Environmental Ponderings-19

People and Environmental Problems

Environmental problems?

Why do we have environmental problems? There is a very glib answer to this question, and that is because of people. However, it is more complicated than that because people are all different.

Environmental Worldviews

I clarified my thoughts when I was introduced to the concept of differing environmental worldviews. Your environmental worldview is your set of assumptions and values concerning how the natural world works and how you think you should interact with the environment.

Personal Perspectives

Once you begin to think about that from your own personal perspective, you realise that there are many of those assumptions over which you have no control. For example, perhaps you feel that you don’t want to drink water that contains chlorine. Suppose you live in the city and you are reasonably well off. In that case, you can choose to buy spring water or install water filtration and reverse osmosis equipment on the inflow point of your municipal water supply. However, suppose you are poor, unemployed, and live in a supported informal settlement. In that case, you do not have the choices or opportunities to choose anything other than the water supply provided to you, which probably contains chlorine.

Choices or Circumstances?

You may also not be able to make a set of values and assumptions because your education is limited and you don’t know what options you have and the consequences of these options.


The viewpoints that one could begin to develop around these thoughts could take several books to explore and discuss from all of the various social, political, ethical and moral stands. I don’t have the space to do that here. However, I can pose a number of questions to the readers of this publication to allow them to consider which set of assumptions and values they are currently following and if there are changes that could be made which could materially benefit the environment.

Environmental Ethics

A good starting point when thinking about one’s assumptions is to consider the environmental ethics behind what you do, or don’t do. Consider some of these fundamental ethical questions and write down your answers in bullet point form on paper.

  • Why should we care about the environment?
  • Are we the most important species on the planet, or are we just another one of the earth’s millions of life forms?
  • Do we have an obligation to see that our activities do not cause the extinction of other species? If so, should we try to protect all species or only some? How do we decide which to protect?
  • Do we have an ethical obligation to pass the natural world on to future generations in a condition that is as good or better than what we inherited?
  • Should every person be entitled to equal protection from environmental hazards, regardless of race, gender, age, national origin, income, social class, or any other factor? (You might recognise this as containing some of the basic tenets of environmental justice.)
  • Should we seek to live more sustainably, and if so, how?

Groupings of environmental worldviews

You may find that your answers will fall into one, or a combination of, three major groupings of environmental worldviews. They are: –

  1. A Human-centred environmental worldview

This world view sees the natural world as a support system for human life. Two sub-sets of this are, a planetary management worldview and the stewardship worldview. Both sub-sets suggest that humans are separate and in charge of nature, and humans should manage nature for their benefit. Any depletion or degeneration of natural resources or ecosystems should be managed using human, technical ingenuity to find a substitute.

  • A Life-centred environmental worldview

This worldview states that all species have value in fulfilling their particular role within the biosphere, regardless of their potential or actual use to humans. Underlying the life-centred worldview is the belief that humans have ethical responsibilities to avoid hastening the extinction of species through human activity.

  • An Earth-centred environmental worldview

This third worldview suggests that we are part of and dependent upon nature and the earth’s natural capital for all species, not just humans. This view suggests that human economic success and the long term survival of cultures depend upon learning how life on the earth has sustained itself for billions of years. The lessons learned need to be integrated into the ways humans think and act.

What about those that don’t have an environmental worldview?

It could be argued that those without an environmental worldview are working to different life agendas. Those agendas may be driven by money, religion, power or other different philosophies. The assumption here is that you have some form of environmental worldview, and you are following it to a greater or lesser degree. Perhaps the following questions could be posed to find out if you are doing enough to sustain your environmental worldview, and is there more that you could be doing?

  • Are environmental problems getting better or worse?
  • Am I satisfied with the answer to the first question?
  • Can I do anything to change that…if it needs changing?
  • Can I influence others to consider what their environmental worldviews are?
  • Has writing down the bullet point responses to the environmental ethical questions made me think further about my environmental worldview?

Arend Hoogervorst is an environmental scientist with 40 years of experience in South Africa in environmental management and sustainable development in local and central government, commerce and industry and private practice.

© Arend Hoogervorst, 2021.