Stephen Kellert has spent his life researching what people think about natural resource conservation, and The Value of Life is the result, presenting findings not only on Americans but on Germans, Japanese, and Botswanans. What the author reveals is that people vary widely in their response to the natural world, and that the ways in which they vary show just how much nature has to offer us.
The nine categories of values Kellert has designated are themselves illuminating. They include “utilitarian” values, which lead people to think of natural resources as goods to be tapped; “naturalistic” values, which center on positive physical, emotional, and intellectual encounters with the nonhuman world; and “ecologistic-scientific” values, whose focus is the patterns, structures, and functions in nature. “Aesthetic” values are evident when people find beauty in the natural world. Those with “symbolic” values use nature for communication and thought in stories, myths, and figures of speech, while those with “dominionistic” values see nature as a challenge-for example, as a mountain to be climbed or a wilderness to be braved. “Humanistic” values come into play when something of a one-on-one relationship develops, as when people bond with pets. Finally, “moralistic” values focus on right and wrong conduct toward animals and nature, and “negativistic” values are at work when people hate denizens of the natural world such as snakes and spiders. Comprehensive as this list of categories may seem, researchers in Botswana have had to add a tenth one, “theistic values,” to refer to the views of indigenous people who attribute conscious life to phenomena in nature.
Kellert reports on how urban people differ from rural ones, young from old, well-educated from less well-educated, loggers from environmentalists, hunters from humane-society members, birdwatchers from zoo visitors, TV watchers from backpackers. The author is, moreover, careful and insightful in interpreting his results, always with an eye to explaining the perspectives of various respondents. For instance, in noting that the Japanese have relatively little interest in conserving biodiversity, he reflects that this may be because they largely enjoy nature culturally transformed into an artform, often as an avenue of escape from the workday life. They are, in other words, more likely to be moved by flowers skillfully arranged in a vase than by uncultivated vegetation in a field, fed upon by animals.
But in the end, The Value of Life is not a book about how people differ. On the contrary, what Kellert really hopes to find is a human tendency toward “biophilia,” the term Harvard entomologist Edward O. Wilson has invented to describe an innate, transcultural disposition: by human nature, we love nature, according to this view. And conservation based on such “hereditary needs of our species” is seen to be on solid ground.