Changing Nature at the European Sociological Association conference

Gisle Andersen presented the paper “Why Is Nature Valuable? The Historical Trajectory Of Environmental Debates In Norway” at the European Sociological Association conference in Manchester, on August 21.


Why Is Nature Valuable? The Historical Trajectory Of Environmental Debates In Norway

Gisle Andersen

Norwegian Research Centre, Norway

This paper analyses the changing valuation of ‘nature’ and ‘the environment’ in Norwegian parliamentary debates (1900-2015). The analysis documents substantial changes in why nature is considered valuable, and what kind of knowledge and policy instruments considered necessary and relevant.

The analysis builds on theoretical perspectives from pragmatic moral-political sociology (Boltanski and Thévenot 2006) and focus on a substantial shift in valuation of nature that occurred in the 1990s. The Norwegian parliamentary debates from this period are characterized by a harsh ecological self-critique that supported a new way of valuing nature: What is valued is not nature ‘itself’ but the function that nature has for humans and the conservation of nature as a ‘life supporting production system’ for humanity.

This has had significant implications for how environmental concerns are coordinated with other social considerations in parliamentary decisions: It is primarily nature’s function as a production system that must be protected from harm. As long as an activity can go on without diminishing the functional utility of nature for humanity – use, change and destruction of nature can be considered legitimate.

Furthermore, this can be linked to changes in environmental management systems and environmental law. It is also related to changes in systems for measuring, calculating and evaluating environmental impact. This development can be conceptualized as a shift towards ‘ecosystem-based’ or ‘holistic’ environmental policy, but are based on an anthropocentric valuation of nature. The changes in Norway are considered closely related to, and in part inspired by, international development, conventions and United Nations initiatives.