Price of Everything/Value of Nothing


This is my editorial for a forthcoming issue of the journal Environmental Values

Several years ago I participated in a Welsh Government seminar that discussed emerging environmental valuation techniques. During the course of the seminar we learned about the latest techniques of determining the economic value of different fragments of nature. Based, in part, on a “willingness to pay” approach to environmental valuation, we learned some interesting, and disturbing things. We discovered, for example, the economic value of an otter! If my memory serves me correctly this stood somewhere between £30 and £50. We also learned that attributing economic value to nature is an increasingly important way of protecting nature. For evidence of this process you need look no further than The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity programme (or TEEB as it is better known) and its attempts to provide a global balance sheet for the value of nature.

Precisely how we should value the environment is, of course, a founding concern of this journal. The contemporary penchant for developing economic benchmarks against which to assess nature does, however, leave many environmentalists feeling somewhat queasy. It is commonly acknowledged that being able to place the environment on the spreadsheets of governments and business is a hard-nosed way of ensuring that nature is not seen as a costless externality. But it is also commonly felt that attributing economic value to the things of nature fundamentally demeans a natural world that was pre-economic and will one day probably be post-economic. These expressed concerns raise interesting questions about the relative advantages and disadvantages of establishing recognized systems of value that can be applied to the natural world. It is important, for example, to consider who gets to determine value systems; what happens to valuations of the environment during significant forms of economic fluctuation; and what are the long-term implications of the marketization of nature.

It was in his 1890 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray that Oscar Wilde famously wrote, ‘Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.’ It seems to me that this quote could have been written specifically with certain branches of environmental valuation in mind. It serves as a reminder that we should not concede too much power, too quickly, to narrowly conceived systems of economic valuation of the environment. I sense, after all, that is was not just the price of the otter that seemed some how wrong to me, but the very practice of pricing it.

My own concern with the alignment of ecological value with economic price raises another aspect of the values debate. Alongside discussion of the valuation of nature, we are seeing a resurgence of interest in personal environmental value systems. In contrast to discussions of environmental valuation, analyses of environmental values consider the role of internal value systems in guiding human behaviours towards nature. On these terms values (such as egalitarianism, hedonism, biocentrism, security, and benevolence) as seen as meta-behavioural categories that guide our long-term relations with the environment. Recent years have seen a rise in public interest in the role of values in shaping human-environment relations (see Crompton, 2010). The renewed interest in behavioural values has, in part, been a response to the fairly narrowly conceived understandings of human behaviour that inform the nudge polices of behavioural psychology, which have gained significant political traction over the last five years (see Jones et al. 2013). It appears that in order to achieve significant, long-term shifts in human relations with the environment behavioural policy must address the value frames through which human decision-making is filtered. Reshaping the dominant behavioural values that exist in industrial society is, however, clearly a herculean task.

This volume brings together five papers that address questions of environmental valuation and environmental values in very different ways. While much work needs to be done to uncover the nature of the relations that exist between environmental valuation and values, this volume outlines some interesting trajectories along which this project could proceed.

In the first paper in this issue Lo (2014) considers the different ways that it may be possible to recognize plural value systems within framework of environmental valuation (see Lienhoop and Macmillan, 2007). Developing a critique of established stated preference approaches, Lo argues that every effort should be made to avoid a priori judgments concerning environmental valuation systems, as this unnecessarily reduces the range of available values that can be mobilized in different governing contexts. Lo proposes the idea of structural reconstruction as a way of promoting diversity and uncertainty within value systems.

The second paper discusses the shortcomings of economic systems for valuing nature (Gatzweiler, 2014; see also Douai, 2009). In this paper Gatzweiler argues that in the context of a biosphere that is both complex and uncertain the conservation of biodiversity is poorly served by the pricing of the environment. The paper provides a critical review of existing economic and non-economic approaches to the valuation of nature. Gatzweiler argues that economic valuation systems fail to account for all of the costs and benefits associated with the use of nature. In order to enable policy-makers to get closer to a “total value of nature”, Gatzweiler proposes a biological value system that is better able to comprehend the diverse range of life giving forces associated with nature.

In the third paper of this issue Engqvist Jonsson and Nilsson (2014) examine the relationship between people’s expressed values, locus of control, and their behaviour towards the environment. The notion of locus of control in used by Engqvist Jonsson and Nilsson to refer to ‘the extent to which people attribute control over events in life either to themselves or to external sources’ (2014). Engqvist Jonsson and Nilsson illustrate a positive correlation between self-transcendental values and internal locus of control to pro-environmental behaviour. More surprisingly, however, this paper also indicates that people with low expressed self-transcendental values still exhibited pro-environmental behaviours when their locus of control has an internal orientation.

The forth paper introduces the idea of collective virtue as a way of understanding environmental harm and promoting new systems of ecological responsibility. In this paper Clowney (2014) outlines a paradox of contemporary (global) socio-environmental relations, which sees the production of widespread environmental damage for which no one feels responsibile (see Booth, 2012; Butler, 2010). Clowney argues that the promotion of green virtues (such as humility, temperance, mindfulness and simplicity) could provide a basis for pro-environmental collective action. This paper provides a detailed discussion of how it might be possible to connect individual value systems to forms of collective virtue. In the context of the other papers in this issue, Clowney paper’s also implicitly raises questions about the relationship between values and virtues and how values flow between individuals and the social systems of which they are a part.

In the final paper of this issue Pearson introduces and defends environmental pragmatism from those who claims it cannot address foundational philosophical questions concerning the relationship between human values and nature (see Callicott, 2002). Drawing on the insights of moral psychology, Pearson argues that pragmatism need not been seen in opposition to the core traditions of environmental philosophy. By reframing questions of value in ways that reflect pragmatic thinking, Pearson argues that both environmental philosophy and pragmatism can gain significant philosophical dividends.

Collectively, the papers in this issue present a diverse range of perspectives on questions of environmental valuation, values, virtues, and behaviour. Individually and collectively they offer fresh and important insights into the enduring questions surrounding environmental values.


Booth, C. 2012. ‘Bystanding and climate change’. Environmental Values 21: 397–416.

Butler, C. 2010. ‘Morality and climate change: Is leaving your TV on standby a risky behavior?’ Environmental Values 19: 169–192.

Callicott, B. 2002. ‘The Pragmatic Power and Promise of Theoretical Environmental Ethics: Forging a New Discourse’. Environmental Values 11: 3-25.

Clowney, D. 2014. ‘Collective Environmental Virtue’. Environmental Values

Crompton, T. 2010 Common Cause: The Case for Working with our Cultural Value. London, WWF.

Douai, A. 2009. ‘Value Theory in Ecological Economics: The Contribution of a Political Economy of Wealth’. Environmental Values 18: 257–84

Engqvist Jonsson, A.K. Nilsson, A. 2014. ’Exploring the Relationship between Values andPro-environmental Behavior: The Influence of Locus of Control’. Environmental Values


Gatzweiler, F.W. 2014. ‘Reframing the value of nature: biological value and institutional homeostasis’. Environmental Values

Jones, R. Pykett, J. and Whitehead, M. 2013. Changing Behaviours: On the rise of the Psychological State. London, Edward Elgar.

Lienhoop, N. and D.C. Macmillan, 2007. ‘Contingent valuation: Comparing participant performance in group-based approaches and personal interviews’. Environmental Values 16: 209–232.

Lo, A.J. 2014. ‘More or Less Pluralistic? A Typology of the Remedial and Alternative Perspectives on Monetary Valuation of the Environment’. Environmental Values

Pearson, C.H. 2014. ‘Does Environmental Pragmatism Shrink Philosophical Duty’? Environmental Values

About Mark J Whitehead

Professor of Geography at Aberystwyth University
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