims and contemporary thought making more contingent, particular claims.
Take Sides topics
The six application topics also evidence classic and contemporary thought via their three Take Sides positions. Generally, position 1 expresses a somewhat common environmental position you may hear people express. Positions 2 and 3 are generally reactions to position 1. Given the continued prevalence of classic environmental thought, position 1 is often classic, while positions 2 and 3 are—usually!—contemporary in important respects.
The table below summarizes how Take Sides positions tend to parse into classic (green) and contemporary (gray) environmental thought. Bear in mind that these positions were not created to fairly embody either—especially contemporary thought, given its plural forms—so the distinction is not always clear.
|Topic||Position 1||Position 2||Position 3|
|Let’s Take |
the System Down
|Let’s Engage |
With Our World
|Climate||Let’s Solve the Climate |
Crisis With Renewables
|We Need Nuclear Power |
as a Bridge Fuel
|Climate Change is the |
Crisis of Civilization
|Conservation||Nature Needs Half||Conservation Must Pay |
Attention to People
|There is No Nature|
|Food||Let’s Grow/Buy Local||Global Agriculture is |
the Green Solution
|Watch Out for |
|Health||The Natural Way is |
the Healthy Way
|Health Comes From Modern |
Medicine, Not Green Superstition
|Only Environmental Justice |
Will Bring Health For All
|Sustainability||We All Need to |
Do Our Part to
Build a Sustainable World
|Resilience, Not Sustainability, is |
What We Need in a Changing World
|Sustainability Must Be |
Rejected as a Neoliberal Agenda
- Bauman, Zygmunt. 2000. Liquid Modernity. Cambridge U.K.: Polity Press.
- Bauman, Zygmunt. 2006. Liquid Fear. Cambridge U.K.: Polity Press.
- Castree, Noel, Mike Hulme, and James D. Proctor, eds. 2018. Companion to Environmental Studies. London: Routledge.