2 Social values and sustainability

Lill Sarv

My story

I have been educated in art history, semiotics and cultural studies and in philosophy. Almost every child who grows up in Estonia spends their summer holidays in a summer cottage or at grandparents house in the countryside just like I did. Right next to my grandparents house there was an ancient holy site – a sacred circle of oak trees, visited by tourists and believers. The surrounding nature has never been just an object or material but has a soul and mind of its own.

I was drawn by the  idea of nature-friendly sustainable society with all the benefits offered by today’s scientific discoveries and technological advancements. I was particularly interested in the values that were behind the ecological design because a change in the value system is the first and most important change that our society needs to make. Everything else will follow from there.


What I have learned?  

From art history I learned that through art practices it is possible to question the common beliefs in society, draw attention to various problems and engage people in discussions.

From semiotics and cultural studies I learned that communication is not just verbal communication but that we are surrounded by many different meaningful communication systems. And that every living being sees the world differently depending on their previous knowledge and physical differences – which is called umwelt (meaning their own world or environment in german) in semiotics. Our world is constantly reshaped and changed by every new piece of information that we have learned.

From philosophy I learned to question many things that I used to not even think about. Like what is truth? What are the facts? Why do we act in certain ways? Why does society consider some behaviour acceptable and some not? What are the patterns behind it? And motivations?


In the current chapter you will learn how social values influence our behaviour toward nature and environment.

We are going to discuss how values are created, what is holistic worldview, greenwash and indifferent differences.




UMWELT – Jakob von Uexküll defines Umwelt in his Umwelt theory as the living organisms modality to appropriate and precept its environment. We can imagine umwelt metaphorically as kind of inhabited soap bubble. Every organism lives in their soap bubble that is designed according to their specific visual, tactile, temporal etc experiences, which sums up to a kind of experiential bubble. In Umwelt just like in a real soap bubble the external imagines are deformed when projected inside the bubble according to their quality and consistence.[1]


VALUE – Important and lasting beliefs or ideals shared by the members of a culture about what is good or bad and desirable or undesirable. Values have major influence on a person’s behaviour and attitude and serve as a board guidelines in all situations


HOLISTIC WORLDVIEW – Emphasizing the importance of the whole and the interdependence of its parts. Concerned with wholes rather than analysis or separation into parts

–  a form of media spin in which green marketing is deceptively  used to promote the perception that an organization’s products, aims or policies are environmentally friendly. Evidence that an organization is greenwashing often comes from pointing out the spending differences: when significantly more money or time has been spent advertising being “green”, than is actually spent on environmentally sound practices. Greenwashing efforts can range from changing the name or label of a product to evoke the natural environment on a product that contains harmful chemicals to multimillion dollar advertising campaigns portraying highly polluting energy companies as eco-friendly.[2]


Creation of values

We are all born to a community with already existing complex value system. First values are learned from the family members, then from school and larger society. A child is not just born but is born into a family, society, nation, citizenship which form our understanding of values. There are many things that are expected from the members of society. A family and a state can consider some behaviour right or wrong or better or worse.  Sometimes these values and expectations clash and a person has to face a dilemma – which one to follow? It also happens that we may discover that the values we learned are not valid anymore or are not sustainable or are harmful for the environment. But it is not easy to change the existing value-system – mainly because we usually see the values we are used to as something natural. Therefore it is very important to see a larger picture and to have a holistic worldview.


Dad, do I have to go?
Photo by DaiLuo on Flickr (2012)For example in China there were not very many cars as the government had decided to concentrate on the development of public transport and bicycles. But a car itself was considered as a status symbol as only the most influential and wealthiest  persons could allow to own one. The value of the car was not measurable just in money but it had an additional value as a status symbol. Therefore when China changed its politics and economy resulting in an economic boom, it also faced a car boom on its streets followed by serious smog and air pollution problems. By 2004 China was the world’s fourth largest producer and third largest consumer of automobiles.[3]

The bicycle became from a positive cultural symbol in 1970 into a sign of backwardness by 2000. But since 2012 the chinese have started to reevaluate bicycle after having to face the environmental problems. According to the 2008 Earth Policy Institute report between 1995 and 2005, “China’s bike fleet declined by 35 percent, from 670 million to 435 million, while private car ownership more than doubled, from 4.2 million to 8.9 million. Blaming cyclists for increasing accidents and congestion, some city governments have closed bike lanes. Shanghai even banned bicycles from certain downtown roads in 2004.”[4]

But since 2011, possibly prompted by 62-mile and nine-day traffic jams and mutinous U.S. consulates reporting on China’s air quality, the Chinese government has made a U-turn in transportation policy, encouraging its citizens to get back in the saddle through bike share programs.[5]


Further reading:

How values change – http://valuesandframes.org/handbook/4-how-values-change/

Value (personal and cultural) – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Value_%28personal_and_cultural%29


Holistic worldview

All the living beings share the same planet and therefore everything that is happening on the planet, even in geographically different locations, has influence on the earth and the ones who live on it, as whole. From the perspective of holistic worldview all the parts of the world are intimately interconnected and can be explained only by the reference to the whole.


For example: if you throw a plastic bottle in the water then it finally ends up in a North East of Hawaii, where the ocean currents form a giant whirl pool of debris from around the Pacific. It is called the North Pacific Gyre. It’s one of the largest ecosystems on Earth, comprising of millions of square kilometres. Today it’s better known as “The Great Garbage Patch,” an area the size of Queensland, Australia where there is approximately one million tonnes of plastic spread throughout the ocean. Drag a net in any area of this part of the ocean and you will pick up toxic, discarded plastic. Photographer Chris Jordan has documented this phenomenon:

I had been studying for quite a while the phenomenon called the Pacific garbage patch. I was looking for a way to visualize it, it was really surreal to land on Midway, seeing that my worst hopes of what I would find there are true. These are all albatross chicks, hatched out of their eggs and the very first meal they got was deadly to them. What happens is, when the eggs hatch one of the parents goes out and flies looking for food. They search over this vast area of the pacific and when they come back with is a belly full of toxic plastics, and they feed that to their babies. They die of starvation, malnutrition and chocking. Simply allow yourself to feel whatever it is you feel about this, without jumping to the way to solve it. Because I think we really need to feel these things, even if the feelings are uncomfortable, because those are the feelings that will turn into the fuel and drive passionate action.[6]

Greenwashing and consumption

I believed that by making ecological design and eco-products part of everyday life could make people change their values so that they would start to consider the influence that consumption has on the environment.

What I discovered was that many companies are actually doing a “greenwash” instead of trying to produce items with less influence on the environment. Even when a product is made of natural materials but has a weak construction and breaks very easily, it may have all rights to be advertised as “eco-friendly”, but in the end it is not as it creates rubbish and forces to consume more.  Objects, made of ecological materials but with short lifespan, are not sustainable.


Tasks for individual work:

  • search the internet for ecological products. Analyse how the product is marketed and try to detect “greenwashing”
  • search from internet what are the values/ criterias in base of what the world countries are divided into underdeveloped, developing and developed? Name the values implicated by this division. Discuss whether these values are helping to create sustainable future?


Further reading:

A History of Greenwashing: How Dirty Towels Impacted the Green Movement



  1. Uexküll, Jakob von, 1992, A stroll through the worlds of animals and men: A picture book of invisible worlds, In: Semiotica 89-4, pp 319-391.
  2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greenwashing Accessed in February 2015
  3. Kolya Abramsky, 2010: “Sparking a worldwide energy revolution: Social struggles in the transition to the post-petrol world”
  4. http://www.earth-policy.org/index.php?/indicators/C48/ Accessed in February 2015
  5. http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/06/the-bicycle-as-symbol-of-chinas-transformation/259177/ Accessed in February 2015
  6. http://www.collective-evolution.com/2013/09/23/something-the-entire-world-should-see-most-of-us-are-simply-unaware/ Accessed in February 2015


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Earth textbook by Lill Sarv is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.


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