Diverse values of nature

How do we value nature? That question is not easy to answer. Each of us values and experiences nature in our own way. The differences in our experiences, feelings and interests determine our attitude towards nature and therefore our daily actions. Nature conservation requires recognising and bridging those perspectives and attitudes. Specifically within this topic, the question is: how can you express the many different values of nature in tangible ways? Ways that move beyond only a narrow monetised value of nature, to recognise the more immaterial values of nature – like the joy of seeing wildlife or the serenity of being in a fresh forest or meadow. These are the very values that give us humans meaning and purpose beyond just surviving.

People understand and value nature in many different ways. These different perspectives, values and interests interact and define everyday practices and decisions. Yet this diversity of nature values is seldom considered in science and policy, which often limits how people can engage with conservation and sustainable use of nature from their own perspectives and needs. The explicit recognition of multiple values of nature is an emerging topic in science, as these values determine how we frame research and policy, and thus ultimately the recommendations and decisions that are made on how to manage natural resources.

Acknowledging these diverse values will require a broadening of research framings, definitions, metrics, methodologies and solutions, as well as how science engages with communities and policy-makers.

Intrinsic and instrumental values

There are two broad categories of values that are commonly attached to nature and rationales for its conservation:

  1. Intrinsic values, which is the perspective of nature being valuable for its own sake. In this view, nature  is given own rights to exist without needing to be of any human use value. "Nature has a right of its own to exist without being negatively affected by humans” WUR’s Law for the Living Environment group are studying rights of nature approaches and the possibilities of giving rights to rivers, mountains or trees. Countries like Ecuador have constitutionally recognised Rights of Nature law, which is often deeply intertwined with giving indigenous people the legal possibilities to protect their territories and cultural identity.
  2. Instrumental values, looking at nature’s utility value for people. What does nature have to offer humans, and how can we make the most of it? "We need nature for food, fertile soils, clean water, building materials and medicine." Examples of WUR research on instrumental values of nature include much work on ecosystem services, our contribution to the System of Environmental-Economic Accounting (SEEA) of the United Nations, or the work on nature-positive business models for farmers or for tourism.

Relational values

A third category of values – relational values – has long been neglected in research, but is now gaining more attention. Relational values, also often referred to as biocultural values, are those values that contribute to reciprocal relationships between people and nature, and among people through nature – evoking behaviours such as care, social bonding, social identity and responsibility. Relational values, such as those by local communities and indigenous peoples, are suggested as particularly important for mobilising collective action towards desirable nature futures.

Scientists from Wageningen University & Research are increasingly investigating these relational aspects of societal challenges. How can you explore tensions, enter into dialogue and break through power relations? And how can you embed new ways of learning and decision-making in society?