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Introducing environmental decision making
Introducing environmental decision making

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3 Values, power and evolving discourse in environmental decision making

3.1 The importance of values

The values of decision makers were briefly mentioned in previously in the unit as a factor that influences decisions. Value is used here not in its numerical sense, but to mean something that an individual or group regards as something good that gives meaning to life. Values can also be thought of as deeply held views, of what we find worthwhile. They come from many sources: parents, religion, schools, peers, people we admire and culture. Examples of values an individual may hold are those associated with: creativity, honesty, money, nature, working with others.

Activity 11 Identifying your values

Write down three values that are important to you. Give an example of how one of these values affected your recent decision making.


Three values of the kind suggested that are important to me are to do with nature, diversity and equality. While I find it fairly easy to identify these in a general sense, the detail of these values only becomes evident when I consider how I think and act in a particular situation.

In recent decision making, my valuing of ‘nature’ was a key factor in how I spent my time at the weekend, walking in the countryside. I am wondering about what I mean by ‘nature’. (I am thinking of places where trees, flowers, birds and animals thrive and where I can see the sky and rural landscapes.) I also wonder if my example suggests a value that has more to do with ‘experiencing nature’ than actively doing something about enabling it to thrive!

Values that affect decision making may be collective as well as individual. The following set of values has been identified by a collective process as those underpinning the United Nations Millennium Declaration. They are clearly thought by a group of people, not just an individual, to be important.

Activity 12 Recognising consistency in values

Read through the values underlying the Millennium Declaration in Box 3. Bearing in mind that this is only part of a document, and that objectives to translate these shared values into actions were also listed in the document, do you find that these values are consistent with each other, or not? Write a few sentences highlighting some examples of any consistencies or anomalies you find.


Many of the values underlying the Millennium Declaration are about people, and on the surface I find ideas of valuing democratic and participatory governance consistent with ideas of equal rights and opportunities of women and men, though it would presumably depend on how democracy and participatory governance were enacted. The ‘respect for nature’ value once again highlights an anthropocentric and instrumental view suggesting ‘nature’ primarily as a resource for people rather than having value in its own right. Ideas of shared responsibility among nations for managing worldwide economic and social development sound good to me, but given the prevalence of multinational corporations and regional as well as national levels (e.g. European Union) in decision making regarding economic and social development, I wonder what it means in practice. I will need to refer to the full document to find out what was intended.

Box 3 Values underlying the Millennium Declaration

The Millennium Declaration – which outlines 60 goals for peace; development; the environment; human rights; the vulnerable, hungry and poor; Africa; and the United Nations – is founded on a core set of values described as follows: ‘We consider certain fundamental values to be essential to international relations in the 21st Century. These include:

  • Freedom. Men and women have the right to live their lives and raise their children in dignity, free from hunger and from the fear of violence, oppression or injustice. Democratic and participatory governance based on the will of the people best assures these rights.
  • Equality. No individual and no nation must be denied the opportunity to benefit from development. The equal rights and opportunities of women and men must be assured.
  • Solidarity. Global challenges must be managed in a way that distributes the costs and burdens fairly in accordance with basic principles of equity and social justice. Those who suffer or who benefit least deserve help from those who benefit most.
  • Tolerance. Human beings must respect one another, in all their diversity of belief, culture and language. Differences within and between societies should be neither feared nor repressed, but cherished as a precious asset of humanity. A culture of peace and dialogue among all civilisations should be actively promoted.
  • Respect for nature. Prudence must be shown in the management of all living species and natural resources, in accordance with the precepts of sustainable development. Only in this way can the immeasurable riches provided to us by nature be preserved and passed on to our descendants. The current unsustainable patterns of production and consumption must be changed in the interest of our future welfare and that of our descendants.
  • Shared responsibility. Responsibility for managing worldwide economic and social development, as well as threats to international peace and security, must be shared among the nations of the world and should be exercised multi-laterally. As the most universal and most representative organisation in the world, the United Nations must play the central role.’
(United Nations General Assembly, 2000, Section 1, p. 2)

The ways in which values affect decision making can be highly variable. Two people or organisations who espouse the same value such as say ‘shared responsibility’ may mean quite different things by it and it is common for differences in values to surface in the process of judgement or negotiation rather than in high-level discussions. In environmental decision making, in the context of sustainable development values associated with money may sometimes conflict with other approaches. The case study later in this block provides a good example. The ‘costs’ of aircraft emissions and noise are considered by many to be more than monetary.

Value judgments often lie behind our approaches to decision making. Deciding what to keep, throw away or destroy for instance, whether at an individual or collective level is a process affected by values. Value judgements may become part of a rational process if values are made explicit and at other times may appear to limit rationality, particularly when not made explicit. For instance, someone who explicitly values participatory governance would be expected to pay a lot of attention to who participates in a decision-making process and how. In a rational choice approach to decision making they would explicitly include these aspects in their consideration of a situation. On the other hand, someone who holds this value but does not make it explicit may be perceived as trying to extend or hold up a decision-making process by trying to include more opportunities for participation in less overt ways.