—Image courtesy Wikipedia
Theory as thinking about thinking; theory as a vehicle
What is environmental theory? If not done carefully, it can quickly get meta, and for good reason. Let’s define environmental scholarship as thinking about environmental issues; if so, then environmental theory involves thinking about thinking about environmental issues! Don’t give up: thinking about thinking—being mindful of how we approach environmental issues—has immense practical value in potentially getting us out of our mental ruts. We can hold to Terry Eagleton’s similar, and brief, definition of theory as “reasonably systematic reflection on our guiding assumptions” (Eagleton 2004, 2) as we proceed—it may be much easier to explain to your friends than thinking about thinking.
Another uncomfortable answer to the above question is that environmental theory inconveniently does not exist. There certainly are related fields: environmental philosophy, environmental history, science and technology studies, and many others. And there certainly has also been important theoretical work connecting environment to gender, complex adaptive systems, narrative, and other bodies of inquiry across the intellectual spectrum. But look up environmental theory in Wikipedia and you will read about Florence Nightingale and a particularly insightful approach to nursing patients—not what I mean here. Or read the standard introductory environmental science or environmental studies text, and you most likely will find little if any treatment of theory. If—as you may eventually agree with me—theory is inescapable, even indispensable, in the context of environment, it’s not especially easy to find.
The apparent absence of theory is not some sinister plot. Most of us consider environmentalism and related scholarship as action oriented, directed toward solutions to the pressing problems of our time. Theory, on the other hand, reminds us of something vague, abstract, and removed from the immediate practical matters at hand. Like the other unhelpful binaries I will address, this theory vs. practice dichotomy goes way back: the Oxford English Dictionary entry contrasts theory with practice from the late 16th century in English, going back to a similar middle French dichotomy in the 14th century, and ultimately to the Greek θεωρία (“Theory, N.” 2016). Over this vast span of time, theory has been closely associated with vision, as in something you can do from a distance, something you can do without much involvement in the things you see. You cannot readily smell, touch, or taste from a distance, but you can see from a distance—indeed, as in the God’s-eye view, you can perhaps see all, provided you remove yourself an infinite distance from your object of view. Theory, in this ocular metaphor, is thus both potentially all-encompassing and (to coin an etymological ally) speculative and distanced. This is not the sort of environmental theory we need.
Perhaps we should approach environmental theory not as a view, but as a vehicle. (Consider it a foot-powered, biodiesel-fueled, hybrid, carbon-offsetted, or whatever green energy vehicle you prefer.) Theory as vehicle helps us consider theory as something you do, not just a “perspective” or something you see. Theory as vehicle also helps us appreciate what theory does for us, and to us. A vehicle is something we ride to get somewhere (the Latin root of vehicle means “carry”), and as we all know, some take us farther than others; some take us there more quickly; some carry more varied passengers across more varied terrain; some are simply more beautiful or enjoyable than others. Understood in this way, theory is not just an idea; it is rather a commitment we make that conveys both opportunities and constraints.
Let’s strive to move environmental theory in this direction, from a view to a vehicle. We will not entirely rid ourselves of sight (thankfully!) and visual metaphors: you will detect some slippage as well, as I and others refer to theories as, for instance, “perspectives” or other invocations of theory-as-view. If there is anything I am not advocating—and you will garner this in time—it is purity. So, even if we end up retaining some notion of theory-as-view, hopefully it will be heavily seasoned with theory-as-vehicle to convey how theory is something we do, not just something we look at.
How not to do environmental theory: Three ways
If there is no official field of environmental theory, there certainly is a surfeit of environmental theories out there, and many have conveyed constraints more than opportunities. Environmental theories—vehicles that have been offered as ways to successful navigate environmental terrains—are as abundant as green pundits, and we all know there are plenty of those.
Let’s demarcate the environmental theory we don’t need—not an altogether useless point of beginning. Critique of this sort can actually achieve a positive outcome by helping us avoid theoretical dead ends—the inspiration behind the oft-retold joke about carving a statue. (Here’s the version I remember: how do you carve a statue of an elephant? Easy!…just start with a chunk of wood—or marble, or anything that’s not ivory—and chip away at whatever doesn’t look like an elephant.)
So, let’s chip away at how not to do environmental theory, via three typical problems. You will see that they all in some way derive from a not-quite-satisfactory respect for the broad, multidisciplinary, mixed-up nature of environment.
- Environmental theory as just-so story (Kipling 1902). The sheer breadth of environmental issues becomes the perfect place for vague yet seemingly incisive theory to take root. Some of the key theories of the latter 20th century American environmental movement may be just-so stories, in that they are intuitively compelling but break down under closer scrutiny. Indeed, one of the biggest theories of that time is arguably a just-so story: Hardin’s tragedy of the commons (Hardin 1968). Judged by citations alone (over 30,000 at the time of this writing), the tragedy of the commons, in which individual logic leads to collective ruin, is generally taken as gospel in the context of forests, rangeland, oceans, and other common-pool natural resources. And, like many just-so theories, there is a grain of truth: individual logics may indeed clash with collective outcomes. But some influential scholars—including Nobel Prize-winning economist Elinor Ostrom (e.g., 2008)—have taken issue with the tragedy of the commons. The problem is that the tragedy of the commons sounds undeniable until you actually study common-pool resources; then things get more complicated, in part because Hardin’s primary thought experiment—the farmer’s cow in the unmanaged common pasture—differs in key respects from many common-pool resource scenarios. The lesson here: just because an environmental theory makes sense doesn’t mean it’s empirically valid. If we want theory as a vehicle to help us navigate environmental terrains, let’s keep in mind that it’s the terrain that matters, not just the elegance, compellingness, has-to-be-trueness of the vehicle, even how many are on board. The tragedy of the commons is seductive in this way, and so long as we are unsullied by empirical data it looks good. But this is not the sort of theory we need.
- Environmental theory as (part of) the elephant. If just-so stories conveniently avoid the details of the environmental realm, other theories conveniently attend to only certain details via their disciplinary partiality. The famous South Asian tale of the blind sages and the elephant was meant to suggest the tendency toward part-whole substitution: touch the elephant’s trunk, or tusk, or tail, and the whole elephant incorrectly shares these limited properties. As applied to scholarship, the lesson is one of humility: remember that you only know part of the elephant. Nonetheless, it is exciting, and intellectually important, to try and integrate these parts into the whole elephant. One such attempt is the theory of consilience as advanced by biologist E.O. Wilson (Wilson 1998a). In its briefest form, consilience stresses a unity of explanation crossing disciplinary boundaries, and ultimately the unity of all knowledge. Wilson is also known as a renowned conservationist, and coined the phrase “Century of the Environment” to anticipate the 21st century, “when science and polities will give the highest priority to settling humanity down before we wreck the planet” (Wilson 1998b). How will consilience serve this century of the environment? Wilson emphasizes “human nature” as key, the “inherited regularities of cognitive development”—basically, applied evolutionary biology. To Wilson, this is the elephant; to others (e.g., Berry 2001) Wilson is simply touching its biological tail—though there has been some effort to bring the trunk, tusk, and other parts into more level-field play (Slingerland and Collard 2012). The lesson: know the difference between a theory of the elephant and a theory of its tail. Disciplinary contributions to environmental theory are important, and will be considered in more detail below; but they are not the same as environmental theory, just as the tail is not the elephant.
- Environmental theories of everything (TOEs). As you glance at the environment section of your local bookstore, the most alluring titles may be attempts to do far more than the tragedy of the commons or consilience: you may indeed find noble efforts to bring the whole universe, from climate to ecology to spirituality to who knows what, together under a grand theory, typically known as a TOE. That they are common in the environmental context is again understandable: given the sheer complexity of forces and perspectives that converge on any environmental issue, some coherent account would be invaluable. The main problem with attempts at TOE is, ironically, how very limited they can be in their overreach. There are markers that the careful reader would notice: typically they arise from one person, they don’t waste time citing scholarly theory, and they tend toward a Platonic idealism unsullied by empirical complexity (similar in style though much grander in scale than just-so stories). They also have their zealous adherents—well, all theories have their zealous adherents, but TOEs are particularly seductive. One good example, as applied to the environmental realm, is Ken Wilber’s so-called Integral Theory (Esbjörn-Hargens 2009; Esbjörn-Hargens and Zimmerman 2009; Mickey 2014). Wilber’s theory is, at least as summarized by its devotees, nothing if not immodest: “Integral theory weaves together the significant insights from all the major human disciplines of knowledge, including the natural and social sciences as well as the arts and humanities….being used in over 35 distinct academic and professional fields such as art, healthcare, organizational management, ecology, congregational ministry, economics, psychotherapy, law, and feminism” (Esbjörn-Hargens 2009, 1–2). One problem with TOEs is that they take a lot of energy to critique given their all-encompassing scope, so scholars generally avoid them. If I were to devote sufficient space to a critique of Wilber’s integral theory-of-everything as applied to the context of environment, well, that would be another book. But, minimally, I would ask why one person turned out to be so brilliant, why a host of related scholarship was ignored, and what sorts of empirical evidence were and were not marshaled in support of the theory. Or, I could cite a number of historians of religion (e.g., Albanese 1991) who have documented the ubiquity of TOE-based spiritual movements—indeed, integral theory is nothing new (as Albanese herself has suggested; see Albanese 1993). One minimal lesson is the virtue of scholarly triangulation—the more participants in grand theorizing (and thus, the more impurity!), the better.
The above was more than a bit unfair. The substantive propositions of the thousands of scholars who have invoked the tragedy of the commons; the possibilities and perils of epistemic consilience; and the details of Ken Wilber’s integral theory, let alone other environmental TOEs, are truly beyond the scope of this post. Clearly, there is some good to these theories I have failed to honor in their quick summaries above. At this stage, let’s consider the larger lesson: that these three ways not to do environmental theory—just-so stories, part-whole substitutions, and TOEs—are tendencies let’s try to avoid as we move forward, no matter how understandable they may be.
Doing environmental theory is hard, harder than doing say evolutionary theory or economic theory, or literary theory or linguistics theory, because environment is a hodge-podge. The very reason we need environmental theory is its greatest challenge, and leads to its least useful shortcuts. But—as we shall discover soon—the very beauty of doing environmental theory is its comprehensiveness…if done well, you will have done a lot.
- Albanese, Catherine L. 1991. Nature Religion in America: From the Algonkian Indians to the New Age. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
- ———. 1993. “Fisher Kings and Public Places: The Old New Age in the 1990s.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 527: 131–43.
- Berry, Wendell. 2001. Life Is a Miracle: An Essay against Modern Superstition. Counterpoint Press.
- Eagleton, Terry. 2004. After Theory. New York: Basic Books.
- Esbjörn-Hargens, Sean. 2009. “An Overview of Integral Theory: An All-Inclusive Framework for the 21st Century.” Resource Paper No. 1. Integral Institute.
- Esbjörn-Hargens, Sean, and Michael E. Zimmerman. 2009. Integral Ecology: Uniting Multiple Perspectives on the Natural World. Shambhala Publications.
- Hardin, Garrett. 1968. “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Science162 (3859): 1243–48.
- Kipling, Rudyard. 1902. Just so Stories for Little Children. New York, Doubleday, Page & Co.
- Mickey, Sam. 2014. On the Verge of a Planetary Civilization: A Philosophy of Integral Ecology. London ; New York: Rowman & Littlefield International.
- Ostrom, Elinor. 2008. “The Challenge of Common-Pool Resources.” Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development50 (4): 8–21.
- Slingerland, Edward G., and Mark Collard, eds. 2012. Creating Consilience: Integrating the Sciences and the Humanities. New Directions in Cognitive Science. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Wilson, Edward O. 1998a. Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. 1st ed. New York: Knopf.
- ———. 1998b. “Integrated Science and the Coming Century of the Environment.” Science 279 (5359): 2048–49.