The environmental crisis is founded on the undervaluation of nature

Globally, people value nature in diverse and profound ways that extend far beyond economic usage. However, the diversity of how people value nature is not properly reflected in key decisions.

According to a recent study published in Nature, the undervaluation of nature is the foundation for our environmental crisis. The international study identifies four ‘values-centred approaches’ that can foster the necessary conditions for transformative change, to achieve more just and sustainable futures. These include recognising the diversity of values with regards to nature, embedding these diverse values into decision-making, reforming policies and stimulating institutional change, and shifting society-level norms and goals to support sustainability-aligned values across sectors.

Currently, market-based values of nature, such as those associated with intensively produced food and other commodities, are often privileged at the expense of non-market values. The latter include, for example, adapting to climate change or nourishing cultural identities, and they are equally essential for achieving just and sustainable societies.

The expansion of protected area networks and other biodiversity conservation policies have additionally often prioritised narrow value sets regarding nature. This way they frequently marginalise values held by indigenous people and local communities, who have, in many cases, been shown to protect biodiversity on their territories.

"To attain just and sustainable futures, it is imperative to depart from the predominant focus on short-term profits and economic growth, which has come at the expense of considering the multiple values of nature in economic and political decisions," says Professor Christopher Raymond from the University of Helsinki, co-author of the Nature paper and also Coordinating Lead Author of the Assessment Report on the Diverse Values and Valuation of Nature (known as the Values Assessment) of the  Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

Within any society, there are broad, deeply held values that are embedded in social norms. There are even legal rules, along with specific value justifications of why nature matters to people. These include instrumental, intrinsic and relational values, which people express in their daily lives. These types of nature values can be measured using a large suite of valuation methods that are based on a range of economic, ecological and socio-cultural value indicators or metrics.

“The values typology illustrates how diverse worldviews and knowledge systems shape the conceptualisation and expression of the values of nature, and how to assess them. It places attention not only on which values but whose values are considered in environmental policy and decision-making,” says Professor Raymond.

“We call for rebalancing the values that underpin social structures, such as its legal institutions, by promoting values like unity, care, solidarity, responsibility, reciprocity and justice, both towards other people and towards nature. Shifting decision-making towards the multiple values of nature is a highly important part of the system-wide transformative change needed to address the current global biodiversity crisis and climate emergency. They all have intimate relationships with other socio-environmental ills, including increased contamination, emergent pandemics and environmental injustices. This requires a new definition of what is meant by ‘development’ and ‘well-being,’ recognising the multiple ways people relate to each other and to the natural world."

A better understanding of how and why nature is valued or undervalued by private and public decision-makers is more urgent than ever. On a positive note, global agreements like the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) call for inclusive and participatory processes for incorporating nature’s values into actions. However, predominant environmental and development policies still prioritise a narrow subset of the market values of nature. 

The study emphasises that recognising and incorporating the worldviews and values of indigenous peoples and local communities and the institutions that support their rights and territories also allow policies to be more inclusive. Crucially, this translates into better outcomes for both people and nature. According to Unai Pascual, professor from the Basque Centre for Climate Change and the Basque Science Foundation, Ikerbasque, who has led the study, and was also Co-Chair of the IPBES Values Assessment: “the best options for meeting global targets like those of the GBF and the SDGs are to weave together nature’s diverse values across all sectors of society and our economies”.

Original article:

Pascual et al. 2023. Diverse values of nature for sustainability. Nature. DOI: 10.1038/s41586-023-06406-9