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Society and River Environment: A Survey

by Nikolai Rolley


If a river management project is to be effective at addressing multiple goals in a sustainable way, it must take into account the views of a variety of stake-holders. Most traditional studies of river environments are concerned with biological or habitat diversity, including their historical and cultural components, but they rarely address the diversity of human opinion about the environment and its value. Since stake-holders are critical to the success of a management plan, especially in urban areas, ecologists should collaborate with social scientists who can assess subjective attitudes toward the ecosystem.

We have begun a pilot study to investigate the diversity of environmental thinking (including both ecological and cultural aspects) among specialists concerned with river environments and watershed management in urbanized areas, as well as teachers, who are responsible for the environmental thinking of the next generation. All of our respondents were engaged at some level in the task of formulating strategies for the future sustainable development of the Neva river ecosystem, its watershed and river banks. Our questions attempt to ascertain how they perceive the diversity, complexity and sustainability of the river environment; whether they are unanimous in their aims and decisions; which goals seem to be especially important to them in river management; and what they want to teach students and local stakeholders about the river.

Based on the assumption that there are distinct styles of environmental thinking, we have analyzed our data using Q-methodology, which permits researchers to map the attitudes of a set of respondents towards issues about which they are well-informed. Based on this methodology, we identified 39 statements that represent a broad range of environmental attitudes, then grouped respondents according to whether they agreed or disagreed with those statements.


We identified six styles of thinking (or value orientations) about river ecosystems and their environments. (For detailed results see Table 1, Factor Q-Sort Rank for each Statement, by Factor, and Table 2, Beliefs regarding society and river environment [factor loadings].)

Type 1: Anthropogenic Load Limiters
This type of thinking is highly ecocentric. Human beings are treated as ordinary members of an "ecological team.” They perceive an imperative to practice the ethics of stewardship with respect to river ecosystems, considering themselves keepers or trustees, but not owners. A key problem for them is that almost all river banks and watersheds in the city and its suburbs are overpopulated. An important step to solve environmental problems on the river would be to control population growth in this area and to limit the anthropogenic load. To help the public and policy makers understand environmental issues, people in this category believe that "powerful" educational efforts are needed.

Type 2: Nature Partners
This group showed the strongest agreement with a statement about the necessity of protecting basic life-supporting ecosystems as our duty to ourselves. They see nature as a holistic, sustainable system in harmonious equilibrium, and they believe that humans should act in symbiosis or partnership with this system. People who ascribe to this type or environmental thinking agree with ecocentric statements, but at the same time they do not classify human beings as ordinary members of a river ecosystem or “ecological team.” Within limits, they accept that human beings can work and develop a variety of activities in the river watershed, while advocating that human activities should copy natural processes in the river ecosystem. In this way they believe that people can build sustainable relationships with the river environment. Like those in Type 1, they believe that “powerful” educational efforts are needed, so that people can understand the complexity of symbiotic relationships in ecosystems.

Type 3: Romantics
This type may be identified with the "Deep Ecology School” of Arne Naess. We call them "Romantics", borrowing the term from the famous Russian psychologist A. R. Luria (1979), who identified a "Romantic Science" that differs from classical science in its attempt to understand the complexity of life without reductionism. In our case, Romantics admire the beauty and principles of nature and acknowledge the complexity of ecological effects, some of which elude economists’ efforts to place financial values on them. They are sure that the most important resources and services in the river environment are not "material", but "cultural." Romantics are influenced by Aldo Leopold's ideas of environmental morals and ethics. They believe humans achieve self- realization only in the natural environment, by identifying themselves with "individuals, species, ecosystems, and landscapes.” In contrast to Type 1, Type 3 does not adopt Malthusian ideas. In considering the moral and ethical aspects of the human's behavior in the environment, they do not sort positively a statement supporting control of population growth.

Type 4: Environmental Economists
This type of thinking is anthropocentric. People of this type believe that the ecosystems' value is related only to human needs and river management should be based on economic factors, including the self-interest of stakeholders. They also believe that the basis for sustainable development of a river watershed is a civilized, well-structured market. People of this type are sure that aquatic organisms (like fish or benthos) cannot have "interests" or "rights" as people do. Human beings for them are naturally more important than ordinary members of the ecosystem, though this groups agrees with Type I about the need to limit human population. According to this type humans can manage nature using the “polluter pays” principle. They believe that an ecosystem’s attributes and properties can be assigned a monetary value, and that the impact of different kinds of pollution can be estimated from an economic point of view. Human helath is the main determinant of limits on pollutant concentrations in the air, coastal water and bottom sediments. This mode of thinking is optimistic, believing that humans can find a way out of any political, scientific or technological difficulty.

Type 5: Nature Users
This is the only group that believes that species can be separated into those that are "useful" and "useless" for human beings. This view clearly indicates their anthropocentrism. They think that people can rule the river ecosystem, and their goal is to manage "commercial" species. For them, the key to sustainable watershed development is the self-interest of stakeholders and the development of new technologies. They also believe that environmental education plays a very important role. This group does not consider human population growth in the watershed to be a significant problem.

Type 6: Nature Doctors
Strongly anthropocentric, Nature Doctors consider human beings to be clever supervisors who can help to heal and improve a sick river ecosystem. For them, people are not ordinary members of the "ecological team” but consumers of natural resources. This was the only group to agree with Gifford Pinchot that "there are only two things on this material earth - people and natural resources.” They do not consider river ecosystems to have intrinsic value, except insofar as they are a source of psychological resources for our self-realization. Nature Doctors take a clearly optimistic view of the potential for technology and even genetic engineering to improve life and river ecosystems.

The six perspectives that emerged from our Q-study do not represent a "classification of ideas" or "classification of people.” On the contrary, our research allowed us to identify and to estimate the diversity and complexity of environmental thinking. In fact. Table 2 is kind of "map” of the complexity of environmental thinking. Through this research, we can see substantial diversity in the beliefs and attitudes of different specialists regarding human society and river environment.
Despite this diversity, these specialists share many beliefs and attitudes that can form the basis for the development of environmental policy for sustainable watershed and river management that might attract widespread support (see Table 1). All respondents agreed that "Our duty to ourselves is to protect basic life-supporting ecosystems by preserving their integrity, stability, and beauty.” Nearly all respondents disagreed with statements (1, 4, and 5) that represent the most extreme views of the need to exploit rivers for the material benefits of humans. The consistent responses to these statements indicate that people of all types understand that the complexity of environmental problems in river ecosystems necessitates a new style of human behavior. All respondents also rejected the idea that the present generation has the right "to the fullest necessary use of all available resources of the river and its watershed.” This shared view supports limits on exploitation of resources and acknowledges the value of longer-term thinking in formulating environmental policy.
All respondents were supportive of the need for "powerful efforts in ecological and environmental education" and for interdisciplinary discussion of environmental values and goals to improve decision making in the watershed and river management. This suggests that efforts to increase environmental and mutual understanding among the public and policy makers would have broad support.
Our research shows how different specialists think about important issues of environmental policy and specifically river management. They show some major differences in perspectives, but also some important areas of consensus. This information can be used to help in understanding the areas of conflict and to help in finding policies that are likely to be accepted by experts and stakeholder groups. We can repeat the observation by Gargan and Brown (1993, pp. 348-349), that the "special contribution of Q-methodology to decision making is that it helps overcome the limitations of the mind in dealing with complexity, and serves to locate elements of consensus (if they exist) that might otherwise go unnoticed in the emotional turmoil of political debate.”




Statements cited in discussion:

1. The river and its environment belong to all people living there for their instrumental benefit, to be explored, manipulated, exploited, modified to improve the material quality of human life.

4. We need not adapt our behavior, habits and tastes to the natural environment since we can remake and optimize it to make our life more comfortable.

5. Our increasing technological dominion over nature, including river environment, is natural proof of the survival of the fittest and of the reality of progress.

For a complete list of the 39 statements, see Table 1.

Return to discussion


Further topics and interdisciplinary essays
Peter the Great and the Neva River Delta
Land and Sea in the Russian Traditional World View
Floods on the Neva River
The Neva Embankments: Hydrology and Aesthetics
Society and River Environment
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