«Annick Hedlund-de Witt Worldviews and the transformation to sustainable societies An exploration of the cultural and psychological dimensions of our ...»
As I will argue in section 1.3, the concept of worldview appears to be particularly relevant in our contemporary, late postmodern period, and the specific set of challenges and issues it is accompanied by. In my eyes, worldview is a concept ‘whose time has come,’ and its increasing appearance in the contemporary climate change and global sustainability debates (e.g. Beddoe et al., 2009; Hulme, 2009; O' Brien et al., 2010; Vonk, 2011) can be understood as both response to, and reflection of, the challenges of our time and the solutions they demand. One of the main arguments and premises of this dissertation is, consequently, that an understanding of worldviews has a major role to play in addressing our highly complex, multifaceted, interwoven, planetary sustainability issues. As Mike Hulme (2009) argues in his widely lauded book ‘Why we disagree about climate change,’ debates about climate change are disputes about ourselves—about our dreams, our fears, our assumptions, our identity—that is, about our worldviews. As Anaïs Nin famously phrased it, ‘we don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are’—and that also appears to be true for the issues of climate change and sustainable development.
As will be discussed in more detail below, there are several distinct reasons for exploring worldviews in the context of our global environmental and sustainability issues. In the first place, there is a need articulated by environmental philosophers, who, despite diverging positions on the subject, generally tend to see worldviews (and frequently the Western worldview) as ‘root-cause’ of our sustainability issues, and a profound change in them (or it) therefore as crucial to the process of forging solutions. Secondly, as many voices have argued, a change of individual lifestyles is an essential element in the transition towards more sustainable societies, and an understanding of worldviews appear to be of crucial importance in this process (see e.g. Du Nann Winter & Koger, 2004; Gifford, 2011; World Watch Institute, 2010). Moreover, as sociological research indicates (Inglehart, 1995; Inglehart & Welzel, 2005), profound shifts in worldview are already taking place, informing social and grassroots movements, environmental initiatives, democratic functioning, and societal change. Lastly, there are arguments from the perspective of environmental policy-making, as a critical reflection on the—often implicit— worldviews that policies are based on potentially helps to intercept less sustainable policy strategies and may form the starting point for more reflexive forms of governance (see e.g. Huitema et al., 2011; Voβ & Kemp, 2006), as well as creative processes for the seeking of new syntheses in policy-making (PBL, 2004, 2008). Thus, worldviews are increasingly—and from a host of different perspectives and disciplinary angles, such as philosophy, psychology, sociology, and political science—considered to be of vital importance in our timely quest for more sustainable societies.
Theoretical and empirical insight into worldviews therefore appears to be an essential element in approaches aiming to design and support more sustainable development paths for society. However, despite their apparent importance, worldviews tend to be underemphasized in the sustainability field (Hulme, 2009). Generally speaking, both academic and public environmental efforts have tended to approach environmental issues without much awareness or appreciation of the role played by interior perspectives—such as aesthetic experience, emotional responses, psychological dynamics, religious meaning, 3 ethical issues, and cultural values (Esbjörn-Hargens, 2010a). In the words of climate researcher and IPCC author Karen O’Brien (2010), “an emphasis on understanding climate change from an objective, systems perspective has downplayed the importance of subjective, interior dimensions of climate change, when in fact the integration of both aspects is needed” (p. 66).
Moreover, also as an academic field of study, the concept or construct of worldview is still very young. As Koltko-Rivera (2004) observes, there is to date no formal general theory of worldview available, and fundamental questions
concerning the concept abound:
What sort of construct is worldview? […] How are worldviews structured? […] Worldview theorists generally agree that worldviews affect behavior, but how precisely does this happen? […] Do worldviews affect basic processes of concept formation? Perception? Sensation? Or are worldviews farther “downstream” in the processes of cognition? […] Where does one go with worldview? What research is worth doing with the worldview construct? (p. 22) Although discussions of worldview-related subjects permeate the literature in the social sciences, notably in philosophy, sociology, psychology, and anthropology (see e.g. Kearney, 1975), this lack of formal, scientific theory challenges the systematic study and investigation of worldviews. An integrative, cross-disciplinary framework for understanding and exploring the comprehensive concept of worldview therefore appears to be highly useful, yet is still largely absent (see e.g. K. A. Johnson, Hill, & Cohen, 2011). Besides that, although worldviews have been investigated in the context of environmental and sustainability issues from a range of different disciplinary and theoretical perspectives, few approaches exist that empirically explore worldviews systematically and comprehensively. For example, as I will argue more extensively in chapter three, the New Environmental Paradigm scale—globally the most widely used metric to empirically explore worldviews and their interface with environmental issues (Dunlap, 2008)—falls short of this complex task for a number of reasons. Additionally, while a substantial amount of (longitudinal) research is conducted into how values and beliefs change across 4 different nations and societies (such as the World Values Surveys), the implications of these changes for our contemporary sustainability issues are generally not the object of study, nor are worldviews systematically explored in these efforts.
Finally, many authors argue that a profound change in the direction of a more reflexive, contemporary spiritual, re-enchanted, or integrative worldview is currently taking place in the contemporary West—a change that is likely to inform how the larger public understands, appreciates, and enacts sustainabilityissues (see e.g. Benedikter & Molz, 2011; Campbell, 2007; De Hart, 2011;
Heelas & Woodhead, 2005; Inglehart & Welzel, 2005; Partridge, 2005; B.
Taylor, 2010). However, despite its frequently argued great potential for sustainability, few studies actually explore the interface of such newly emerging worldviews with goals and issues of sustainable development.
The purpose of this dissertation, then, is to contribute to social-cultural transformation in the direction of more sustainable societies, by generating insight into the nature and structure of worldviews in the contemporary West and their interface with goals and issues of sustainable development.
In this chapter, I will first expand and clarify the central argument that worldviews are essential in the quest for sustainable societies, from the four major disciplinary angles used in this dissertation (see section 1.2). Then, I will formulate and define some of my key-terms, such as worldviews and sustainable development, as well as articulate the ‘research worldview’ or philosophical foundation that undergird this study (see section 1.3). In section 1.4 I will make the above-formulated aim more specific, by delineating it into five sub-aims, as well as formulating the research questions that need to be answered in order to fulfill these aims. In section 1.5, I will clarify my research design. I finish with a reading guide for the dissertation as a whole.
1.2 Why worldviews are essential in the transformation to sustainable societies I will now discuss in detail why worldviews are considered essential in the quest
for more sustainable societies, from four different, disciplinary vantage points:
philosophy, psychology, sociology, and political science. At the same time, these 5 perspectives can be seen as representing different levels of aggregation, from the reflection on the whole in philosophy, to the individual psychological and behavioral, the collective cultural and societal, to the institutional/political. Each of these perspectives plays an important role in this dissertation.
1.2.1 A philosophical perspective Environmental philosophers have for decades contended that in order to foster a more sustainable relationship with our planet, a change in worldview is urgently needed. In this line of reasoning, it is frequently the ‘materialistic,’ ‘reductionist,’ ‘disenchanted,’ and ‘dualistic’ Western worldview that is frequently understood to be at the very heart of environmental problems. Such ideas became widespread with the work of the historian Lynn White, who initiated this line of thinking in 1967 with his well-known but controversial article in Science, ‘The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis’.3 In this article White (1967) claimed the root-cause of environmental devastation to be Judeo-Christian theology, with its exploitative attitude towards nature and its influential imprint on the
development of science and technology:
3 Long before environmental pollution and devastation were widely recognized societal problems and White articulated his ideas, the Romantic Movement of the nineteenth century criticized modern civilization for being opposed to and in conflict with nature—as well as with the ‘natural human being’ himself, in a sense. This movement was the first broadcast expression of an ecological impulse. It was a reaction to the Enlightenment and the crude, dislocative, early years of the industrial revolution. The Romantics criticized mechanistic science, in which the all-powerful human being stood apart from—and above—nature, manipulating it for its own interests. They often reached back to an earlier, pre-industrial time that was not beset with the social and physical disruptions the Romantics found so disturbing in their own day, and which allowed for human sensitivity and individual spiritual fulfillment in a way in which the new world of industrial and political ferment did not.
Important expressions of the movement were Goethe’s naturphilosophie, English Romantic poetry (e.g. Wordsworth and Coleridge), and the American Transcendentalists (e.g.
Emerson and Thoreau). For most of them, nature was an aspect of God. Although ‘the call of nature’ was a commonly shared principle within the movement, the Romantics were in the first place individualists: “the immersion in nature was primarily a process of elevation of the human spirit” (Hay, 2002, p. 7). These Romantic ideas are still powerful in the cultural landscape of today, and have important implications for ecological issues and sustainable development (C. Taylor, 1989), as will be explored in more detail in particularly chapters four and five.
White’s ideas set off an extended debate about the role of religion and culture—and in a more encompassing sense worldviews—in generating and sustaining the West's anthropocentric and destructive attitude towards the natural world. Although his ideas were controversial and intensely debated, the central themes he put on the agenda—such as dominance over, and dualism with nature, an attitude of exploitation and objectification, a linear understanding of progress—have appeared in most of the philosophical analyses of environmental issues since then (see e.g. Calicott, 2011; Devall & Sessions, 1985; Duintjer, 1988; Lemaire, 2002; Naess, 1989; Plumwood, 1993; Wilber, 1995; Zweers, 2000). From this perspective, the dominant worldview—however precisely analyzed and characterized—is seen as a central barrier for the transition to a more sustainable society. Therefore, if we are to find solutions for our planetary challenges, we need to develop a different relationship to the natural world as well as a new conception of what it means to be human. Thus, these philosophers not only identified worldviews as important cause of our planetary issues, but a change in them also as crucial to sustainable solutions. Calicott (2011) refers to this needed change in worldview as a project of worldview remediation.
More generally, many authors emphasize the need for and value of a ‘paradigm-shift,’ a fundamental shift in the way humans interpret and give shape to their role in the larger whole (Benedikter & Molz, 2011; Berry, 2009; Laszlo, 2006; O' Brien et al., 2010; Tucker & Grim, 1994; Wilber, 2001). Some authors stress in this context the need for a new, more sustainable, social imaginary. A social imaginary is a broad understanding of the way a given people imagine 7 their collective social life (C. Taylor, 2004), which can be seen as a vital part of any worldview. The social imaginary appears to be particularly relevant, because a shared vision can facilitate and inspire the needed technological, institutional, political, economic, and cultural innovations (e.g. De Geus, 1996). That is, in order to realize a sustainable society and lifestyle, it first must become a real social imaginary (Frank, 2010). A compelling vision of what a sustainable society would look like, and how it would be experienced by the individuals participating in it, also appears to be essential to the important task of public communication and large-scale mobilization for sustainable solutions to our global issues (see e.g. Futerra, 2005, 2009; Moser, 2007; Moser & Dilling, 2007;
Schösler & Hedlund-de Witt, 2012). In addition, a critical reflection on worldviews may be instructive for the potential for innovation. As Boiral et al.
(2008) point out, operating from outside the confines of the dominant paradigm, one may prove to be more creative and innovative in the solutions one comes up with. Less embedded in the prevailing practices, traditions, beliefs, and institutions, one has the capacity to reflect on and question the dominant social paradigm, and may also be more inclined to develop original and creative environmental solutions.
1.2.2 A psychological perspective A change of behaviors in a more sustainable direction is generally considered to be of vital importance for realizing the urgently needed transition to a more sustainable society (Buenstorf & Cordes, 2008; World Watch Institute, 2008).