Where do Environmental Values come from?


This week, our group readings discussed the sources of environmental values. Where do they come from?

The first article (“Environmental Values”, Kempton) identified three main internal sources of environmental values that motivate environmental concern and action: religion, anthropocentrism, and biocentrism. These are the sources that inform the values Americans hold about nature and how humans should treat nature; it is important to understand these sources because they tell us something about the way people relate to global environmental change, where much of the damage affects people spatially and temporally far away.

Kempton et al begin by exploring ‘religion and spirituality’ as a value source. While some previous sources argue that certain religious values (specifically those of a Judeo-Christian value system historically focused on having ‘dominion’ and ‘mastery’ over the natural world) correlate with environmentally destructive values, Kempton’s results indicate that religion actually seems to bolster concern about the environment rather than detract from it. Even people who did not claim to be religious framed their concern for nature in religious terms (see Marge quote, p. 4). Some made direct links between ecological principals and religious beliefs: Cindy (p. 4) recognized that everything had a ‘purpose’ (e.g., was part of a food web) but understood this web as having value because it was part of a plan, not because it might have been inherently valuable.

The next value source they explored was ‘anthropocentrism.’ Many of the subjects (seventeen of twenty) brought upchildren or future generations’ as a justification for environmental protection. This was one of the strongest values in the interviews. One interviewer, James, brings up the next generation’s ‘right to nature’  (“… If we continue the way we are, we’re not going to have these things for them.”) He and other informants imply that without the current richness of the natural world (flowers, birds, wildlife), future generations may not be motivated to maintain it. Some identify modern times as a “turning point” – when quality of goes from increasing to decreasing.  Some believe they have seen today’s young people acknowledge how much “less” they have than their parents (Margaret’s quote, p. 99). Why do so many people care about future generations? Kempton summons “intergenerational ethics” which, when practiced, tend to make our lives more meaningful. Others argue that environmental concern can be understood to be utilitarian (Ronald, p. 102) or aesthetic (Emma, p. 103). No matter what the explanation, the desire to protect the environment appears to be an important value to many across the board.

The last source they explored was ‘biocentrism’ – justifying environmental protection with the inherent value of nature and living things. Since the 1960s, there has been an emerging popularity and acceptance of a ‘land ethic’ (described by Heberlein in 1972 and Aldo Leopold in 1949). He attributes the rise to two factors: (1) public awareness of pollution, and (2) attribution of responsibility for environmental destruction. Some informants recognized that humans were a part of nature, and therefore subject to the laws of nature; others saw humans as separate, exempt (stewards of the earth).

There was a lot of overlap between the three values, but each seemed to permeate responses of people interviewed.

The next paper we read (“Social Paradigms and Attitudes toward Environmental Accountability”, Schafer) explored the attitudes and beliefs about environmental accountability of 300 MBA students in terms of the Dominant Social Paradigm (DSP) and New Ecological Paradigm (NEP). DSPs are usually created and propagated by the ruling class in ways that are consistent with their agenda. The current DSP in western society supports ideologies of free enterprise, private property rights, economic individualism, and unlimited economic growth (a paradigm promoted by a “capitalist hegemony”); generally speaking, there is faith in science and technology to fix problems and improve conditions. Meanwhile, the NEP recognizes the ecological limits of economic growth (including science and technology) and the “contradictions and consequences of capitalism” (e.g., undermining and exploiting the very environment from which it draws). The NEP could be perceived as a threat to the DSP. They hypothesized (1) those who adhere most strongly to the DSP will be most resistant to the NEP (H1, p. 129); (2) support for NEP will be positively associated with support for environmental accountability (H2, p. 129); and (3) Commitment to the DSP will be negatively associated with support for environmental accountability (H3, p.129). Results were consistent with hypotheses. If these attitudes hold true for most stakeholders, more research will be needed about the influence of elite interests on policy formation processes.

The last paper we read (“Environmental Concerns, Values and Meanings in the Beijing and Detroit Metropolitan Areas”, Mohai et al) also looked at the relations between individual values and environmental concern. This study compared the concerns, values and meanings of two metropolitan areas across the world against a ‘backdrop’ of an apparent growing worldwide environmental concern that transcends social stat, races, and education levels. They employ many theoretical perspectives when explaining their results. First, they frame the results in terms of dominant social paradigms. They also explore relationships between environmental conditions and environmental concern. Lastly, they examine opinions about the economic growth and the environment and compare the responses of Detroit and Beijing.

Methods involved analyzing data from the 2002 Beijing Area Study (BAS) and Detroit Area Study (DAS) which are concerned with understanding how values influence environmental concern. In both areas, materialists outnumbered post-materialists; Beijing was more supportive of property rights, free markets, had more faith in science and tech than Detroit; they were also less likely to believe that resources were plentiful (21.1%), and less likely support government giving priority to economic growth (34.3%). Overall, they found that people’s commitment to the DSP was more revealing than their placement on a ‘materialist’ scale. In Detroit, commitment to the DSP was negatively correlated with environmental concern; in Beijing, it was positively correlated (belief in free markets was a positive predictor of people’s perceived seriousness of pollution; bufferable by science and technology), perhaps because of recent tech boom in China.

What we studied this week is very relevant to my academic interests. My degree is in elementary education and I worked for many years as a K-12 environmental educator partly because it seemed like an effective way to help build relationships between children and nature and thus help shape their values about the environment.  One of my favorite researchers to do work on this subject is Louise Chawla, who studied the effects of exposure to the environment on environmental concern positive and found positive correlates between ‘time spent in the environment as a child’ and ‘interest in the environment as an adult’ (her study found that most people involved in environmental careers spent significant time in nature as children).

The readings this week speak to the individual human being the ‘building block’ of society; being successful at affecting change often (but not always) begins with successfully affecting individuals. For this reason, I appreciate studies done at the individual scale, and why I am at SNRE studying behavior, education and communication.


Kempton, W., J. S. Boster, and J. A. Hartley. 1996. Chapter 5, “Environmental Values.” Pp. 87-115 in Environmental Values in American Culture. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Shafer, William E. 2006. “Social Paradigms and Attitudes toward Environmental Accountability.” Journal of Business Ethics 65:121-147

Mohai, P., S. Simoes, and S. R. Brechin. 2010. “Environmental Concerns, Values, and Meanings in the Beijing and Detroit Metropolitan Areas.” International Sociology 25(6): 1–42.



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