Worldivews and environmental values: introductory lecture

Worldview:  A Definition

Here is a definition of worldview from Walter Wink’s essay in Sacred Stories, (edited by Simpkinson and Simpkinson)According to Wink, a worldview is “an implicit or explicit philosophy of the nature of reality…  Generally, worldviews are invisible.  Their ‘picture’ fits the reality they depict sufficiently well that no one notices the inevitable discrepancies.  One’s worldviews appears to be reality.  Our time is unusual in that we have become aware that there are a variety of worldviews competing for our allegiance.”  (p. 210)   A parallel definition of worldview came out of a recent international conference held at Oberlin College whose goal was to develop a practical vision of environmental health and social justice: “Worldview is a belief system held by an individual, community or society that explains the world around us and our experiences and role in that world.”

This course is a cross-cultural exploration of this “variety of worldviews”– in terms of their connections to environmental values.

Environmental Values

See the Appendix for this course, for an example of contemporary environmental values drawn up recently by a network of scientists and environmentalists (“The Blue Lake Mountain Statement of Values”).  As we proceed with this class, you will often be asked to discuss specific values:  use the “contrasting worldviews” outline from our blackboard readings to find and these. There is an extensive discussion of indigenous worldviews in Suzuki and Knudtson, pp. 14-20 (Wisdom of the Elders), as well as a definition of the type of society that might be termed “indigenous” (or belonging to First Peoples), in pp. 9-11.

One added note:  human cultures are complex affairs. This is only a schema of contrasts.  I can think of no society that falls absolutely—and certainly, no society whose members all fall into one category or the other. However, it is certainly true that particular cultures predispose their members to act according to one of these worldviews more than the other.

Below is a sample of worldview and values contrasts.  You will notice that there are particular values associated with each of these worldviews. An excellent definition of a value, for the purposes of this class, is this:  “a value is a standard, a desired way of thinking, of acting, of living.”[i]  This definition is found in an article on using Native American pedagogy (Objibwe):  see the footnote at the end of this discussion for the online article in which it is found.

Worldview I                                                       Environmental Values

The natural world is a seamless                                                  Sharing, cooperation, reciprocity

whole; all its aspects are interconnected

and interdependent

Nature is the Great Mystery                                                       Respect, reverence, thanksgiving

Animals and plants have souls                                                    Empathy, kinship

as do human beings

                         Worldview  II                                                 Environmental Values

The natural world is a collection of discrete parts                         Objectification, individualism

seen in terms of function

The “survival of the fittest”; the natural world is                          Competition; those at the top have

hierarchical and based on domination                                the right to use the rest of nature


Here is a detailed outline of worldviews and environmental values.

Worldviews and Social Structure

As they are commonly expressed, worldviews are social understandings of reality.  As Suzuki and Knudtson point out, Western science also relies on social consensus.  The ability for other scientists to replicate an individual scientist’s work is an essential criterion of scientific validity.  However, there is also another aspect to the relationships between scientific endeavor and social consensus.  Underlying any scientific endeavor is the worldview of scientists themselves, which directs the selection and analysis of their data.  As Thomas Kuhn points out in his historical study of Western science, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Western scientists have classically ignored data that does not jive with their cultural paradigm until there is a historical shift in that paradigm—a shift, that is, in worldview.  Only then have Western scientists historically begun to “see” the data they previously neglected.

Social Ecologists focus on the ways in which we treat the natural environment and the ways in which we treat one another are related.
Just as it is important for scientists to understand ways in which their worldviews influence their work, it is important for each of us to develop a critical understanding of the ways in which our worldview influences the values and choices in our lives.  As stated above, worldview is unspoken and assumed—and seems commensurate with reality itself.  The benefit of the cross-cultural perspective is that it allows us to step outside of this “reality” to gain perspective on our own cultural assumptions.  Gaining such perspective is essential if we are to understand our own human heritage— as well as our own human possibilities.  The worldviews of indigenous surveyed in Suzuki and Knudtson represent some 99 per cent of the cultures on earth since we have become human.  In the 1960’s (before the recent explosion of human population), these egalitarian, peaceful and long-lived First Peoples also represented 99 per cent of the world’s historic human population.  Here is another perspective.  The Industrial Revolution, which is interconnected with so much of the contemporary Western worldview, took place only six generations ago– whereas the tenure of humanity on earth has been 36,000 generations.  In the “Ecofeminist Manifesto”, in Hogan, and in Suzuki and Knudtson, you will read several examples that contrast worldviews belonging to colonial, military-based, or “dominating” societies with those belonging to “partnership” or indigenous societies.

The worldviews of First Peoples that Suzuki and Knudtson present are an essential part of our human heritage.  They also model our possibilities for environmental sustainability.  In the Willamette Valley, Native Americans had continuous and sustainable interactions with their environment for several thousand years.  I want to emphasize my use of the term interaction here.  Whereas a romantic or idealized image of indigenous cultures might assume they met an environmental goal of non-interference with nature, all human societies change their environment in their interaction with it.  The question for environmental ethics is how they change it.  A parallel romanticized idea is that all “technology” is bad and that we should return to some pre-technological state.  In point of fact, it is impossible to return to pre-technological state.  Technology simply means tool, and all human societies (and many non-human ones) use tools.  In terms of environmental values, the essential question is not whether to use tools at all, but what kinds of tools we use—and how we use them.


Worldviews, Environmental Values, and Pragmatic Results

Obviously, no cultural values are unilaterally followed by their members.  But we can say that particular worldviews and the environmental values that flow from them lead to very particular results in the treatment of the environment. With respect to indigenous peoples, we can cite the results of human interaction with the environment by a few local examples.  The oak savannas that dominated the Willamette Valley in the early 1800’s were maintained by careful burning techniques of Native Americans.  The camas (a native lily) prairies were so predominant on the pioneers’ arrival in the valley that the pioneers termed them “camas lakes”, since their rich profusion of blue blossoms looked like the shimmering of water.  The actions of Native women helped create this abundance of camas by their centuries of the careful digging of camas roots in a way that spread them at the same time.

All human societies have changed their landscapes through their interaction with them.  But such changes do not necessarily work to the detriment of the environment.  Peter Boag, author of Environmental and Experience, has done considerable work on the history of the Willamette Valley in Oregon.  From close attention to the Kalapuya ecological practices, he concludes that “the early settlers did not tame a wilderness, they inherited a park”.  William Robbins, in the first part of his book, Landscapes of Promise, also speaks to the results of the interaction between native peoples and their environments throughout what is now Oregon State.  Both of these authors address the ways in which influence of native peoples on the local environments led to increasing diversity and variety of natural animal and plant species.  Basically, their activities were aimed at encouraging habit in which natural communities could flourish.

 Malcolm Margolin, from his extensive work with Native Americans in Northern California, concludes that it is possible for human life to be a “blessing on the land”, increasing, rather than decreasing its diversity, fertility, and beauty.  Whether or not we achieve this, in turn, is based on the environmental values derived from our worldviews.  The First Peoples of Northern California respected the natural world as their teacher and judge, and believed firmly in the kinship of all living things.  They acted accordingly, and the Northern California environment white explorers came upon show us, Margolin states, a “view of humanity as not living apart from, or being destructive to the natural world.”  The following quotes were collected by Margolin and cited in his “A Blessing on the Land: the Cultivated Landscape of Native America” (from Bioneers Conference, l998):

George Vancouver, description of the Santa Clara Peninsula, in 1780’s:

We arrived at a very pleasant and enchanting lawn situated amid a grove of trees at the foot of a small hill by which flowed a find stream of excellent water… we entered a country I didn’t expect to find in these regions.  For about twenty miles, it could be compared to a park… the underwood that had probably attend its early growth had the appearance of having been cleared away and had left the stately lords of the forest in complete possession of the soil, which was covered with luxuriant herbage, grasses and beautifully diversified with pleasing eminence and valleys.

George Yount, l833, description of the Napa Valley:

It was more than anything a wide and extended lawn, exuberant in wild oats and the place for wild beasts to lie down in.  The deer, antelope, and the noble elk held quiet and undisturbed possession of all that wide domain.  The above-named animals were numerous beyond all parallel, and herds of many hundred, they might be met so tame that they would hardly move to open the way for the traveler to pass.  They were seen lying or grazing in immense herds on the sunny side of every hill, and their young like lambs frolicking in all directions.  The wild geese and every species of water fowl darkened the surface of every bay and firth, and upon the land in flocks of millions they wandered in quest of insects and cropping the wild oats which grew there in the richest abundance.

When disturbed, they arose to fly.  The sound of their wings was like that of distant thunder.  The rivers were literally crowded with salmon.  It was a land of plenty and such a climate as no other land can boast of.

Thomas Mayfield, in the San Joaquin Valley in l850:

As we passed below the hills, the whole plain was covered with great patches of rose, yellow, scarlet, orange and blue… some of the patches of one color were a mile or more across…  Several times we stopped to pick the different kinds of flowers and soon we had our horses and packs decorated with masses of all colors.

M. Kat Anderson, in her book, Tending the Wild, Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources, provides extensive research on the environmental practices that were the outgrowth of indigenous values not only in California, but throughout North America, and—as we shall see in our own readings—in the world. In her words, “Through coppicing, pruning, harrowing, sowing, weeding, burning, digging, thinning and selectively harvesting” in a “sophisticated” fashion, Native Californians “allowed for sustainable harvest…over centuries and probably over thousands of years” (p. 1).  As our readings in Suzuki and Knudtson indicate, indigenous societies lived in close day to day contact with the results of—and responsibility for– their actions on the natural world.  From an indigenous point of view, there might be hard choices to be made in this respect.  But it was the responsibility of human beings to learn from the consequences of their actions—and change their behavior accordingly. Carol Sanchez (in “Animal, Vegetable, and Mineral”) and Scott Momaday (in “A First American Views his Land”) assert that indigenous environmental values are not a “given”, but are developed over generations of critical observation of the results of human interactions with particular landscapes.  In Gaviotas, you will be reading a special kind of adventure story about a human contemporary human endeavor that was also “a blessing on the land”.

Modern indigenous activism in protection of their lands has resulted in numerous important environmental results including the Igorot (Philippines) battle against giant dams, halting of drilling in the Arctic National Refuge to which the Gwich’in contributed substantial leadership, indigenous campaigns in Ecuador and Nigeria against oil drilling by Chevron, and the reversal of forced removal of the San from their ancestral Kalahari Desert, where they had been opposing diamond mining.  Not incidentally, one group of the San people were the subject of a seminal ecological study by Richard Lee, indicating the longevity, health, nutritional health and minimal labor that sustained their way of life in partnership with their land. As this indicates, many Indigenous peoples lived strikingly well, with less labor-intensive (and longer) lives than modern Westerners.

In the American west, tribes have won modern suits allowing them to protect water resources, such as the San Luis Water Case (1976-1985) governing water flowing through six reservations, and the case of the Mohave Chemechuevis. The latter was precedent setting in that it won the standard of the most stringent (cumulative) assessment in setting water quality standards for the Colorado River.  In Washington State, when state funds dried up for the employment of resource professionals, tribes hired them, making tribes collectively the largest employer of natural resource professionals in the state.

In South America, indigenous peoples have fought the ravages of globalization on traditional lands in Brazil, Ecuador, Uruguay, Venezuela, Peru, and Bolivia.  In the latter, an indigenous farmer Evo Morales has become president and is instituting indigenous values in the state administration.  In Ecuador, the Pachamama (Pachamama is the local indigenous name for the sacred life-giving qualities of nature) organization, an NGO begun at the behest of local indigenous elders lobbied for the current constitution, which asserts the rights of Pachamama (nature) and gives legal standing to suits filed to protect natural systems. (A choice points assignment focuses on this constitution).

Indigenous peoples today live in the areas of concentrated natural resources (often because contrasting industrialized areas have drawn out all their own resources) and biodiversity (because their own ecological strategies encouraged biodiversity). Thus the UN has issued a statement affirming the importance of “biocultural” diversity underscoring the ways in which cultural and ecological diversity are linked.  Sadly, as a result of misplaced globalization efforts (which have extracted natural resources from indigenous lands) and several centuries of colonialism, these peoples are the poorest of the poor—and are often under substantial pressure to give up their traditional environmental values for the sake of survival.  Still, many resist, at the same time offering new models for environmental standards to modern industrialized cultures such as those cases indicated above.  For years the Onondaga people of upstate New York have pushed their legal suit for rights to the land, not to take possession of it from its current owners, but to assume legal status needed to protect it—and especially their sacred lake which is highly polluted as a result of industrialization.

After a persistent campaign of over two decades, a broad cross-cultural coalition won a wide ranging proclamation from the United Nations in 2007. This “UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples” affirmed indigenous rights to self-determination (including self-governance), cultural diversity and religious freedom, and control over the disposition of their lands and national resources.  This document sets new legal standards in its assertion of the land rights of whole communities instead of individual property owners. Though it has no means of enforcement, it upholds standards supportive of the ecological concept of the shared “commons” that we all need for survival (such as air and water) and of public trusteeship of these commons. For your careful reading points in this lesson, place a statement in bold font at the end of your first assignment that states what most surprised you about the material in this lesson discussion.

For additional  information on indigenous peoples and the environment, see your readings: and

History tells us that the results of human interactions with the land are matters of knowledge and values.  Indigenous worldviews and their results were not “utopian”, but rather they were learned over time, as intimacy with their lands grew.  Indeed, when those same indigenous Californians were themselves migrants newly come to the lands on which they would spend thousands of years, there is evidence they over harvested particular resources.  However, after generations of residence here, their cultural values, religious ideas, ethical constraints, their songs, stories and ceremonies, all mitigated against such overuse whose possibilities they thoroughly understood. (Anderson, p. 8).

Native environmental knowledge was founded on values which cast the human relationship with the land in terms of partnership; a “familial” intimacy which Anderson argues would serve us well in natural resource management today (p. 362). But though indigenous knowledge of the land was expressed differently from our own scientific knowledge, its goals and results were equally concrete and pragmatic.  At the mouth of the Columbia River, Anson Dart, the first Indian Agent in this area, wrote to Congress that the Chinook Indians would not sign the treaty proposed by the Americans unless the latter removed their salmon cannery.  Although the American pioneers assumed salmon resources were so abundant they could never be depleted, the Chinook protested that fishing them as that cannery did (allowing virtually none to go upstream to spawn) would deplete those runs in short order.  Congress dismissed this idea, not because it was scientifically evaluated, but because the United States did not have to pay attention, as Congressman Sam Houston put it, to such “militarily insignificant” tribes.  We see here an example of the way in which the worldview of domination curtailed the transmission of important environmental knowledge between the United States and Native Americans.

To give another example, though expressed in ways in which American pioneers were not used to—in stories– native geology was quite sophisticated.  Stories told explorers in the 1840’s contained information about local volcanic eruptions, as well as the ways in which certain land formations were due to glacier melting at the end of the last Ice Age.  But in 1840, our own science had some catching up to do.  It took several decades for American geology to understand the results of volcanoes and the recent Ice Age on the Willamette Valley landscape.  Today, we are able to grasp the geological knowledge contained the native stories that settlers thought merely fanciful in the mid-1800’s.  Both this example and the one above show us the importance of looking carefully at the indigenous environmental understandings Suzuki and Knudtson cite– even if that understanding is expressed in ways we do not see as “factual” in the context of our own worldview.

As we enter our cross-cultural survey of worldviews and environmental values, we should be aware of another roadblock to gaining perspective on our own cultural views – that is, the Western worldview derives from a colonizing social context.  Aside from the notable exception of the “partnership” cultures of Old Europe (3000 years B.C.) that Callicott mentions, the predominant cultural context of Western history is one of social stratification and conquest.  The worldview of domination deriving from this is what caused the dismissal of the Chinook warning to Anson Dart in 1846— based on the assumption that conquerors have nothing to learn from those they conquer.  The worldview of domination has been entangled in the development of Western philosophy since its inception.  Aristotle, a seminal thinker in Western philosophy, was also military advisor to Alexander the Great.  At the same time that he classified the natural world into categories for scientific analysis, he postulated categories of human beings, who had different types of “souls”, present at birth, which mimicked the social classes to which they were assigned.  The Athenian democracy, in its “rule by the people”, was only the rule of those who had “human” status– and thus it excluded women, farmers, laborers, slaves, and peoples colonized by the Greeks.  Since for Aristotle one’s true soul “soul” reflects one’s social standing, a good portion of his political philosophy was taken up with how to prevent revolution among unhappy Greek subjects.  In looking at Aristotle’s work, we should certainly look at the complexity of Aristotelian natural philosophy (as discussed in Callicott) — and assess a philosopher’s ability to transcend his or her social context.  We also cannot ignore the fact that Aristotle’s thinking is an ancestor both of the classificatory system of contemporary Western science and of Western social thinking that expresses such license for social domination as “the cream rises to the top.”

Judeo-Christian ideas were developed in the context of a worldview that saw reality in terms of hierarchical splits between human/nature and spirit/nature.  If Jewish and Christian religious movements sought to transcend their social reality, they also arose in the context of it. This has given rise to the environmental ethics interpreted in radically different ways— as Callicott points out.  We can interpret that worldview as either supporting or contradicting the social order from which it historically derived (and thus giving a broader spiritual alternative). Many Christians today hold to the stewardship interpretation.  However, a very different stance, the “despotic” one (p. 15) uses its own biblical interpretation as justification for a dominating worldview—and the social and environmental behavior that flow from this. By contrast, yet a third Christian view, the “citizenship” interpretation (p. 17—see also Matthew Fox’s work for presentation of this perspective as a historical component of Christian philosophy) offers an explicit critique of hierarchy.  It is this interpretation which founds the egalitarian perspective of those Christians and Jews whose faith led them to risk their personal safety in the Civil Rights struggles in the 1950’s or in witnessing on behalf of torture victims in contemporary Central America.  This interpretation of the Judeo-Christian worldview, which sees all humanity as members of a single family, has sometimes been extended to the natural world, resonating with the idea of the “kinship of all life” among indigenous peoples: “All Nature is the language in which God expresses his thought.”  (WR Inge, Christian Mysticism).  And from Celano’s letter to the Romans regarding Francis of Assisi:  “He was wont to call all created things his brother and sisters”.

Here is a contemporary quote from a recent proclamation by Bartholomew I, current leader of 250 million Greek Orthodox Christians:

For humans to cause species to become extinct and to destroy the biological diversity of Gods’ creation… these are sins…  How we treat the earth and all of its creation defines the relationship that each of us has with God.  It is also a barometer of how we view one another.  …We must be the spokespeople for an ecological ethics that reminds the world that it is not ours to use for our convenience.  It is God’s gift of love to us and we must return that love by protecting it and all that is in it.

Bartholomew issued a joint statement with Pope John Paul II  stating: “We make an appeal that everyone will make a determined effort to solve the current burning problem of ecology, in order to avoid the great risk threatening the world today due to the abuse of resources that are God’s gift.”

The current Pope Benedict has recently issued an edict declaring the emergency imperative of “listening to the earth”, which is the reservoir of the “natural law” which forms a guideline for human conscience.  Interestingly, this idea of natural law has parallels in the “laws of creation” recognized by many indigenous peoples.

The citizenship view of Christianity is the closest Christian stance to the “partnership” stance found in many indigenous traditions:  the idea, that is, that humans should develop an equal partnership with the natural world in their dealing with it.  Both Christian theologian Matthew Fox and native writer Paula Gunn Allen have also termed this “co-creation”: expressing the idea that humans, as an intimate part of the Creator’s world, should be immersed in the natural world in such a way as to add their own creativity to its own exquisite unfolding.

Among many Christians, as among many of the Palestinian Muslims I taught at BirZeit University, homage toward the Creator led both to social responsibility toward one’s fellows (since God created us all as part of the human family) and humility rather than domination with respect to the natural world.  As an example, the Islamic ban against representational images of the natural world in art (which only God has a right to express) illustrates such humility.  In this context, many Islamic traditions mandate the treatment of non-human animals with the respect consonant to the treatment of humans—and cruelty to animals is a legally punishable offense.

Whether one interprets religious worldviews as supporting or critiquing the social context in which they arose, one cannot ignore that social context in understanding them.  At the very least, the examples above warn us against dismissing non-Western worldviews as lesser, backward, or “primitive” merely on the basis of their difference from Western beliefs.

[i] Grover, L.L. “Are You Teaching Them Anything Yet? Auntie Carol’s Advice, Given in True Ojibwe Oral Tradition, As a Guide to Embedding American Indian Pedagogy into American Indian Studies Classrooms.” Bemaadizing Spring 2008. [retrieved 12.23.08].

Related Essays for discussion:


Social ecology

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