Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Contributing to the relational value concept: considering ecological relationships and interdependent values

In their most recent article, published in PNAS, Kai Chan and colleagues (1) propose that framing ecosystem values in terms of relationships can help unpack why we value nature and how research and policy might better reflect our values. In this this thought-provoking conceptualization, Chan and colleagues consider two primary types of relational values. First, they consider relationships between people and places; that people value specific places of meaning, not necessarily an ecosystem service in abstraction. Second, they consider relationships among people that are mediated by important places and ecosystem components. The relational values concept can be further enhanced, however, by including not only relationships among people and between people and the environment, but also relationships among different ecosystem components. Such ecological relationships go beyond bio-physical processes. I do not mean to evoke generic environmental interactions such as salmon needing cold water and therefore needing a forested watershed. This basic biophysical model is already captured in Chan and colleagues’ discussion of the “golden rule” in their policy application number four (i.e., care for your place may translate into care for someone else’s place if the two are ecologically connected). Rather, what I mean is that the values people place on connected ecosystem components are themselves interdependent.
This fuller picture of relational values is illustrated in how the Cree Canadian First Nations people manage their goose hunting. I was fortunate enough to spend several seasons living in the Cree community of Wemindji, in James Bay, Quebec, and to learned about goose hunting, an important subsistence and cultural activity (2). Hunting takes place in specific coastal marshes; but, prime locations change over time as the James Bay coast rises out of the Earth’s mantle having been depressed by the massive ice sheets that covered much of North America during the last glacial period (2, 3). The land is still rising to this very day, causing coastal marshes to dry up and new ones to form (2). Coastal marshes and prime goose habitats change rapidly, within the course of human lifetimes (4).
Cree hunters often invest significant amounts of energy to build soft infrastructure, such as mud dikes, to protect important marshes from drying up so that future generations can hunt (2, 4). Through intergenerational use, these marshes become imbued with history, culture, and identity and take on a value of their own (2). However, management decisions are influenced by ongoing environmental, social, and technological changes (2). Hunters may stop maintaining a marsh if, for example, geese change their flight paths and no longer visit an area (2). The marsh is still valued as an historic place that contributes to people’s identity (2).
The goose and the coastal marsh each have a value that is relational to specific Cree hunters, that cannot be reduced to one another or substituted, and that is interdependent. The relational values in Cree goose hunting involve social-social relationships (e.g., intergenerational use), social-ecological relationships (e.g., hunters valuing birds and certain marshes), and ecological-ecological relationships (e.g., spatial-temporal interactions between geese and marshes)[1] (Fig. 1). What we can learn from the Cree goose hunting example is how the values people place on certain ecosystem components are interdependent with values they have for other components.
Considering a wider array of social and ecological relationships helps flesh out the relational value concept. It can promote cross fertilization with other disciplines such as social network research, where social-ecological systems are conceptualized as networks with social-social, social-ecological, and ecological-ecological relations (6). Such collaborations will hopefully lead to theoretical and methodological advances that will help us achieve Chan and colleagues’ goal: a meaningful understanding of ecosystem services valuation that can better inform research and policy.
Figure 1. The values people place on certain ecosystem components are interdependent with values they have for other components. Valuation in Cree goose hunting involves social-social relationships (SS, e.g., intergenerational use), social-ecological relationships (SE, e.g., hunters valuing birds and certain marshes), and ecological-ecological relationships (EE, e.g., spatial-temporal interactions between geese and marshes). These relationships define a network of interdependent social and ecological units (red and green circles, respectively). Figure adapted from Bodin and Tengö (6).
Acknowledgments: I’d like to thank the CHANS lab for hosting my commentary and Kai Chan for editorial comments and advice.
Jesse Sayles is a postdoctoral fellow at the Climate Change Adaptation Research Group at McGill University. He does human-environment and sustainability research in costal and watershed systems. He is friends and colleagues with several CHANS lab members.
1.            Chan KM et al. (2016) Why protect nature? Rethinking values and the environment. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 113:1462–1465.
2.            Sayles JS, Mulrennan ME (2010) Securing a Future: Cree Hunters’ Resistance and Flexibility to Environmental Changes, Wemindji, James Bay. Ecol Soc 15:22.
3.            Pendea IF, Costopoulos A, Nielsen C, Chmura GL (2010) A new shoreline displacement model for the last 7 ka from eastern James Bay, Canada. Quat Res 73:474–484.
4.            Sayles JS (2015) No wilderness to plunder: Process thinking reveals Cree land-use via the goose-scape. Can Geogr / Le Géographe Can 59:297–303.
5.            Peloquin C, Berkes F (2009) Local knowledge, subsistence harvests, and social-ecological complexity in James Bay. Hum Ecol 37:533–545.
6.            Bodin Ö, Tengö M (2012) Disentangling intangible social–ecological systems. Glob Environ Chang 22:430–439.

Photo: Canada Geese flying in Wemindji.
Source: Cree Nation of Wemindji online gallery.

[1] While the coast is likely always to be important, a new set of ecosystem relationships may also be emerging. Hunters increasingly travel inland and hunt at roadside gravel pits due to a combination of social and ecological changes that affect where geese go and the amount of time people have for hunting (5). Thus, for some hunters, these roadside areas may take on a different value in the future than they have had in the past.

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