Environmental Values Essay

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Values re present an individual’s judgment about what is valuable or important based on his or her principles or standards. Environmental values, ethics, and worldviews are human social-psychological constructs informed by people’s inner experiences and their personal reasoning about nature. Environmental ethics are the moral judgments and attitudes that guide people in the way they behave toward nature. By comparison, value systems and worldviews are the reference frameworks through which people interpret their experiences and make them meaningful. The terms environmental ethics and environmental values are often used interchangeably. While environmental values are said to be formed early on in life, a person’s worldviews are based on his or her broader social and political experiences and are, therefore, formed later in life. Worldviews relate to people’s beliefs about the reality of the world, how the world behaves, their notions of justice, and what they think is right and wrong. Collectively, the values, ethics, and worldviews held by groups of individuals shape social identity and culture.

The origin of the concept of values expressed as an environmental ethic can be traced to Aldo Leopold’s book A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There. Although published shortly after his death in 1949, the book received greater popularity when re-released in 1970. The 1970 edition also included several influential essays by Leopold such as “The Land Ethic” in which he proposed that the causes of the ecological crisis were philosophical. Leopold also discussed an evolution in ethics from a focus on relationships between individuals, to relationships between individuals and society, to relationships between individuals, society, and the environment. Leopold expressed this environmental ethic as: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

Two other landmark papers published in the journal Science in the late 1960s also fostered the debate on environmental ethics: Lynn White’s “The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis” (1967), and Garrett Hardin’s “The Tragedy of the Commons” (1968).

Environmental worldview theory emerged in the late 1970s and was underpinned by social scientists Riley Dunlap and Kent Van Liere’s New Environmental Paradigm (NEP) scale, published in 1978. The NEP was developed in response to the anti-environmental worldview referred to by Dennis Pirages and Paul Ehrlich in 1974 as society’s Dominant Social Paradigm (DSP). The NEP continues to be used extensively in research on environmental worldviews and is considered to be one of the more popular scales for measuring environmental beliefs and charting public attitudes toward the natural environment. In the early 1990s, social scientists Paul Stern and Thomas Dietz were among the first to propose a value-basis theory for environmental concern. These conceptual links have since been expanded to incorporate considerations of attitudes and beliefs.

Social scientists have demonstrated that environmental norms, values, and attitudes are correlated with environmental behaviors. These research findings support the premise that developing an understanding of people’s values can help to understand the strength of their commitment to environmental issues and also predict when their environmental attitudes will be translated into environmentally relevant behaviors. Environmental value scales represent the most common form of measurement used to predict people’s activities, consumer behavior, and/or economic sacrifice made to protect the environment. Environmental value scales can be broadly categorized into the following three forms: (1) values based on self-interest; (2) values based on concern for others; and (3) values based on concern for ecosystems.

Self-interest values are represented by egocentric and egoistic values. These values support the extraction and use of nature by individuals to enhance their own lives and the lives of their families. While they promote the protection of environmental aspects that provide personal benefits, they oppose the protection of environmental aspects that result in high personal costs. Garrett Hardin’s theory of the “Tragedy of the Commons,” where farmers’ actions are governed by their self-interest, is underpinned by an egocentric ethic.

Values based on one’s concern for others are represented by homocentric, anthropocentric, and social-altruistic values. These values support nature for its role in maintaining or enhancing the quality of life for humans including, for example, its role in providing clean air, water, and fossil fuels. As human-centered value orientations, these values promote social justice and maximizing the social good for all people. They support the view that people’s attitudes toward nature or environmental policies should be judged on the basis of how human beings are affected by them. As such, they consider the well-being of other living creatures to be of lesser, if any, importance.

Values based on one’s concern for ecosystems or the biosphere include biocentric, biospheric, and ecocentric values. These values assign intrinsic worth to all aspects of the environment (inanimate and animate) and they consider the survival of all living and nonliving things as components of healthy ecosystems to be of primary importance. Ecocentric value orientations value nature (in the form of ecological wholes such as species, ecosystems, and the biosphere) for its existence, aesthetics, and spiritual value, regardless of its ability to satisfy human needs. Ecocentrics identify with a connectedness between themselves and nature, as exemplified by Aldo Leopold’s land ethic in his book A Sand County Almanac. Similar to environmental value scales, environmental worldviews range from those that are more anthropocentric (humans ruling over and manipulating nature) to those that are more ecocentric (humans connecting with and coexisting equally with nature).

Anthropocentric worldviews include the technocentric, mechanistic, cornucopian, and the accommodationist or managerialist worldviews. The technocentric worldview is considered the dominant worldview in Western organizations and is the assumed underlying position for conventional scientific method. It considers the world to be objectively knowable through the study and measurement of its parts, and that technological advances can overcome environmental problems. Similarly, the cornucopian worldview sees humans, through their ingenuity and technology, using nature to provide indefinitely for their needs and wants. The accommodationist or managerialist worldview sees using improvements in environmental legislation and environmental or ecological management practices as the way to accommodate or manage human impacts on nature.

Ecocentric worldview orientations include the ecocentric, communalist or ecosocialist, and gaianist or utopian worldviews. People who contend that the natural world consists of ecosystems that should be managed as such typically hold the ecocentric worldview. It sees the world and organizations and communities in it as being organized into interdependent systems. The communalist or ecosocialist worldview shows concern for ecologically sustainable development and distributive social justice. It also sees smallscale technologies directing environmental management and production, and providing the economic resources for all people to sustain an equitable standard of living. The gaianist or utopian worldview is an extreme ecocentric worldview that considers the land and all living things to be equal and which promotes the rights of nature. This is reflected in the deep ecology movement initiated by Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess in 1973, and later expanded by other writers including George Sessions, Bill Devall, and Warwick Fox.

Just as people’s environmental ethics, values, and worldviews influence their environmental behavior; they also inform their reasoning on what environmental sustainability means and how sustainable development can be achieved. Two of the first documents to popularize the notion of sustainable development, the World Commission on Environment and Development’s (1987) report “Our Common Future” and the United Nations’ (1992) “Agenda 21” promote an anthropocentric ethic, in the form of intergenerational anthropocentrism, or ecologically sustainable economic development, as the preferred global ethic for achieving sustainable development.

Education for sustainable development is a key process in fostering the environmental ethic promoted by such international conferences and charters. Education for sustainable development builds upon environmental education, which first gained international recognition at the UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972. It also draws from other associated disciplines including values education to move beyond a focus on environmental concerns to utilize an interdisciplinary approach encompassing human, social, and economic factors. While such education is traditionally concentrated within schools and associated institutions aimed at children and young people, educationalist Darlene Clover states that it is also important to provide such learning opportunities for all ages, including adults. Clover highlights the value of providing community-based education that is experiential and develops people’s relationships with each other, their community, and the natural environment. John Fien expanded the notion of experiential learning through education for the environment, whereby education becomes a social change process based on translating knowledge into action.

Educating people so that they may hold ethics and values consistent with ecologically sustainable development can involve a variety of techniques including formal and informal approaches and public awareness raising and advocacy. By using a combination of teaching approaches, it is anticipated that participants will be better equipped to develop a life-long approach to learning and the ability to adjust their ethics and values so that they may remain appropriate in changing contexts.


  1. Darlene Clover, The Greening of Education (UNESCO, 1997);
  2. John Fien, Education for the Environment: Critical Curriculum Theorising and Environmental Education (Deakin University, 1993);
  3. Garrett Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Science (v.162, 1968);
  4. Linda Kalof and Terre Satterfield, eds., Environmental Values (Earthscan, 2005);
  5. Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There (Oxford University Press, 1949);
  6. Carolyn Merchant, Radical Ecology: The Search for a Livable World (Routledge, 1992);
  7. Timothy O’Riordan, Environmentalism (Pion, 1981);
  8. Dennis Pirages and Paul Ehrlich, Ark II: Social Responses to Environmental Imperatives (Freeman, 1974);
  9. Mikael Stenmark, Environmental Ethics and Policy-Making (Ashgate Publishing, 2002);
  10. UNESCOUNEP, The Tbilisi Declaration (UNESCO-UNEP, 1978);
  11. Lynn White, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” Science (v.155, 1967).

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