enviro theoryenvironmental studies

What’s real between individual vs. institutional scale?

What’s real between individual vs. institutional scale?

Explicit/implicit theory

One way to make sense of how environmental ideas move people is to begin by differentiating between explicit/formal and implicit/informal theory. 

Political ecology, for instance, is a known multi-disciplinary framework among the academic community, and in that sense is explicit/formal in its use.

By contrast, incrementalism, another well-used framework for environmental thought and action, leans toward being more implicit/informal. While it’s likely you have never heard someone explicitly define themselves as an incrementalist with regard to environmental issues, belief in the summative power of multiple, individual, incremental actions amounting to greater change is a tenacious feature of classical environmental thought. As Michael Maniates pointed to it in a simple question, “Individualism: Plant a tree, buy a bike, save the world?” (Maniates 2001).

If incrementalism and individualism are ubiquitous in popular environmental thought, as I reference above, a helpful next step is to reckon with them in terms of what they are not, so as to put them into wider view.

As Prof. Jim Proctor has done via EcoTypes poles/axes, we might contrast incremental vs. radical ideas about change, and contrast individual vs. institutional ideas about social scale. (In the case of EcoTypes, these poles empirically contribute to a broader theme, action, showing preference for small vs. big action.) But poles/axes can only get us so far—so we can take this as a jumping off point.

How configure what’s in between individual vs. institutional scale?: linearity and nonlinearity

To where? Let’s get back to Maniates’ point about individualism—why, or why not, would we be inspired to causally connect incremental small actions with big change? Well, to reach for such connections is understandable! Linkages between individual and institutional social scales are obviously tenable, but complex to a degree that makes these connections hard to render in theory. Some scholars have argued for interpreting individual-institutional relation with linearity (e.g., Pacala and Socolow 2004) while others have argued for nonlinearity (e.g., Barbour 1995; Gladwell 2001; Kuhn 2012). For thinkers (including scholars!) with concerns regarding environmental relations between humans and nonhumans/planet, the search for understanding how action builds via the relation between individual-institutional scales can be clouded as a normative issue: we must be wary of rushing to conclusions out of haste.

Application of above thoughts to ENVS 350 framework building

Moving forward, I’ll be drawing upon these thoughts as I build my framework for thesis outcomes. I’ll go into the details in another post. For now, what matters is that I think it’ll be necessary to approach the in-between of individual and institutional social scales—i.e., interpret this as a site of meaning making. 

I may follow up via deontological vs. consequentialist vs. virtue theory to ask “why would we do/not do an action?” My framework is building toward research into land succession in agriculture (the transference of ownership from one generation to the next) as related with rural-urban outmigration/urban-rural counter-migration, and (cost hurdles associated with) technological process in agriculture. One thing I wonder is whether agrarian livelihoods are being de-invested in by economies of scale, and thus any strengthening of rural centers and agrarian livelihoods would need to be done at an institutional scale and perhaps out of non-efficiency standard ideals but democratic/social ones.

Photo: sweeping the yard, Malawi 2012


Barbour, Michael. “Ecological Fragmentation in the Fifties.” In Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature, edited by William Cronon, 233–55. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1995.

Gladwell, Malcolm. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. 1st ed. Boston: Little, Brown, 2000.

Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: 50th Anniversary Edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012.

Maniates, Michael F. “Individualization: Plant a Tree, Buy a Bike, Save the World?” Global Environmental Politics1, no. 3 (2001): 31–52.

Pacala, S., and R. Socolow. “Stabilization Wedges: Solving the Climate Problem for the next 50 Years with Current Technologies.” Science305, no. 5686 (August 13, 2004): 968–72.

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  1. Wow I think that it is really interesting how you unpacked the concepts of individualism and institutionalism. Personally when I think of these two concepts I think of them on a sliding scale. I am excited to see where you take these ideas more, and think that you are doing a great job of incorporating the theories we are learning in class into your work.

  2. I love reading through your process of thinking through thoughtful connections between what we have been discussing in class and your thesis work. Similar thoughts about de-investment in agrarian life have been on my mind I think you are asking great questions. In-between spaces ( such as that between individual and institutional social scales as you discussed) are often exiting and fruitful places to focus on. Im glad to see that your new framework/ topic seems to be going in a great direction and I am interested to hear how further research goes!

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