How nature contributes to wellbeing: PhD candidate Benessaiah publishes work in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science

“A cornerstone of environmental policy is the debate over protecting nature for humans’ sake (instrumental values) or for nature’s (intrinsic values).”

This introduces a paper recently published in top-ranked journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS.  Karina Benessaiah, ASU geography PhD candidate, was one of a team that produced the work.

Benessaiah and her colleagues argue that there’s a third way to consider how people value nature: through relational values. Relational values mean that nature matters because we often have a prior relationship – either individual or communal -- to it.

hand holding baby bird

The images and statements exemplify how nature may be valued based on experiences with natural organisms or places. (Photos by Berta Martin-Lopez)

“For example, we might value particular forests because we played there as kids,” said Benessaiah.  “Because of our experiences with the forest, the forest defines what it means to be who we are as people and as community.”

The forest’s value is defined through the relationships built in time between us and a particular ecosystem.  Some indigenous cultures express this relationship by describing forests or other elements of nature as their ‘kin.’

The team of researchers who authored the recent essay shares the perspective that social sciences and the humanities offer key insights into how nature contributes to human wellbeing.  The co-authors, who have roots in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom and Australia, have studied cultures around the world. They argue that the relational perspective helps in understanding a diverse range of cultures and perspectives -- from indigenous western cultures to feminist to those rooted in Confucian and Buddhist philosophies.

Why does this matter?  The authors argue that this understanding of nature’s value offers a more promising approach to initiate successful environmental management than either the ‘nature-for-humans’ sake’ or ‘nature-for-nature’s sake’ perspectives.

“Environmental policy and management should always consider the kinds of relationships people already have with nature, and how these might be engaged to lessen the negative effects of human lifestyles on ecosystems and enhance positive ones,” the researchers contend.

 “It has been really exciting writing with such an international group of scholars, and it allowed us to integrate different perspectives – from Europe, North and South America – in our piece!” Benessaiah said.

Read the full opinion piece here: Why protect nature? Rethinking values and the environment, 2016, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, vol. 113 no. 6, pp. 1462–1465.