By Jeffrey Hoelle, Rachelle Gould, and Alejandra Tauro.
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The relationships that people have with nature are important for understanding sustainability. “Relational values,” in particular, have emerged as an important tool for understanding these relationships. But, as we show in our paper, relational values research is mostly focused on “beneficial” or “desirable” human-nature values that lead to pro-environmental behavior and sustainable outcomes. We propose expanding the field to look at relational values in “simplified” landscapes, or sites that are degraded or less sustainable. These relationships are much more common than relationships with pristine landscapes. Therefore, a focus on relational values in such contexts is crucial for what is called “plural valuation,” or understanding the full range of human-nature relationships, not only those relationships that are considered environmentally beneficial. We argue that studying relational values in simplified landscapes can contribute to the search for sustainability and help to refine our thinking on relationships with nature more broadly.
One of the groups we focus on in the paper are the rubber tappers of western Brazilian Amazonia. For over a century the rubbers tappers have managed the forests in a way that is more sustainable that cutting the forest down for cattle pasture or crops. As a group that is assumed to have beneficial or desirable environmental values, the rubber tappers would fit into the mold of much values research. But the results of research on only the desirable values would reveal only a portion of environmental values and relationships. The rubber tappers, like many other groups around the world, are facing pressures to change their practices and relationships with nature. These new relationships might not be purely beneficial in environmental terms. Many rubber tapper families are establishing new relationships with cattle and pasture. These changing relationships with nature are illustrated in the image below from a rubber tapper property: cattle and pasture are the focus of economic and social aspirations.
In addition to the beneficial values associated with sustainability successes, which are often the focus of environmental values research, we suggest focusing attention to a broader spectrum of RV, including those that may be less beneficial to humans and/or nature. One primary way to do this, we argue, is to expand RV research into contexts that are environmentally degraded, less sustainable, or “simplified.” We draw on our research with cattle-raising groups in the Brazilian Amazon and the dry forests of Central Mexico to show what relational values look like in these landscapes that are commonly associated with environmental destruction or “simplification.” It is often assumed that in these simplified settings there is an erosion of relational values. We, therefore, examine how relational values might be applied to such contexts and potential obstacles to such an extension.
One benefit of working in these contexts is that they productively challenge some pro-sustainability assumptions and can strengthen environmental values research, theory and methods. Such refinements, we contend, are necessary for understanding the heterogeneous and changing values that exist in simplified landscapes, but also in more sustainable settings, where people face external threats to their lands and constantly navigate pressures to change their own environmental relations. Finally, this expansion of RV to simplified landscapes offers important lessons for understanding the obstacles and challenges to the broader search for sustainability that motivates much environmental values research.