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Classic environmental thought
How does one do critique in environmental theory? Our ENVS 350 class has been asking this question every week as they do an “isms critique” of one relevant chapter from Companion to Environmental Studies (Castree, Hulme, and Proctor 2018). And we have introduced the two notions of inclusivity and coherence in critiquing our ongoing frameworks. But how do critique of just any theoretical concept that comes our way?
Here I’d like to briefly suggest three things to look for, each prominent in classic environmental thought: apocalypticism, reductionism, and essentialism. I’ll quickly summarize each, with reference to readings we’ll be doing in class next week.
Classic environmental thought is not a rigorously defined area, but we used it in Companion as a major structural feature to organize chapters vis-à-vis contemporary thought:
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.Castree, Hulme, and Proctor (2018, 3)
One must be careful not to deploy classic vs. contemporary thought in a sort of presentist Whig history culminating in whatever we prefer at present, but the distinction has proven helpful in helping students appreciate how the ideas they bring into environmental studies are not necessarily the ones scholars continue to deploy.
We will use these terms as—fancy word—metaframeworks, as they may help illustrate properties of environmental theories that are general enough to be considered frameworks. As characteristics of frameworks, metaframeworks are conceptual tools we can use to do critique—though, as we shall see at the end, they can be difficult to escape when one posits an alternative.
If there was one recurrent strain among the most popular classic environmental publications of the 1960s and 1970s, from Population Bomb (Ehrlich 1968) to Limits to Growth (Meadows et al. 1974) to “Tragedy of the commons” (Hardin 1968), it was a dire sense of future crisis—what is commonly called an apocalyptic sense, though this term has a rather different theological meaning.
Apocalypticism finds its grip among our students as they ponder a future that seems hopeless in many ways. This seems why, for instance, the ebook Love Your Monsters (Shellenberger and Nordhaus 2011) seems to have such of an impact among them when they encounter it for the first time in our introductory course—and begin to tease out the more hopeful strains of certain contemporary environmental thought.
One theorist who has speculated on the continued prominence of apocalypticism in environmental thought is Eric Swyngedouw (2013). Swyngedouw ultimately mentions three options in addressing apocalypticism, of which the first two—”nudging behavioral change in a more sustainable direction” and “fully endors[ing] the environmental cataclysm and revel[ing] in the certainty that this had already been predicted a long time ago” (p. 14)—are unhelpful. His alternative involves two assertions:
- “The fact that the socio-environmental imbroglio has already passed the point of no return has to be fully asserted”
- “Reverse the order between the universal and the particular that today dominates the catastrophic political imaginary” (p. 15).
From this approach, things have been bad for some time, at least for certain of Earth’s inhabitants, and the details of working for better futures must be asserted over general statements about humankind. “The Anthropocene is just another name for insisting on Nature’s death” (p. 16)—a hopeful condition to Swyngedouw, given that human agency and politics, not some fall from Eden, are now a basis for future possibilities.
It is common to hear that, whatever its hyperbole, apocalypticism is a good motivator—that people need a good scare to take action on climate change and other major environmental issues. This point actually appears not to have much empirical evidence, however. As one example (Feinberg and Willer 2011), it appears that apocalyptic statements tend to induce denial over action. As a feature of much classic environmental thought certainly still among us at present, apocalypticism may require that we search our own hearts to ask why we continue to endorse it.
Reductionism has a storied history in philosophy and science; here I simply mean a form of explanation where phenomena are accounted for via one root cause. “It all boils down to…” is a reductionist statement—and we can immediately imagine that certain forms of reductionism may be powerful in highlighting key causes of the environmental issues we worry about, but in many cases “reductionist” is synonymous with “simplistic.”
Many of those who give public environmental talks inevitably encounter someone during the question and answer session, and their question is always a variant of “But how can we make progress without ending [population growth/capitalism/materialism/etc.]?” These are based on reductionist assumptions, and classic environmentalism was full of them.
Mike Hulme (2011) sees climate discourse as a current form of reductionism, and a certain technical tendency in talking about climate as one that robs humans of their capacities and actions. In a different realm, Scrinis (2008) sees nutritionism as a similarly reductionistic way of talking about food. These and other readings suggest that reductionism remains rhetorically compelling in spite of its shortcomings.
A third tendency in classic environmental thought, certainly alive and well today, is essentialism: a mode of reification in which categories of things are assumed to have fixed properties and a fixed good or bad valence. Though commonly deployed in discussions repudiating essentialism in gender and race (though cf. Stubblefield , who defends race from a non-essentialist position), essentialism has found a firm grip in environmental thought in the root nat-, including nature and the native (i.e., indigenous peoples, to whom essentialist qualities are often conveyed).
Essentialism seems to be more prevalent in cases where our direct experiences are relatively few: thus, for instance, someone who knows nature via pretty pictures and tourist destinations may be more prone to essentialize nature than someone who knows nature as a working farmer, well aware of its surprises and challenges from one season to another. An essentialist view is in many ways an exoticized view, one revealing more of our distance from the thing than the thing itself.
There are some common ways to essentialize, and Zerubavel (2016) names five: religion, nature, reason, “everybody,” and “always.” Essentialism thus does big cultural and political work in a number of spheres, certainly environmentalism. But, in apparently providing firm ground to our position, essentialism will be a hard thing to let go of as we negotiate environmental futures on less seeming firm ground than reified realities.
These three metaframework “isms”—apocalypticism, reductionism, and essentialism—are alive and well in the environental theories we encounter, even though a voluminous scholarly literature has repudiated them. So, how do critique?: do we just spit out one of these words to dispense with a theory outright? The problem is that these isms tend to stick around when a critique formulates an alternative—that we end up committing much the same error we perhaps rightly note in our environmental critique.
Take the two examples of reductionism above. A careful reading of Scrinis (2008) suggests not only a compelling critique of nutritionism, but a tendency toward reductionism in attributing its cause, and thus the solution to our food woes:
The broader function of nutritionism has been to enable the smooth integration of individuals and populations into the structures and requirements of the dominant agrifood system.Scrinis (2008, 47)
“Dominant agrifood system”? The label sounds reductionistic to me, in assigning blame for a stupefyingly complex actor-network of humans and nonhumans, producers and consumers, snacks and staple foods.
In a different way, Hulme’s critique of technocratic universalism in climate discourse potentially runs afoul of ignoring the role of climate science and climate modeling in our future deliberations:
Since it is at least possible—if not indeed likely—that human creativity, imagination, and ingenuity will create radically different social, cultural, and political worlds in the future than exist today, greater effort should be made to represent these possibilities in any analysis about the significance of future climate change.Hulme (2011, 266)
This “flip to flop” tendency is one we must always be mindful of as we deploy critique—not to lessen our critique, but to attempt reconstruction, an alternative, thoughtfully. In the final analysis, metaframeworks are powerful, and we who deploy their power must do so wisely.
Castree, Noel, Mike Hulme, and James D. Proctor, eds. 2018. Companion to Environmental Studies. London: Routledge. https://www.routledge.com/Companion-to-Environmental-Studies/Castree-Hulme-Proctor/p/book/9781138192201.
Ehrlich, Paul R. 1968. The Population Bomb. London: Ballantine Books.
Feinberg, M., and R. Willer. 2011. “Apocalypse Soon?: Dire Messages Reduce Belief in Global Warming by Contradicting Just-World Beliefs.” Psychological Science 22 (1): 34–38. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797610391911.
Hardin, Garrett. 1968. “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Science 162 (3859): 1243–48. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.162.3859.1243.
Hulme, Mike. 2011. “Reducing the Future to Climate: A Story of Climate Determinism and Reductionism.” Osiris 26 (1): 245–66. https://doi.org/10.1086/661274.
Meadows, Donella H., Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and William W. Behrens. 1974. The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind. New York: Universe Books.
Scrinis, Gyorgy. 2008. “On the Ideology of Nutritionism.” Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies 8 (1): 39–48. https://doi.org/10.1525/gfc.2008.8.1.39.
Shellenberger, Michael, and Ted Nordhaus, eds. 2011. Love Your Monsters: Postenvironmentalism and the Anthropocene. Breakthrough Institute. http://www.amazon.com/Love-Your-Monsters-Postenvironmentalism-ebook/dp/B006FKUJY6.
Stubblefield, Anna. 1995. “Racial Identity and Non-Essentialism about Race.” Social Theory and Practice 21 (3): 341–368.
Swyngedouw, Erik. 2013. “Apocalypse Now! Fear and Doomsday Pleasures.” Capitalism Nature Socialism 24 (1): 9–18. https://doi.org/10.1080/10455752.2012.759252.
Zerubavel, Eviatar. 2016. “The Five Pillars of Essentialism: Reification and the Social Construction of an Objective Reality.” Cultural Sociology 10 (1): 69–76.