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Value incommensurability

Values are often incommensurable. This simply means that they cannot be measured in the same units. The environment is often a site of conflict between competing values and interests represented by different classes and groups. How are such conflicts to be understood? The approach of standard economics is to use of a common unit – a monetary numeraire – for all the different values and then to look for a trade-off between all of them within a market context. By ‘values’ we understand what is considered important: conservation of nature? sacredness? livelihood? aesthetics? money? national sovereignty? Typically, conventional economists apply monetary compensation to an injured party in order to solve conflicting claims. In some cases, like when asking for redress in a court of law in a civil suit, this is all that can be done: asking for money as compensation for damages. This approach assumes therefore the existence of value commensurability, that is, that all values can be translated into money.

Whenever there are unresolved ecological conflicts, there is likely to be not only a discrepancy but also incommensurability in valuation (Faucheux and O’Connor, 1998; Funtowicz and Ravetz, 1994; Martínez-Alier et al., 1998; Martinez-Alier and O’Connor, 1999). The claims to environmental resources and services of actors who are differentially empowered and endowed can be contested by arguing inside a single standard of value or across plural values. As pointed out by O’Connor and Spash (1999), conflicts about access to natural resources or about exposure to environmental burdens and risks may be expressed:

• In one single standard of valuation (usually monetary). How should the externalities (i.e. cost-shifting) caused by a firm be valued in money terms when asking for compensation in a court case? An appeal to economists versed in cost/benefit analysis and contingent valuation would be appropriate here.

• Through a value standard contest or dispute, that is, a clash in the standards of value to be applied, as in the case of biodiversity loss, or in cultural patrimony, or damage to human livelihoods, or infringement on human rights or loss of aesthetic or sacred values, are compared in non-commensurate terms to economic gains from a transport corridor, a new dam, a new mining project or an oil palm plantation.

Any social group can simultaneously use different standards of value in support of its economic and environmental security. This is particularly true of subordinate social groups. Incommensurability of values arises not only because of different interests but also because of complexity that entails a plurality of legitimate perspectives and values.


Faucheux, S. and O’Connor, M. (eds) (1998) Valuation for Sustainable Development: Methods and Policy Indicators, Cheltenham, Edward Elgar.

Funtowicz, S. and Ravetz, J. (1994) The worth of a songbird: ecological economics as a post-nomal science’, Ecological Economics (10) 197-207.

Martínez-Alier, J., Munda, G. and O‘Neill, J. (1998) Weak comparability of values as a foundation for ecological economics. Ecological Economics, 26: 277–286.

Martinez-Alier, J. and O’Connor, M. (1999) Distributional issues: an overview, in J. van der Bergh (ed.) Handbook of Environmental and Resource Economics, Cheltenham, Edward Elgar.

O’Connor, M. and Spash, C. (eds) (1999) Valuation and the Environment: Theory, Methods and Practice, Cheltenham, Edward Elgar.

For further reading:

Martínez-Alier, J. (2002) The environmentalism of the poor: a study of ecological conflicts and valuation. Cheltenham, Edward Elgar.

Munda, G. (1995) Multi-criteria evaluation in a fuzzy environment. Theory and applications in ecological economics. Heidelberg, Physica-Verlag.

This glossary entry is based on a contribution by Julien Francois Gerber

EJOLT glossary editors: Hali Healy, Sylvia Lorek and Beatriz Rodríguez-Labajos

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