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Undervaluing nature underlies today’s environmental crisis

13 September 2023
Around the world, people value nature in various ways. Some believe nature is intrinsically worth protecting, while others see nature as fundamental to our societal values and cultural identity or as a source of economic benefit. However, a recent study by environmental economists Marije Schaafsma and Anna Filyushkina shows that these different values are insufficiently reflected in political and economic decisions. They argue that this undervaluing of nature is what underlies the current environmental crisis.

Short-term gain
Schaafsma and Filyushkina’s publication in Nature shows that the dominant view of nature is one of short-term gain: nature as a source of raw materials or intensive food production. However, this focus comes at the expense of many other aspects that the natural world has to offer humanity, aspects which are just as essential for achieving equitable and sustainable societies. These include the restoration of forests or seagrass beds, which contribute to CO2 storage and can help us adapt to climate change. Even in cases where nature is already protected, the rights and interests of indigenous peoples and local communities are often overlooked, despite the role that these groups often play in safeguarding biodiversity.

“Different people often have very different views and values when it comes to nature,” explains Marije Schaafsma, who is affiliated with the Institute for Environmental Studies. “We need to incorporate all these different voices in decisions and policies as best we can, while taking into account how these policies affect various groups of people. Instead of taking our cue from those with the most power or loudest voices, which is often what happens at present. This is incredibly important if we want to keep the planet healthy and enable humanity and the natural world to thrive.”

New methods
The published article and study follows the July 2022 publication of the Values Assessment report, approved by the 139 member states of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). The researchers developed a methodology for a systematic literature review to examine and compare more than one thousand valuation studies. Their findings demonstrate that numerous methods can be employed to take disparate values into account. And that, in principle, all of these values can be incorporated into decision-making. Deploying these new methods requires new ways of working with governments and other stakeholders.

A more just and sustainable future
With this aim in mind, the study identifies approaches to achieving a more equitable and sustainable future through transformative change. The diversity of natural values needs to be recognised and anchored in policy. This necessitates a drastic change, not only in the policies and institutions designed to benefit nature but also in the norms that apply in all sectors of society. This can be achieved by setting alternative goals, for example by also seeking to protect the cultural importance of nature, by creating policy instruments that actively reward nature conservation, and by evaluating policies from a perspective that recognises natural values rather than focusing on financial costs or profit.

The biodiversity and climate crisis can be addressed by adopting a clearer, more expansive approach to recognising the value of nature. This calls for a different way of thinking about wellbeing and development, a shift away from economic growth to arrive at a wider view of prosperity.