November 1, 2016 – Why social values cannot be changed for the sake of conservation
The hope for creating widespread change in social values has endured among conservation professionals since early calls by Aldo Leopold for a “Land Ethic”. However, there has been little serious attention in conservation to the fields of investigation that address values, how they are formed, and how they change. We introduce a social-ecological systems approach in which values are seen not just as motivational goals that people hold, but they are also deeply embedded in the world around us, in our material culture, collective behaviors, traditions, and social institutions. They are important concepts that define and bind groups, organizations, and societies. Values have emerged to serve an adaptive role and are typically stable across generations. When abrupt change does occur, it is in response to substantial alterations in the social-ecological context. Change builds upon prior value structures and does not result in complete replacement. Given this understanding of values, we conclude that deliberate efforts to orchestrate value shift for conservation are unlikely to be effective. Instead, there is an urgent need for research on values with a multi-level and dynamic view that can inform innovative conservation strategies for working within existing value structures. This paper identifies key questions that will enhance our understanding of the role that values play in shaping conservation challenges and improve our ability to manage the human component of conservation practice.