Identifying First Big Words/Keywords toward Thesis Framework Outcomes

Going into week seven of the term, pretty much halfway through, projects kick into gear.

Last week we had one of two classes due to beginning of fall break landing on a Thursday class, so we discussed less than usual. We did discuss big words as keywords—Big Words being Jim’s way to refer to words that carry extra “freight” (or weight) of meaning, attachments that make them widely acceptable but upon trying to pinpoint, sorely misunderstood.

Keywords are big words that we can labor to better identify; for instance, by trying a history of formation of the word “nature” (see Williams 1983, p. 219-224). Raymond Williams in many ways started the keywords project, which has been followed up by other works (e.g., Gleason et. al. 2016). Though, in the original, Williams gives at the bottom of each keyword entry possibly related terms, neither that nor later remakes follow through on drawing interpretive connections between these big keywords.

And that is what we’re tasked with in upcoming weeks in ENVS 350: articulating the “formations of meaning” between big words/keywords that Williams, himself, didn’t fully do. Right, so here goes…

I am preparing my framework for thesis via a few iterative course assignments. The first—a topic summary and set of framing questions—is being reworked; upcoming others are an annotated bibliography of 20 sources (10 of which I have via the topic summary) and an “isms” map, which just means that project of drawing coherent connections between a few big word terms and theories that I have selected via the first two assignments as well as weekly theory critiques on entries in our text, Companion to Environmental Studies.

Potential big words/keywords/isms map content, from topic summary/framing question assignment, from my to-do list of theoretical critiques, and from published keywords (Williams 1983; Gleason et. al. 2016)

From topic summary/framing questions:

  • technology
  • public
  • Other terms to note: demographic change, rural-urban continuum, out-migration, counterurbanization, knowledge economy, modernity, neoliberalism, counter-publics, development

From theoretical critiques:

  • scarcity and environmental limits
  • precautionary principle
  • science & technology studies
  • political ecology
  • posthumanism
  • Anthropocene

From keywords (Gleason 2016):

  • biosphere
  • consumption
  • democracy
  • genome
  • scale
  • translation

And keywords (Williams 1983):

  • utility/utilitarian
  • wealth/tilth


Gleason, William A., Joni Adamson, and David N. Pellow, eds. Keywords for Environmental Studies. NYU Press, 2016.

Williams, Raymond. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.

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.

How to comment on progress when everything broke this week?

Well, just to address the dismal title, “everything” really only means a few of my beloved tools that really do come in handy in terms of making a full life work went totally rogue…like my laptop, which really does help me write.

Mid-week, I was returning from travels to the Breakthrough Institute conference outside of Washington D.C., referred to in a recent post. Less than a week ago, I was convinced I would be writing my thesis on ecomodernism. One few-hour block of process-writing later, plus some contemplation on professional interests (supported by a Thursday guest visit to class from Career Center staff), had me realize that that would stay a separate essay project and I would need to reimagine the bounds of my topic and framework in preparation for ENVS thesis writing.

This all has got to come together soon. And it will. But when everything broke it made things difficult to happen on the order of soon.

What I have coming out of this week is not a lot of obvious outcomes, but a fresh commitment to blocking time for my writing: I’ll be editing topic and framework to give way to my reorientation.

One content outcome that grew out of this past week helps launch me into next week. That’s my first decent application of ENVS 350 work to framework outcomes, via my first “isms” critique here. I began to make sense of political ecology, via section 4.14 in Companion to Environmental Studies (Castree et. al. 2018). We’ll be considering this in class next week, with further readings…but I am proud and glad to have somewhat of a start working through it on my own.

More always to come.

Photograph: Tinkerpuff with her head in the zinnias. Occidental, California, 2018.

Selected Close-readings from the Encyclopedic “Companion to Environmental Studies”

We are using Companion to Environmental Studies as a reader in environmental theory class. I’m writing this post to quickly identify 15 of the 100+ entries as ones that will support my development of a thesis framework. I’ll dive into each over the remainder of fall term.


  • (1.5) Environment – constructed meaning key to understanding public discourse of enviro. concerns and unanswered questions.
  • (1.6) Ecosystems – a foundational concept to nonhuman life & well-being that comes up in discourse on right human place in nature.
  • (1.12) Nature – a word layered with meanings that usually are not addressed directly in popular use, usually concept for protected/otherwise defined spaces with a lower density of forms of human development and reserved for specific recreational purposes. I’m interested in its continued use at BTI in terms of decoupling.
  • (1.25) Wilderness – another concept implying untouched nature, well-critiqued (e.g., quite famously by William Cronon).
  • (2.13) Hybridity – a move toward articulating circumstances of reality as mixed up rather than cleanly separable. Serves as a simple counterpoint to view of purity.
  • (2.1) The Anthropocene – the contended term to describe a new geological epoch of the Earth as significantly influenced by the human species. Contention along multiple points, e.g., how far back would the name refer—since the advent of agriculture, so even Holocene=Anthropocene?
  • (1.19) Scarcity and environmental limits – Malthusian and then neo-Malthusian, now in BTI circles possibly considered a finished issue—assuming that limits will continually be surpassed/defined anew by technological development (efficiency/substitutes).
  • (2.18) Planetary boundaries – the new face of limits discussion, above.

Scholarly movements

  • (6.2) Ecological modernisation – very close to “ecomodernism”, necessary to look at what’s been said here.
  • (3.5) Ecofeminism – has been the site of more & less compelling critiques…would attend to this as situating work, e.g., by N. Katherine Hayles.
  • (3.20) Science & technology studies – this to situate work by Bruno Latour and others to address claims that post-limits/boundaries puts question of (developing/implementing) technology at forefront; this scholarship makes room for continual critique of ideas that want to settle into unquestioned universals.
  • (4.13) Environmental political theory – thinking of actors, in mostly a traditional political sense, negotiating an environmental discourse.
  • (4.14) Political ecology – thinking of environmental actors and acting in an even broader/more interesting way. (Sept. 2019 update: critique published here)


  • (7.1) Anthropocentrism – an ethical stance, contrasted most clearly against biocentrism, that can help explain fundamental ethical prioritization between human/nonhuman categories.
  • (7.3) Environmental science & politics – similar to section 4.13 above, but this deals with knowledge/truth (science) in relation to political process.
  • (7.8) Expert and lay environmental knowledges – as above, deals in questions of knowledge and validity and power of experts.
  • (7.10) Interdisciplinary environmental inquiry – essential to learn as much as possible about others’ perspectives on this to keep directing how to do this effectively. (Sept. 2019 update: critique published here)
  • (7.18) Representation and reality – questions of ontology, interpretation, symbols and meanings. Semiotics and other theories are useful as a foundational means of assessing projects representing (how to move in) reality with ideas.
  • (5.1) Anthropogenic climate change – a contextual issue for debates on what & how society ought to reproduce itself.
  • (5.10) Land degradation & restoration – another contextual issue, one that I am thinking of in relation to terms above (ecosystems, the question of limits, substitutes and technology, anthropocentrism) as an issue that accommodates both classical and contemporary orientation and scholarship.

Featured image: Paris, France 2014

These days if “environment” is in your title, you’re likely a) into sustainability, b) buzzkill at parties, c) pushing radical reform…or d) trying to somewhat-quietly figure the whole thing out

It’s late, late, late in Washington D.C. as I write. Among other important things, tonight I learned from the locals (my cousin, her husband and their friend) that I cannot say I flew into “IAD”…it’s just “Dulles”. Point taken.

So I flew into Dulles, and I’m a day or so away from the Breakthrough Institute’s Ecomodernism 2019 conference. I’m attending in hopes of building out a framework for my environmental studies thesis that will eventually submit a theoretical critique (among others) of ecomodernism.

Being a passer-through over the past day or two, my conversations are with people (even family!) who haven’t been around my ins and outs and daily thoughts. So, I get to bump up against the interpretations of others as they make sense of me/my work via the word “environment”…as the title of this post provocatively suggests, there are a few

When conversation yesterday evening turned toward what I do/am doing here in DC, what emerged from the others was full of classical environmentalist language–and, um, maybe unsurprisingly, it was about then that the laughter left the room. I listened to them lament the disposable plastic products in the house, the recent flurry of news of the Amazon burning, and etc. Meanwhile, my cousin just started a job at an environmental law firm that’s on the cusp of applying legal theory to climate issues, filing suits on behalf of public actors (e.g., States) against corporate exploitations. So the whole darn thing, in terms of the contradictions of our daily lives and work and ideas in the context of environmental rights and wrongs, is not straightforward.

And that brings me back to ecomodernism (why I’m on the other side of the country just now) and a reflection on our past week working with the EcoTypes survey and environmental theory in ENVS 350.

Environmental theory means making sense of environmental ideas with the hopes of providing counterpoints to common environmental narratives, thoughts and stories that compose our discourse–it’s theoretical/scholarly work that in time will continue to help me, and others, respond better to the dismal black-hole conversations that suck out the air in the room at dinner parties, but don’t solve that void, either, by recruiting you to storm the streets and hold fast to convictions that are also rather unhelpful to making sense of things in the long run.

The EcoTypes survey + pedagogical resources help make that possible–giving empirical evidence to deep difference in environmental ideas, and suggesting ways of deliberating across difference. Inspired in large part out of the Breakthrough Institute’s continual evolution and production of ecomodernism a few years ago, I haven’t yet figured out how much I wish to involve/utilize EcoTypes as a methodological support…for now, it is a wonderful informal crutch for beginning to situate myself and others alongside ideas that compose the ecomodernist (and whatever other) project of environmental thought and creation.

I’ve got more work to do this weekend making sense of the concept ecomodernism. As I understand it so far, it’s a motley of gathered convictions (like pro-nuclear, pro-food tech, and pro-“decoupling”)–a means of people organizing themselves around some strong ideals. I have a few gut senses, the biggest of which is that there are underlying inconsistencies/contradictions in terms of leaving behind classical environmentalism but upholding dualistic visions.

Even more important to do a theoretical critique, I think, of theories that organize power for the construction of our common world(s). That’s option d), per my title: if I’m an “environmentalist”, it means I’m somewhat-quietly trying to figure out how we all go about making our worlds and invariably dreaming of better ones.