Archives of Headwaters XV

Ancient and Emerging Worldviews and "humans in relation to nature"

More than a century ago, the French writer and thinker Victor Hugo made a prediction:

"In the relations of humans with the animals, with the flowers, with the objects of creation, there is a whole great ethic scarcely seen as yet, but which will eventually break through into the light and be the corollary and the complement to human ethics.... Doubtless it was first of all necessary to civilize man in relation to his fellow men. With this one must begin and the various lawmakers of the human spirit have been right to neglect every other care for this one. That task is already much advanced and makes progress daily. But it is also necessary to civilize humans in relation to nature. There, everything remains to be done."

-- Victor Hugo, "En Voyage: Alpes et Pyrenees"

We have often discussed the concept of "sense of place" in Headwaters gatherings; it is obviously an important concept for a program whose goal is a larger awareness of both the challenges and opportunities a specific region presents for those who would live intelligently there – “civilized in relation to nature,” as Victor Hugo put it.

But in our discussions we have not really considered the extent to which our "sense of place" on coming into any place is pre-formed by a worldview, a cultural paradigm, we bring with us, usually without even being thoroughly aware that that pre-formed worldview is shaping our response to any and every place where we find ourselves. Or fail to “find ourselves,” as it were.

Consider, for example, the foundation story of the Mormon migration to Utah. When, after their long and arduous journey, they found themselves overlooking the vast deserts cape of the Great Basin, Brigham Young said, according to legend: "This is the place." But neither Young nor anyone who was there with him had any illusions about what he meant; he didn't mean they were going down into that desert, as it was, to live like the ancient prophets on "locusts and honey"; they were going to transform it into something that fit a vision, a religious worldview, they brought with them. That desert would only truly be "their place" once they had made it "bloom as the rose," in accord with a religious worldview.

For most of those who came to the American West – from the time that "the West" was no more than a day's ride from the Atlantic Coast – their "sense of place" had more to do with the cultural and spiritual world views they brought with them than with any intrinsic exploration or awareness of the place into which they were coming – more to do with what they would make of the place than with what the place innately was.

This is a process of adaptation – of adapting places to cultural and spiritual world views, that is – that has not worked out too badly in some places, over time, due to the general resilience and flexibility of the ecological systems on which the world views were imposed. Many places (primarily in humid regions) were converted from wild lands to agricultural or pastoral landscapes that – despite losses of diversity and some of their resilience – have some degree of stability and  long term sustainability under their new regime.


But in many other places – especially in the arid and otherwise geographically fragile West – that process of adapting places to world views has often gone badly for both the natural systems and the human cultures. A significant portion of the West was badly overgrazed by "unsettlers" whose spiritual and cultural mandates and back-home “sense of place” did not extend to awareness of aridity. There are deforested places that seem to be difficult if not impossible to reforest because tree-harvest methods that work with one species do not necessarily work with all species. Many of our mountain valleys have a terrible heritage of toxic impoverishment from the mines that grew out of civilized urban-industrial visions of wealth creation.

Victor Hugo claims, in the quote above that gives us our conference theme, that we have – perhaps out of necessity – not paid enough attention to the necessary relationship between the world views we develop and the innate challenges and opportunities of the places where we try to apply those world views. Our focus in ethical development has been on “intra-species” social and economic ethics, and not on our ethical approach to the natural environments that must sustain us all.

So what are these world views, and how do they emerge – and sometimes gain enough power over us to make us blind to realities much closer at hand? And is it possible to somewhat consciously develop a new worldview that might help us "fit" better, more ethically in accord with some still unarticulated nature ethic, wherever we find ourselves?

Our worldview is largely the product of what we have been told and taught – much of it what we were told and taught as children before we'd developed any critical qualities of analysis and evaluation. Our worldview encompasses all of our ethical values – our beliefs about what is good and bad, right and wrong, appropriate and inappropriate, fitting (into our values) and unfitting.

The values and beliefs that are the foundation of every worldview probably originated in cumulative group experience with some specific environment in getting the things needed to live there – food, shelter and clothing, energy and fuel, and a psychological sense of our place in that world. But those environmental roots don't always get passed along with the taught worldview, and as a result, the worldview comes to a culture's heirs as just "common sense," as though it were common to the whole species rather than just one particular cultural group.

It seems logical that our worldview would expand, deepen, diversify as our life experiences increase – but this is probably true only to the extent that the values foundational to the worldview encourage the expansion, deepening and diversifying of the worldview; many world views simply do not encourage that at all.

On the other hand, to the extent that our personal experience is allowed to modify and expand our worldview, our worldview becomes reflective, personalized, and as flexible and resilient as nature itself.

But as world views go, that seems to be more the exception than the rule. Self examination of world views is rare.  Deliberately trying to understand the world views of other cultures is also rare. Both are probably essential at this juncture of human development.

Today, in the cumulative accretion of cultures we call "Western Civilization," we seem to be in the uncomfortable situation of either being between major world views, or in the process of trying to fold several often contradictory world views into one – or perhaps even falling through the cracks between old and emerging world views.

At the roots of it all, we have our "Judeo-Christian heritage," a worldview rooted in and around the fringes of the "Cradle of Civilization" in what we now call the Middle East. By this worldview, we humans are the centerpiece of a world created complete (not evolving) by a somewhat fierce, judgmental and war-prone father-god.  This god gave us the earth and all the life therein, and a charge to "have dominion" over it all (including, as the story unfolds, any "philistine" group that doesn't follow our god).

For the past 500 years, however, a more secular  set of world views have been emerging that, in many respects, challenge that Judeo-Christian (and Muslim) tradition.

The most disciplined of these emerging world views is the “scientific worldview,” which posits an evolving universe rather than a completed creation; rather than placing us in the center of that universe, it locates us in an aging galaxy on the fringe of the universe; it suggests that knowledge and ethics are discovered inductively through disciplined study rather than revealed from god or the gods. It suggests today that the human species, rather than the apex of creation, is a species a long way out on a fragile limb evolutionarily, and is currently experiencing "the kiss of success" that usually bodes ill for a swarming species that has overcome most of its natural adversities. It does, however, seem to carry forward the religious perception that humans are (if only through their consciousness) different from the rest of creation.

This secularization of world views has also spun off some ways of looking at the world that blend, or blur, the inductive freedom of the scientific discipline with the anthropocentric and revelatory nature of religion, in paradigmatic economic and political systems that are often more believed in than demonstrated in good works: market capitalism which, married with European individualism, has become the most powerful social and economic force in the world today; socialism/communism which would replace markets with planning and competition among individuals with collective cooperation; progressivism which would apply scientific process and solutions to all human problems – and others.

This seems to suggest the necessity of choices, among an anthropocentric religion, some anthropocentric social and economic ideologies that are often advanced like religions, and a scientific worldview that is sometimes put forward (even in the classroom) as a biocentric religion.

And one or all of those world views, in varying mixes, we bear like the ark of our covenants to the places we inhabit, and try to adapt those places to those world views.

In carrying forward the first great ethic – living civilized in relation to our fellow humans – we tend to respond to the need for choice the way our legislative bodies tend to respond to the necessity of a choice: we try to choose everything, trying to work out some kind of a cobbled-hobbled synthesis that will allow scientists to still be religious and the various social, economic and spiritual “religions” to sound sort of scientific. We try to avoid committing ourselves to ethical choices toward that “second great ethic,” choices that offend or transcend ancient and emerging world views, even when we know eventually we must.

Can we become stronger than that – strong enough to respond to these mountain places that eventually, through time and through their inspirational beauty and physical and psychological demands, haul us up to an awareness of what they are in themselves, untranslated through our imported world views? Can we develop a more generous and sensitive anthropocentric worldview (because we are "anthros") that nonetheless incorporates solid biocentric analysis so we don't continue to inadvertently kill the goose that generates and regenerates the golden earth?

Join us in Gunnison to consider this, November 5-7 – a few days after the election lets us know the general configurations of the cultural environment for us and our places for the next four years. See below for some of the people who will speak to the challenge of developing a worldview that incorporates Victor Hugo's second “great ethic” – “civilizing humans in relation to nature.” No longer does everything remain to be done – just most of it.

-- George Sibley, Conference Coordinator





University Distinguished Professor,
Colorado State University

“Mountain Majesties above Fruited Plains” will be the focus of the keynote address at Western's 15 th Headwaters Conference Friday evening, November 5. Presenting this slide-illustrated talk will be one of America 's pioneer philosophers in environmental ethics.

Dr. Holmes Rolston III, University Distinguished Professor in Philosophy at Colorado State University, brings an impressive background to the college that is most fitting for this year's Headwaters theme – “The Second Great Ethic: Ancient and Emerging World views and ‘humans in relation to nature.'” The conference objective is to examine the way in which the West has been shaped by “imported belief systems” – and how the challenging nature of western environments has, in turn, shaped or modified the belief systems with which people came here. A full program of Headwaters events can be found on the internet at

Dr. Rolston began his educational career studying physics at Davidson College in North Carolina , but became interested in the ministry, and in 1958 he completed a Ph.D. in Theology at Edinburgh University in Scotland . He then practiced as a Presbyterian minister for a number of years – until science called again; he returned to school at the University of Pittsburgh where he received a Master's degree in the philosophy of science. He then received an appointment in the CSU philosophy program and has been there since, receiving his full professorship in 1976.

A measure of the respect his work has received was the bestowing on him last year of the Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities, founded in 1972 by Sir John Templeton as the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. The Templeton Prize is valued at 725,000 pounds sterling ($1,000,000-plus) and is the world's largest monetary annual award given to an individual. Dr. Rolston has dedicated the money to his first alma mater, Davidson College .

With the advent of a broad-based environmental awareness in the 1970s, Dr. Rolston pulled together his interests in science and religion in a deepening interest in environmental philosophy. “If someone had been attempting to foresee the future of philosophy at mid-century,” he said, “perhaps the two most surprising developments would have been the rise of environmental philosophy and the novel perspectives introduced by feminists, including ecofeminists. The next most surprising might well be the interest in animal welfare and in international development ethics, both of which have ties to environmental philosophy.”

Dr. Rolston has focused his work somewhat on the field of environmental ethics – the discipline dealing with our moral duty and obligation with respect to nature, or the environment. Up until the late 20 th century, according to Dr. Rolston, “Western philosophy was dominantly humanistic or anthropocentric. People were what counted and all that counted in ethics.”

But Dr. Rolston followed Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson in arguing that nature had intrinsic value, beyond its utilitarian, aesthetic or other values to humans, and has led in establishing environmental ethics – right behavior with respect to the environment – as an academic discipline. He has written extensively on environmental philosophy – six books, dozens of journal articles and chapters in 80 books. He has spoken on environmental philosophy and ethics on every continent, and had his work acknowledged through many honorary awards in addition to the Templeton Prize.

Dr. Rolston's Headwaters keynote talk will be Friday evening at 7:30, in the Kebler Room of the College Union. He will also participate in a panel conversation Saturday morning at 10:00, speaking to “science as a secular religion” that wrought changes on the West in the late 19 th and early 20 th centuries.