Question Cheryl Business & Management

Environmental sustainability - modernist and postmodernist perspectives

What are the modernist and postmodernist perspectives of environmental sustainability?

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Answer Internal Staff

The modernist world view emerged from the positivist philosophy of the Enlightenment. It has from the start been characterised by a belief in the power of science and rationality. At the start of the twentieth century, when modernism as a movement was at its height, there was little awareness of environmental sustainability in the rush to develop natural resources and boost economic growth. Over time, however, there has been a growing realisation of the damage that unfettered expansion has done, and an increasing appreciation of the need for environmental sustainability. From the mid-twentieth century onwards, the modernist perspective has embraced the need to work for environmental sustainability, and it still relies on reason to resolve problems. It seeks to modify and control the environment with large infrastructure projects and targeted, scientific interventions such agricultural yield enhancement through chemicals, or distribution design improvements to reduce waste.

The postmodernist perspective of environmental sustainability rejects these monolithic solutions based on some rational principle or other, and advocates instead the inclusion of multiple viewpoints, even when they contradict each other. Social and dynamic factors are taken into consideration, and a patchwork of different approaches is seen as more beneficial than a single big idea. It is argued that the issues affecting environmental sustainability arise in many different places and operate at many different levels. It follows, then, according to the postmodern viewpoint, that the solutions must also be diverse and multi-level. Both approaches have their value and their weaknesses, since the modernist viewpoint is coherent but somewhat inflexible, while postmodern viewpoint is very flexible but sometimes hard to pin down into a concrete plan. They have both been influential, and most countries and organisations include elements from each in their environmental sustainability planning.