What do we really gain by protecting nature?
Climate change, deforestation and fragmentation, pollution, endangered species, and the risk of a collapse of Nature biodiversity… the impacts on the environment are multiple and are of concern to many.
Others prefer to turn a deaf ear to some of these problems —or all of them!—hiding behind the fact that carrying out effective policies that allow eliminating, reducing, or at least mitigating these impacts implies a series of ethical or economic problems that they consider unacceptable.
In general, from environmental policy, the protection of nature is usually approached from two perspectives: instrumental values —protect nature for the good of the human being— and intrinsic values —protect it for the good of nature itself—.
The incomplete discourse of instrumental values
Conserving nature indeed brings us a direct profit as human beings. Ecosystems provide us with specific services that, in many cases, are vital. After all, preserving ecosystems means preserving the source of the raw materials we need to live.
Instrumental values sustained in economic terms are easy to blur. Conservation programs often imply, in themselves or, as a consequence, an inevitable commodification of nature and privatization of rights.
Instrumental values that are based on human well-being, and not only on monetary values, would be more indicated. But these values are more challenging to quantify and value.
However, the instrumentalization of nature falls into a dangerous anthropocentric bias. Focusing conservation policies on instrumental values can lead to certain entities belonging to the natural world not being perceived as applicable in one way or another and, therefore, not seeing the need for their conservation.
The unquantifiable intrinsic values
Of course, nature and everything that develops in it has a value per se, independent of the use that human beings give it. Even areas where the human being has not reached have value by themselves.
But these values are complex –and sometimes impossible– to quantify objectively. Human beings have multiple perceptual biases that prevent us from visualizing the actual intrinsic value of different natural entities.
An endangered species is more likely to obtain a good level of protection or plans for its recovery the more awareness is generated about it, regardless of its actual value in the ecosystem or the fact that sometimes conserving a species without preserving its ecosystem is a useless action. It would be useless to develop plans to maintain and recover the Iberian lynx if they do not include ways to conserve the environment in which the lynx lives, including its prey, the plants on which they feed, the soil where they grow, and the microbiome that closes the cycles of the ecosystem.
On the other hand, many critically endangered species are unknown and likely to be extinct without us knowing about them. These species have their intrinsic value, which is not measured in dollars or euros —and we do not have units to measure it—.
Given this complexity, some authors propose using a third type of values, more holistic and perceptible by society, which moves away from commodification but maintains the human being as a participant and a member of it. They are relational values.
While instrumental and intrinsic values are collectively critical to conservation, focusing on them alone need not always fit with personal and collective well-being or what is ecologically optimal.
In reality, we don’t always make decisions based solely on something’s inherent value or personal preferences. We also consider the suitability of how they relate to nature and society, including aspects of personal well-being.
These preferences, principles, and virtues associated with personal, interpersonal, or social relationships with the environment are called ‘relational values.’
Relational values are not present in things but are emergent values derived from relationships and responsibilities. Acknowledging these relational values can shed light on the importance of preserving all of nature, not just parts of it, or what is the same, in local terms, preserving the entire ecosystem and not just one species.
The relationships of people with nature are multiple. Relational values involve the person as an individual, for example, the subjective importance perceived by a place, the well-being it provides, or the feeling of what is right. Other relational values involve the whole of society: cultural identity, social cohesion, and the feeling of social responsibility, or moral responsibility towards biodiversity.
A cultural change in environmental policy and practice is necessary, one that incorporates relational values into that pair of instrumental and intrinsic values and establishes a sustained base on these three solid pillars.
Because by protecting nature, we are gaining the instrumental services that nature provides us: climate change will cause many people to have to leave their homes – in some regions, it is already happening. In addition, as a species, we gain the intrinsic value that natural entities possess by the mere fact of existing, and that, as a species and part of the biosphere that we are, includes us. But we are also gaining individual, social, cultural, and moral well-being, by valuing these relationships between humanity and nature, to what belong.