GLP Member Research in the News

Q&A: The Nature of Value vs the Value of Nature

Related GLP Member: Unai Pascual

Editor's note: The following article was first published on the IPS website.

UNITED NATIONS, Feb 4 2019 (IPS) - Humans have long had a varied and complicated relationship with nature—from its aesthetic value to its economic value to its protective value. What if you could measure and analyse these values? One group is trying to do just that.

Over 150 years ago, philosopher Henry David Thoreau highlighted humankind’s responsibility to respect and care for nature.

“Every creature is better alive than dead; men, moose, and pine-trees, and he who understands it aright will rather preserve its life than destroy it,” he wrote in an essay.

At that very same moment in history, the Second Agricultural Revolution and the Industrial Revolution were at its peak in Europe and the United States, contributing to the depletion of natural resources and pollution that societies are dealing with today.

Now, rates of environmental degradation, biodiversity loss, and greenhouse gas emissions have dramatically increased, threatening the future of societies.

According to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), desertification, caused by the degradation of soil and land, is affecting one-third of the Earth’s land surface. The issue already affects 250 million people across the world, and it threatens an additional one billion people who depend on land for their needs.

The Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) aims to bring these vast, and sometimes seemingly conflicting, perspectives from science to indigenous knowledge in a new assessment on the many values of nature, helping create a vision on how to work towards a more prosperous, sustainable future.

IPS spoke to Unai Pascual, one of the co-chairs of IPBES’ new assessment, on the importance of understanding the complex issue.

IPS (Inter Press Service): What exactly are the values of nature?

Unai Pascual (UP): There are many values because people understand values in different ways. If you talk to a philosopher, they would tell you what values are from a philosophical standpoint like moral and ethical values. If you talk to an economist, they would talk to you about economic values and the values of things reflected in the market.

One of the objectives of the assessment is to provide a clear framework that can conceptually guide anything related to how people measure and articulate those values and… how those values influence decision making and policies, and governance in general.

How we take care of nature and how we exploit it have to do with the underlying values that we have about nature and the meaning we provide to these values in every day life.

IPS: Why was this issue chosen as part of the assessment, and why is it important to examine these values?

UP: We need this assessment to understand the connection between how we perceive nature, the way we interact with it, and the quality of life of people.

Those policies, norms, and habits of people are based on the underlying values that we all hold as individuals and as a society. We need to understand those values in order to understand how we set up those institutions which, at the end of the day, are the ones which are going to determine the fate of nature and how we perceive how nature affects our quality of life.

Understanding the role of these social norms and policies are at the heart of what IPBES is about. IPBES recognises that we need to understand those in order to really connect the dots—connect nature and human well-being.

It is necessary to connect the way we value nature with the future of nature and therefore the future of human wellbeing.

IPS: 2018 saw a number of big reports on climate change and land degradation from IPCC, UNEP, and even IPBES. Will this new assessment be similar, and supplement these reports?

UP: Yes, the values assessment is a methodological one in spirit. The idea is that any assessment that will follow after the values assessment will be able to reflect on issues around values in ways that has not been possible before.

And so far, IPBES has tried to provide coherence around values since its inception. The assessment of values provides a great opportunity for IPBES and other platforms to see the importance of recognising different types of values about nature and ways to bring them into decision making.

This is a sort of conceptual and methodological pillar which will inform many scientific efforts within IPBES and outside IPBES as well.

IPS: What do you expect to find, and how will the research be undertaken? Does this involve talking to communities around the world, including indigenous communities?

UP: We are going to find a way to integrate and provide a coherent picture around the different understandings about values. This is of critical importance because otherwise the scientific community will continue talking about values but each community will understand that in a different way.

If we don’t have coherence, we are not going to be able to move forward and to design policies that respect those different ways of valuing nature.

We will [also] find the connections that have not been explicitly addressed by the scientific community about how values explicitly or implicitly affect decision making with regards to nature be it through policy, consumption choices by consumers, production means by producers… that is, connecting values with governance and human behaviour.

Those values are dynamic, they change over time…Those can affect policies and goals of society and individuals and therefore change how we use nature or how we connect to issues such as climate change and land degradation.

What we are going to try to portray as well is how the future of humankind, of different societies’ institutions and governments, would have to be transformed with regard to the values and how we put them in practice in changing people’s behaviour towards more sustainable and just futures.
We need to build the capacity of the scientific community and the public at large to connect our diversity of values and the sustainability challenges of humankind.

Another knowledge system which is at the heart of IPBES is that of indigenous and local communities. It is very important to understand how they perceive and relate with nature. Their approach to connecting to nature is fundamentally different from many Western societies. We know that much of the biodiversity that underpins the health of the planet is taken care of and managed by indigenous communities.

It is critical to bring their perspectives, knowledge systems, and values into the assessment.

This is a big challenge on how to bridge both the scientific and the indigenous knowledge systems and bring them in a way that both are recognised as being vital for understanding the role of values in society and how this can impact the future of the planet.

Q: How could the international community use this assessment once completed?

UP: This could be a resource for many years to come. I hope that it will clarify the different types of values that exist in society so that different perspectives on values are recognised and accepted as being legitimate.

As scientists, we provide information and knowledge about how nature and human well-being are connected. We should take into consideration that there are different pathways and different perspectives on those connections because there are different ways of relating to nature. Such diversity is important to be respected and nurtured in the quest for sustainability.

That’s a call for the scientific community whenever we do assessments or systemise knowledge to connect the state of the planet in terms of its various environmental dimensions from climate change to land degradation to biodiversity loss…when they try to connect this to human beings, the vector that connects them are values.

We hope that policymakers or decision makers can make better decisions in the quest for sustainability by taking into account these different, legitimate perspectives on the values of and about nature.

*Interview was edited for clarity and length