© Sara Granér (2022)
“We hereby inform you that the reed warbler and the marsh warbler are no longer in stock due to lack of demand. Please come again.”
The image by Swedish cartoonist Sara Granér, originally published with Swedish text in Granér’s comic book from 2012, adorned the front of Lina Isacs’ PhD dissertation, defended in October 1st 2021.

By Lina Isacs, Jasper Kenter, Hanna Wetterstrand, and Cecilia Katzeff.

This Plain Language Summary is published ahead of the article discussed. Check back soon for a link to the article.

The focus in the last decade on monetisation of nature’s benefits to people, so-called ecosystem services, has led to a growing concern for value pluralism within environmental research and policy. Value pluralism refers to the recognition that valuation of the environment involves dealing with multiple, often conflicting, forms of values that cannot be measured, compared and exchanged using a single common metric, such as money. From a position of value pluralism, monetisation is therefore problematic because it typically treats diverse types of values, from biodiversity and subsistence needs to freedom and justice, as if they are substitutable – not unique, with valuable qualities that need to be addressed as ends in themselves.

Monetary valuation of nature has its theoretical basis in so-called neoclassical economics, the mainstream school in economics that has dominated economic thinking worldwide for over a century, giving way to concepts like consumption, economic growth and efficiency. According to neoclassical value theory, the value of something (such as a natural resource or species) is defined solely by how much it contributes to human welfare, directly or indirectly, and maximising human welfare is the key normative goal of all actions (such as environmental policies). It is assumed that all things that have value can be compared and exchanged in terms of how much they benefit humans and, moreover, that this is in fact what humans themselves constantly do. That is, any decision is considered a deliberate “trade-off”: we gain something at a cost, to maximise our net benefits. Money is seen as a neutral currency for welfare in such trade-offs, translating any choice into the expected welfare gains and losses it involves.

This trade-off model of choice and value has been much critiqued. In relation to the environment, philosophers and ecological economists have argued that the value of nature is often not exchangeable with other things and that good environmental management is a matter for debate between citizens, rather than maximising consumer preferences. However, whether people treat choices around environmental matters as trade-offs has largely remained a theoretical discussion and only rarely been investigated in an actual decision context. If incorrect, the neoclassical approach is misleading and the consequences of its perseverance can be profound.

At the Swedish west coast, we engaged citizens and politicians in experimental workshops to discuss preferences and deeper held values related to nature in their local environment, such as how to handle environmental problems related to nutrient effluents from the mainland and immiseration of the local cod stock due to decades of overfishing versus respecting private property rights and keeping local jobs. Through participants’ reasoning and choice-making, the results confirm value pluralism, demonstrating that people perceive and judge values as multidimensional and struggle to trade different values off against each other. Deciding about the value of nature involved difficult moral conflicts between many different values they considered impossible to compare. They were not easily translated into exchangeable units of welfare experience.

This means that monetisation as a basis for policy-making can mask ethical dilemmas that are the very definition of sustainability problems, and conceal rather than reveal nature’s value. Instead, we argue, environmental decision-making needs to make room for people’s moral considerations around the plural values of nature. Environmental valuations must be “reason-sensitive”, where people’s actual experiences of value conflicts – both internally as individuals, where it is hard for us to prioritise between multiple things of importance, and between values expressed by different people – can be deliberated before making decisions. This confirms ecological economic theory that has suggested that environmental valuations should be a matter of bridging the plural values of citizens in democratic deliberation, and it supports the urgency of moving beyond the neoclassical trade-off model of choice and value.