The Valuation of Nature after the Pandemic Seeing More Than Instrumental and Intrinsic Values

Nature after the Pandemic

By Johanna Zoe Hartmann & Michael Palocz-Andresen

The valuation of nature has relied broadly on instrumental and intrinsic values that form a dichotomy, an approach that has been inadequate to address the variety of human-nature connections that people may hold. However, human-nature relationships may be more appropriately described through the concept of relational values. To elicit such multiple values and guide action more effectively, the notion of plural valuation has emerged, which is seen to improve the way nature is valued and accounted for in decision-making.

Nature is an integral part of our lives; its resources are the basis for livelihoods and economic success, while the natural realm gifts us with sociocultural benefits that can be perceived through, for example, connectedness, identity, and spirituality.
Nevertheless, discussing nature’s values is still often restricted to the instrumental perspective, namely its economic and use value, and with the majority of the human population living in cities, our lives get more and more technical and disconnected from the environment, while nature gets increasingly commodified.

In recent years, the global COVID-19 pandemic has forced people to retreat from a multitude of social locations and structures. With social gathering restricted and societal institutions mostly closed, people were forced to spend more time in their own homes. Meanwhile, people retreated to nature, which led to an increasing individual appreciation of nature, as well as connectedness with it. Spending time in nature has helped people to maintain their well-being during a time characterised by extensive restrictions. Therefore, the pandemic seemed to have a positive effect on individuals’ connectedness to nature and values1.

This paper explores how different values of nature are conceptualised and expressed in forms of human-nature relationships. Starting with the common idea of a value dichotomy, it is argued that a third value domain is necessary to adequately address value perceptions by exploring tangible examples (figure 1). The prevailing question is how the variety of values can be assessed and integrated for decision-making, aiming at more ecologically and socially sustainable outcomes.

figure 1

The Value Dichotomy

figure 2

The values of nature can have various forms. Generally, values can be defined as the multitude of ways in which different people, places, or entities are of importance, how we relate to them, and how we consider them for action and behaviour2.
The scientific and political discourse was dominated for a long time by a dichotomy of values, consisting of instrumental and intrinsic value considerations (figure 2). These two value domains derive from opposing stances. Instrumental values seem to originate from an economic perspective, putting the utilitarian view in focus. Meanwhile, intrinsic values are biocentric and emphasise the ethical perspective towards nature as its own entity3. Nevertheless, these two value domains are insufficient to describe the complexity and context-specificity of human-nature relationships and the values arising from these. In this part of the paper, both value domains are first briefly described, and the issues arising from this dichotomy examined.


Instrumental Valuation

Instrumental valuation often focuses on monetary, economic aspects and how humans can gain from nature. This concept dates as far back as Aristotle, who distinguished between nature’s exchange and use values, concepts which are currently still in use. Since then, economic thoughts have dominated the valuation discourse4. With the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment in 20055, which sorted nature’s services to humans into ecosystem services (ES) categories, the economisation of nature continued6, so that valuation research predominately focuses on monetary and economic valuation methods7. Such methods are primarily market-based, such as assigning value estimates in monetary units to certain aspects of nature, assessing the use value, willingness to pay for the provision of ES, or the willingness to accept compensation for its loss, as well as the cost of replacement through human-made substitutes8. These methods are mostly applied to material, provisioning ES, for example timber, provided by forests, extracted, and then commodified on markets.

Intrinsic Valuation

Intrinsic valuation is regarded as the opposite value perspective. Whereas instrumental values see nature as a means to achieving the greatest human gain, intrinsic valuation considers nature and other species as an end in themselves which exist for their own sake and independently from humans. From this perspective, people have a moral responsibility towards other species with which we share the environment. This view is biocentric and non-anthropogenic in character and includes values such as animal rights and welfare, evolutionary processes, and genetic and species diversity9.

Issues Arising from This Dichotomy

The two value domains within this dichotomy stand opposite to each other and derive from inherently different considerations. Therefore, instrumental and intrinsic values are often conflicting and hard to combine9.

The following metaphor best describes what relational values are: people are living with nature, encompassing those values that arise from human relations with nature, meaning the various ways in which the cultural sphere is connected with the biophysical sphere.

Whereas intrinsic, non-anthropogenic values fail to account for the human relationship with nature, instrumental valuation focuses too much on the utilitarian perspective and cannot capture the non-material contributions of nature to human life. For instance, nature can have spiritual and religious meaning for humans and be an integral part of identities and ancestral belonging to a place. These values are context-specific and subjective and thus cannot be readily commodified and expressed in economic terms8. Other criticised aspects of economic valuation are that it simplifies ecologically complex processes and enhances social inequalities by converting previously open-access resources to semi-public access available only to those with sufficient financial power6.

Therefore, relying on only these two value domains to assess the value of nature is insufficient for assessing and describing the complexities of human-nature relationships and the context-specific meanings of nature according to world view, culture, social status, and gender. A third value domain is necessary.

A Third Value Domain

figure 3

Out of this necessity, a third value domain has been introduced in recent years that captures more accurately how people live with nature. These values are called relational values (figure 3).

The following metaphor best describes what relational values are: people are living with nature, encompassing those values that arise from human relations with nature, meaning the various ways in which the cultural sphere is connected with the biophysical sphere10. These are called relational values9. Relational values refer to those processes that enable people to define their identity and social structures, as well as those that are conditional to keeping up functional and resilient ecological systems that also provide for human well-being10. Furthermore, they describe the importance of human-nature connectedness across multiple generations9.

The two previously described value domains can be translated into the metaphors of gaining from nature (instrumental values) and living for nature (intrinsic values)10.

figure 4Together, these three metaphors capture most, albeit not all, of the possible relationships between humans and nature, depicted in figure 4. Having discussed the value dichotomy of instrumental and intrinsic values, in the following section we will explore some examples of how relational values translate into concrete human-nature relationships.

The Austrian “Bergtee” Heritage

A study by Grasser et al.11 assessed which plant species are gathered and valued by local people in the Grosses Walsertal biosphere reserve in Austria. It thereby highlighted the intricate links between nature and culture in this part of Europe.

Plant-gathering activities in this area stem from tradition but became economically unnecessary. However, these practices remained an integral part of the people’s heritage. While gathered plants are used for nutrition, medicine, veterinary, or other purposes, herbal tea is the most frequently mentioned use.

Stemming from the local heritage and knowledge of gathering plants, the Bergtee (mountain tea) community project was founded with the aim of sharing the traditional knowledge held by local women. Plants are gathered by these women and mixed, producing the mountain tea mixture. Even though this mountain tea is locally sold, the interest does not lie in increasing economic gain, but passing on the appreciation and value of nature and what it offers. When picking plants, great attention is paid to keeping the integrity of the ecosystem. For example, the first flowers appearing every season are left for bees. Furthermore, gathering activities are informed by local knowledge and also, in some cases,beliefs in astrology. The tea mixture produced is believed to have medicinal benefits.

These activities reflect regional identity and the value of nature as more than economic gain and intrinsic value. Local women’s identity and heritage is interconnected with plant-gathering activities, showing the relationship these people have with the surrounding nature11.

local women

Indigenous Relationships with Nature: The People of Rarámuri

Indigenous people are often said to live in a very close relationship with nature that enters a cultural, spiritual, physical, and social sphere. Their connectedness with nature can be characterised by reciprocity and interdependency with all other living entities. Thus, if nature is harmed, this comes back to humans12.

Plural valuation stems from the recognition that there are diverse and multiple arrays of knowledge and values which need to be integrated into decision-making to address social inequalities and achieve goals such as those just mentioned.

Salmón12 describes the specific relationship of the indigenous community of Rarámuri, also called Tarahumara. This community is local to the Sierra Madre region of Chihuahua in Mexico, a very biologically diverse area. The people of Rarámuri live by the concept of iwígara, which is the belief that self and culture are interconnected in the web of life. This encompasses all lands, animals, and parts of the natural world, as well as people themselves. All life within this continual system shares the same breath and is relative. For the Rarámuri, their life stems from and emerges from the natural world. In this sense, they believe that their community emerged from ears of corn after the previous world was destroyed. This relationship to corn goes beyond the reliance for food and enters a cultural sphere. As such, this belief system translates into rituals, ceremonies, and language12.

This example of the Rarámuri people shows clearly how nature is more than a means of gaining a livelihood, but enters the cultural sphere and becomes part of the identity of these people. This entails a great connectedness to nature that is essential for their well-being. The Rarámuri live in kinship with nature12, which influences their identity beyond material gain.

Plural Valuation and Its Benefits

The previous examples illustrated how nature can go beyond intrinsic or monetary values and enter the cultural, relational sphere. Nevertheless, valuation methods in the past still predominately applied value monism and focused on economic aspects7. So how can more layered and multifaceted values be assessed, recognised, and integrated into decision-making and why is it of high importance?

What Is Plural Valuation?

In 2015, the United Nations decided on 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)13 which are recognised as guiding principles for action. Human activities and resource use should be guided by these considerations. With nature and its contributions to people at the core of all resource extraction and benefit for human purposes of whatever kind, how we assess the value of nature is crucial for the achievement of many of these SDGs. How can we achieve “zero hunger” when we (directly) destroy the source of livelihood of many rural communities because it is economically more valuable to a more privileged part of the human population? How can we fulfil goal 14, “Life below water”, and 15, “Life on land”, if we do not acknowledge the right of existence beyond human instrumental value of those ecosystems and species living in them? And how can we fulfil “Reduced inequalities” if we largely ignore the values, connectedness, and needs of nature that marginalised, less powerful populations hold, people who will face adverse consequences for their culture and subsistence if nature is continuously destroyed. Evidently, value considerations guide all aspects of action and are therefore essential in order to reach these goals and sustainably protect nature.

This is where plural valuation has emerged as a concept. Plural valuation stems from the recognition that there are diverse and multiple arrays of knowledge and values which need to be integrated into decision-making to address social inequalities and achieve goals such as those just mentioned. It can be defined as a process of assessing the variety of values ascribed to nature by various stakeholders, and how they are interrelated and can be brought into decision-making and policy14,15.

How Is Plural Valuation Carried Out?

figure 5

Plural valuation is explicitly inclusive of different world views, knowledge systems, beliefs, genders, and power relationships. Since the concept itself developed from various scientific disciplines15, there is no set method for how plural values can be elicited. Arias-Arévalo et al.10 have compiled a comprehensive set of methods for different purposes and value domains. However, the choice of method is not the only factor enabling or constraining adequate valuation beyond a single metric (figure 5).

To successfully elicit plural values, a shared understanding of the purpose and scope of valuation must be deliberately agreed on by scientists, practitioners, policymakers, and all other stakeholders. It should be clear that all relevant methods, concepts, and disciplines need to be included to broaden the value horizon towards the multiple value domains discussed before. Finally, the obvious aim of this process is to integrate the results into decision-making and translate them into action14.

Even so, not all processes of plural valuation lead to sustainable and equitable outcomes as wished. Zafra-Calvo et al.15 showed that there are five primary factors that effectively contribute to desirable outcomes in terms of ecological sustainability and reduced social inequity. Plural valuation processes should (1) be participatory, (2) be action-oriented, (3) give space for marginalised groups to express their values, (4) bring together different concepts of human-nature relationships, and (5) facilitate a space for open communication and collaboration between stakeholders15.

What Are the Benefits of Plural Valuation?

figure 6

When conducted thoroughly and under such criteria, the plural valuation of nature can have various social, ecological, and economic benefits, as summarised in figure 6.

Even though the first thought might be that plural valuation may be less economically feasible, due to increased complexity, it may, in fact, be more cost-effective than approaches relying solely on value monism. It does not necessarily require more funds to conduct, as methods and processes can be combined and can increase the effectiveness and reliability of action, while simultaneously reducing the possible risk factors14.

Conducting plural valuation can also effectively contribute to the achievement of policy objectives for social and ecological concerns, such as the aforementioned SDGs. In addition, intergovernmental environmental assessments that guide policies globally can profit from plural valuation processes and the knowledge gathered14. As integrating marginalised and diverse knowledge systems and world views carries multiple beneficial factors for more effective understanding and management of nature16, plural valuation may contribute to this, too, with its role in eliciting such knowledge and beliefs when conducted correctly.

In terms of social benefits, plural valuation can contribute to an improved flow of nature’s contributions to people and distributional justice in terms of access to these15. Furthermore, the integration of diverse stakeholders can lead to more equitable and accepted decisions, which can reduce injustices and conflicts14;15. Lastly, successful plural valuation may improve factors of stakeholders’ quality of life such as health or cultural identity15.



Human development, welfare, and quality of life will continue to depend largely on natural resources. Meanwhile, action should be guided by global policy targets, such as the SDGs. To achieve such goals and make decisions that not only contribute to the (economic) welfare of a small, privileged part of society, the plural values of different domains must be recognised, elicited, and translated into action.

Instrumental valuation often focuses on monetary, economic aspects and how humans can gain from nature. This concept dates as far back as Aristotle, who distinguished between nature’s exchange and use values, concepts which are currently still in use.

Academic research has increasingly discussed plural valuation efforts and how it can be done successfully and effectively to create the most beneficial outcomes for future decisions14. Not only instrumental and intrinsic, but also relational values have been recognised as important value domains for describing socio-ecological systems in the latest IPBES report, published in 20199. Recognition has also been given to indigenous and local communities and their knowledge systems and beliefs, which need to be integrated for successful valuation processes14;15 and nature management16. This gives a promising outlook into the future of nature valuation and decisions affecting the natural world.

Even if it may seem that economic decisions still prevail in action, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that nature is not only a commodity, but is important for maintaining our well-being and mental health1. So, not only decision makers and policymakers need to consider plural nature values beyond instrumental and intrinsic ones, but also every person on an individual level can guide their action increasingly by considering nature’s contribution to our life, and our responsibility to nature itself.

In summary, this paper provides an insight into common concepts of nature valuation and explores relational values beyond the intrinsic and instrumental. Effective plural valuation processes aimed at eliciting multiple values can inform decision-making to achieve more socially equitable and ecologically sustainable outcomes. Therefore, action aimed at achieving global policy goals should be guided by the recognition of multiple values in order to achieve future sustainability after the pandemic.

The authors would like to thank Dr Jasmine Pearson for her ongoing support during the process of writing the bachelor’s thesis and introducing them to the topic of nature valuation.

About the Authors

HartmannJohanna Zoe Hartmann is studying Sustainability, Society and the Environment at Christian-Albrechts-University, Kiel. She recently fulfilled her bachelor’s degree in Global Environmental and Sustainability Studies at Leuphana University Lüneburg. Her interests lay mainly in socio-ecological systems and she seeks to continue her career in this research field.

AndresenMichael Palocz-Andresen is working as a guest professor at the Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla México. Since 2018 till 2022 he was a Herder-professor supported by the DAAD at the TEC de Monterrey. He became a full professor at the University West-Hungary Sopron, a guest professor at the TU Budapest, the Leuphana University Lüneburg, and the Shanghai Jiao Tong University. He is a Humboldt scientist and an instructor of the SAE International in the USA.


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