Tapping into what matters: Relational values and policy mixes for sustainability

Publié le lundi 11 février 2019

Billet de blogue

Kai Chan giving a lecture at the university of ottawa

What are relational values?

Up until 2013, the literature around protecting the environment centered on motives to do so for humans’ sake (instrumental values), or for nature’s sake (intrinsic values). Dr. Chan demonstrated that these narrow conceptions of value fail to incorporate the individual and the collective well-being that people derive through their relationship with nature. He argued that the “five moral foundations” common to many people (purity/sanctity, authority/respect, in-group/loyalty, fairness/reciprocity, and harm/care), are understood better through the lens of relationships than through instrumental and intrinsic values. Some people identify as stewards of the land, and hold worldviews that have a kinship to nature. Thinking of nature as existing solely for our sake (instrumental) or for its own sake (intrinsic) misses a fundamental basis of concern or justice that many people hold for nature. Dr. Chan and his colleagues elaborated on this third class of values, called “relational values” in the PNAS article of 2016.












Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES)


Dr. Chan explained that the PES incentive allows downstream beneficiaries of an ecosystem service to pay upstream communities to undertake action that restores or prevents degradation.  This idea became very popular, but PES applications have sagged amidst critique for a number of reasons:

  1. Misplaced Rights and Responsibilities. This incentive makes the beneficiary pay, not the polluter. It rewards a shift away from bad behaviour (if you are an ecosystem service degrader, you are paid to stop degrading). However, it does not reward good behaviour (land stewards who are already protecting the ecosystem service are excluded from the program). The program actually disadvantages people who have an identity rooted in nature.
  2. Motivational Crowding out:  when money is offered as a reward to convince selfish actors to do conservation for their own gain, existing motivations for conservation can actually be crowded out. Dr. Chan offered an example from an Israeli daycare. In one daycare, a fine was imposed to prevent parents from being late. The control daycare had no fine. Lateness doubled in the fined group, but stayed constant in the control group. Furthermore, when the fine was removed, at around 14 weeks, lateness continued at a higher level in the group that was fined.  Gneezy & Rustichini argue that the fine signaled a different social context and norm, it extended the window for paid childcare. Dr. Chan added that it also lessened the relational values of lateness being “the wrong thing to do” to both the child and the provider.  
  3. New Externalities: New actions often create new externalities that are not always predictable. For example, when a new eucalyptus plantation is developed to sequester carbon quickly, the plantation results in a high absorption of water, considerable soil loss and sedimentation, and a desert for biodiversity.
  4. Burden of Monitoring: When you are trying to “buy behaviour,” cheating becomes attractive. For this reason, the cost of monitoring potential cheaters absorbs a large fraction of the costs.
  5. Top-down prescription: Regulators (the state) prescribe actions, usually without having first invited landowners and farmers into the process. This results in prescribed actions that often conflict with landowner values and prevent landowners and farmers from acting creatively as effective stewards of the land.  

A Brilliant Accident: The case of BushTender

Dr. Chan highlights a reverse-auction PES program in Australia, called BushTender, which demonstrates the importance of relational values to nature when considering program and policy design.  BushTender sought economic efficiency in landowner investment in wild ecosystem (bush) preservation. The state put out a call for proposals, and while there was some worry about farmer collusion, what they actually found was that farmers were underbidding. Farmers were effectively subsidizing their proposed program with their own labour in order to do something they already wanted to do as good stewards of the land.  Dr. Chan argues that this behaviour causes the avoidance of cognitive dissonance to kick in. In an unconscious effort to justify the economic inefficiency of donating their time, the notion of their identity (as steward of the land) is strengthened. 

''We need to intentionally foster, not only ecologically sensitive behaviours, but also those norms, values and identities…and that’s relational values”. – Dr. Kai Chan

Policy Mixes for Sustainability:

To move towards programs that bring relational values to the fore, we should ask the question: “Land steward: How can we help you do more?” This will help develop programs that:

  1. Reward stewardship, instead of the output, and that would in turn address the problem of new externalities. 
  2. Pay the steward, instead of the polluter, arguably putting the money where it belongs.
  3. Co-pay, instead of buying full opportunity costs, so that the cognitive dissonance kicks in and the identity of “steward” is reinforced.
  4. Forget about small-scale additionality, and incorporate small players into the programs even if it is not economically efficient to do so. Farmers will then feel that the program is fair, and will want to buy into the program.
  5. Have user fees for nature: When people are investing for their own reasons, and their newly fostered identities, then they do not need to be policed. This is far less costly.
  6. If you conceive of these problems as involving all of us, then we can all help to pay for them, not just the downstream beneficiaries.
  7. Inspire agency by enabling people to act creatively, protecting and restoring nature in ways that make sense to them.
“In order to get to sustainability, we need to bring values to the fore in the design of these programs and policy mixes.” – Dr. Kai Chan

Dr. Chan continued the lecture by examining the challenges of certification, regulations and place-based approaches, and showed how these separate sets of tools each have their own challenges and fail to place relational values at the fore. He also highlighted that many people who have a relationship to nature do not engage in ecologically sound behaviours because there is no mechanism that makes this engagement easy, enjoyable and inexpensive.


Everyone contributes to climate change and environmental degradation through his or her participation in global supply chains. By creating a separate supply chain for environmental protection, where an intermediary would disseminate payments to ecological stewards, people could easily and inexpensively express their values for environmental protection and contribute to a more sustainable future.


Dr. Chan is working on a project called CoSphere, which would allow consumers to pay a fee to ensure that the products they purchased had a net positive impact on the environment. A CoSphere “stewardship fee” or “mitigation fee” could be charged when purchasing beef, for example, which alone is responsible for more than 10% of North America’s ecological footprint. This stewardship fee would then be disseminated to farmers who would have the means to build fences that would prevent cows from muddying streams and therefore reduce erosion and sedimentation. The vision is that such payments could be a voluntary default at supporting retailers, recognizing that many people express strong relational values of responsibility but want to act alongside others (not all on their own).

You can learn more about CoSphere and how you can participate in its launch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hJL9aMhcXJ8#action=share and https://support.ubc.ca/projects/cosphere-development-fund/



Authored by Kaitlyn Innes, Assistant Director (Graduate Programs) at the Institute of the Environment


Kai Chan is a professor at the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia. Kai is an interdisciplinary, problem-oriented sustainability scientist, trained in ecology, policy, and ethics from Princeton and Stanford Universities. He strives to understand how social-ecological systems can be transformed to be both better and wilder. Kai leads CHANS lab (Connecting Human and Natural Systems), and is co-founder of CoSphere (a Community of Small-Planet Heroes). He is a UBC Killam Research Fellow; a Leopold Leadership Program fellow; a director on the board of the North American section of the Society for Conservation Biology; senior fellow of the Global Young Academy and of the Environmental Leadership Program; a member of the Royal Society of Canada’s College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists; Lead Editor of the new British Ecological Society journal People and Nature; a coordinating lead author for the IPBES Global Assessment; and (in 2012) the Fulbright Canada Visiting Research Chair at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Haut de page