Our Common Values

Klaas van Egmond • Oct 7th, 2011
Our Common Values

The agenda of the Rio+20 conference, greening the economy and strengthening the institutions, will not solve the current sustainability crisis. The real roots of the crisis have to be found in the lack of cohesion in value orientations in the respective cultural parts of the world. The real solutions require a process towards more or less common value orientation. 

Within the context given by such a common value orientation, cultures and individual people can bring values to expression according to their own choice. It would provide a common language and an indispensable basis for mutual respect. Given its implicit ethical framework, it also would allow policies to avoid the time and over societal destabilization like the world is facing this time in the form of the financial crisis.

The search for a common, more or less shared value orientation in which present and future perceptions of the ‘quality of life’ can be understood and reconciled, without losing the respect for diversity, can be based on the following four sources:

1. Societal surveys, asking people what they value in live. In the obtained value orientations, the two (statistically) most important patterns are the contrast between material and immaterial / religious values and the contrast between individual and collective values.

2. Philosophical notions over the last three millennia confirm this pattern. The ‘vertical’ contrast between (spiritual) mind an (physical) matter is already described by Plato, and in the 20th century Whitehead perceived philosophy as a footnote to Plato. The ‘horizontal’ relation between I and ‘the other’ has been addressed for example by the psychologist Jung, the physicist Pauli, and philosophers like Kant, Fromm and Levinas. 

3. Cultural and religious notions further confirm the two major orientations, in the vertical between ‘heaven and earth’ and in the horizontal between the whole and the part, between public and private and between ‘your neighbor and yourself’.

Figure 1 Common value orientation

The resulting ‘common value orientation’ is given in figure 1. Given the associated perception of an objective and universal truth at the left hand side of figure 1, and the absence of such a single truth at the right hand side, positivistic science, technology and industrialism dominate the values of the lower left quadrant. The lower right is dominated by the individualistic physical orientations, implying emphasis on physical health, safety and hedonism, which on a higher scale manifests as regionalization, separation and fragmentation.

If this common value orientation as obtained from societal surveys, philosophical, cultural and religious notions really makes sense, it should play a recognizable role in the ‘laboratory of history’. Indeed this is the case. In figure 2 the history of the last two millennia is super-imposed on the common value orientation of figure 1, which on a higher scale can be seen as the integral worldview.

Early Christianity, at the root of western culture, is an expression of the individual-spiritual values of the upper right quadrant. After 400 AD the diversity in beliefs was converted into the one truth belief system of the Roman Catholic Church. Becoming its own fundamentalist caricature, is gave rise to inquisition and religious wars until the end of the Middle Ages. As the value orientations became more materialistic, positivistic science took the lead in the next, lower left modernistic quadrant. Also here value orientations iterated into their caricatures, which ended in Communism and Nazism. Since several decades, the development has shifted to the lower right post-modernistic quadrant in which the individualist materialistic values dominate, finally resulting in the present caricature of fundamentalist capitalism and the subsequent financial crisis.

Figure 2  Macro-history and ethical framework

This macro-historical development indicates that un-sustainability in the form of societal discontinuity occurs as soon as societal value orientations become extremely one-sided. In that case the cohesion with the ‘common values’ represented in figure 1 is lost and the orientation becomes fundamentalist, be it on the religious, collectivistic, materialistic or individualistic side.  The value orientations are pushed to their extremes by centrifugal forces like the need for identity, the role of the media, self-enforcing authorities, but also as a repulsive reaction to earlier caricatures. For example the current fundamentalist capitalism can be partly explained as an impulsive, irrational reaction to the earlier fundamentalist communism.

Sustainable development is only possible when the uncontrolled social dynamics of action-reaction mechanisms can be damped. To this end, centrifugal forces should be discouraged and centripetal forces encouraged, which then provides an ethical frame of reference (figure 2). The central issue is to arrive at a more or less common value orientation, in which individual people and cultures can take their positions in freedom, emphasizing certain values (for example materialistic ones) over others. As long as these choices stay within the limits of the common value orientation, respect for opposing values in figure 1 is maintained. The need for a dynamical equilibrium within this common value orientation is the core message of many religions, myths, legends, fairy tales and the great works of music and literature, for example of Mozart and Shakespeare. 

The advocated equilibrium implies concrete and practical policies. Apart from implications for the policy process itself, in the first place a rational balance between public and private property can be argued. The public-private imbalance and the lack of understanding of the underlying principles is the root cause of the current crisis.

In the second place, economic value creation and the incentives given by the financial system should be directed to the values of the common value orientation. Value creation outside this orientation, for example the creation of money out of money by speculation, can be argued as being perverted and illegitimate. 

In the third place the equilibrium implies a balance between globalization (left) and regionalization (right). From a mechanistic point of view this can be seen as balance between efficiency and resilience, with substantial implications for food production and consumption.

Centripetal forces are generated by compassion for the opposing values. They can be encouraged by education in arts, culture, spiritual notions and social skills, to compensate for the current domination of materialistic and individualistic values. 

Given the notion of a common value orientation and the understanding that the cohesion of the constituting values has to be maintained, the needs of present and future generations converge. 

Sustainability then can be attained by concrete policies encouraging the centripetal and discouraging the centrifugal forces and this would define the program for strengthened global institutions. The economy again will be the means to achieve the ends given by the common values. Given the implicit balance between material and im-material values that economy will be green, naturally.

Further reading:

About the author

Klaas van Egmond (1946) is Professor on Geosciences at Utrecht University and started his career with research on air, soil and water pollution at the National Institute for Health and Environment (RIVM), where he later became Director Environment. As director of the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (MNP), he was advising the Dutch Cabinet of Ministers and members of parliament on all issues of environment and sustainability. He is also advisor on sustainability to Triodos Bank.

More recently he also published books and articles on the social and cultural aspects of the sustainability problem;

Tags: consumption,economic aspects,ethics,green economy,sustainability,values
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Rio + 20

Thank you for your comment and sorry for very late reply !

I am working on the implications of this way of thinking for the economic domain. Uptill now I only have Dutch language texts. The general idea is that the apparently required balance in value orientations within the rather time independent integral worldview, legitimates a more balnced distinction between common pool resources and private goods as well. What we know as economic goods, common pool resources, public goods, private goods (material and immaterial) are nothing else but the functions to ' realise' the value orientations. So the economic process should reflect the ' integral worldview. Herein Nature is converted finally into Culture, via human individual physical and mental labor.
This then has consequenses for the financial system also, as this system is expected to support the thus defined economic process. Values only should be created within the domain of the integral worldview ( given an expected reasonable degree of consensus on that underlying, typically human value orientation). The current financial systems generates values outside that domain ( making money with money, speculation, etc.) and thus cannot be justified.

Succes with yourwork

Best regards

Klaas van Egmond

Important conceptualizations

Thank you, Professor van Egmond. Your intriguing synthesis touches on a number of matters that have increasingly pestered be as of late--namely, the great potential of values-based collective action, and the great need for balance in any shared action agenda. I have a few remarks/questions. If you are inclined, please write back to my email address above:

I would be glad to hear you elaborate about your insight that "economic value creation and the incentives given by the financial system should be directed to the values of the common value orientation." How to operationalize this principle? What technologies/tools can best foster a global, participatory (and, thus, massive) project while maintaining transparency, simplicity and faithfulness to original intent.

Your point that "the current fundamentalist capitalism can be partly explained as an impulsive, irrational reaction to the earlier fundamentalist communism" brings me great relief, since this dynamic seems to be something of an elephant in the room of attempts at sustainable development and global environmental governance. Clearly, given the scale, interconnectedness and irreducible nature of the challenges confronting us, some level of coordinated action, accounting and enforcement will be needed if we are to succeed at the grand vision of sustainable development. However, the political "taboo" you bring up--whereby any proposal related to enhanced regulation is viewed as anachronistic--debilitates the dialogue and invalidates an important dimension of the solution. This is why I was releived to read your mention of this dynamic; indeed, it is one of the first times I have seen frank acknowledgement of it from a scholar/researcher.

Finally, the research I conducted for my master's thesis parallels this piece in some interesting ways. If you're interested in an elaboration, I'll be happy to give one in a longer email conversation. Otherwise, thanks again and warmest regards from Santa Fe, New Mexico.

D.H. Strongheart