Plural valuation of nature matters for environmental sustainability and justice

Berta Martín-López
Social-Ecological Systems Institute, Faculty of Sustainability, Leuphana University of Lüneburg, Germany

“Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” ― Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

What are the multiple values of nature?

Why do people care about nature1? If we listen to the responses to this question, we soon realize that the values ascribed to the living world are multiple and defy a common currency. When we express why biodiversity matters to us, three different kinds of values emerge: intrinsic, instrumental and relational values (Figure 1, left column). 

Intrinsic values refer to the inherent worth of nature as an end in itself, regardless of any human interest, whereas instrumental and relational values are human-centred2 and 3. Intrinsic values recognize that non-human biotic and abiotic entities deserve moral consideration for their own sake. Although intrinsic values are considered independent of human judgements, some scholars question the idea of intrinsic values as independent from humans because these values necessarily result from human morality. Recent research recognizes that humans can express regard for biodiversity irrespective of human interests and therefore ‘subjective’ intrinsic values can be revealed4. In fact, intrinsic values have been essential for conservationists, environmentalists, environmental scientists and land managers (Figure 1, central column). For example, analysis in 20075 found that 80% of the environmental organizations responsible for the management of significant areas of land in England broadly endorsed intrinsic values to nature.

Instrumental values represent the importance of nature as a means to achieve human ends or satisfy human needs, interests or preferences6 and 7. Since the definition of instrumental values refer to the aspects of nature that act as a means to an external end; it often implies some degree of substitutability, in the sense that any combination of goods and services that leads to the same desired end (given unchanged individual preferences) would have a similar exchange value8 and 9. For example, the instrumental value of an apple tree as a means to achieve a certain amount and quality of apples may be replaced by another apple tree with similar performance, and from the perspective of an urban consumer, the service provided by the tree may be replaced by a similar service provided by a supermarket. To value nature only as a vehicle for achieving an end is consistent with expressing its instrumental (exchange) value in monetary terms. This suggests that a consumer, given her preferences, is willing to trade-off her income, which could be spent on something else, for the apples bought in the supermarket to fulfil her goal of eating the apples. The exchange value of such apples is then associated with the value of the service of a given apple tree. Using a similar logic, the instrumental value of pollinators in apple orchards has been calculated in monetary terms by estimating the costs of replacing insect pollination with human pollinators who hand-pollinate the trees10. This kind of valuation tends to reflect the preferences of some stakeholders better than others. In particular, extensive economic valuation research has shown that wealthy urban dwellers are more likely to give nature a higher value in (monetary) instrumental terms, than more rural and less wealthy people (Figure 1, right column)11, 12, 13 and 14. Reducing the value of nature to (exchange) instrumental values can silence the multiple ways in which people express the importance of nature, often motivated at least partially by non-utilitarian values15. For example, and though not only relevant for traditional and indigenous communities, estimating the instrumental value of the Pacific salmon overlooks the many ways by which Indigenous Peoples express their relationships with this species, including the spiritual and emotional connections16.

Relational values refer to those concerns related to the meaningfulness of relationships, such as those between nature and people and among people within nature or fostered by nature17 and 18. Relational values are not present in biodiversity and its components themselves, but derived from the relationships with and responsibilities to them. Relational values emerge from the meaningfulness of relationships between people and nature and among people within nature (Figure 1, left column). When referring to meaningful relationships, relational values emerge, for example, from the interactions between a farmer and her land, a farmer community and its territory, or as part of social movements working to preserve Life on Earth19. In these relationships, individual and collective relational values may connect with the cultural identities of farmers derived from the relationship with land, their sense of care for the soil that underpins their livelihood and spiritual development, and the sense of responsibility (stewardship) for the manifold features of the agricultural landscape, as well as the social cohesion offered by the sense of place and connections to other farmers emanating from the landscape. Recent empirical research, aiming to uncover the plural values of nature, shows that relational values are explicitly expressed, often more broadly but in combination with intrinsic and instrumental values, specially by rural traditional communities and Indigenous Peoples (Figure 1, central column)20, 21 and 22. Relational values are often more apparent in non-Western cultures, such as the Sumak Kawsay or Buen Vivir of Andean Indigenous Peoples, the Ngurra-kurlu of Warlpiri People in Australia, or the Ubuntu in South Africa. This finding aligns with evidence from the latest Local Biodiversity Outlook, which shows that the value systems of Indigenous Peoples and local communities are based on the connections between people and nature, rooted on reciprocal and respectful relationships23.  

Figure 1

Figure 1 

Figure 1: Association between value types (left), the main social actors who broadly express these values (centre) and the methodological approaches most commonly used to measure them (right). In the left column (adapted from Chan et al. 201624), (A) Intrinsic value represents the importance of nature by itself regardless of human uses and experiences; (B) Instrumental value refers to the importance of nature to satisfy human needs, interests and preferences through the provision of benefits (such as food, energy and materials); and (C) Relational value refers to the importance of the meaningful relationships between people and nature and among people within nature (including the importance of nature because of its contribution to develop people’s health, cultural identity, social relationships or responsibility toward other humans and nature). All kind of social actors might value nature because of its intrinsic, instrumental and relational values, although particular actors are more likely to express specific nature’s values as indicated in the figure. ILK: Indigenous and Local Knowledge. 

While intrinsic, instrumental and relational values are different, they are connected and are often simultaneously present when people articulate how and why nature matters to them25 and 26. For example, in a study of the Otún watershed in Colombia27 one interviewee stated that the Otún watershed matters because “(…) is indispensable for life on the planet [intrinsic value]. Having good-quality water ensures a good health and good quality of life [relational and instrumental values28]. Additionally, many families depend economically on the watershed [instrumental value]”. Moreover, the three kinds of values interact with each other, and by endorsing a particular value the other values can be nurtured29. For example, when people visit a forest to gather edible mushrooms or wild plants for food, the value of the forest is instrumental. However, the repetitive act of going to the forest to pick mushrooms and plants can lead to the building of a meaningful relationship with the forest, nourishing a sense of place and identity (i.e. relational value). The built relation between oneself and the forest might lead to endorsement of moral rights to the forest, leading to principles of stewardship (i.e. relational value) and opening opportunities to recognize its intrinsic value. 

Because intrinsic, instrumental, and relational values are distinct but at the same time they are connected and can be simultaneously present when people articulate how and why nature matters to them30, excluding one value type, applying valuation techniques that only articulate one type, or reducing all values to a single metric can strongly bias, and thus misrepresent, the multiple ways in which nature matters to people31 and 32

Composite image of wild mushrooms and a child picking mushrooms
Image caption: Mushrooms in a forest can be valued because of their instrumental, relational and intrinsic values. Instrumental value (left) is expressed when mushroom picking is considered a means to collect edible food. Relational value (middle) is represented when mushroom picking leads to a meaningful relationship with the mushrooms and the forest, as well as, relationships among people in the forest. The photograph is an expression of care and attentive interest realized by a girl when picking a mushroom. Intrinsic value (right) is the value of the mushroom by itself regardless of any human activity and interest. The caring act of mushroom picking (relational value) can lead to recognition of the intrinsic value of the mushrooms and the forest. (Photographs courtesy of Dr David Lam)

How can we measure the multiple values of nature? 

The evolution of the societal discourses on the value of nature described above has been mirrored by the evolution of conservation33 and global biodiversity assessment approaches34. The journey from intrinsic to instrumental to relational values can be recognized in the focus of major global biodiversity assessments: from considering predominately intrinsic value in the International Biological Programme (1964-1974), to the focus on ecosystem services and their instrumental values in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2000-2005), to the explicit incorporation of relational values in the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) since 201235. Accordingly, the progression of the societal narratives on why nature matters has been reflected in the techniques and metrics developed in nature valuation research (Figure 1, right column)36 and 37

In the 1980s and 1990s, when intrinsic values tended to dominate mainstream conservation societal narratives, most of the research aimed to measure nature by means of biophysical metrics, such as species richness and relative abundance, or ecosystem productivity and stability. Since the late 1990s, nature valuation has shifted the focus to natural capital and the economic benefits of biodiversity and ecosystem services, eliciting instrumental values in economic and often monetary terms as illustrated by the Total Economic Value framework38 or The Economics of Biodiversity and Ecosystems initiative39 and 40. To estimate the monetary value of nature, researchers use different valuation techniques, including those that (1) directly rely on current market prices (e.g. food), (2) are related with the consumption of goods that are traded in other markets (e.g. when estimating the recreational value of a protected area by calculating the travel costs of its visitors), or (3) rely on hypothetical markets (e.g. asking people’s willingness to pay for species conservation). 

Monetary metrics followed by biophysical metrics have been the most commonly used measures in ecosystem services research41, leading to a long-standing debate in nature valuation that continues today. Those who endorse nature’s intrinsic values argue that framing the importance of biodiversity mainly as tangible benefits to people risks missing opportunities to save those biodiversity components with little or unknown utility42 or might lead to the commodification of nature, which can unintendedly harm biodiversity43. Those who endorse instrumental values to biodiversity argue that biophysical metrics representing intrinsic values are non-operational because they cannot be implemented in cost-benefit analysis. However, empirical research suggests that intrinsic and instrumental values alone do not fully capture why people care for nature, and can lead to polarizing (and paralyzing) debates among civil society and decision-makers44 and 45

If, as mentioned in the previous section, relational values can be crucially important in making decisions about nature, why then is it that they have been largely neglected in formal nature valuation? One explanation is that relational values have been often conflated with instrumental values due to their anthropocentric nature46. For example, the sense of belonging that one person can experience from developing a meaningful relation with one place (i.e. relational value) was traditionally classified as an instrumental value because it was framed as a means to achieve mental health. Another reason explaining why relational values have been neglected is that, unlike instrumental values, relational values are difficult to quantify47 and thus they are often frowned upon as ‘subjective’. Indeed, because these values emerge from people’s emotional, cognitive, affective and spiritual bonds to nature, they require socio-cultural approaches that embrace qualitative, deliberative and arts-based techniques. Socio-cultural valuation approaches recently applied to estimate the relational values of nature include methods such as interviews, participatory observation, photo-elicitation and photo-voice, and storytelling48

Whose voices are considered in nature valuation?

While it originated in the context of better informing biodiversity action, plural valuation has wider social implications connected to the notions of justice and equity. It is increasingly argued that plural valuation is about justice as much as it is about biodiversity; this is because plural valuation aims to articulate the diversity of values of nature involving different actors and their worldviews, recognizing power relations, taking into account the winners and losers of biodiversity conservation action49, and inviting their voices in the design of more inclusive policy instruments50 and 51. Because of this, plural valuation can be a tool to foster recognitional justice. 

When scientists and decision-makers overlook the diversity of nature’s values, or when they measure them with methods that systematically obscure or underestimate a particular kind of value, they automatically exclude certain social actors, their needs, interests, preferences and worldviews (Figure 1). In order to represent the plural values of nature as fully and fairly as possible, we first need to recognize the different ways in which people value and relate with nature, especially those actors historically marginalized on the grounds of ethnicity, gender, age, physical abilities or income. Accordingly, valuation methods should go beyond biophysical and economic valuation, and include broader methodologies and epistemologies in the context of trustful collaborations and dialogues with stakeholders52, 53 and 54

The mission of plural valuation thus goes beyond representing the diversity of values of nature to become an ineluctable component of the decision-making processes, by fostering the recognition of marginalized voices, empowering marginalized worldviews and contesting power imbalances55 and 56. While this poses formidable logistic and epistemological challenges, it is increasingly seen as a lever for the entangled pursuit of sustainability and environmental justice.