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Making sense of environmental values: a typology of concepts

Marc Tadaki, Department of Geography, University of British Columbia; Cawthron Institute, New Zealand
Jim Sinner, Cawthron Institute, New Zealand
Kai M. A. Chan, Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability, University of British Columbia


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Debates about environmental values and valuation are perplexing, in part because these terms are used in vastly different ways in a variety of contexts. For some, quantifying human and ecological values is promoted as a useful technical exercise that can support decision-making. Others spurn environmental valuation, equating it with reducing ethics to numbers or “putting a price tag on nature.” We make sense of these complexities by distilling four fundamental concepts of value (and valuation) from across the literature. These four concepts—value as a magnitude of preference, value as contribution to a goal, values as individual priorities, and values as relations—entail fundamentally different approaches to environmental valuation. Two notions of values (as magnitudes of preference or contributions to a goal) are often operationalized in technical tools, including monetary valuation, in which experts tightly structure (and thus limit) citizen participation in decision-making. This kind of valuation, while useful in some contexts, can mask important societal choices as technical judgments. The concept of values as priorities provides a way of describing individuals’ priorities and considering how these priorities differ across a wider population. Finally, the concept of values as relations is generally used to foster deliberative forms of civic participation, but this tends to leave unresolved the final translation of civic meanings for decision-makers. We argue that all forms of valuation—even those that are technical tools—constitute technologies of participation, and that values practitioners should consider themselves more as reflexive facilitators than objective experts who represent the public interest. We thus encourage debate about environmental values to pivot away from theoretical gridlock and toward a concern with citizen empowerment and environmental democracy.

Key words

democracy; ecosystem services; environmental assessment; environmental valuation; participatory methods; politics of knowledge

Copyright © 2017 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article  is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.  You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087