I spend a lot of time around other nature nerds. We’re a bunch of people from varying backgrounds, places, and generations who all find a deep well of inspiration within the natural world. We’re the sort of people who will happily spend all day outside enjoying seeing wildlife and their habitats without any sort of secondary goal like fishing, foraging, etc. (though some of us engage in those activities, too.) We don’t just fall in love with the places we’ve been, either, but wild locales that we’ve only ever seen in pictures, or heard of from others. We are curators of existence value.
Existence value is exactly what it sounds like–something is considered important and worthwhile simply because it is. It’s at odds with how a lot of folks here in the United States view our “natural resources.” It’s also telling that that is the term most often used to refer collectively to anything that is not a human being, something we have created, or a species we have domesticated, and I have run into many people in my lifetime for whom the only value nature has is what money can be extracted from it. Timber, minerals, water, meat (wild and domestic), mushrooms, and more–for some, these are the sole reasons nature exists, especially if they can be sold for profit. When questioning how deeply imbalanced and harmful our extractive processes have become, I’ve often been told “Well, that’s just the way it is,” as if we shall be forever frozen in the mid-20th century with no opportunity to reimagine industry, technology, or uses thereof.
Moreover, we often assign positive or negative value to a being or place based on whether it directly benefits us or not. Look at how many people want to see deer and elk numbers skyrocket so that they have more to hunt, while advocating for going back to the days when people shot every gray wolf they came across. Barry Holstun Lopez’ classic Of Wolves and Men is just one of several in-depth looks at how deeply ingrained that hatred of the “big bad wolf” is in western mindsets, simply because wolves inconveniently prey on livestock and compete with us for dwindling areas of wild land and the wild game that sustained both species’ ancestors for many millennia. “Good” species are those that give us things; “bad” species are those that refuse to be so complacent.
Even the modern conservation movement often has to appeal to people’s selfishness in order to get us to care about nature. Look at how often we have to argue that a species of rare plant is worth saving because it might have a compound in it we could use for medicine. Think about how we’ve had to explain that we need biodiverse ecosystems, healthy soil, and clean water and air because of the ecosystem services they provide us. We measure the value of trees in dollars based on how they can mitigate air pollution and anthropogenic climate change. It’s frankly depressing how many people won’t understand a problem until we put things in terms of their own self-interest and make it personal. (I see that less as an individual failing, and more our society’s failure to teach empathy and emotional skills in general, but that’s a post for another time.)
Existence value flies in the face of all of those presumptions. It says that a wild animal, or a fungus, or a landscape, is worth preserving simply because it is there, and that is good enough. It argues that the white-tailed deer and the gray wolf are equally valuable regardless of what we think of them or get from them, in part because both are keystone species that have massive positive impacts on the ecosystems they are a part of, and their loss is ecologically devastating.
But even those species whose ecological impact isn’t quite so wide-ranging are still considered to have existence value. And we don’t have to have personally interacted with a place or its natural inhabitants in order to understand their existence value, either. I may never get to visit the Maasai Mara in Kenya, but I wish to see it as protected and cared for as places I visit regularly, like Willapa National Wildlife Refuge. And there are countless other places, whose names I may never know and which may be no larger than a fraction of an acre, that are important in their own right.
I would like more people (in western societies in particular) to be considering this concept of existence value. What happens when we detangle non-human nature from the automatic value judgements we place on it according to our own biases? When we question why we hold certain values, where those values came from, and the motivations of those who handed them to us in the first place, it makes it easier to see the complicated messes beneath the simple, shiny veneer of “Well, that’s just the way it is.”
And then we get to that most dangerous of realizations: it doesn’t have to be this way. It can be different, and better, taking the best of what we’ve accomplished over the years and creating better solutions for the worst of what we’ve done. In the words of Rebecca Buck–aka Tank Girl–“We can be wonderful. We can be magnificent. We can turn this shit around.”
Let’s be clear: rethinking is just the first step. We can’t just uproot ourselves from our current, deeply entrenched technological, social, and environmental situation and instantly create a new way of doing things. Societal change takes time; it takes generations. This is how we got into that situation, and it’s how we’re going to climb out of it and hopefully into something better. Sometimes the best we can do is celebrate small, incremental victories–but that’s better than nothing at all.
Nor can we just ignore the immensely disproportionate impact that has been made on indigenous and other disadvantaged communities by our society (even in some cases where we’ve actually been trying to fix the problems we’ve created.) It does no good to accept nature’s inherent value on its own terms if we do not also extend that acceptance throughout our own society, and to our entire species as a whole.
But I think ruminating on this concept of existence value is a good first step toward breaking ourselves out first and foremost. And then we go from there.