Value, Values and Valuing Nature

Value, Values and Valuing Nature

By Andrew Darnton, CECAN Fellow 

25th June 2019   


“They took all the trees and put ‘em in a tree museum

Then they charged the people a dollar and a half just to see ‘em…”

[Joni Mitchell 1969]


Artists and academics and everyday people who care about the health of the planet have been doing the calculus for a long time. There is a new urgency to these calculations now, partly thanks to the School Strikes and Extinction Rebellion, and underpinned by a wave of action-oriented estimates about the state of the global ecosystem and its capacity to carry all life, including a human race projected to reach nearly 10 billion people by 2050 (UN 2017). We have known things are not well with nature for decades, but the ‘silent spring’ is now finding its voice. Getting that voice not just heard but acted upon may involve finding a common language of value to cut through the babble of differing values.

Measurement is central to driving effective action to stem the environmental crisis – and as such evaluators will have a vital role to play. The task of valuing nature has previously been assigned to, or appropriated by, economists. The Stern Review (2006) for example calculated that the costs of mitigation – preventative action to slow climate change – would be far lower than the costs of adapting to life in a hotter global climate. Yet despite the landmark impact of that Review, the extractive practices which are needed to keep dominant global economic models functioning have continued unabated. Wider approaches to valuation are needed which account for the diverse, dynamic and emergent ‘goods’ which nature provides and on which our wellbeing (and our economies) depend. In recent years this quest has been opened up to a wider array of academics and practitioners, notably in the UK through a shared Research Councils ‘Valuing Nature’ Programme (2014-19). Evaluators also have a lot to offer, if their task is understood in the broadest sense of measuring the value at play in a system, and what a policy, intervention, or ‘perturbation’ is doing to increase (or decrease) that value.

Yet at time of writing the dominant medium for measuring value remains number, and the numbers that trump all others are monetary. Policy still operates in the world as Nicholas Stern found it, where, if we are to save nature, we will need to be able to agree a price for nature, and a means of paying it. In England, Natural Capital Accounting is the mechanism which has been created to regulate this precious task (see eg. Natural Capital Committee 2015). It notes that we are working in complex systems, and how we work needs to reflect those realities in order to provide a flexible, emergent, and pluralistic way of governing that can sustain the variety of life in each place, and across the planet as a whole. When it comes to governing through the allocation of financial resources to create or extract value from nature, Natural Capital Accounting builds on the concept of ecosystem services, and develops a suite of accountancy tools to ensure that a ‘fair price’ is paid for the services which nature provides, and on which we depend – ideally so that ‘stocks’ of natural capital can be accrued and conserved, as well as sold.

The Natural Capital approach forms the governance spine of the UK Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan (2018), which leads with the admirable yet implausible ambition “to be the first generation to leave the environment better than we found it” (HMG 2018). Michael Gove, on stepping into the Ministerial brief in late 2017, took up this ambition and made it his own – among some other ambitions he may harbour. But the whole notion of ‘paying a price for nature’ rankles with many who have prioritised nature for much longer, and indeed used it as an overarching governance structure in their lives and work (for instance, by adhering to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (UN CBD) principles for adopting ecosystem approaches). When natural capital accounting comes within range of George Monbiot, for example, the concept is mocked as putting a £ price on a primrose (The Guardian 15/5/18).

£ valuation of nature is at odds with most people’s values. ‘Public money for public goods’ rings hollow, because they will say nature is not a public good: it is either beyond us, or we are of it, or both. “It is a rational and evidence-based approach, and yet it is simultaneously disgusting…” writes Molly Scott Cato, environmental economist and MEP. “We can make more or less sophisticated arguments on this point, but we will always be talking past one another. We are living in two separate paradigms…” (Cato 2012).

The environmentalists’ traditional approach is to argue for the ineffable, the essential, the intrinsic connection between us and nature: as if values could save us from value. Faced with a complex system – and any ecosystem or landscape will do – answers to what is good, to what should be used and what should be saved for future generations, are to be found through participative processes, through mobilising and negotiating values. The Common Cause project, as applied to Nature by Pirc (2013), argues that there are specific values which are good for nature, and that NGOs and other civil society actors should all promote these values, and consistently through all they do. By acting from this place, people’s intrinsic motivations will be strengthened and more people will be mobilised to do more good in the service of nature (as well as for other ‘bigger than self’ agendas). Common Cause seeks to provide practical guidance for campaigners and activists, but the use of values-based approaches is also seen as a way to guide participative work in complex systems designed to evaluate progress towards shared outcomes. CECAN Fellow Richard Gunton’s Pluralistic Evaluation Framework is one example of a project to develop a practical evaluation tool derived from an analysis of different actors’ values positions (eg. Gunton 2018).

Effective working in natural systems will always require participation and negotiation: as the principles of an ecosystem approach point out, differences will be worked out on the ground, and most clearly at the lowest levels of spatial scale (eg. UN CBD 1992) The problem with constructing these negotiations around values is that values underline (or explain, or mobilise) the differences between different groups of actors. Schwartz’ values circumplex (eg. Schwartz & Boehnke 2004) - which the Common Cause project is built upon - offers a ‘universal structure’ for human values, but notes that the emphasis or balancing of different values in that structure varies from person to person, and culture to culture.

Value, Values and Valuing Nature


And this is where the trouble starts for practitioners because values in social psychology are held to be the most foundational tier of the motivational structure (values at the bottom, then beliefs, then attitudes - see eg. Stern 2000). And the deeper seated the motivations, the harder they are to change (hence, attitudes are relatively pliable). Values are often described as innate: fixed in early life, or through our education. Common Cause argues for using frames (especially linguistic frames) to activate particular values – here, the intrinsic, bigger than self, ones. But there are other practitioners who contend that the best we can do is play to the values people already hold – ‘start from where they are at’ – and construct our messages on their terms, to get the job done (eg. Rose & Dade 2007). If people like status, then make the pro-environmental option high status: the Tesla, the keep cup, the vegan burger that bleeds….

Revaluation takes a different tack and prompts us to activate not values but notions of value (eg. Darnton 2018). Whereas values highlight what is different between us, value is shared and social. Value describes what matters (and then how much), and is the result of a negotiation between interested parties. Borrowing from multi-sided platform market theory in economics, we could even think of value as a platform for the exchange of values (eg. Evans 2011). Take e-bay for example: the value of an item under auction is agreed between the seller and the buyer (or buyers). These virtual marketplaces enable individual users to do what markets have always done on a wider scale, just more transparently.

When we do Revaluation, we invite people in a system (eg. a landscape) to come together and negotiate what is good for that system: to agree the outcomes that matter to them from the system – and then we set to work and provide data against those outcomes (including, in the end, £ valuations of those things that matter). We regard this as an evaluative task, though one which is radically different from most policy evaluations, as establishing what to measure against is part of the work -rather than establishing effectiveness against objectives pre-set by those who are governing (or attempting to govern) the system. Because what matters to people takes many forms, and goes beyond money, Revaluation measures data in many formats: numbers, feelings, and relationships. These last – the connections between the parts – are especially important, as they are what give a system its systemness, and its capacity to generate value now and ongoingly. If we are measuring in a natural system, it is the connections which provide the resilience, or spin the web of life, we might say.

It is only when all three dimensions are included that a full account of the value in a complex system (or of an intervention in a complex system) can be generated. The resulting account is presented using the 6 Box framework from Revaluation: shown empty, and with generic data labels, in the figures below:


Value, Values and Valuing Nature

When we practise Revaluation, what we find is that the process of negotiating around value – negotiating values positions across the platform of value – brings people together, to develop a shared understanding of what to aim for, and what therefore measuring progress might consist of. We learn that, in practice, working on values has a centrifugal force – it drives people further apart – while convening around value is centripetal: it draws us towards the centre. And in contested spaces, and other complex systems, finding a centre is the starting point from which we can begin to work: to design and build, to deliver, and to evaluate.

These two different trajectories are apparent in some of the available methods for operationalising values and value. For example, when Schwartz’s circumplex is used to measure people’s or groups’ values orientations, it results in spatial area plots or ‘coxcombs’ showing the relative strengths of the different dominant values. The further the plot extends from the centre, the more strongly that value is held (Pirc 2011).

Value, Values and Valuing Nature


By contrast, work on Communities of Practice, when actors come together around a shared problem to learn what needs to be done through doing it, describes a process of growing expertise not as an ascent up the rungs of a hierarchy, but as a progress towards a shared understanding of what it is to be an expert practitioner or ‘old hand’: a movement from the periphery to the centre (Lave & Wenger 1991).

The thinking deployed in Revaluation is from no one discipline, and that is necessarily the case, as complex systems cannot be governed or even explained by a single perspective. The directions pursued here are becoming more common in many of the disciplines referenced here, perhaps because of the emerging sense that most of our urgent problems are system problems, and these systems are becoming tipped into dangerous states (or in lay terms are ‘broken’ – as for example Sir Robert Watson the chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) says of the global food system: see The Guardian 5/5/19).

Economists themselves are noting that their recent hegemony over the governance of value is slipping, or needs to slip, being unfit for purpose (the banking crisis of 2008 being one instance to suggest that; the impending ecological collapse being another). In her recent book on The Value of Everything (2018), Mariana Mazzucato notes that when economics emerged as a discipline, value was a central topic for debate – and price was one mode of its expression. Across twentieth century economics, price has come to dominate value: for instance, in the concept of ‘revealed preferences’, or in the accounting rules over what is part of the productive economy (such that the City of London geographically accounts for the biggest part of the UK’s GDP). Mazzucato calls for a return to the debate over value, and what of that can be captured by price: and notes that we need a new (or perhaps, revolutionary) configuration here, if we are to save the systems on which we depend. It appears that nature is indeed beyond price.



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