There is a crisis of values at the basis of the environmental emergency

2023/08/09 Agirre Ruiz de Arkaute, Aitziber - Elhuyar Zientzia Iturria: Elhuyar aldizkaria

Ed. Pixabay

Today's man underestimates the values of nature, according to a study published in the journal Nature. Their perception of nature is limited and distorted, and scientists believe it may have led the planet to a global environmental emergency. A profound crisis of values has been identified in society to which problems such as climate emergency, loss of biodiversity, desertification and pollution have been attributed. This attitude of contempt for the values of nature is reflected not only in personal decisions, but also in important political and economic decisions.

Researchers have studied 50,000 scientific articles, political documents and traditional sources of knowledge to learn about the beliefs, knowledge and moral principles that are expressed about nature. The results indicate that a disproportionate importance is attached to the economic values reflected by the market, leaving aside other values, less commercial, but as important, or even more important, such as that nature feeds the cultural identity of human beings, promotes mental and social well-being, and that nature care can protect against climate change.

“These commercial values are becoming hegemonic values,” says Unai Pascual García de Azilu, principal author of the article and Basque researchers from BC3 and Ikerbasque. “These hegemonic values are underscoring and, in some cases, disappearing values related to nature conservation. Materialism and individualism are being strengthened, especially in modern societies in our West.”

Naming the values of nature

Scientists, however, recognize very different values to nature: on the one hand, instrumental values, which have a great force in our society. Nature offers humanity food, water, minerals and other products of high economic value. But it also has other instrumental values that are outside the market: it regulates the cycle of matter and the general processes of life, stabilizes the climate…

On the other hand, they recognize values related to nature. Among other things, nature and landscape contribute to creating people's cultural identity, to feeling part of a community and giving meaning to life. Being in nature improves mental well-being, because fertility and the prosperity of nature strengthens us, creating in us a sense of prosperity. Moreover, nature care satisfies us. In fact, Pascual carried out in 2021 a study on the relationship between Euskera and relational values.

Finally, and not therefore of little value, of intrinsic value. Beyond the contributions of nature to society, nature has an appreciable intrinsic value for existing, even if we do not exist. The laws of some countries have already begun to incorporate the rights of nature.

Asymmetry and power hegemony

Political and economic decision-making centres do not take into account all the values of nature. “There are power relations in society,” says Pascual. “The most powerful actors manage to establish the values that they themselves prioritize, leaving the values of certain social groups continuously out”. Decision-making delegitimizes other knowledge systems beyond science (e.g. traditional knowledge), such as the local population and indigenous peoples, women and groups that impair decisions. For scientists in Nature, it is urgent that political decision-makers understand how and why they despise nature and collectives and find fair solutions.

Researchers believe that structural changes are needed to respond to a climate and biodiversity emergency. It is essential to value all the contributions made by nature and to integrate all the values when political and economic decisions are taken.

Unai Pascual García de Azilu is a researcher at BC3 and Ikerbasque. The Algerian researcher is also a member of the United Nations IPBES. Ed. Marisol Ramirez/Argazki press

Social conflicts, witnesses to the crisis

The consideration of all values implies, in addition to the Western hegemonic conception, the value of the different conceptions of nature. As well as participatory and inclusive processes. Scientists believe this would avoid many conflicts. They would be fairer decisions, they would increase the legitimacy of decisions, they would seize society and they would speed up injustices. In short, they say it would facilitate decision-making.

It would serve to avoid conflicts in the Basque Country. “We have giant conflicting infrastructures: high-speed train, wind farms, Itoiz reservoir... Political decision-makers bet on values and do not want to take into account other values that appear in society taking advantage of the asymmetry of power,” says Pascual.

“Small-scale, same. Now, in many cities and neighborhoods, trees are being cut down. For example, in Pamplona, because they want to build an underground car park. And people go out on the street protesting. A conflict of values arises: the City Hall believes that one way to improve the well-being of the people of Pamplona is for each one to use their car to go to the center, which would stimulate the commercial sector of Pamplona. They don’t realize that these trees can have other values for the Non-Locals.”

According to researchers, all these values are measurable: science has developed methodologies that quantify the economic, social and ecological values of nature. Scientists have stressed the importance of integrating these methodologies into the political and economic decision-making processes of governments.

Solutions to the dual emergence of biodiversity and climate

For all these reasons, researchers have identified four actions that would be effective in dealing with the loss of biodiversity and the climate emergency: the recognition of the multiple values of nature, the taking into account of all these values in decision-making, using methodologies developed by science, the impulse of profound political and institutional changes to be participatory and inclusive processes, taking into account these multiple values, and the social roots of values consistent with sustainability.

When and how does the value crisis arise?

It would also be interesting to analyse how the crisis of values has taken place. In fact, the relationship between man and nature has been sculpting for thousands of years. Why has the crisis of values emerged at this time of history? According to Pascual, the issue is complex and there may be different historical origins behind the value crisis. But it is possible that these hegemonic values are imposed by patriarchy, capitalism and neoliberalism. It does not exclude the crisis from the values of nature with them.

“These hegemonic values have led us to understand well-being in a very materialistic and individualistic way, and we see the distorted reality in Western society. It’s time to understand well-being and development in a healthier way.”

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