The way we treat our environment is determined by how we view it. Peoples perspectives on the environment, and mankind’s relationship with nature, have traditionally been divided into four general categories: stewardship, imperialism, romanticism and utilitarianism. These perspectives still account for the majority of opinions and attitudes most people have about the environment today.
The perspective of stewardship maintains that humans hold a certain privilege and responsibility in relation to their environment, as stewards of nature. This perspective declares that it is our duty as human beings to look after all living things and to treat them with respect. Such an attitude is very popular within certain Christian and Jewish societies and there are many biblical references in accordance with this behaviour. Since nature is perceived as sacred, traditional stewards are often found to oppose science and technology, because they involved controlling nature.
Like stewardship, imperialism has its roots in Jewish and Christian religion. However, unlike their counterparts, imperialists referred to genesis to support the more dominant view that humans have a God-given right to control nature. Whilst stewards feel that a sacred bond exists between themselves, nature and God, imperialists feel that nature and God are separate. They believe that by subduing the Earth and controlling nature, God would give them respect. Historically, imperialist cultures would make plant and animal sacrifices to God. Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was very influential in British imperialism, suggesting that conquering nature is the highest ambition a human can have. He developed the modern view of science based upon the assumption that the aim of science is to control nature. The Imperialist view of nature was very dominant during the 18th and 19th centuries and still remains prevalent in some quarters today.
Towards the end of the 18th century, a cluster of artists, poets and writers adopted the perspective of romanticism in reaction against the imperialistic view that nature must be controlled. The romantics detested the new industrial landscapes and geometrically sculptured gardens. The Romantics did not value the environment for its own sake, any more than the imperialists, but valued it for its worth to humans. However, instead of observing nature as ugly, dangerous, and to be avoided or improved, Romantics became excited about the beauty of nature, honouring it with an almost God-like status. For Romantics, nature is most beautiful when it is in its purest state, unaffected by humans.
The fourth perspective of nature is one of a utilitarian or hedonist. Here, the most important things in life are happiness and contentment and nothing matters which cannot appreciate these feelings. Humans should be valued above everything else because they are capable, more than anything else, of experiencing such feelings. Animals, aware of pleasure and pain, may have some value, but trees and plants, having no feelings at all, have no value except their worth to humans. There are several reasons, however, why trees, plants and the environment are important to the utilitarians. The environment performs fundamental roles, such as the provision of the food chain and the shaping of rich and diverse landscapes, to be used and enjoyed by any number of people. It is only for these reasons that a utilitarian would want to protect and conserve the environment. It should be noted that although the utilitarians seek pleasure, they accept that it is often necessary to compromise short term pleasures, for the greater good over the long term.