In this post we take a brief look at worldviews, the set of deeply rooted (and often unquestioned) attitudes and beliefs on which groups and individuals base decisions and opinions, and that basically guide their lives. The topic is relevant for understanding the backstage of our attitudes towards Nature and our fellow humans, including the all important question of how are we going to face the challenges of adaptation to the impending environmental changes in our world. As an interesting aspect of culture, the academic literature on worldviews is vast, and difficult to wade for this humble geoscientist. I have nevertheless found a very readable summary of these intricate matters in chapter 6 of the excellent book “Sustainability Science” by Bert de Vries . What follows are some notes and thoughts on my reading of this chapter. The topic is of course very closely related to that of the previous post “Myths of Nature“.
What is important for us? How do we see the world? What guides our actions and decisions? Why do different people and groups take different paths when confronted with basically the same information? Answers to these questions lie at the root of what individuals and societies value, and what they make of themselves and their environments. According to de Vries (2012), the problem boils down to the multiplicity of views on answering the question “what is quality of life?“. The author argues convincingly that modern materialistic science cannot give a complete and unambiguous answer to this question, and that an answer must by necessity also consider and integrate subjective aspects. As in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a set of elementary needs such as air, water, food and shelter, in sufficient quantity and quality, must be considered. But on top of these come other less obvious but crucial aspects of life, such as belonging, spirituality, connection and a sane environment. The relative importance of these aspects are more contentious among different people than the first group and, although they can be systematized and described, they are possibly not easily made compatible.
One way to look at these problems is through the Cultural Theory of Risk, summarized in the figure below. The idea of the chart is to plot worldviews in the four quadrants determined by two main dimensions: group, in the horizontal, representing how much people submit to the collective rules of the group; and grid, in the vertical, representing how much people feel constrained by hierarchy in society.
In this scheme, a fatalist worldview is that held by a person or group that is convinced that their fate is decided by the upper hierarchies of society and which they have little or no chance of changing. Fatalists see Nature and society as capricious sources of the troubles they endure, and for them the strategy of choice is finding ways to cope with this. The fatalist worldview is therefore represented by a ball rolling on a flat landscape. Fatalist have no regard for Nature in the large. They just live in the present, trying to cope with whatever toil life throws at them.
The hierarchist worldview represents that of groups that place faith in the existence of ruling organizations, as the state, and that are confident that the elites deciding the fate of society will know where to place the limits of stability. This worldview is therefore represented as a ball rolling in a local low, in which wise management of organizations will maintain forever. Hierachists see large organizations and their rules as the necessary and desirable way to solve sustainability problems.
The egalitarian worldview is dominated by the faith in community values and an unstructured society. Egalitarians see a fair distribution of costs and benefits as a necessary requisite for dealing with the inherent instability of the world (social and natural). Accordingly, the metaphor is a ball rolling on top of a hill, a metaphor for an unstable reality. Egalitarians distrust large organizations and trust to find solutions to sustainable development in smaller, less structured groups.
Lastly, the individualists lack strong attachment to both groups or hierarchies. The individualist sees the world as a generous and stable realm, with plenty of room for manoeuvre and profit. The metaphor for this worldview is a ball rolling on a basin, always returning to the bottom after a disturbance. Individualists place faith in human inventiveness and freedom, and distrust organizations, both large and small.
There is an interesting theoretical dynamics attached to this theory, in which there is a proposed evolution of ideas, where people and groups change worldviews leading to societal changes. These metaphors are useful and enlightening in a sense, but are of course not free of controversy or shortcomings.
In chapter 6 of “Sustainability Science” de Vries (2012) proposes a different scheme to classify worldviews. The author grounds his proposal in social science research suggesting that societal values can be expressed in two different main dimensions: an horizontal axis representing a gradient of validity from the universal to the particular; and a vertical axis representing a gradient of validity from the mental/spiritual to the bodily/material. The upper two quadrants represent worldviews sharing a common appreciation for immaterial values. To the right, leaning the the side of the particular lies the subjective idealist worldview, to the left, the absolute idealism worldview. The lower two quadrants represent worldviews that value the material over the spiritual: a modernist objective materialist worldview, and a postmodernist subjective materialistic view. These worldviews are depicted in the figure below:
In this scheme, the subjective idealist worldview values the uniqueness of each person, and even sentient being, and believes that there is a diversity in the interpretation of truth, whatever that may be. Groups endorsing this worldview tend to value wisdom, cooperation and small scale economies. Ideas such as deep ecology find a committed audience within these groups.
The absolute idealist view values and enshrines a set of perceived universal truths, as possibly the interpretation given by some leader, or that written in a sacred book, and aims for a large scale social order under these values. Adherents to this worldview tend to place faith in government or spiritual organizations, seeking social justice and a moral imperative that they perceive as universally valid. Ideas such as large regulatory bodies find a natural home within this worldview.
The modernist objective materialist wordlview is the currently dominant system of values in modern societies, particularly in the West: namely the idea that there exists an objective material truth that we can find through experiment and that is outside any human system of beliefs. The progress and benefits, but also many of the sustainability problems of modern society largely stem from the application of this worldview on a global scale.
Finally, the postmodern worldview combines the same material objective view of the previous one, but without the collective sphere of application, accepting the plurality and diversity of individual values and views. Adherents to this view might not be environmentally engaged on a global scale, and perhaps focus only narrowly on the local environment around them.
As with the previous theory, there exists a proposal for an interesting historical dynamics in these four worldviews, in the way the might rise within a region, change and eventually collapse.
Of course, every attempt to classify how and what groups of people think is a treacherous intellectual adventure. Rarely a person or group embraces a single worldview all the time, as expressed above. Evolution and maturation of ideas are also part of life. It is therefore no surprise that research on worldviews is fraught with difficulties, controversies and shortcomings. I nevertheless believe that some of these ideas contain valuable aspects worth considering when we try to understand how people look at things and act on common issues, particularly global environmental problems. Think, for example, on how many times we ascribe some social behaviour to ignorance, indolence or hypocrisy, when it might likely be the expression of some tacit worldview. Perhaps, posing social problems as conflicting worldviews helps us widen our perspectives, enabling us to achieve a deeper appreciation of how people think, feel and act.
Confronting the challenges of sustainability and global environmental change will somehow involve reaching some sort of global understanding, consensus and dialogue among a plethora of worldviews, not all of them compatible. The prospect of such a consensus is bleak, but still there is no excuse for inaction. Perhaps it will suffice with a generous dose of good will? personally, I choose to believe that this is not an entirely lost cause, and like to think that having a serious look at worldviews can be definitely contribute to find solutions to our global environmental challenges. What do you think?
 De Vries, Bert JM. Sustainability science. Cambridge University Press, 2012.