Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies Conference, Aspen, CO, 11–14 October 2007
by Anthony A. Leiserowitz and Lisa O. FernandezOur world, our only habitat, is a biotic system under such stress it threatens to fail in fundamental and irreversible ways. Major change is required to stabilize and restoreits functional integrity. Examine any of the great environmental challenges confronting us—climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution, resource depletion—and a similar pattern emerges. A modest number of people know a great deal about these afflictions and unfolding tragedies, but their messages have difficulty overcoming public apathy, political denial, or entrenched opposition. Most of all,these messages rarely spur responsive public action, basic shifts in values and attitudes, or the behavioral change needed at the scale or within the time frame required. The result is what is commonly referred to as a failure of political will, but this phrase fails to capture the depth of the cultural void or social malfunction involved.At its deepest level, if we are to address the linkedenvironmental, social, and even spiritual crises, we must address the wellsprings of human caring, motivation, and social identity. Many have concluded that what we need is a major shift in our core values and dominant culture—in effect, the evolution of a new consciousness. Aldo Leopold wrote to a friend in 1944 that little could be done in conservation “without creating a new kind of people.”1 PeterSenge and his colleagues have similarly argued, “When it is all said and done, the only change that will make a difference is the transformation of the human heart.”2To explore these themes, the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies convened an esteemed group of leaders representing diverse disciplines, including the natural sciences, social sciences, philosophy, communications,education, religion, ethics, public policy, business, philanthropy, history, the creative arts, and the humanities.3 The conference focused on the role of cultural values and worldviews in environmentally destructive behavior within affluent societies—patterns that are being adopted throughout the world, including the rising centers of Western-style affluence in the developing world. The conference wasintented to help catalyze further investigation of the critical role of cultural values and worldviews in the global environmental crisis and the implementation of concrete initiatives to accelerate a paradigm shift in human values, attitudes, and behaviors toward the natural world.Diagnoses
The failure of the developed world to fully comprehend or confront the size, severity, and urgency of theglobal environmental crisis requires a deep examination of the prevailing worldviews, structures and institutions, and norms and beliefs within modern society that maintain and reinforce a self-destructive relationship with the natural world.
• Anthropocentrism, materialism, and alienation from nature. The anthropocentric notion that humans stand “above” and independent of nature,rather than “within” and interdependent with it, has deep cultural and historical roots, some argue, dating back at least to the biblical cosmology of Genesis. Further, since the Enlightenment, the reigning scientific worldview has held that matter is dead and inert, encouraging human beings to believe that they can manipulate and rearrange the material world any way they like, with few moral orethical constraints, duties, or obligations. One result is that members of modern societies are increasingly physically, psychologically, and culturally separated from the natural world. We live in a system that has severed or rendered invisible many of our connections to nature. The packaged chicken in the grocery store has been cleaned, sanitized, and presented in a way that disguises that it...