“Competing Contemporary Values: Traditional, Modern, Radical Postmodern and Transmodern”

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The Fourth Phase: “Postmodern Environmentalism.”

Probably the most important challenge facing humanism today is the growing culture of misanthropy: the powerful mood of disenchantment with humanity and its potential for playing a positive and creative role.  And the sources for this sentiment are mostly secular, not religious (Furedi 2006).

In Phase IV we explored the question, what place does environment occupy in the value-scapes of contemporary college students?  We aspired in particular to address the riddle of what might be termed “postmodern environmentalism.”  By now we had concluded that contemporary college undergraduates typically presume-or are at least beginning to incline toward a presumption of–the essentially autonomous and self-referential nature of authority.   Dubiety is their default presumption regarding inherited/imposed or so-called “privileged” propositions.  And, to be fair, such skepticism seems logically consistent with their experience of a cultural condition in which it often seems that a) everything is negotiable because nothing is obvious or “simply true,” and in which b) personal experience is determinative of choices and answers. Even postmodernity’s would-be “sacred” values-personal freedom/choice and toleration/diversity-are secondary to self-referential authority.

Yet-and here one enters the maze-our own experience of the same cultural condition suggested that today environmentalism is more than just another menu-option, indeed is perceived as one which must be privileged because it is in fact simply true.  Thus the puzzle of postmodern environmentalism: only personal experience is authoritative…but unlike even choice and toleration the value of environmental well-being in general, or even of a particular 2,000-year old redwood tree, trumps self-referentiality itself.

It struck me that the findings of this environment-oriented theme of Phase IV might prove illuminating, perhaps even defining.  In environmentalism we seem to be dealing not just with an important value embedded within a larger master narrative, such as postmodern choice, but with an emerging alternative worldview itself.

The detailed results of Phase IV are presented in your monograph, but as time is short I’ll only mention two patterns revealed in the environment-oriented student values that seemed singularly noteworthy.  First, the worldviews of these American undergraduates, while still very traditional and somewhat modern in a number of regards, do clearly reflect an ongoing or unfolding paradigm shift.  We found that for a significant minority of students environmentalism is their worldview, and that environment is a favored value for a majority of college students who, in varying degrees across institutional divides, “think green”-e.g., only 13% of the students at the relatively conservative church-affiliated campuses agreed that it “doesn’t matter if I mess up Earth if I have a relationship with God”.    Strikingly, 75% of the state university undergraduates and 40% of the Christian college students agreed that “environmental well-being is as important as human well-being.”

This is a rather big deal.  Environment has clearly become an important value in student Weltanschauungen and is almost certainly still ascending in importance, perhaps already at rough parity with the other contemporary non-negotiable values of personal freedom, choice, toleration, and diversity and, who knows, perhaps even heading toward  hegemony over not just consumer capitalism but self-referentiality itself…

Secondly, it was revealed that while environment is a more “sacred” value to the secular than to the church-affiliated students, neither group is much inclined to actually make some personal sacrifice for environmental well-being.  And, strikingly, the secular university students, although typically strongly pro-environment, tended to be even less sanguine about accepting actual lifestyle sacrifices than students attending parochial colleges.  Environment as a sacred value for which few seem yet willing to sacrifice.  Hummm.  I confess that I am reminded of the chasm between my Christian value of loving enemies and the reality of my lived-life…