FunNature & AnimalWhat do we really gain by protecting nature?

What do we really gain by protecting nature?

Climate change, deforestation and forest fragmentation, pollution, biological invasions, endangered species, the risk of a collapse of biodiversity… the impacts on the environment are multiple, and are of concern to many.

Others prefer to turn a deaf ear to some of these problems —or to all of them!—, hiding behind the fact that carrying out really effective policies that allow eliminating, reducing or, at least, mitigating these impacts implies a series of ethical or economic problems that they consider unacceptable.

In general, from environmental policy, the protection of nature is usually approached from two perspectives: instrumental values —protect nature for the good of the human being— and intrinsic values —protect it for the good of nature itself—.

It is true that conserving nature brings us a direct profit as human beings. Ecosystems provide us with certain services that in many cases are vital. After all, preserving ecosystems means preserving the source of the raw materials we need to live.

Instrumental values sustained in economic terms are easy to blur. Conservation programs are often observed that imply, in themselves or, as a consequence of them, a certain commodification of nature and privatization of rights.

Instrumental values that are based on human well-being, and not only on monetary values, would be more indicated. But these values are more difficult to quantify and value.

However, the instrumentalization of nature falls into a dangerous anthropocentric bias . Focusing conservation policies on instrumental values can lead to certain entities, belonging to the natural world, not being perceived as useful in one way or another, and, therefore, not seeing the need for their conservation.

Of course, nature and everything that develops in it has a value per se , independent of the use that human beings give it. Even areas where the human being has not even reached, have value by themselves.

But these values are difficult –and sometimes impossible– to objectively quantify. Human beings have multiple perceptual biases that prevent us from visualizing the real intrinsic value of the different natural entities.

An endangered species is more likely to obtain a good level of protection or plans for its recovery, the more awareness is generated about it, regardless of its real value in the ecosystem, or the fact that sometimes conserving a species without preserving its ecosystem is a useless action. It would be useless to develop plans to maintain and recover the Iberian lynx, if they do not include ways to conserve the environment in which the lynx lives, including its prey, the plants on which they feed, the soil where they grow and the microbiome that closes the cycles of the ecosystem.

On the other hand, there are many critically endangered species that are not known and are likely to be extinct without us knowing about them . These species have their intrinsic value, which is not measured in dollars or euros —and we do not have units to measure it—.

Given this complexity, some authors propose using a third type of values, more holistic and, moreover, more perceptible by society, which moves away from commodification but maintains the human being as a participant and as a member of it. They are relational values .

While instrumental and intrinsic values are collectively critical to conservation, focusing on them alone need not always fit with personal and collective well-being, or what is ecologically optimal.

In reality, we don’t always make decisions based solely on something’s inherent value or our personal preferences. We also consider the suitability of how they relate to nature and society, and this includes aspects of personal well-being.

These preferences, principles and virtues associated with personal, interpersonal or social relationships with the environment are called ‘relational values’ .

Relational values are not present in things, but are emergent values derived from relationships and responsibilities. Acknowledging these relational values can shed light on the true importance of preserving all of nature, and not just parts of it; or what is the same, in local terms, preserve the entire ecosystem and not just one species.

The relationships of people with nature are multiple. There are relational values that involve the person as an individual , for example, the subjective importance that is perceived by a place, the well-being that it provides or the feeling of what is right. Other relational values involve the whole of society: cultural identity, social cohesion, the feeling of social responsibility or moral responsibility towards biodiversity.

A cultural change in environmental policy and practice is necessary, one that incorporates relational values into that pair of instrumental and intrinsic values, and establishes a sustained base on these three solid pillars .

Because by protecting nature we are gaining the instrumental services that nature provides us: climate change will cause many people to have to leave their homes – in some regions, it is already happening. In addition , as a species, we gain the intrinsic value that natural entities possess by the mere fact of existing, and that, as a species and part of the biosphere that we are, includes us. But we are also gaining individual, social, cultural and moral well -being, by valuing these relationships between humanity and nature, to which, after all, we belong.


Chan, K. M. A. et al. 2016. Why protect nature? Rethinking values and the environment. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(6), 1462-1465. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1525002113

Gómez-Baggethun, E. et al. 2011. Economic valuation and the commodification of ecosystem services. Progress in Physical Geography: Earth and Environment, 35(5), 613-628. DOI: 10.1177/0309133311421708

Gould, R. K. et al. 2015. A protocol for eliciting nonmaterial values through a cultural ecosystem services frame. Conservation Biology: The Journal of the Society for Conservation Biology, 29(2), 575-586. DOI: 10.1111/cobi.12407

Tallis, H. et al. 2014. Working together: A call for inclusive conservation. Nature, 515(7525), 27-28. DOI: 10.1038/515027a

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