How we value nature’s contribution to human culture

Nature plays a central role in our culture and our emotional well-being.  And yet because we struggle to describe or assign value to these things we are missing the chance to make a passionate argument for conservation.

Environmentalists are increasingly designing financial mechanisms to pay for the services that nature provides hoping that this will make a stronger case for conserving nature. These so-called ‘ecosystem services’ were described in 2005 (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment) as falling into four categories: provisioning – such as providing water or fish, regulating – such as controlling climate, supporting – such as pollination by insects, and cultural.

But what are the cultural services of nature? According to the MEA, these include the recreational and spiritual functions of nature – the intangible qualities that are harder to put a dollar value on. According to our lecturer today, this label, ‘cultural ecosystem services’ is actually a grab-bag of both services and valuees and we ought to be calling them the subjective or experiential services. Personally, cultural services is fine with me as long as we do a better job of defining this label.

Now what I found most interesting out of the conversation today were two concepts:

1) nature can have emotional, ethical and cognitive significance for us

2) when it has these meanings to us we may care about it more than when it has financial value

Example: the UK government is proposing to sell its forest lands so that they will be managed for productive (i.e. lucrative) use. The argument is that they can be sustainably managed and money can be made. And you know what? The public is outraged. They view the forests as their commons, their landscapes and their heritage and that means more to them than the financial benefits that might be generated.

What do I take from this? Emotional connections to nature are the way to win people over to conservation. I know that ‘money talks’ but unless we change peoples’ values we just won’t get anywhere. Cultural significance could be a good starting point.

And another conclusion for me here is that we should do a better job of putting a value on the emotional, ethical and cognitive roles that nature plays in our lives so that when we design cost benefit models we make sure we count what matters to us at the deep emotional level. Perhaps instead of trying to put these ‘intangible’ cultural qualities in monetary terms, we should be converting the monetary values to a rank value system (high medium low)?