Values don’t change, people do
Any discussion of values will usually begin with an obligatory defining of the term itself. To conserve time and attention, let’s define values as a prevailing set of moral principles that shape the attitudes and behavior of individuals, communities, and societies. With that definition in mind, it is then important to recognize that values are broadly manifested in the institutions, norms, and overall culture of any given population. This manifestation portends the difficulty of change, given that they may literally be set in stone — see above, see below.
Some scholars, like Richard Martin Eckersley, trace the genesis of prevailing western values all the way back to the philosophy of the enlightenment, going far to demonstrate the durability and resilience of those bedrock principles amidst centuries of change that saw the colonization of an entire continent as well as many rounds of transformational technological advancement. The problem for environmentalists, then, is how to work within a values system that holds that nature is something to be lived upon, and not within. Borrowing from the philosophy of English thinkers like Locke, Western values have alienated the identity of the environment to that of an adversary and relegated its undisturbed state to that of unimproved. Some scholars like Michael Manfredo of Colorado State University and his colleagues, argue that working outside of established social values limits the efficacy of conservation efforts, while Christopher Ives and Joern Fischer, scholars from the U.K and Germany respectively, argue that confining oneself to a value system that has created the very need for conservation in the first place is bound to be hobbled from the outset.
In deciding my own stance on the matter, I take a cue from the past. In his book Navigating Environmental Attitudes, Thomas Heberlein, formerly of UW Madison, noted a dramatic shift in the culture of trout fishing. He recalls the activity as something of a zero-sum game back in the days of his youth, with he and his uncles racing to catch and harvest as many trout as possible before their fellow anglers could do the same. This certainly sounds reminiscent of a value system that holds a dominion over nature and a reverence for the individual. But Heberlein also recalls a reckoning within the trout fishing community, when the popularity of the sport threatened the availability of trout for the individual to catch. Faced with a choice, anglers by and large decided collectively that trout were better left alive to keep the sport alive for the next season. As famed fly fisherman Lee Wulff said of sport fish, they’re “too valuable to be caught just once.” What arose was not a new value that suddenly saw trout as worthy of life outside of an oiled skillet, but a recognition that maintaining trout populations would continue to benefit the individual trout angler.
The goal of developing new values to bolster conservation causes is laudable, however that pursuit requires challenging the durability of our values structure at the core level, which may in turn realize more changes than one had sought. For environmentalists, or at least for the trout fisher, durability is a good thing.
Heberlein, T. A. (2012). Navigating Environmental Attitudes. United Kingdom: OUP USA.
Ives, C. D., & Fischer, J. (2017). The self-sabotage of conservation: Reply to Manfredo et al.: Conservation and Value Change. Conservation Biology, 31(6), 1483–1485. https://doi.org/10.1111/cobi.13025
Manfredo, M. J., Bruskotter, J. T., Teel, T. L., Fulton, D., Schwartz, S. H., Arlinghaus, R., Oishi, S., Uskul, A. K., Redford, K., Kitayama, S., & Sullivan, L. (2017). Why social values cannot be changed for the sake of conservation: Conservation Values. Conservation Biology, 31(4), 772–780. https://doi.org/10.1111/cobi.12855
Trout Fishing on the Cultural Divide | Articles | Features. (n.d.). Center for Northern Woodlands Education. Retrieved November 5, 2020, from https://northernwoodlands.org/articles/article/trout-fishing-on-the-cultural-divide
Eckersley RM. 2016. Is the West really the best? Modernisation and the psychosocial dynamics of human progress and development. Oxford Development Studies 818:1–17.