Notre Dame vs. Nature: on why valuing nature is a challenge we need to face

The recent Notre Dame fire grabbed global headlines. The morning I woke to see it on the news, I felt sad. I’m not a Christian and I’ve never been to Paris. But my mother is an artist and I studied French and ancient history for years. I recognise the intrinsic cultural value of Notre Dame and everything within it. The iconic cathedral has value, not only for Parisians, but for many parts of global society: art, religion, history, architecture, popular culture…

As concern over the fire grew, I was surprised at the response from some people online, including scientists, who began criticising support for the burning cathedral. They compared the cultural losses of Notre Dame with nature conservation and species extinction. What about forests? What about species extinction? What about the Great Barrier Reef? The implication was that if you cared about the Notre Dame fire, then you didn’t care about Nature (see these great blogs by Sam Perrin and Jeff Ollerton, including the comments from readers).

I felt confused, because I cared about both!

Similar sentiments arose a few weeks later. This week’s release of the IPBES global assessment report on loss of biodiversity & ecosystem services, one of the most important policy guidelines in human history, happened on the same day as the Met Gala and the birth of the Royal Baby Sussex.

Popular media had a choice, and some people criticised those choices. How could anyone possibly be more interested in a Royal Baby, or a Glamour Parade, than the Future of Life on Earth?

The fact is, some are. Human diversity includes diversity of values. ‘The Media’ includes a diversity of platforms, which cater to a diversity of audiences and interests.

While watching these conversations unfold, I kept thinking about ecosystem services. To me, the strawman “Yeah, but what about Nature..!” argument echoed a similarly misguided argument that persists around ecosystem services.

Ecosystem services is often misrepresented as simply an economic approach to ‘putting a price on nature’. Some conservationists think it’s all about a simplistic instrumental vs. intrinsic dichotomy (which is a false dichotomy anyway). This isn’t accurate, but the myth persists.

In reality, ecosystem services is a powerful concept and framing device for understanding how to value Nature – the ecosystems that keep us alive. This process of valuation has value itself, because it can help to protect nature. Valuation can provide managers and decision-makers with a practical tool to identify that the numerous long-term benefits gained by protecting and restoring biodiversity and ecosystems almost always outweigh the consequences of removing or degrading them.

Sure, economic values have had the most airtime in ecosystem services discussions, because they are relatively easy to quantify and can be directly compared across systems. But values are multiple and pluralistic: economic value is just one type of value among a catalogue of valuation systems that exist in human society. A single entity, like an ecosystem or species, has meaning across multiple different value systems.

Most of these different types of values can’t be directly compared or measured on the same scale. This makes it hard to identify which one is more ‘important’ than the other. Again, importance is a subjective concept based on value and context. There can be multiple ‘important things’ in a single system.

Notre Dame and Nature are incommensurable, especially in terms of intrinsic value. They exist on different scales in different systems. They are both important to human society, in different ways. How can you directly compare the cultural, historic, artistic, and aesthetic values of the Rose Windows with the ecological value of the Great Barrier Reef? It’s simply not possible to say which of these is more ‘important’ or intrinsically ‘valuable’.

But if we consider their instrumental values to nature, we can quantify how much environmental harm the loss of a stained glass window is likely to cause (very low), compared with the loss of the world’s largest coral reef (very high). This is a justification for directing conservation effort, policy decisions, or governance change, but it’s not denying the intrinsic value of either.

Conservation should never be about Nature vs. The World. When it comes to addressing urgent global environmental problems, like climate change and land degradation, what we need is sustainable leadership and governance, not popularity. Everyone benefits from healthy, functioning ecosystems, regardless of whether they actively care for or engage with those systems.

We need better ways to discuss contradictory values. We need better ways to measure the consequences of trade-offs and synergies between different types of values, particularly non-economic ones. But most importantly, decisions, whether for conservation, land management, community well-being, or food production, need to be based on evidence, ethics and consequences for the greater public good, not on particular interests. This is where ecosystem services, the science of valuing nature, comes in.


© Manu Saunders 2019

6 thoughts on “Notre Dame vs. Nature: on why valuing nature is a challenge we need to face

  1. daysontheclaise May 8, 2019 / 9:13 PM

    Great post. This mutually exclusive approach to what one might wish to support and be interested in is disturbingly simplistic.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Rowan Taylor May 9, 2019 / 9:50 AM

    I care about both too Manu, but I do not share your sunny view of ecosystem services accounting. True, it is not “just about dollars”, but it is “just about us” (i.e. valuing other species and entities according to how they benefit us, one grandiose ape – Homo sapiens). This anthropocentric core principle is what got us into the current mess and will not get us out of it. I also have problems with your dismissal of the intrinsic vs instrumental values dichotomy which, in my view, is very real, and, If I may, I’ll explain why.

    Many in eco-services confusingly use the word “intrinsic” to mean intangible instrumental values. Actually, intrinsic does not mean intangible, it means inherent. The only values that are inherent in something are the values that the thing itself generates. All sentient beings therefore have intrinsic value – i.e. the inalienable value that they attach to their own experience of being alive, with all its pleasures and pains. That is what being sentient is all about – valuing oneself (intrinsically) and one’s environment (instrumentally). Humans and other animals do this. Rocks, water and trees do not. The latter can have instrumental value for sentient beings but not intrinsic value.

    Intrinsic value can be recognised, respected or violated by others, but cannot be conferred, traded or transferred in the way that instrumental value can. Ethics is about recognising and respecting intrinsic values, where they exist, and constraining the extraction of instrumental value accordingly. Economics is about the the allocation of instrumental values within a recognised community of intrinsically valuable agents. Humans recognise their own and each others’ intrinsic value and also ascribe instrumental value to each other. Most human conflict is about the defence of one party’s intrinsic values against another party’s’ attempts to extract instrumental values from them (e.g labour, land, sex, money, etc.).

    Whatever eco-services value is ascribed to a kea cannot come close to the intrinsic value which the kea ascribes to itself. No eco-services paper I have read addresses the values that other animals ascribe to themselves and their environments – values which are not reflected in our “willingness to pay” surveys nor in our goods and services modelling. Until nonhuman values are given their due weight in eco-services evaluations, we will keep drastically under-estimating both the intrinsic value that resides in nature and the many ways in which nature is of instrumental value to them, not us – and eco-services assessments will remain a green figleaf for our ongoing conquest of the planet.


    • Manu Saunders May 9, 2019 / 6:01 PM

      Thanks for your perspective. There is nothing inherently wrong with anthropocentrism – in fact, one could argue that any animal species has its own centric view of the world. Homo sapiens is having the greatest impact on the Earth, so it’s critical that we do focus on understanding how we impact nature and how we can change our behaviour to reduce negative impacts.

      I disagree that ‘rocks, water and trees’ cannot have intrinsic value. Every indigenous culture that identifies sacred rivers, rocks or trees, and anyone who values their favourite ‘patch of bush’, gives intrinsic value to those components of the environment.

      I do agree with you that we need better understanding and representation of non-human values in ecosystem services valuation, and many researchers are working toward this. For a very young discipline (~20 years) I think we’re making a lot of progress!


      • Jeremy Fox May 11, 2019 / 12:46 PM

        Here’s a discussion of the idea that nature could be said to have (or could be granted by statute) rights analogous to human rights, that could be represented and enforced in courts of law. Much as lawyers in court can represent the interests of (say) corporations or infants:

        I don’t have any well-formed opinion on this idea myself, but wanted to pass on the link as it seemed relevant.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Manu Saunders May 11, 2019 / 5:57 PM

          Definitely, there is a lot of work happening in this space & it is increasingly relevant as more people realise the value in conserving nature. New Zealand has recently recognised legal rights of a river and similar happening in India, Colombia & probably other countries too


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