Understanding Environmental Values: A Cultural Theory Approach

Oct 10, 2000

At an October 2 Environmental Values Project seminar, Michael Thompson argued that the key to environmental policy is to put the decision making power in the hands of "clumsy institutions": institutions that cultivate a plurality of views and approaches. For more details, see the seminar paper (PDF: 42.6 KB, 10 pages) using the link at the bottom of this page. Thompson, who directs the Musgrave Institute in London, has produced several major works on cultural theory. He recently took part in an exhaustive study applying cultural theory to human choice and climate change.

A major finding of the climate change study was that to move the environmental debate forward, we should focus not on the environment itself but on the institutions handling environmental policy. They need to be clumsy enough to "muddle through" environmental challenges.

Thompson told an anecdote about a Scot of the Victorian period who was well known for his wit, the Reverend Sidney Smith. Thompson said that Smith saw two women shouting at each other from houses on opposite sides of an Edinburgh street. He remarked, "They will never agree; they are arguing from different premises!"

Likewise, said Thompson, today's environmental movement consists of four distinctly different premises:

  1. Individualists who think Nature can take anything we throw at her. They want to regulate the environment as little as possible.

  2. Egalitarians who believe our ecosystem is exceedingly fragile. They favor a concerted grassroots effort.

  3. Hierarchists who think that Nature is stable within certain discoverable limits. They want to regulate the environment from the top down.

  4. Fatalists who think Nature is capricious and has no clear principles. They want to defect first.

Thompson said that the healthiest governments and organizations see nothing wrong with allowing all four of these approaches to flourish at once. One of the best examples of this occurred last decade when several villages in the Himalayas had to protect their forests from avalanches. The solution was to switch from a private ownership model to an egalitarian model emphasizing the need to take collective action. Later, when their forests were again under threat from booms in mining and tourism, the villagers adopted a hierarchical approach, imposing laws against deforestation.

The Environmental Values Project is a multisite, multiyear collaborative attempt to explain and compare the role of values in environmental policy making in China, India, Japan, and the United States. The project is co-sponsored by the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs, the Research Center for Contemporary China (China), Center for the Study of Developing Societies (India), Lake Biwa Museum (Japan), and the Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology, University of Arizona (United States).

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