Environmental World Views

In my last post I discussed some new technologies that have the potential to significantly change our scientific perspective on nature that will most probably have revolutionary consequences when coupled with creativity, innovation, and time. Many factors like peak oil, decreasing biodiversity, ecosystem pollution, atmospheric destabilization, failing economies, exponentially increasing population, and resource degradation will continue to push humanity to adopt new strategies for interacting with the world. Not everyone has the same idea regarding strategy, though; we know we need to change fundamentally, but how we go about changing is still yet to be determined. Conflicts arise mostly from differing worldviews, or how a person thinks the world works and what they believe their role in the world should be. The perspective a person takes regarding the world is partly determined by an individual’s level of education and partly by a personal sense of environmental morality.

All perspectives lie within a continuum that can be represented with nested circles, or growth rings. The inner most circle represents a self-centered worldview, the next, human centered, then life centered, ecosystem centered, and finally Earth centered. You could blur the lines even more and start the continuum at self, move to family, then friends, then community, nation, religion, all people, all individuals in your species, some other species, all other species, ecosystems, biodiversity, and then finally the all-encompassing biosphere.

The graphical representation below describes some possible scenarios for the future (graph by David Holmgren in his book Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability; analysis coupled with information from the 16th edition of Living in the Environment: Concepts, Connections, and Solutions science textbook by Miller and Spoolman).

On the x-axis is time, on the y-axis is energy use, resource use, population, pollution, and waste. The 4 models shown are Techno-Fantasy, Green Tech, Descent Culture, and Crash.

‘Techno-Fantasy’ aka Planetary Management is the perspective that through technological innovation and human ingenuity, the population and it’s economy can continue to grow, use more energy and more resources to support more affluent lifestyles. This is usually coupled with a sense that we are apart from nature and are capable of managing and engineering nature to meet our needs and wants. Any success of future generations will depend largely on how we manage Earth’s systems to our benefit. This worldview would fall in the human-centered circle.

‘Green-Tech Stability’ or Stewardship is the idea that the goal of sustainability is to sustain the lifestyles that are currently in place in first world nations. By embracing strategies like clean renewable energy, we can maintain society’s level of consumption but in regenerative, recyclable ways. Usually this idea comes with the notion that it is our ethical responsibility as moral agents to protect the life systems on Earth, and future success depends on management of globalized, high-tech systems. On the continuum, this would fall under a Biocentric, or life-centered worldview.

Descent Culture’ aka Environmental Wisdom is the idea that future societies will have to ethically, creatively, and gracefully reduce their energy use, consumption, waste, and populations to be successful. This view usually goes along with the idea that we are not separate from nature, but rather we are a functionally interdependent species within a natural network, just as susceptible to the finite limit of resources as the other life forms on the planet. Therefore, it is in our best interest to work within nature, not attempt to manage nature. This view also suggests that the Earth does not need our management to sustain it; it is not about saving the planet because the planet does not need saving. (A point hilariously elaborated on by George Carlin, although, his view in its entirety would probably fall under “Crash”). The Descent Culture perspective suggests that we are highly adaptable creatures, and it is within human nature to attain symbiotic (mutually beneficial) relationships with other organisms on Earth. This view may fall under the ecosystem centered or Earth centered worldview upon the continuum. This is also where Deep Ecology and Permaculture stem from.

‘Crash’ is a pessimistic point of view, predicting that humans will not be able to adapt to their rapidly changing environmental conditions. This view suggests our prospects for future success on planet Earth is dismal, and considering strategies is futile. This worldview doesn’t lie on the continuum; it’s in its own Apathetic worldview class that would have humans join the ranks of the noble Dodo bird, Tyrannosaurus Rex, and the Irish Deer.

In my next post, I’ll introduce the ecological footprint, and see how these worldviews measure up to some hard numbers.

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