Academic journal article Trames

Values and Environmentalism

Academic journal article Trames

Values and Environmentalism

Article excerpt


The study aims to answer the question how various forms of environmentalism (ecological attitudes and self-reported ecological behaviors) are associated with the system of values. I will try to show how the value system functions as an organizer of different aspects of environmentalism. I intend to do it in two steps: first, presenting a critical review of a psychological theory of values and some empirical studies that relate it to environmental attitudes; and secondly, describing a specific case study and some original findings in the Estonian context.

Environment has become a widely recognized social problem since the 1970s (Brand 1997, Gardner & Stern 1996, Eder 1996, Redclift & Woodgate 1997, Rayner & Malone 1998). Since then, "social suggestions" (the term introduced by Valsiner 1998) from various sources have aspired to make certain changes in people's mentality and lifestyles in the environmentally friendly direction. These social suggestions are of two kinds: disseminating knowledge and information (based on the implicit model of rational agent); and propagating norms and values (based on the model of moral subject).

Environmental problems are complex, ambiguous and uncertain, ecological risks are often not directly observable, but are long-term and cumulative. Discourse of sustainability is eclectic, chaotic, biased and simplified in the media (Harre et al 1999), expert opinions are often contradictory. In such circumstances specific social regulators (norms, identities, values) may be the most feasible devices with the help of which the environment as a complicated and "invisible" phenomenon could be transformed into something subjectively meaningful. People have to rely on some consensual regulatory device in order to make sense of these problems and define their positions towards them.

In certain circumstances (e.g. information deficit, contradictory information or identities) values may become especially important. Several authors have argued that the relative importance of values in determining pro-environmental attitudes is greater than the role of objective ecological situation or knowledge about environmental issues (Nas 1995, Macnaghten & Urry 1998, Boehnke et al 1998).

This study departs from the assumption that values are one of these devices with the help of which individuals and groups regulate and organize their environment-related representations and activities, "translate" the discourse of sustainability into their everyday lives.

Values as regulative device

The concept of values is used in various social sciences and there is no consensus concerning the definition of this concept (over 180 different definitions of values have been found by van Deth & Scarbrough 1995:22).

In psychology values are traditionally conceptualized as individual (subjective) attributes, reflecting relatively stable intraindividual structures that organize behavioral and representational phenomena. In sociology values are conceptualized either as desirable social objects or as cultural level abstract regulative principles (prescriptive statements, norms, belief systems) that regulate social behavior: they are transindividual (intersubjective) phenomena that are related to the individuals belonging to groups. Values are also used as an analytical device for integrating macrosocial phenomena with individual attitudes and behavior (Van Deth & Scarbrough 1995:538).

The common feature of the great variety of different definitions is the notion of prescriptive character of values. Values function as an organizing and regulating device--either on the individual or on social level. The regulative aspect of values is predominant also in lay notion of values as revealed in public discourse. For example, some characteristics of value system ("lack of values") is habitually used as a rhetorical device for explaining dysfunctional events in society. …

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