Assessing People’s Values of Nature: Where Is the Link to Sustainability Transformations?

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There is a need to distinguish between normative values (values as beliefs) and descriptive values (e.g. measuring preferences for ecosystem services).

Stålhammar 2021

In the context of ecosystem service research, there has been an increasing focus on measuring social and cultural values, beyond biophysical assessments. To that end, there has been growing interest in applying non-monetary methods to capture non-material social and cultural aspects of benefits in ecosystems. However, as Sanna Stålhammar’s perspective article highlights, there is a need to distinguish between different interpretations of the term ‘value’ to support transformational change. Specifically, we need to distinguish between 1) normative understandings of values i.e. values as beliefs and moral principles about what is good, or right, and 2) descriptive modes of understanding values i.e. those which dominate ecosystem service assessments, such as measuring preferences for a particular service.

Stålhammar highlights how not acknowledging the distinction between descriptive and normative understandings of value will translate into failure to capture if currently held values and sustainability transformation pathways align. Descriptions of current perceptions or preferences as captured in ecosystem service assessments do not necessarily reflect how we should value nature. In fact, people generally do not value nature enough – this sits at the root of our ecological crisis. One of Stålhammar’s conclusions is that, alone, efforts to increase and improve measurement and description of socio-cultural in ecosystem service assessments will not lead to more sustainable outcomes. Such methods do not allow for understanding why or how pro-environmental behaviours may emerge in specific contexts.

The interpretation of descriptive values in research, policy and governance should be examined in relation to how it ‘potentially overshadows the need for values to change’. Furthermore, dominant interpretation of values or valuation, which guide the way human-nature relations are assessed or managed, themselves reproduce certain world views and value systems. For example, current descriptive approaches to ecosystem service assessments (e.g. monetary valuation methods) reflect (and reproduce) Western understandings of human-nature relations. To that end, interdisciplinary analyses are needed to explore how we can understand human-nature relations from multiple perspectives. Scenario building can create room for various normative values around nature-people relationships, to explore pathways towards more positive, desirable relationships with nature. Such approaches are key because transformational change ultimately requires new ways of ‘seeing, relating to, and valuing our place in the world’.

If NbS are to act as vehicles for transformative change, then reflecting on the normative values being expressed within NbS processes, and the ways that descriptive values are assessed and mobilised within such processes, would seem like a useful endeavor.

Read the full paper here, and see other articles in Frontiers on Nature’s Contributions to People: On the Relation Between Valuations and Actions.