A Heuristic for Considering the Diversity of Environmental Values and Ethics

A Heuristic for Considering the Diversity of Environmental Values and Ethics

Ronald B. Meyers

University of Chicago

"A Heuristic for Considering the Diversity of Environmental Values and Ethics"


This article describes a portion of a larger research project to develop a heuristic and set of psychometric scales to carefully and broadly consider and measure beliefs in environmental knowledge, values, ethics, and support for environmental protection. This article focuses upon the heuristic, that: 1) provides a set of terms and concepts todistinguish a broad range of environmental values and ethics (twelve types of environmental ethics are defined) ; 2)can be used to increase self-awareness of environmental values and ethics; 3) supports value clarification efforts by those in conflict mediation by helping to identify divergent and convergent environmental beliefs; 4) supports researchers, byproviding philosophically based methods to systematically distinguish different aspects of environmental values and ethics.The heuristic contains seven general primary steps that explore nineteen different dimensions of beliefs about the environment, from knowledge of ecological interdependence, to belief in capacity to suffer, a variety of value beliefs, moral obligations, and support for environmental protection.

Biographical Notes

Ron Meyers, Ph.D., is a Lecturer and Research Associate and the University of Chicago, in the Harris Graduate School of Public Policy, and the Environmental Studies Program.


A Heuristic for Considering the Diversity of Environmental Values and Ethics


The heuristic contains seven general primary steps that explore nineteen different dimensions of beliefs about the environment, from knowledge of ecological interdependence, to belief in capacity to suffer, a variety of value beliefs, moral obligations, and support for environmental protection. This paper discusses a heuristic for considering environmental values and ethics[1]. While it is still a work in progress, it has been of assistance to this researcher in exploring and systematically comparing the almost bewildering diversity of environmental values that people hold, the various descriptions ofvalues generated by researchers, where these values converge or diverge, and their relationship to environmental protection. It is hoped that the heuristic will be of use for individuals who wish to explore their beliefs, values, and ethics by using a method that does not judge the normative correctness of the beliefs, but will support the comparison of individual beliefs to a variety of environmental ethical beliefs. For researchers and policymakers, it provides a method for systematically comparing several important dimensions of environmental beliefs, values, ethics, and policy. I do not claim that the nineteen dimensions described are a complete list of the dimensions of environmental values. Nor does this work begin to capture the diverse personal characteristics argued to be important to the formation of these values. It is not a model of how to predict environmental behavior, as such models need to include exogenous variables such as the barriers to conducting such actions, as so skillfully shown by Fransson and Garling (1999). Rather, the heuristic can support the efforts of educators and researchers to have a method for conceptually and empirically comparing various theories of the relationship of knowledge, beliefs, values, ethics, and support for environmental protection.

Over the several years that the heuristic has been in development, it has increasingly provided this researcher with the ability to systematically evaluate and compare theories of education and curricula to identify important value components, and assess their plausibility, suitability or acceptability for my research goals. Since it was initially shared, a number of educators and researchers suggested it provided similar utility for their work, and kindly suggested it be prepared for publication. Thus, it is hoped that educators with a wide variety of positions concerning environmental values will find the heuristic helpful.

The heuristic began in response to a research question that arose in response to an idea, extant among many concerned with protecting the environment, seemingly a clarion call to many: namely, that we need to change our environmental values in order to protect the environment. This idea occurs in many forms, arguably inspired by a significant body of powerfully written prose, from noted authors such asMuir, Leopold, Naess, and Rolston, a distinguished list of environmental philosophers. To this list I must add Cliff Knapp, our own field's eminent environmental ethicist and educator. Their written works are primarily conceptual analyses of ideas that are intended to reveal their beliefs about the morally right relationship of people to their environment, conducted to change our beliefs and behavior towards the environment, and to improve the environment itself, by considering our beliefs about environmental values and ethics. It is entirely reasonable that these ideas, if they are to be justifiable as guides for our efforts in environmental education, should be able to withstand rigorous inquiry.

As I studied environmental education and policy, the subject of environmental values and ethics appeared so frequently that it appeared necessary to me to investigate what these writers, and others, meant, so I could rely upon ideas that have a reasonable degree of certainty for helping us to achieve our goals of protecting the environment. Literally thousands of journal articles and books have been written on the subject, challenging researchers who seek to conduct "due diligence" on what has been proposed before we seek to make our contributions. It has been eye-opening, and quite valuable, to find the depth and breadth of a significant body of scholarly inquiry occurring in other fields, such as psychology, sociology, environmental ethics, political science, and public policy, among other fields and disciplines. This academic interest includes the development of numerous research projects and works in recent decades concerning environmental values that have established the study of environmental values and ethics as an area of inquiry in many fields. One aspect of this line of inquiry investigates the relationship of beliefs in environmental values and ethics and support for environmental protection. Here, Ido not intend to argue for which beliefs are morally correct to hold, or what theory of values and their relationship to environmentally responsible behavior we ought to follow. There are a striking diversity of beliefs about what is the morally correct treatment of the environment, a clear need for additional terms to describe this diversity, and tools to organize these beliefs in a way that helps us to compare and understand them.

One aspect of this paper is an attempt to more usefully conceptualize values and their relationship to environmental quality. This is achallenging task, given the body of work that precedes this effort. It is a task of import, given the consequences that occur as a result of our beliefs about the relationship. In many organizations, we attempt to change behavior or beliefs based upon some model of what beliefs people need to have in order to obtain the behaviors we want them to do. In this paper, we I use the term "education" I include all of efforts intended to change belief, or affect. Given the enormous personal, organizational and societal resources expended in educational efforts, what we, as educators, believe about the relationship of environmental knowledge, beliefs, and values to environmental behavior guide our choices about how to spend our time and effort. The sum of our efforts are enormous, in time, money and personal effort, hence the care taken here to develop methods to support research and evaluation of these complicated concepts.

We first need to briefly review the history of environmental education, focusing on how the field of environmental education has treated environmental values, and how the heuristic can help address the challenge of developing new concepts and approaches to considering values.

While the author holds a pragmatic epistemology (as well as philosophies of education and research) the heuristic itself is designed to explore personal beliefs about values, the environment, and their relationship, so it would be useful for those with a range of epistemological beliefs, from positivists to postmodernists.


Environmental Education

Historical Roots of Environmental Education

The history of environmental education provides insights into the development of increased interest in the profession in different types of environmental values, thus helping to establish the context of this study. Roth, Cantrell, and Bosquet (1980) identified four educational movements in the 20th century that significantly influenced the development of environmental education: nature study, conservation education, progressive education, and science education. They explained that nature study arose from concern with teaching methods that emphasized memorization, books and lectures, and isolation from nature, leading to efforts to teach about the natural world in outdoor settings. They noted that the conservation movement arose out of concern for protecting human well being from the adverse effects from environmental abuse, clearly implying that it is human life that is of primary concern, and that the environment is to be protected to assure human survival. These environmental concerns about misuse of soil, rangelands, forests, and wildlife, led to programs to teach conservation practices that would protect the environment in order to improve human welfare. They stated that John Dewey's work to develop the progressive education movement resulted in curriculum that met children's needs both for direct experience with the their world, and consideration of how their actions in it affect their welfare. The application of this approach to the study of the environment led to more student-oriented approaches, including a range of outdoor educational programming. Science education brought a more organizedapproach to educationabout the environment that was, of course, science-based, but not ecological or sociopolitical. Each of these methods emphasized improvement of human quality of life through education, be it to increase appreciation of nature, or to increase the short or long-term use of natural resources. Selected aspects of how the field of environmental education built upon this history are reviewed next.

Environmental Education Situated as Part of Larger Community

Environmental education historically has been a profession comprised of individuals with diverse points of views concerning the appropriate human-environmental relationship, ranging from those in the Green party and movement (Hunter, 1979; Tokar, 1987; Goodin, 1992) who developed educational materials and programs that advocated a ban on nuclear power plants and internal combustion engines and a return to a simpler lifestyle, to those in organizations such as the Edison Electric Institute who promoted the responsible use of these sources of energy to maintain American lifestyles. Like other fields or professions, environmental education occurs in a larger social setting that interacts with and affects it. (Weber, 1905; Kempton, Boster, and Hartley, 1995). In this sense, the history of environmental education just discussed focused on the more institutional arenas of education, in schools, outdoor education centers, and government. In a broader sense, though, environmental education to change environmental values and behaviors is conducted by innumerable organizations, including those with political and religious foci.

Environmental education has been concerned with the human-environment relationship and human attitudes and behaviors toward the environment. Much curriculum and teaching effort has addressed, either directly or tangentially, what they believe people ought to believe about the environment, and how they ought to relate to it. For example, educational programs concerning rainforests advocate for changes in many beliefs, including those concerning the value of rainforests, and the need for their protection. An influential aspect of the larger setting that appears to have continuing influence on the field of environmental education is the area of environmental ethics, especially as ideas from it are amplified in the field of environmental history.

This view of the two fields (environmental education - environmental ethics) as subcultures within a larger culture of environmental concern is substantiated by the similarity of language and interest in environmental values and ethics concepts used by both cultures. For example, Knapp (1999), like many in environmental education, discusses the virtues of a biocentric and/or ecocentric ethic, and, while cautioning against indoctrinating students, also stresses the importance of primary and secondary educators teaching their students the value of such beliefs, drawing upon the writings of John Muir (1916) and Aldo Leopold (1949). The rich variety of formal and nonformal curricular resources used in environmental education contains ethical statements and worldviews that are also found in environmental ethics. Terms such as ecocentric, biocentric, anthropocentric are common, as are assertions that adoption of a particular environmental value or ethic is morally required are found in the literature of both fields (Armstrong & Botzler, 1993; Van DeVeer & Pierce, 1998; NAAEE, 1995; NAAEE, 1996; NAAEE, 1997; Gigliotti, 1996). These observations show that the field of environmental education operates in a milieu of influence about environmental values and ethics that suggests the need for careful treatment of such values by educators.

The widespread interest in environmental values and ethics, and their relation to environmental quality, has been a subject of academic inquiry and broadly disseminated literature for many years. From Muir's work that argued for a pantheistic view of nature, to White's (1967) arguments that the Judeo-Christian/anthropocentric view of nature led to environmental destruction, there are now a growing and increasingly influential group of environmental ethicists and their advocates who have argued for the need for humanity to adopt a new environmental ethic that is ecocentric or biocentric. This has inspired the development of a number of posited environmental ethics, worldviews, and paradigms, and a body of research to investigate these views. In addition, it appears to coincide with, and may have contributed to a growing social movement of environmentalists with strong ecological worldviews, as measured by Dunlap, et al's New Environmental Paradigm (1978, 2002) which has documented how an increasing number of people in the US hold it over time. Since, the direction of my research is to investigate values and ethics in more detail, I observed that a number ofethicists assert, to differing degrees, that adherence to a particular view is necessary for ensuring environmental sustainability, or a morally sound relationship with the environment (e.g., Muir, 1916; Naess, 1989; Leopold, 1949; Singer, 1979; Rolston, 1988; Warren, 1990; Knapp, 1999). These works have significantly influenced the professional and academic communities engaged in environmental issues, particularly those involved in environmental education and environmental policy. This influence is described in greater detail to show the context and need for this study.

The way that the environmental ethicists concerned with beliefs about the human-environment relationship, particularly the moral aspects of those beliefs have approached their work is important to note. Van DeVeer and Pierce (1998), in a view frequently found by those who write about environmental ethics (Muir, 1916, Leopold, 1949; Rolston, 1988; Singer, 1975; Naess, 1989), define an environmental ethic as the morally proper set of beliefs and/or behaviors of people towards the environment, and state or imply that the purpose of the field is to advance individual and societal adoption of a specific environmental ethic, usually the ethic advocated by the author. This view differs from the dominant view of ethicists, and environmental ethicists, like Rosen (1996), who stated that environmental ethics is the study of moral phenomenon concerning the human-environment relationship, and show that there are many different environmental ethical theories, some more plausible than others. For educators unfamiliar with the diversity and differential plausibility of environmental ethical theories, it is important to note that they may encounter a number of writers who argue that there is only one ethic, their “right” ethic. This is not a helpful approach for educators who need assistance in understanding the diversity of environmental ethical positions that exist, who need tools for how to compare the differences in these theories, and tools to help them undertake the extremely sensitive work of engaging these values. Educational theorists such as Straughan (1988) and Strike and Soltis 1992, stated that education about values in public settings (i.e., American "public" schools and institutions are those supported by state funds, while private schools are not) by needs to compare different views in order to be sound, not indoctrinate people into a particular set of values. Still, environmental ethicists write influential works to change human beliefs about environmental values and ethics, an effort that is arguably concerned with similar subject matter as environmental education. For this study, environmental ethics and environmental education will be considered to be two fields that are subcultures of a larger culture of concerned environmental professionals, volunteers, and activists. The influence of the field of ethics, which argues for the adoption of particular views, necessitates that the field of environmental education be extremely careful to not indoctrinate inadvertently, especially those in schools, to ethical views that they may personally find quite appealing. It is hoped that the heuristic will aid educators who want to discuss values and ethics, but want to do so without using indoctrinative methods. On the other hand, those who wish to use more indoctrinative methods may find this to be a helpful tool for identifying the values they believe are correct.

Evaluating what types of beliefs are appropriate for educators to change, and what educational methods are appropriate to use, is extremely complex and a vital issue for the profession to address. This has led the NAAEE to undertake the Guidelines for Excellence Project. Heimlich and Harako (1994), Heimlich and Norland (1994), Heimlich and Meyers (1998), Knapp (1999), and the Materials Guidelines (1996) call for educators to increase their self-understanding of their values, and for the field to enhance efforts to help educators do so. This research project may help meet this call by developing and applying heuristic tools for evaluating beliefs concerning environmental values and ethics.

History of the Purpose of Environmental Education

Despite the relative newness of the field of the environmental education, which started about the 1960's, tracing the history of the purpose of environmental education is not a straightforward task. The field is not a profession, using Bayles' (2003) definition, as it requires certification by neither a professional organization nor single organization in the US in order to practice, nor does it have a code of professional conduct that guides behavior. Likewise, there is no single organization in the US, or internationally, that represents the diverse paid and volunteer educators who teach, research or administer programs that involve teaching about the environment. Of course, periodic international summits that have included large numbers of governmental and non-governmental environmental educators have occurred since the 1970’s, to coordinate efforts of many organizations that "do" environmental education. These summits have developed remarkable statements of purpose that guided efforts. The Tblisi Declaration reads,