New research we've conducted provides further evidence that advancing the economic case for conservation is risky. It may undermine the foundations upon which deeper public concern about the environment will be built. 

We know that there are a range of problems with attempts to use estimates of the financial value of nature as a reason for conserving it. George Monbiot laid many of these out in his lecture at the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute last summer.

Common Cause highlights one reason that these attempts are particularly problematic (the one, incidentally, to which Monbiot also attaches the greatest importance in his lecture). It is this: the values which motivate concern about economic performance seem to be almost perfectly opposed to the values which motivate concern about the preservation of nature.

Engaging and strengthening concern about the economy seems to risk undermining concern for the preservation of nature – even where concern about the economy draws attention to the economic benefits of conserving nature.

This is a case that Common Cause has advanced for many years – Tim Kasser and I lay it out in full, in our book Meeting Environmental Challenges: The Role of Human Identity (see especially Section 4.2.1). There we cite Douglas McCauley, writing in Nature back in 2006:

[Conservationists] may believe that the best way to meaningfully engage policy-makers… is to translate the intrinsic value of nature into the language of economics. But this is patently untrue – akin to saying that the civil rights advocates would have been more effective if they provided economic justifications for racial integration.”(p.28)

Conservationists should take note: Martin Luther King had a dream, not a cost-benefit analysis.

New research that we published last month offers further evidence for this case. Working with a team of leading social psychologists, we asked hundreds of people to read one of two different texts describing the work of WWF.

The first text (Conservation – Intrinsic) read:

Have you ever paused to think about the importance of the natural world? At WWF, we are working to minimise the loss of nature in the UK – such as plants, animals, woodlands or rivers – by helping people to recognise its real value.

The importance of environmental protection is still often overlooked and is not adequately reflected in planning and policy. One reason for this is that people’s inherent appreciation of, and love for, the natural world is often forgotten. Reminding people of the intrinsic importance that they attach to nature can help to address this problem.

Consider woodlands, which currently cover nearly 3 million hectares in the UK. At WWF, we are helping people to express and share the feelings they have about woodland areas, and their conviction that it is important to preserve these.

The second text (Conservation – Economic) read:

Have you ever paused to think about the contribution that the environment makes to our national wealth? At WWF, we are working to minimise loss of the UK’s natural resources – such as plants, animals, woodlands or rivers – by helping people to recognise their real value.

Natural assets, and the benefits that they provide, are still often overlooked and are not adequately reflected in planning and policy. One reason for this is that the financial value of the environment, and the commercial benefits that people derive, is often overlooked. Putting a monetary value on nature can help to address this problem.

Consider woodlands, which provide a range of essential goods and services and contribute around £1.2 billion to the UK economy. At WWF, we are helping to develop financing schemes to ensure that those who benefit from environmental goods and services compensate those who provide these services.

We then asked participants about their intentions to take action to help an environment charity – to donate, volunteer, join a public meeting, or write to an MP. We found that people who had been asked to read the first of these two texts (Conservation – Intrinsic) were significantly more likely to say that they would offer non-financial help to a charity working on environmental issues. There was also a tendency for them to be more likely to say that they would make a donation to such a charity, though this was not at a statistically significant level. (We also found that they were more likely to offer to help a charity working on disability, but that’s another story).

This led us to ask two further questions.

Firstly, might it be the case that combining both economic and intrinsic reasons for conserving nature could be more effective than presenting either reason alone?

We tested this in a further condition, where we asked participants to read a text which mashed together the two scripts above (I won’t reproduce it here, but you can read it in the full report of this research.)

Presenting people with both economic and intrinsic reasons for conservation had an effect that was indistinguishable from asking them to read the economic reason alone: both led to lower willingness to help an environment organisation. Put another way, we found that the important thing was not just to provide Conservation – Intrinsic text, but also to avoid the Conservation – Economic text.

Secondly, might it be that some types of people (perhaps those for whom economic concerns are particularly important) would find the economic case for conserving nature to be relatively more persuasive? Perhaps these people would be more likely to state an intention to help an environment organisation if they had just read the Conservation – Economic text, as opposed to the Conservation – Intrinsic text?

We were able to test this, because we gave all the participants in the study a values survey three months before conducting our experiment. We then tested to see whether those people who reported that they attached greater importance to economic concerns would be any more positively influenced by the second of these two texts.

They weren’t.

Of course, a study like this can’t begin to address all the complex questions arising in relation to the pros and cons of advancing economic arguments for conserving nature. We tested just one set of texts, and we were only able to examine the effects of reading these in the short-term.

But these results are consistent with the argument that we have advanced elsewhere: repeatedly advancing the economic case for conservation risks undermining the foundations upon which deeper public concern about the environment will be built.