IDEA Research Seminar - Rethinking Environmental Values

Simon James will be presenting for approximately half an hour, which will be followed by an informal discussion. All are welcome and there is no need to book.

In 1972, the Navajo activist Katherine Smith told Senate investigators that she would never quit her home on Big Mountain. I will ‘never leave the land, this sacred place’, she said. ‘The land is part of me and I will one day be part of the land… All that has meaning is here.’

It is standard practice to conceive of nature’s value in terms of the ‘ecosystem services’ it provides. For Smith, however, Big Mountain was not merely a service-provider. It was a part of her life. There is a need for a theory of environmental value that can accommodate such cases. In this talk, I present such a theory.

I begin with a description of the standard model of environmental value, according to which rivers, mountains, forests and other such entities have instrumental or ‘service’ value for us on account of their causal powers. I then argue that that model comes up short when applied to those cases when nature has religious, political, historical, mythic or any other kind of cultural value. I then move on to present my own model of environmental value, according to which natural entities can have constitutive value on account of the contributions they make to certain meaningful wholes. In the final part of the talk, I consider that model’s implications for both environmental policy and some fundamental issues in environmental ethics.