The way we live, our lifestyle, is what leads to environmental impact. In the West, high consumption, high mobility, and a high level of waste production are all connected to a lifestyle with large environmental impact. It is sometimes said that if everyone on Earth lived as Europeans do we would need six planets.
Why do we choose to live in a certain way? Does it depend on our education, on our values, or on the practical situation? The theme of this chapter is to discuss the different factors that determine our lifestyles. The means we have developed to master environmental degradation, including technical, economic, and legal instruments, might not be enough or even the right way to proceed. The root of the problem may instead lie in how we perceive the environment and our place in the world.
The approach taken by many new schools of philosophy is that human beings, who constitute only one out of the myriad of life forms on planet Earth, should respect the integrity of Nature and all other forms of life. Then, the attitude of individuals, and indeed society, towards the environment would be totally different.
It is clear that ethics are basic to our way of dealing with the environment. Most accepted political and legal documents are based on so-called anthropocentric ethics. It is the view that the environment is there for humans and society; the environment is only instrumental: to feed us, to provide resources, or to be enjoyed.
Other ethical systems argue a much higher degree of integrity of Nature. The biocentric view maintains that other life forms have a value of their own, regardless if they are useful to us or not, and should be respected for that reason. Ecocentric values emphasize that we should respect ecosystems with all their components. Regardless of which of these views one accepts, it is clear that they maintain that we should respect the environment more than is the case at present.
Information, education, and debate on environmental issues and actions to increase public awareness have been a main concern since the earliest years of the environmental movement. Schools and universities have important roles, but we should not forget the importance of the media, families, and other everyday situations to provide new knowledge, understanding and skills in the field of environmental protection. Knowledge is important and a prerequisite for informed action. However, a change in ethics and behaviour usually also requires a practical situation conducive to change. Nonetheless, information, education, and development of new skills play important roles in acceptance of change.
Lifestyles develop and change slowly under the influence of a complex world. Modern society does not make it easy to pursue an environmentally friendly lifestyle. Still there are choices that can be made in our lives, and this is the little crack in which a new society may develop. This crack may widen as we look for a different way to approach environmental protection, to create a society based on other values.