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The word "value" means worth. It also refers to an ethical precept on which we base our behavior. Values are shaped by the culture in which we live and by our experiences. However, there are values that are held high by most cultures. These include fairness and justice, compassion and charity, duties and rights, human species survival and human well-being.

While values guide our behavior, there are many behaviors to which we grow accustomed because of the society, culture, and conditions in which we live. We may not explicitly examine our environmental values, for example, when we decide whether to live close to or far away from work. Or, perhaps it is more correct to say that we think of more our economic or social environment, comfort, and convenience when we make this choice. Such decision making by large numbers of people has had many serious environmental impacts, such as air pollution from large commuting populations, deterioration of the built environment in cities, and problems of environmental inequities.

In his book Toward Better Problems, philosopher Anthony Westin suggests that rather than exploring the validity of inherent or intrinsic values, environmental ethics needs to view all the values we possess and interpret them together as an "ecology of values." He writes, "The idea is to trace the relations of values as a system, thus interweaving a complex and varied set of values into a loose pattern, intricate and indeed still in conflict as it may be. Thus we might do for values themselves what the science of ecology does for the multiple forms of life: uncover their organic places within larger wholes. Indeed, I propose to call such a project an 'ecology of values.'" Weston's ethic suggests that the ultimate "grounded" value may be as much in the interdependence between values as in the value itself.

A tension—or even a strong conflict—can occur between individual values and societal ones. As larger centralized technical systems are used for convenience and become a part of everyday life, one might find it hard to keep up with living in conformity with one's individual values. The environmental impacts of suburban living noted above is an example of this. Economic and social conditions may cause large numbers of people to have to ignore or compromise their environmental values. On another level, the lack of knowledge about environmental impacts may lead to decisions that have cumulative negative impacts on the environment.

In his book The Value of Life, Stephen Kellert developed a "Typology of Basic Values" (Table 1) with nine values of nature used as taxonomy for examining various views of nature and diversity of life. These values, considered biological in origin, signify "basic structures of human relationship and adaptation to the natural world developed over the course of human evolution." (Kellert 37, 26) This typology is a good example of Weston's "ecology of values." Kellert does not try to explain the inherent or intrinsic good in the value but rather presents the values for the purpose of studying public values of nature. He found during his research, however, that the foundation of these values seemed to be in the very biological nature of the human being. These values are influenced by learning and experience and if not developed through connections with nature could potentially harm our biological growth.

Utilitarian Practical and material exploitation of nature Physical sustenance/security
Naturalistic Direct experience and exploration of nature
Curiosity, discovery, recreation
Systematic study of structure, function Knowledge, understanding, observational skills
Aesthetic Physical appeal and beauty of nature Inspiration, harmony, security
Symbolic Use of nature for language and thought Communication, mental development
Humanistic Strong emotional attachment and "love" Bonding, sharing, cooperation, companionship
Moralistic Spiritual reverence and ethical concern for nature Order, meaning, kinship, altruism
Mastery, physical control, dominance of nature
Mechanical skills, physical prowess, ability to subdue

Fear, aversion, alienation from nature Security, protection, safety, awe
Table 1: A Typology of Basic Values

How we value nature and the environment determines our personal environmental ethic as well as our development as human beings. The following exercises will help develop your ideas about environmental values and their application.




Make a list of the values for inter-human behavior that you consider important for the maintenance of a "good" human society and include your definition of good.



Which of these do we implement, or apply as guidance for our behavior towards the environment? How would these "environmental" values be implemented to reflected in individual or societal behavior?


Which of these are presumed or reflected in governmental decision making in the United States?



Think of a course or other instance in which a teacher or decision maker has ascribed a (implicit or explicit) value to nature, or to parts of it. How would you classify this (set of) value(s)?



Think of an example in which you make a decision affecting nature. Explain briefly how you would classify your value system in that instance.


6. Choose one environmental regulation of the United States. In two or three sentences, describe the main objective of this regulation. Describe briefly the set of values embedded in it.


Figure 1, taken from Chapter 3 of Kellert (page 41), shows a rough estimate from his studies of these classes of values towards living diversity in American Society. The data (frequency of values) represent over 3000 interviews in 49 states of the U.S.

Figure X: American Mean Attitude and Knowledge Scores
(reproduced from
Stephen Kellert's The Value of Life
; Chapter 3, p.41)




  ©Copyright 2003 Carnegie Mellon University
This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number 9653194. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.