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Culture and the Natural Environment

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As students of culture such as Max Weber and Clifford Geertz have suggested, we live “suspended in webs of meaning that [we ourselves have] spun” (Geertz 1973). These collective meanings serve as the basis of an ethical framework informing how people perceive, remember and communicate. The natural environment historically has influenced how cultures develop, and in turn has been affected by human action and belief systems. Research on culture and the environment offers a number of insights into ways in which these processes occur. Particularly, but not exclusively, with technological innovation and its cultural incorporation, human interactions with the environment have varied dramatically. Put another way, while humans have impacts on the natural environment, they often do so in ways that are influenced profoundly by the cultures of which they are part.

This article explores a number of aspects of culture, including the most deeply held ethical values. While various attitudes, such as those toward the environment, are rooted in ethical orientations, attitudes are potentially more quickly changing while culture changes very slowly, typically over the course of generations. This work examines what causes cultures to constrain and inform human action—particularly relative to the natural environment—while themselves changing slowly over time.

Issues of social change and cultural lag are crucial here. While it is not uncommon for cultural change to follow major technological innovation, that change may unfold over years or even generations. While there has always been technological innovation, its interaction with culture is now more problematic than in previous times because the rate of change is itself accelerating (McNeill 2000). This article explores linkages between culture and the environment, and suggests directions for research and informed public policy.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: January 1, 2009

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