Environmental Values in American Culture - Book Review

Environmental Values in American Culture is “an Anthropological Study of how Americans view global warming and other environmental changes”. It was written in 1999, at the height of global warming concerns and environmental awareness, which colors the views of both the writers and the individuals interviewed for this project. Kempton, Boster, and Hartley divide their study into several sections, including a few introductory materials, “Cultural Models of Nature,” “Cultural Models of Weather and Atmosphere,” “Environmental Values,” “Cultural Models and Policy Reasoning,” “Case Studies and Influential Specialists,” “Patterns of Agreement and Disagreement,” and a review of their findings. The first three sections are mostly concerned with how cultural concepts of environmental values are constructed. The next three review the way that those values surface into the more public sphere and get adopted into the political system and social conversations. They also include several appendices outlining their methods and sharing data from their research conducted. The overall tone supports the notion of catastrophic climate change that was pervasive during this period; they note this by linking the study of climatology with “other American values—from religion to parental responsibility” (ix).

When discussing values on the whole, they also divide this into three subcategories—religious, cultural, and biological. In the cultural models discussed regarding nature on the whole, there are three major perspectives. The writers divide this portion into models of human dependency on nature, nature’s unpredictability, and environmental concern. The interviews they conducted in the first section mostly reflect a fear regarding how limited the world around us is, and anxiety about how consumptive and reliant we are on it. They also present the converse idea that since nature is unpredictable, mankind should not intervene. This idea comes from a notion that those on this side of the discussion have an “interdependent” relationship with nature, and that if we intervene to significantly it could cause worse fallout or a chain reaction. Another argument presented as to why we should not intervene is a utilitarian theory, that Among these there is also a school of thought claiming “everything happens for a reason” (46). As a part of the models involving climate change, the writers discuss how global warming folds into the existing models of nature. In this section, they get more descriptive of the more scientific details. In this portion, they favor perspectives of the specialists over “lay people.” They also note that “lay people” have a general misunderstanding of the environmental factors due to not observing overarching statistical patterns in their own lives—that leads to both overestimation and underestimation of the human impact on weather.

As a result of the former concepts, policies were enacted and various individuals negotiating those policies have been needed. They divide specialists into congressional staff and advocates, while setting apart “laypeople” as a third group. In the models of the policymaking process, specialist’s materials are presented first. They also discuss the types of institutions that enact policies, including science, industry, and government. The reason they choose to discuss the specialists and provide specific case studies on them is because they view these folks as the ones most likely to impact cultural change regarding climate change. In the 8th section they compare the notions of disagreement between these varying sides of the argument, which leads into the conclusion. Overall, at the core of things, the writers see environment and nature a very significant part of human life. However, dissension occurs where core values vary, for instance many of those on the “no dramatic intervention” side of the argument valued feeding their family over protecting their environment (sawmill workers) and the rights of animals versus the rights of people. The main individuals they place in opposition are the Earth First! individuals and sawmill workers, as the Earth First! individuals represent the most extreme end of the global warming discussion and the sawmill workers represent the side of the less environmentally friendly.

Their findings mostly supported what they discussed in the introductory pieces. They outlined a hyper-awareness of environment, and that environmentalism had already become very interwoven in cultural values. They also note “valuing nature for nature’s sake” being more inherent in American Culture than they originally would be true. The primary concern detected from the public in their study was responsibility for upcoming generations. They also note attempting to be relatively unbiased entering their study, which does indicate some of the challenges of being an American studying contemporary American culture. The researchers may be too close to the issue to truly give a well-rounded study (214-215). They do note the highly mediated nature of environmental concerns during the 1990s and those concerns influences on what the authors refer to as “lay environmentalism.” The largest concern the writers have are communicating to educators of all types and climatologists how to more effectively impact perspectives on climate change, and reduce both “underconcern” and “overconcern” regarding global warming. Despite the tone suggesting an attempt at walking in the middle, this book certainly weighs its arguments more heavily in favor of the “overconcern” side of the argument and gives a lot of weight to the specialists, which is understandable, but does not reflect the laid out intention of leveling.