Environmentalism Primarily A Post Materialist Concern Politics Essay

Global environmentalism has increased due to “changes in economic structures, social relations and scientific understanding” (McCormick, 1995:ii). A shift of concerns about the environment and its degradation was seen in both the public and academic spheres in the wake of World War 2. In particular, Carson’s book (1962), which describes man’s contamination of the earth and the image of spaceship Earth, “suggested the need for global ecocritical awareness” (Bell & Parker, 2009:201).

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Environmentalism is defined as socio-political movements which seek to ameliorate the relationship between humans and their natural surroundings. Post-materialism is known as the ‘ecology of affluence’, whereby aesthetic and quality of life concerns become a priority over production and distribution (Gregory et al, 2009:620). It is widely contested and debated throughout geographic discourse that environmentalism and post-materialism are predominantly Western ideologies.

I will commence with an analysis of Inglehart’s (1970, 1977, 1997) theories which suggested that the industrialised, post-materialist societies are concerned with environmentalist values. I will then question this theory by examining whether environmentalism takes place in materialist, developing countries as well. To conclude I will examine whether environmentalism is solely a post-materialist concern. Issues of space, place and scale will permeate through this essay because ecology, economy and society are interconnected from the local to the global level (The World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987:5).

According to Maslow, “man is a perpetually wanting animal” (1943:395), desiring to become more prepotent and seeking to become an aggridant, thus gaining superiority within society. However the most basic needs must be fulfilled prior to advancing to the next stage of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (Weier, 2008:78). Bartelmus (1994:2) splits these needs into primary and secondary objectives (figure 1). These objectives were considered by Inglehart (1970, 1977) who claimed that there has been a Maslowian hierarchical shift to post-materialist values in industrialised countries, whereby there is a correlation between increased affluence and a greater conscience for the environment. Numerous domains can be associated with this post-material shift; in particular, value change is linked to prosperity, security and inflation. With an evolutionary convergence of elitist politics to the masses, structural changes occur, implying a post-materialist alteration of value (Inglehart, 1977:4).

Inglehart showed that with increased affluence, people require more aesthetic satisfaction of, and care for the environment. He argued that a ‘new class’ is effectively created (Inglehart, 1981:894). This social group consisted of young, middle class, highly educated people, whose morals were converted from “acquisitive to post-bourgeois values”, spurred on by education and mass media (Cotgrove, 1982:4). It came into being particularly in post-war Britain and the United States.

With increased economic stability, peace and awareness of environmental degradation in the post-war period, there has been a preponderance of environmentalist ‘green’ parties which have gained political power in industrial societies. Inglehart examined the rise in groups such as Friends of the Earth and the Sierra Club. He found that this technocratic, post-material ‘new class’, showed unprecedented concern for the environment and were most likely to vote for environmentalist parties (1995,1997).

Inglehart’s theory expects there to be a lack of environmentalist values in developing countries. Price explains that for the majority of these countries, “concern about employment, infrastructure, services and political repression takes precedence over environmental activism” (1994:42). Moreover, it has been implied that individuals can only have environmental concerns when they can afford to. For instance, Bramwell claims that “only the maligned Western world has the money and the will to conserve the environment” (1994:208). Regarding developing countries, it is suggested that survival prioritises over quality of life issues and these countries usually have fewer environmental concerns due to an absence of awareness or a lack of money to invest in environmental protection (Guha & Martinez-Alier, 1997:xiv). Beckerman suggests that developing nations are too engaged with economic and physical survival to be concerned with the environment (1974:89).

Studies have taken place to provide evidence of the rise in environmentalist concerns in post-materialist societies. Abramson and Inglehart (1995:136) analysed intergenerational attitude changes over time by examining a representation of 70% of the World’s population using World Values Survey data. Other analyses such as that of Weier’s Latin American research, affirm that affluent countries have greater financial resources to support post-material, environmental values (Weier, 2008:92). These studies infer that post-materialist concern for the environment is a deep rooted phenomenon. Inglehart’s theories were validated by Lowe et al.’s empirical evidence which shows that environmental movements follow periodic economic stability (1980:27).

The claim that environmentalism is primarily a post-materialist concern has been discussed above, however the validity of that theory can only go so far. It has been argued by many academics that developing states do have environmental concerns. It is suggested that the environment is not a post-materialist quality of life issue, but it is instead a concern for human survival (Dunlap & Mertig, 1995:135). When the environment is your means to income, subsistence and livelihoods, then environmental quality becomes higher up on the hierarchy of needs, and therefore is a materialist concern.

Material assets of the natural environment (such as forests, grasslands and wetlands) are relied upon daily by the 1.2 billion people who live in severe poverty (World Resources Institute, 2005). These impoverished people take the brunt of environmental degradation and furthermore these people “see it, breathe it and drink it themselves” (Brechin & Kempton, 1994:262). It is obvious therefore that the poorer, developing countries are not naive to environmental issues. For instance in a recent BBC News report, local Bolivians comprehend issues of Andean glacial melting, explaining that “Bolivia has not created this problem, but is facing the consequences” (Gonzales, 2009). This comprehension of environmental degradation is understood by local rural inhabitants within the developing world.

Environmentalism is diverse, containing a variety of “individuals, trends, traditions and ideologies” (Guha, 2000:5). It is described by O’Riordan as being far more than just a political movement but also a lifestyle (1990:1). Whether this lifestyle is by choice or whether nature is merely a basic necessity, people’s environmentalist beliefs can be either ecocentric or technocentric. As a result, this argument pursues the theory that environmentalism is as much about human involvement with the environment as it is about the environment itself. In order to test whether environmentalist beliefs are predominantly post-materialist, Cotsgrove (1982) undertook a study which assessed public attitudes toward the severity of environmental problems. The results contradicted Inglehart’s theory, and suggested that Maslow’s theory was far too linear. Cotsgrove (1982:48) expressed the need for a more multidimensional understanding of environmental concern, explaining that “perceptions of the environment are inextricably tied up with political ideologies”, from desires for Marxist societal change to the right wing anthro-environmental coercion.

It has been proposed that there is a divide in environmental concerns at a range of scales, from individual to the global level. The empirical evidence provided by Kidd & Lee indicated that research such as that of Brechin & Kempton (1994) is flawed, explaining that assessments cannot be nation based, as within populations, there is a mixture of “both materialist- and postmaterialist-value orientations”(1997:14). They explained that an understanding of environmentalist beliefs must be proportional, in that industrialised countries have a greater preponderance of people supporting post-materials values than the developing nations.

The environment is interlaced with systems, within which the hydrosphere, the atmosphere, the biosphere and the lithosphere are all intrinsically joined. This linked up world means that global environmental issues are transborder issues, meaning that both the poor and the rich nations are affected, but it is the developing countries that endure life-threatening environmental problems such as deforestation, desertification and pollution (WCEP, 1987:22). Guha & Martinez-Alier recognised that the industrialised, affluent nations are more of a danger to the environment than those in poverty (1997:47).

Evidence that environmentalism is also a materialist belief has happened on a range of scales, over space and time. From individuals such as Gandhi, to the larger scale environmentalist movements including “the Chipko movement in the Himalaya, the struggle on the Narmada dams, Chico Mendes’ fight in Amazonia and the struggles …in the Niger Delta against the damage from oil extraction by Shell” (Martinez-Alier, 2002:1). These struggles are predominantly instigated by those individuals who directly feel the effects of environmental decline; with mistrust for their governmental systems, they have taken to non-violent protest. Campaigns such as the Chipko movement have gained global popularity from India to Australia (Hegde, 1988). The growth of these ‘grass-roots’ movements have roots in material conflicts for livelihood preservation.

Environmentalism therefore transpires as global. It takes various forms, from an anthropocentric domination to an ecocentric appreciation of the environment, in both rich and poor countries (figure 2). Through this essay I have explained that environmentalism is a post-materialist concern due to greater economic and social security. However Inglehart’s theories of environmentalism as being a solely post-materialist concern has multiple problems, and is not capable of withstanding tests of universal application (McCormick, 1995:222). Notwithstanding, within developing countries there is an intrinsic connection between humans and the natural environment for livelihoods, thus these people inevitably become environmentalists. For instance, Brechin & Kempton’ research shows that “when asked to pay with time rather than money, citizens of poorer countries were much more willing to do so than their wealthier counterparts” (1994:260). Essentially this proves that there are overlaps with materialist and post-materialist values, depending on individual circumstances within the global society.


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