Individuals, including you and me, very often disagree on the severity, importance, and priority of different environmental problems such as climate change, loss of biodiversity, and pollution. These differences in opinion arise from different worldviews each of us possesses.
Environmental worldviews are a person’s thoughts about how the world operates, and beliefs about what their role in the world should be. These thoughts are primarily influenced by our personal and environmental ethics—what is right or wrong in humanity’s treatment of the natural environment, and how environmental issues that arise should be addressed.
As a result, individuals, communities, societies, and nations differ widely in their worldview even if they have access to the same information, since the worldview affects how the issues are analyzed based on our values and assumptions.
Anthropocentric or Biocentric?
Environmental worldviews are either human centered – focused upon on the demands, needs, and wants of people, life centered – focused upon the needs and demands of all living organisms, or earth-centered – centered upon the sustenance of the entire biosphere or ecosystems as a whole. These environmental worldviews lie on a scale and can be visualized as concentric circles as seen below.
As our values shift outward, from human-centered to more earth-centered perspectives, we begin to value the environment and its components for more than the products and services they provide. In other words, we begin to place emphasis on intrinsic values over instrumental values.
The differences in worldviews frame how individuals consider environmental and social issues. Growing awareness of sustainability has spurred a gradual shift towards a more earth-centered view. The key characteristics of the three environmental worldviews are summarized in the table below.
Humans are superior to all other life
We are entitled to utilize the environment and its components as we deem necessary to fulfill all our needs and wants
We have an ethical responsibility to care for the earth
We should encourage environmentally friendly forms of economic growth and discourage environmentally harmful practices
We are a part of, and totally dependent upon nature
Nature and the environment exists for all species including us.
All life forms have inherent value and should be respected
Perception of Nature
Earth has unlimited resources to be used by us
Nature can be altered to suit our needs.
Potential for economic growth is unlimited
Nature will probably not run out of resources, but we should not waste them
Natural resources are for our use but we must manage it well
Nature cannot, and should not be conquered
Everything in nature is interconnected
The planet does not have infinite resources
Resources should not be wasted
Not all resources are solely for our use
Resource management and conservation are unnecessary
We can easily manage the earth’s life support systems for our benefit
Our success depends on our ability to manage our environment and earth’s life support systems for our benefit and for the rest of nature
We should encourage earth sustaining forms of economic growth and discourage degrading forms of growth
Our success depends on learning how nature sustains itself and integrating those lessons into our daily lives
While addressing social issues is often based on moral philosophies rooted in ethics, the human connection to the natural environment is more fundamentally derived from our evolutionary biology. The notion that there is a biological bases for humans’ valuation of the natural environment is known as biophilia. Over our evolutionary history, we have developed biological responses to the natural environment, which can be either positive such as looking at a pleasing landscape, or negative (“biophobia”) in scenarios that we have learned to fear, such as thunderstorms, snakes and spiders, and dark places (for many people).
Kellert (1993) described nine types of biophilia values that humans gain from the natural environment, summarized in the table below.
Practical & material exploitation
Physical sustenance, security
Satisfaction from contact with nature
Curiosity, outdoor skills, mental/physical development
Study of structure, function, and relationships in nature
Knowledge, understanding, observation
Physical appeal and beauty
Inspiration, harmony, peace, security
Use nature for metaphorical expression, language, etc
Communication, mental development
Affection, emotional attachment, love for nature
Group bonding, sharing, cooperation, companionship
Affinity, spiritual reverence, ethical concern
Order/meaning in life, kinship, affiliational ties
Mastery, physical control, dominance
Mechanical skills, physical prowess, ability to subdue
Fear, aversion, alienation
Security, protection, safety
Source: Kellert, S.R. 1993. The biological basis for human values of nature. In, S.R. Kellert & E.O. Wilson (Eds.), The Biophilia Hypothesis (pp. 42-72). Washington: Island Press.
Environmental values are important, internal drivers that motivate people towards sustainability behaviors. This is because values, unlike other characteristics, are determined early on in our lifetimes, and remain fairly stable throughout a person’s life. Changing those values is therefore very difficult, but often a necessary step towards pro-environmental and pro-social behavior.