Values as the Foundation for Sustainable Behaviour

Submitted by Arthur Dahl on 7. February 2011 - 23:15
Dahl, Arthur Lyon

Papers presented at the 5th Annual Conference of the International Environment Forum
19-21 October 2001, Hluboka nad Vltavou, Czech Republic

Values as the Foundation for Sustainable Behaviour

Arthur Lyon Dahl*
Geneva, Switzerland

The great weakness in efforts to achieve sustainable development is in their implementation. There has been a lack of political will at a governmental level, lack of incentives in the private sector, and lack of sufficient willingness to change individual behaviour. Since motivation is intimately linked to values, it is worth examining what role values can play in achieving more sustainability. This paper will consider the origin and significance of values as determinants of behaviour, how they can be changed, and what kinds of values can contribute to sustainable development.


Values are what we consider excellent, useful, or desirable, they are what we praise and hold in high esteem. They are a fundamental part of how we define ourselves, our culture and our society. They are generally enshrined in our conception of the world, our definition of a human being, our ideology. As a result, they are often unconscious and unquestioned. They determine how we react without even thinking about it. They just seem natural.

Values are also one of the distinctive characteristics of human beings. Where animal behaviour is conditioned by instinct, humans have to be educated, and the transmission of values is an essential part of the educational process. Different values produce different kinds of behaviour. Saints and sinners, snobs and sex fiends, are determined by what they value most. It is not always evident what our real values are. They are not what we just pay lip service to, but what we feel deeply, and how we respond when we are challenged. To make our values conscious, we can try to answer some basic questions. What are the most important things in life? What are we ready to sacrifice for? What price are we willing to pay? What would we give our life for?

Values are not innate, but are transmitted through parents, family, school, religion, and society at large. This transmission may be a conscious planned process of indoctrination by government or church, or more haphazard. In our modern world, the media like television, cinema, and advertising have an increasing influence in forming individual value systems, at the expense of family and community.

Traditionally, values have been determined by religion and culture and transmitted by the family, the church/synagogue/mosque, and school (often religious). With the secularization of the last two centuries in the west, these have been replaced by the modern, scientific, rationalist world view, either strictly materialist, or mixed with a humanism emphasizing certain basic values without direct religious links, although often of religious origin. In some countries and political systems, the religious source of values is replaced by an ideology of economic or political origin, including communism, capitalism and various forms of nationalism and racism (Fascism, Naziism, Apartheid, etc.) all of which are fundamentally materialistic in orientation.

In considering this wide spectrum of values, it may help to consider human nature itself. Human beings have a physical or animal nature comparable to that of other animals, with physical needs and instinctive drives. They also have an intellectual reality or nature, able to reason and imagine beyond the immediate here and now. Most people also accept that they have a spiritual nature, cultivated through religious or spiritual practices, which is often considered the highest and purest form of human existence, transcending that of the physical body. Different value systems address one or more of these realities. An important distinction between value systems is the extent to which they address the material, intellectual and spiritual dimensions of human existence.

How do these value systems relate to the issue of sustainable development? Values that define humans only as well-endowed animals, that emphasize immediate material well-being and gratification, that favour one group at the expense of others, that encourage individualistic hedonistic self-satisfaction over the family, community or society as a whole, and that focus on the short term over the long term, tend to push civilization in very unsustainable directions. They make it easy for the wealthy and powerful to exploit "inferior" groups, to justify pushing environmental and social costs off on the poor and underprivileged peoples and countries, to use workers like machines and discard them when they are worn out or no longer needed, and to consume resources with no regard for the future. Such values are at the very root of our present crisis of environment and sustainability.


From a systems perspective, values are the essential foundation of society, the rules that define human interactions, equivalent to the instructions for the computer operating system, and the genetic programme of the cell. They are the most important kind of information because they determine processes. Individual human values are critically important to our capacity to form complex adaptive systems, with the flexibility to evolve increasing levels of interaction, collaboration and productivity. It is our capacity to investigate truth for ourselves, to decide on our own values and to modify them in the light of experience, that makes us humans, not automata. However, the nature of those values is critically important. People can be ideologically programmed to blind obedience, as in Nazi Germany or various fanatical movements. On the other hand, a strong foundation of individual spiritual values consciously and voluntarily adhered to (as opposed to "religious" indoctrination) can provide a kind of moral "vaccination" against fanaticism, brainwashing, and blind obedience.

The values that have been the most admired, and that have had the most durable impact on civilization down through history, are associated with the lives and teachings of the great religious teachers, prophets or manifestations of God (Krishna, Buddha, Moses, Christ, Mohammed, Baha'u'llah, etc.). Their impact has gone far beyond their immediate avowed supporters and has lasted even when their origin has been forgotten. These unique figures have both restored or purified traditional values and revealed new values opening new potentials in human social and spiritual evolution, much as favourable genetic mutations open up new potentials in biological evolution. Such values can be considered spiritual values, in contrast to the often more material values propagated by various ideologies and philosophies. Such spiritual values are also accompanied by belief systems that can provide very strong motivation to practice those values despite the difficulties involved. If values supporting sustainability are included within, or accompanied by, one of these larger belief systems, their motivational force will be greater.

The values referred to above are basically personal values that find their expression in the behaviour of individuals. However a society can also incorporate its values into its institutional structures: legislative and justice systems, forms of governance, social, economic and educational structures. One of the problems in present Western society is that there is often a considerable gap between the values held by individuals and the values for which economic and social institutions are held accountable. This is particularly true of businesses in the private sector, for which profitability is often the only obligatory value. Governments often legislate other obligations at the national level, but there is no mechanism to impose any values on multinational or international economic activity. Any significant advance towards sustainability must address both the values underlying the individual behaviour of producers and consumers, and also the institutional behaviour of both the public and private sectors. The following sections will consider both personal and institutional values for sustainability.


Any society or institution is founded on a set of common values, purposes or principles. Initially, those values are generally expressive of, and shared by, the leading members of the society. However conditions change and social institutions must adapt to new situations. Institutions are more conservative than individuals, and may not keep up with the changing values of the majority of individuals, or may be manipulated for the advantage of those holding power. Collective efforts can be made to bring institutional and individual values back into harmony. Where the values of the society itself are at fault, and threaten unacceptable damage or destruction, then a more fundamental process of social and institutional transformation is necessary. This can be achieved through an evolutionary process, but more often has entailed violence or revolution.

Individual values can be changed by education (including the use of reward and punishment), by information communicated through the media, by community or other social pressure, by a scientific understanding of processes and risks, by the example of a charismatic person or role model, or by a process of religious adoption or conversion. A combination of these change mechanisms will be even more effective in modifying values.

Where personal values lead to acts that are undesirable or damaging to an individual or society, the usual approach is to punish the unwanted behaviour. However it can be more efficient and effective to address the underlying values and to attempt to change them. If our behaviour is unsustainable, generating an unsustainable lifestyle, then any required change in behaviour should start with a reconsideration of our values. This may involve modifying what we buy or consume, and how we consider or treat others. Since sustainability itself is a dynamic concept that must adapt to multiple contexts and processes, encouraging more adaptive and sustainable values is much more effective in facilitating the evolution of a new society than any external imposition of rewards and punishments.

To achieve sustainability, several types of values need to be considered:
- values with respect to fellow human beings;
- the value attached to material things and consumption;
- the importance given to the environment;
- the purpose of life.
This latter point is fundamental to all the others. If the purpose of life is defined as the fulfilment of individual material needs and drives and the denial of any other goal in life, the resulting value set will be very different from one that sets higher humanistic goals, or one that defines the real purpose of life as the acquisition of spiritual qualities, with participation in society seen as a means to that end.


What individual values best support sustainable development? The following set of values or spiritual principles, when taken together, will encourage the kinds of individual behaviour that will drive the development of a more sustainable society. Individuals who cultivate their capacity to love learn to turn outwards and favour others over themselves. This will produce a much more altruistic orientation in society in general.

Justice is another spiritual principle that should become the foundation of development efforts. Through its application, extremes of wealth and poverty will be eliminated. Wealth is desirable and commendable if everyone is wealthy. Justice is essential to win the commitment of everyone to the development process. Individuals will be willing to sacrifice their immediate short-term interest if they feel the ultimate benefits will be justly shared.

This in turn leads to a sense of solidarity with all humanity, based on a recognition of our oneness. It will enable each person to make individual decisions in a global context, and to feel a sense of responsibility for every human being. Pollution, for instance, would be easily seen as fundamentally wrong.

Instead of seeing work only as a way of making money, work should be redefined in a more spiritual context as a form of service to humanity, producing spiritual benefits for the individual equivalent to worship. Giving work a spiritual motivation will inspire everyone to seek those opportunities for service that will best fulfil their human potential while advancing civilization. The result will combine economic, social and spiritual progress.

One of the fundamental dimensions of sustainability is recognizing that resources are limited on this planet, and must be justly shared with both present and future generations. To achieve this, everyone should practice moderation in all things. Many environmental problems are the consequence of excessive consumption. A spiritual attitude of detachment from material things, and being content with little, will facilitate sharing resources equitably.

It is also necessary to have a sense of respect for the environment and the whole creation. This can be based both on a scientific awareness of the complex interactions that maintain our planetary environment in balance, and of a spiritual awareness of a divine creation, of the value of other beings, of ancestral connections, or of being in oneness with all things, depending on the religious tradition.

There are, of course, other relevant values, but the above already illustrate some that would produce much more sustainable forms of behaviour.


We also need to find ways to restructure the economic and social institutions of our society to reflect a similar set of values enhancing sustainability. Just as an individual should see work as a form of service, so should business and government be reoriented to be of service to the whole society, and not just a favoured part. A business enterprise should be legally responsible for providing a good or service in the best way possible. Profit should be one measure of the efficiency with which the service is performed, rather than an end in itself.

There are also institutional dimensions of justice. For example, workers will be motivated to contribute to their business if they receive a just share of the profits. Collective decisions will be most just if they are based on widespread consultation and participation by all those affected. There may even be a just return on capital, with a moderate rate of interest that reflects true value added, rather than hidden exploitation or exporting of costs.

There is also an institutional responsibility, divided between government and business or private owners, for the equitable and sustainable management of natural resources for the benefit of all humanity. For renewable resources, it is essential to ensure that there is no net loss in the resource base over time. For non-renewable resources, the equivalent expression of justice for future generations would be to ensure that consumption of such resources leads to other durable and sustainable forms of capital. There should be no net transfer of costs to future generations.

Sustainability requires respect for the limits of the life support systems and biogeochemical cycles of this planet. This is an institutional responsibility at a global scale for which we largely lack the necessary structures of governance, apart from a few global conventions. Such institutions need to be developed or reinforced rapidly to manage and counteract present pressures on the global environment.


Values, or the application of spiritual principles, have been the missing ingredient in most past approaches to sustainable development. Grand declarations and detailed action plans, even when approved by all the governments, do not go far if people are not motivated to implement them in their own lives, and if institutions are not made responsible to carry them out. The exciting thing about addressing sustainability at the level of values is the potential to create self-generating human systems building a more sustainable and thus ever-advancing civilization. The World Summit on Sustainable Development should include this dimension in its agenda.

(* The views expressed are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations Environment Programme.)

Last updated 14 October 2001