ECOLOGICAL ECONOMICS

To value the environment means acknowledging pluralism

Woman and child walking in forest area.

Environmental decision-making needs to make room for people’s moral considerations around the plural values of nature, argues a new paper. Photo: Björn Kristersson/azotelibrary.com

Acknowledging a diversity of values is an absolute necessity for good decision-making

Story highlights

• A study of Swedish west coast citizens and politicians revealed that they hold many different deep values related to nature in their local environment

• Decision making involves difficult moral conflicts between such values that are often impossible to compare

• This supports the need to move beyond the neoclassical economic trade-off model of choice and value

VALUE JUDGEMENT: When Swedish west coast citizens and politicians gathered to discuss values related to nature in their local environment, their reasoning and choice-making were clearly guided by things like value conflicts, moral issues, and the willingness to compromise rather than optimise. Thus, choices were not resolved through rational trade-offs in order to minimise losses or maximise gains, as mainstream “neoclassical” economic theory would imply.

“Environmental decision-making needs to make room for people’s moral considerations around the plural values of nature,” says centre researcher Hanna Wetterstrand, facilitator and one of the authors behind a recent study published in People and Nature, a journal of British Ecological Society.

The study was done together with colleagues from KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, University of York and led by main author Lina Isacs, now at Uppsala University.

Value pluralism

Data comes from five research workshops that were organised in an area around Sweden's only fjord system, 50 km north of Gothenburg. The area is widely used for recreation and faced with environmental problems related to nutrient runoff from land and overfishing of the local cod stock.

Workshop participants took part in a series of planned exercises, which the researchers analysed through a mix of quantitative and qualitative approaches. Observations and interpretations were then linked to the prevalent understandings of value, valuation and deliberation in the literature.

The study recognises that valuation of the environment involves dealing with multiple forms of values that cannot be measured, compared and exchanged using a single common metric, such as money.

“Monetisation is problematic because it typically treats diverse types of values, from biodiversity and subsistence needs to freedom and justice, as if they are substitutable – not unique,” the authors write in a plain language summary of the new study.

“It’s handy, but monetisation conceals ethical dilemmas that are the very definition of sustainability problems”, says Lina Isacs.

Complex but necessary

Acknowledging the many different values people hold, and their emotional and moral dimensions, might first seem extremely complex, but in the long run it is an absolute necessity for making sustainable policy decisions.

“Understanding value pluralism is important as it means to take actual political circumstances seriously, and although this means decision-making becomes more difficult, it opens up for a more meaningful policy assessment,” they write.

This improved understanding has a potential to both help address environmental crises and environmental justice by improving the quality and legitimacy of decisions.

Read What does value pluralism mean in practice? An empirical demonstration from a deliberative valuation

Methodology

The empirical material comes from a mixed-methods, quasi-experimental research workshop on marine environmental issues in Sweden, in which workshop participants took part in both individual and group exercises that involved addressing potentially incommensurable values. The empirical study builds on data from five research workshops in the area called ‘8-fjords’ at the Swedish west coast in 2016–2017.

In the Deliberate Valuation exercise, the participants were instructed to rank 29 statements representing different values and preferences that directly or indirectly related to the environmental issues in their local communities.

Following an individual survey, the participants first did the value-mapping individually without interaction or discussion, then collectively in their respective group. The workshop ended with a survey including follow-up questions to evaluate the design and the facilitation.

Read What does value pluralism mean in practice? An empirical demonstration from a deliberative valuation

Published: 2022-09-08