Nineteenth-Century American Life
The United States had incurred serious environmental problems that coincided with: the population of the Midwest, the decimation of Native American Indian tribes, the expansion of transportation and communication networks, the development of large metropolis, deforestation, and the growth of commercial farming and land and water use issues. The recognition of the seriousness of these problems promoted a new thinking that endorsed conservation and preservation activities throughout the nation, thus changing a precedent of exploitation towards increased environmental awareness and more sustainable practices.
20th Century Philosophy
The 20th century continued to foster the view that humanity was entitled to utilize nature’s abundance for its own betterment. Some pollution of the environment was deemed inevitable but justifiable as humans were considered the most evolved creatures in the hierarchy and favored by God to rule the Earth. Parallel to this thinking was the environmental movement saying that we are participants of creation and cohabitants of the Earth and that it is our responsibility to live in harmony with the biosphere and that we have no right to damage or destroy it.
21st Century Philosophy
Our present period of history, the 21st century, appears to support three main ideologies that govern our relationship with the natural world. Mankind is still perceived to be separate from nature and has the right to control and manipulate the environment for the purposes of humanity. Human beings tend to focus on their differences rather than on their common ground and thus tend to create conflict with each other. The pursuit of happiness is attributed primarily to the accumulation of power and material wealth.
Other issues that are concerning and relate to the three mentioned beliefs above include the persistence of nationalism, racism and sectarianism. Despite our current affinity to wilderness and our heightened focus on environmental education and preservation today, we continue to lead lifestyles that damage and diminish the world we purport to cherish.
The 21st century environmental movement has declared that we are living in a state of severe crisis and that a dramatic change in values and practices is the only way we can ensure the sustainability of humanity and the biosphere and avoid complete ecosystem collapse.
The Dominant Modern Western Worldview
A dominant worldview, (also called a social paradigm), is a collection of values, beliefs, habits and norms that distinguish the frame of reference of a given group of people. A worldview includes assumptions about reality that would include humanity’s relationship with nature, agreements on how to resolve human problems, assumptions and definitions of the goals of a society and a rationale for the validity of the worldview by experts in various disciplines. The general public is usually not involved in the creation or approval of a worldview and contradictions or non-resolvable problems are often explained away or not addressed at all. Opponents are also often discouraged from criticism and opposition and have even been persecuted for their input throughout history such as in the inquisition of 1484 by the Roman Catholic Church against Pagan religious beliefs.
William Catton Jr. and Riley Dunlap, sociologists, have summarized the four basic assumptions of our current western worldview.
- Human beings are fundamentally different from all other living entities on Earth and a status of superiority and domination is perceived as well.
- Humans perceive themselves as inventors or creators of their own destiny. This includes goal setting and learning what is necessary to achieve them.
- The biosphere is enormous and plentiful thus providing unlimited opportunities for humans to prosper.
- Progress is seen as a priority for humanity. All problems are within the realm of solvability especially if technology is intelligently applied, so progress as an ongoing historical process is assured.
Ecologist, David Ehrenfeld has contributed five corollaries to number four regarding progress and problem resolution.
- All problems are solvable.
- All problems are solvable through human endeavors.
- Technology can address most humanly derived problems.
- Problems not solvable by technology can be addressed through social institutions such as religion, philosophy, psychology, sociology, politics and economics.
- When crisis situations arise, humans will work together collectively to resolve those difficulties before it is too late.
We can see from this perspective that the world is perceived primarily in terms of being a collection of natural resources, that humans are superior to all other living creatures as well as to inert matter and that we have the right to dominate and exploit our habitat for exclusively human purposes. We also believe that humanity will prevail as a species and that no problem is too great to overcome.
William Catton, a sociologist, proposes a more extreme viewpoint.
- Humans have developed a cultural history that is supplementary and different from genetic inheritance. This makes us unique and unlike the flora, fauna and elements of the Earth.
- Culture is capable of unlimited variance and has a propensity for change that is far greater than that of biological traits.
- Human society has much influence over the development of many human characteristics, thus alteration of those characteristics is possible and undesired ones can be eliminated. Inborn behavior in nature takes longer to modify when change is needed.
- Societal development, being incremental, supports the notion that progress is limitless and all social problems are solvable.
Although these ideologies are prominent in Europe and North America, they are most articulated in the United States. These include a belief in the opportunity for social advancement; that the goal of living is for comfort and convenience; a propensity towards racism, and unfaltering faith in science, technology and progress. Individualism has been a driving force aimed at securing status and wealth as a sign of success and prosperity. There has been little or no mention of the value or quality of the natural world and its diversity of manifestations. This worldview has found its origins in religious anthropocentric assumptions, the market economy, capitalism and patriarchal oriented societies.
Oosthoek, K. Jan. “Environmental History: Between Science and Philosophy, The Philosophical Approach:Green History.” Environmental History Resources, 1 February 1999,
dlc.dlib.indiana.edu/dlc/bitstream/handle/10535/6328/philosophy.html?sequence=1&isAllowed=y. Accessed 31 May 2020.
Ponting, Clive. A Green History of the World, Ways of Thought, pp. 159-160. 1991, St Martin’s Press, NY.
“Romanticism.” Britannica, britannica.com/art/Romanticism. Accessed 31 May 2020.
Devall, Bill and Sessions, George. Deep Ecology: Living as if Nature Mattered, The Dominant Modern Worldview and Its Critics, pp. 41-48. 1985 by Gibbs M. Smith, Inc.