Today’s blog is the latest in a series from Richard Jurin who, before his retirement, ran the Environmental Studies programme at the University of Northern Colorado, launching a degree in Sustainability Studies. His academic interests are environmental worldviews and understanding barriers to sustainability. As ever, with our blogs, Richard’s views are not necessarily shared by NAEE.
One of my major interests as an academic was barriers to making the transition to sustainable living. My observation that provided my focus was that the bulk of action and education for change was about green technology and reframing our behaviors, either through education or legislation. What I saw happening in pockets around the world and missing overall was any real attention to worldviews, which are the lens through which we view and judge everything in our world. They are the story we tell ourselves that gives meaning to our world. The assumption by many (also myself initially) was that an anthropocentric based consumerist worldview dominated our thinking. Imagine my surprise when I finished a research study concerning ecological worldviews to find that more people were in favor of a sustainable future than were attached to a utilitarian consumer worldview. Bear in mind that these results came from a diverse American College Student sample asked to describe their Ecological Identity after a semester long course about worldviews through history. What makes me optimistic is that if these students who live in a controlled hyper-consumer world are like this, then the promise for the rest of the world is positive. I describe the results on a bell-curve continuum from Anthropocentric (human centered) to Ecocentric (planet centered), with Biocentric (life centered) somewhere in the center of this continuum. To keep it really simple, I concluded that four main groups were notable:
1. At the far left of this continuum bell curve lies anthropocentrism. In my study, less than 1% fit in to a category that I named Absolute Utilitarians (AUs). They are completely anthropocentric (human centered) and believe that all global resources are there to be utilized for human benefit and seem unconcerned about ecological mayhem as long as profit is generated and goods continue to be made. Calls for ecological care seem to go unheeded with this group.
2. Still on the left-hand side and center of the continuum under anthropocentrism and biocentrism were a group of around 30% that I named Utilitarian Conservationists (UCs). While they thought that humans were the dominant species that needed resources from the planet, they thought it should be done mindfully with a long-term goal of continuous and mindful conservation. They agreed with the Utilitarian Conservationist mantra coined by Gifford Pinchot around 1906, “The Greatest good, for the Greatest Number, for the Longest Time.” They were well-meaning but just saw humans as the top of life’s pyramid and the rest of life and the planet as subjugate to humanity, but with many espousing animal rights as important.
3. Now on the far right of the continuum bell curve was a large group (around 30%, I named Ecocentrics) that identified with both Biocentrism and Ecocentrism. They tended to be hard-core environmentalists and preservationists to one degree or another (remember it’s on a continuum), and fully supported a transformation to a sustainable world. The hardline far right continuum number (around 10%) wanted sustainability regardless of what it would take to do that transformation. Tempting as it might be, the eco-centric sample in this study showed no politicization, or leaning to eco-fascism, of their views during that point in their lives (19-21 year old’s). It’s possible some might eventually have gone that way, but unlike the one percent hardcore humans-only AU view I had, the Ecocentrics overall were more spiritual in their views (again a continuum). I didn’t find hardcore members, often referred to as eco-fascists, at the extreme end of the continuum. As a group, ecofascists are relatively unreachable, but I think they are a very small minority of the larger Ecocentric group as a whole that never showed up in my study.
4. In the middle of the continuum was a group of 40% that surprised me. I eventually named them the Logical Idealists (LIs). They aspired to the ideals of the Ecocentrists but were reluctant to let go a western lifestyle to become sustainable, which they perceived as loss of a lifestyle embracing comforts and luxuries that they enjoyed – a quite materialistic frame.
The simplest take-away is that these broad views exist and the messaging/education to reach them for real change without the need for legislating behavior is by necessity very different. Broadly understanding why a group thinks the way they do allows us to craft messages that are more targeted. People who are AU will respond only to economics and human benefit. UCs on the other hand will respond more to the need to conserve resources and to respect life. Ecocentrics may need only more information and action strategies to respond for sustainable actions. It is the large swing group, the LIs, that are intriguing. They seem fixated on maintaining a consumer standard of living, yet are philosophically able to see the need for being spiritually connected to the natural world. Their concern is not in remaining a consumer but in not losing the comforts and luxuries to which they have become accustomed.
What is crucial to see here is that the messaging (education) to reach these different groups is not just about environmental information, it’s about presenting viable and potential imagery for most people on what a sustainable future could look like, complete with good standard of living, higher quality of life, and a spiritual connection to life and the planet. The doom and gloom messaging (change or else) typical of the environmentalism since the 1960s doesn’t seem to be working too well in current times. Despite the popular thinking that humans are isolated from the natural world, I found the opposite. Many are highly distracted, yet appreciate nature as something exceptional. I am promoting education for a shift in worldview in which values and beliefs change as a matter of course with the shift.
There is lots of great education out there, but most good messaging is reaching people piecemeal. Fear of avoiding disaster and draconian legislation can only go so far, and in the long run is more debilitating than beneficial. Over 70% of people already claim to value the natural world from a spiritual perspective, but have logical reasons for why they do not do more to act on those espoused values. Given a positive picture of a viable and desirable future coupled with the tools for educators to help each individual define where they currently stand on their beliefs and values (their worldview), and what is needed to voluntarily reach a consensually ‘better world’ needs more serious discussion.
Richard can be contacted at: Richard.firstname.lastname@example.org