Newsletter No 3 September 2013

Worldviews and the transformation to sustainable societies: An exploration of the cultural and psychological dimensions of our global environmental challenges

In the global debate on sustainability there appears to be a growing recognition of the importance of worldviews vis-à-vis the urgently needed transformation to sustainable societies. However, research into worldviews and their interface with sustainability is still sparse. The dissertation of Annick Hedlund-de Witt therefore explores a variety of emptyworldviews in the contemporary West, and demonstrates that there are significant differences between them in terms of environmental attitudes and sustainable lifestyles.

EPA normalFor instance, environmental psychologists argue that for a change towards more sustainable lifestyles an understanding of worldviews is pertinent: consider the complex task of changing culturally embedded behavior patterns such as meat consumption, car- and energy use, voting, green consumption, and support for environmental organizations and -policy. Simultaneously, sociological research shows that profound shifts in the Western worldview are already taking place, and are associated with the emergence of, among others, the environmental movement, and democratization and social change in general. Understanding the prevailing worldviews in society is therefore essential for the optimal development of sustainability policies, practices and campaigns. The purpose of this dissertation, then, is to contribute to social-cultural transformation to sustainable societies, by generating insight into the nature and structure of worldviews in the contemporary West and their interface with sustainable development.

This dissertation does not only shed light on the major worldviews in the contemporary West, but also demonstrates that there are significant differences between them in terms of environmental attitudes and sustainable lifestyles. I used quantitative and qualitative studies in combination with extensive literature reviews. The Integrative Worldview Framework (IWF) was developed to make the somewhat abstract concept of worldview better researchable by differentiating it into various aspects. This framework also distinguishes between four major, ideal-typical worldviews—that is, a traditional, modern, postmodern, and integrative worldview. The research shows that while the modern worldview is frequently associated with a stance of ‘technological optimism’ and generally less sustainable lifestyles, the postmodern and integrative worldviews tend to be related to a sense of connectedness with nature and more sustainable lifestyles. Several cultural phenomena—such as contemporary spirituality, the recent emphasis on nature experience, and the emerging ‘integrative worldview’— are extensively explored and portrayed, and appear to have a particular potential for sustainability. 

Finally, the resulting insights are applied to sustainability policy and practice by arguing that the IWF has the potential to serve as: 1) a heuristic for psychological, cultural, and policy reflexivity; 2) an analytical tool for understanding worldview-dynamics in society; and 3) a scaffolding for effective sustainability communications and solutions. The IWF can support for example policymakers to reflect on their own (frequently implicit) worldviews. Thinking from the perspective of diverging worldviews may help to intercept less sustainable policy strategies and detect transverse connections, while inviting multiple perspectives into the policy process. This may then form the starting point of a creative process of the seeking of syntheses and new pathways for policy making. In addition, the framework can serve as analytical tool: how various groups in society respond to sustainability issues, and the diverse solutions they advocate, can often be understood from the worldviews from which they depart. Finally, the IWF—by providing insight into the fundamental assumptions, values​​, and loyalties of different world-groups in society—can be used as a tool for effective communication and sustainability solutions. This dissertation may thereby contribute to the important tasks of public communication, policy-making, and large-scale mobilization for addressing our urgent global environmental challenges.

Contact: Annick Hedlund-de Witt

Annick Hedlund-de Wit defends her PhD thesis on September 30, 16.45 in the Aula, VU University, details