Doctoral dissertation

Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies (LUCSUS), Faculty of Social Science

Reconnecting with nature through concepts: On the construction of values in the ecosystem services paradigm 


The alarming rates of extinction and degrading ecosystems call for new means of understanding and accounting for how people depend on nature. Ecosystem services (ES) is a contested but widely applied concept aiming to connect ecosystem functions to human well-being and to assess and account for how nature matters in decision-making. More diverse frameworks and ideas of value intended for assessments are emerging to incorporate an array of disciplinary perspectives from the social sciences and humanities. This calls for closer examination of how human-nature relationships (HNR) are construed and captured. 

This thesis aims to critically examine and diversify the conceptualisations of value and human-nature relationships within the ecosystem services paradigm. In doing so, it follows the moving target of concepts intended for ES assessment of social value. By drawing on philosophy of science and qualitative methods in the social sciences, I examine theoretical foundations of ES concepts while also studying HNR and values empirically. Empirically, the thesis is based on fieldwork in Sweden, in Cape Town, South Africa, and in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In five papers, I investigate concepts or 'arenas' where values or benefits of nature are theoretically conceptualised and/or articulated by citizens and practitioners. Paper I is an analysis of existing critique of the ES concept and demonstrates how the idea of values used to describe human-nature relationships within ES has been influenced by economic theory. Paper II is an analysis of how Swedish focus group participants construct and perceive the values of their recreational experiences. The analysis highlights people's emotional and self-evidential relationships with nature and thus shows a poor fit with the consequentialist framing of ES valuation. Paper III investigates what the concept of relational value (RV) adds to three fields and their value concepts: environmental ethics; ecosystem services valuation; and environmental psychology. It shows how RV solves methodological problems within ES valuation, due to narrow conceptualisations of intrinsic and instrumental value, and enables widely different interpretations of what relationality means for studying HNR. Paper IV is an empirical study based on interviews with civil servants and practitioners working with green space and biodiversity management in Cape Town. It shows diverse values and perceptions of biodiversity as a management challenge, emphasises the need for recognition of the importance of urban nature in green space planning, but also points to the limited usefulness of socio-cultural valuation in highly diverse cities. Paper V explores how the biocultural diversity framework can be an advancement over the ES to study HNR in cities in the global south, based on insights from fieldwork in Rio de Janeiro. It shows that BCD can be suitable to study HNR in highly culturally and biologically diverse cities but further theoretical and context-sensitive adaptations are required.

As a whole, the thesis outlines theoretical and empirical challenges of including place-based and qualitative social science knowledge in the ES paradigm. It calls for a re-thinking of the focus within ES to go beyond concepts of value and descriptive modes of assessments, in order to create more inclusive and diverse conceptualisations of HNR.