People see environmental problems from vastly different perspectives that are explained by environmental ethics, or what one believes about what is right and what is wrong in our behavior towards the environment. There are a few key environmental worldviews that can be anthropocentric, focused on human welfare or biocentric which are focused on individual species, the entire environment and more.
The planetary management worldview is one such anthropocentric worldview. Those who ascribe to this viewpoint believe that humans are the world’s most important species and thus should manage Earth’s resources for our own benefit. This view can be broken down further into three variations: the no-problem school which believes that humans can solve any problem with more economic growth and better management. A second variation is the free-market school which manages the planet through a free-market global economy and the conversion of public resources to private resources with the global marketplace governed by free-market competition. Finally there is the spaceship earth school which dictates that the earth is a complex machine that we can understand, dominate, change and order to provide a good life for everyone without damaging it.
The stewardship worldview adds more of an ethical perspective to dealing with the environment. It assumes that there is an ethical responsibility for humans to care for the Earth as stewards. As we use resources it is important to remember that we are borrowing from future generations and so many who claim that they hold the stewardship worldview claim that we should leave the earth in at least the same condition as what we now enjoy. This is another anthropocentric worldview.
Many critique human-centered worldviews due to the fact that humans have a tenuous place as the dominant species of Earth and also we are not as knowledgeable as we would like to believe.
In contrast, earth-centered worldviews such as the environmental wisdom worldview maintain that because humans and other forms of life are all interconnected parts of the earth’s life-support system it is already in our own self-interest to not act in ways that impair the overall system. As opposed to the other worldviews environmental wisdom as a worldview sees sustainability as an obvious policy and the earth does not need management as much as we need saving from ourselves.
Environmental literacy is another important aspect of environmental ethics that may help cure one problem-specifically the ignorance people have towards environmental problems. There are three basic points that environmental literacy covers: one that natural capital matters because it supports the earth’s life and our economies, two that our ecological footprints are immense and are expanding rapidly and three that there are ecological and climate-change tipping points that are irreversible and should never be crossed because the consequences are severe.
These points are important to understand but what the world is also facing is a severe lack of actual intimate contact with nature that could help many understand the viewpoints involved with environmental problems. There is an inherent benefit with going outside to wild, green spaces that are untouched by humanity because being around those spaces gives the people involved a sympathy to environmental issues.
Many people are actively involved with helping bring children into the wild such as the author of “Last Child in the Woods.” Richard Louv, the author, believes that many children are suffering from Nature Deficit Disorder which causes a host of problems such as childhood obesity, attention deficit disorder and depression. In essence this is another reason to consider conserving natural habitats before taking on a worldview. There is even a movement called the “No Child Left Inside” movement which encourages and provides funding for environmental education by enhancing education from kindergarten to 12th grade.
Besides the idea of environmental literacy being expanded there is also a motivation to teach children about the environment based in the concept of biophilia. Edward O. Wilson describes it as “an innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms.” To Wilson, without contact with the outdoors, this innate need that is a part of humans’ genetic heritage and evolved nature you lose many important benefits. There is also an emotional response involved that stimulates emotions to motivate different kinds of behavior. Other researchers note that there are intricate evolved characteristics of the brain that necessitate contact with the outdoors in order to classify groups and sub-groups of animals or learn details about nature. The Savannah hypothesis supports the idea that people in fact prefer particular environments to others, specifically savannahs.
Nature seems to be mainly beneficial to humans but the question remains: are humans beneficial or detrimental to nature in the long run? For all extensive purposes I think the answer is no, because of the sheer lack of sustainability and environmental planning that humans have put into keeping the Earth clean and protected. Phenomena such as Urbanization interferes with the idea of biophilia and the inherent good that humans obtain from being around nature. In an ironic sense, humans’ need to be close to beautiful, natural landscapes also tends to destroy those environments such as when construction of homes occurs near a lush preserve.
Factoring in ethics and human sentiment, it is clear that the idea of a sense of place can help humans feel that they are content and happy but if you are not passionate for a place of natural beauty you can be hard-pressed to find it in your heart to care for it. In my life, I seek out beautiful, natural places even in seemingly dense urban environments and so I have an innate draw to them but I can understand how someone may not feel drawn to nature if they never experience it.
A relatively recent idea is to build settlements that can maintain the population of people who want to live there and that also satisfy people’s natural affinity for natural areas. There are ethical guidelines reflected in the environmental wisdom and stewardship worldviews that can help you become more sustainable: do not deplete earth’s natural capital, do not waste matter and energy resources, protect biodiversity, repair ecological damage, and leave the earth in as good condition as it was found.
Other things to think about is limiting consumption. This is certainly difficult in a world focused on seeking happiness through materialistic means but it can be done if you remember that: one just because your friends have it does not mean you need it, two borrow consumer goods that you would ordinarily not think twice about buying and three avoid shopping for recreation and do not buy on an impulse. People can change, the difficulty is getting people on board.
There are those who are opposed to the idea that humans need to limit consumption and they tend to fall amid the planetary management worldview. To them, simply becoming more efficient by developing better technology will enable us to expand our resource indefinitely but I think that it is clear that we cannot spend so many resources without thought to others and endlessly consuming. It will be a challenge to rethink and change our ethical viewpoints, but it is necessary in order to save life on earth, and ourselves.