June 22, 2018 Society

Shifting values towards conservation

We live in a world in which everything has an economic value. Our time is measured in opportunity cost, our value to society is measured by our contribution to GDP, even our lives ultimately have a dollar value; just ask any actuary.

Unsurprisingly, these views trickle down to colour how we look at our natural resources and ecosystems. Methods of environmental valuation are wide-ranging and imperfect. Researchers may look at mitigation and/or restoration costs, the revealed (i.e. travel cost methods) and stated (i.e. surveys) preferences of consumers, and supply and demand functions. All of these methods can give a somewhat close approximation of a natural entity’s economic value to society, but fail to capture the true intrinsic value.

Anthropocentrism through the ages

This way of thinking is not new. Aristotle believed that every species had an end purpose and a place in a natural hierarchy, of which humans were situated at the top. Under this anthropocentric paradigm, nature was viewed as existing purely for the use of humans.[1] In the late 1700s, naturalists like Charles Darwin and Alexander Von Humboldt began to create a new framework within which to view the environment; as an interconnected web of different landscapes and species, all crucial to its function.[2]

This view of nature lay the groundwork for modern environmentalism, and still prevails in environmental movements, but unfortunately, environmentalists are often powerless when economic incentives are not on their side.

If you ask a stranger if they value the environment, 9 times out of 10 I bet they would tell you they do. So why then do we still live in a culture of fast fashion, gas-guzzling cars, excessive water waste and plastic, wrapped in plastic, wrapped in more plastic? Green movements may seem like they are at the forefront of sociopolitical discussion, but when you look at the day-to-day habits of most individuals, we still have a largely anthropocentric view of the world.

It’s possible that when many people say they “value” the environment, they do care, just not enough to make changes that will cost them extra time, money or effort. Under this assumption, one might reason that the only real way to change our habits is to create financial incentives for making environmentally sound choices.

Water and our values

When it comes to water resources, this might mean charging higher per unit consumption rates, heavily taxing bottled water, subsidizing products that are free from persistent organic pollutants and taxing those that contain them, or offering rebates on water-efficient or water reuse technology.

Any of these steps would almost certainly create a change in behaviour, but only to a certain extent. We would likely only conserve as much as is financially rewarding; no more, no less. Unless a conservation mindset is deeply ingrained in our collective values, we will not make greater changes to our behaviour than it pays to make.

Unless you are a water professional, fervent environmentalist or individual dealing with extreme water scarcity on daily basis, water may not be something you think about until your utility rates increase or you are offered a rebate on a low flow toilet. As water professionals and activists, part of our purpose lies in persuading the world to increasingly think of water as a valuable resource, until conservation becomes a habit rather than a reaction to some politically motivated stimulus.

Values vs. behaviour

There is a school of thought touting the idea that dramatic shifts in societal values are unlikely, and therefore, it makes the most sense to try and change behaviours within an existing value system. There are opposing ideologies that see this as treating the symptom rather than the cause, and believe that society-wide value shifts of the magnitude necessary to avert ecological crises are possible, however difficult they may be to enact.[3]

To a certain extent, I agree with the former; persuading people to prioritize problems that may not be glaringly obvious in their day-to-day lives over the convenience of making wasteful consumer choices can seem like an uphill battle.

However, I don’t want to lose hope that with persistence, zeal and education, we can create a steady shift in societal values over time. If we disseminate information through our networks, we have a shot at changing the way the people think and feel; and as a society, seeing resources as being more than just there for the taking.

The challenge we face is in impelling this shift to take place as fast as humanly possible. We no longer have the luxury of time. As the masses gradually wake up to the harsh consequences of corporate greed and overconsumption, the angriest among us need to make our voices heard, encourage action, vote with purpose and put our money where our mouths are; it’s the only way forward.


[1] Burchett, Kyle. Anthropocentrism and Nature: An Attempt at Reconciliation. 2014. https://philosophy.as.uky.edu/sites/default/files/faculty_publications/Anthropocentrism_and_Nature_An_Attempt_at_Reconciliation_Burchett_Kyle.pdf

[2] Wulf, Andrea. The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World. , 2015. Print.

[3] Keim, Brandon. Changing Behaviours Vs. Changing Values: An Argument Over How to Save Nature. Anthropocene. 2017. http://www.anthropocenemagazine.org/2017/12/change-values-or-behaviors/

Devon Hardy

Environment and Water Resources Specialist, Ville de Montréal, Canada
Devon Hardy is a lover of all things water and sustainability. She has an extensive background in water management at the municipal level and has been lucky enough to work with organisations like the International Water Association, Future Earth and ... Read full biography