Many have endeavored to guide us towards a gentler relationship with the environment, to live within our ecological means, and treasure the breadth of life on Earth. Biodiversity has been described as a precious genetic library,1 the common heritage of mankind,2 and living or natural capital.3 American systems scientist Donella Meadows once said that allowing a species to go extinct is a crime akin to randomly eliminating libraries, labs, and universities.4 It shrinks the potential for ecosystems to evolve, and reduces resilience – the ability to rebound from perturbations and shocks.5 Today, we need the evolutionary potential and the resilience biodiversity confers more than ever.

While climate change multiplies threats to biodiversity6, ecosystems with a full range of natural biodiversity have more adaptive capacity.7,8 For example, when one species has been stressed or otherwise impacted by warming or battered by storm damage, others may fill its role.8 Yet increasingly, scientists are finding examples of climate-driven regime shifts that have transformed rich ecosystems into ones far less friendly to human prosperity and survival.9 We have a tendency to strip away buffering safeguards and realize their importance too late,10 primarily by privileging the economy ahead of the environment.4 Values theory tested across more than 80 countries suggests this tendency, and the divide between economy and environment more generally, arises from our personal and cultural values.>11

Values Create Boundaries and Groups

Values have an odd role in decision-making. On one hand, they are considered abstract, emotional, or impractical entities that must be subdued in favor of more objective lines of reasoning. On the other, they are promoted as the moral and strategic underpinnings of democracy, reflected in every vote and political decision. Values are defined as persistent guiding principles and standards for comparison, constructed from judgments about the capacity of things, people, and actions to enable best possible living.12,13 Aristotle used the term eudaimonia to describe best possible living, roughly translated into human flourishing or actualizing potential.12 People believe themselves to flourish in different ways – by accumulating wealth or by serving the vulnerable, for example, and this simple truth quietly lays the foundation for conflict.

Personal Values

Values theorist Shalom Schwartz determined that we all share ten basic motivational values, but prioritize them differently.14 Some are compatible and can be held simultaneously, while others are in direct conflict with one another; we cannot prioritize opposing values at the same time. In opposition are self-enhancement (SE) values that emphasize the pursuit of one’s own interests, such as power and achievement, and self-transcendence (ST) values that highlight the welfare of others (ST-social) or for nature (ST-nature).11,14 These opposing values can translate directly to positions on resource development. In a California example, the ST-nature measure world of beauty was highly rated by survey respondents opposed to mining in public parks.15 Those who supported more mining placed a low value on world of beauty and a higher value on personal prosperity, a SE measure.15

Cultural Values

Schwartz also provided empirical evidence for seven cultural value orientations, with dichotomies roughly equivalent to SE versus ST.11,16 A hierarchy culture legitimizes the unequal distributions of power, roles, and resources.17 Here, people are less likely to engage in activism, since this violates the social order.17 In opposition is egalitarianism. People in such cultures recognize one another as moral equals, and are socialized to cooperate and feel concern for everyone’s welfare.17 Egalitarianism predicts greater political activism, particularly for causes that reach beyond self-interest.17 Cultures with harmony values cherish a world of beauty, seek unity with nature, and endeavor to protect the environment.16 Mastery values oppose both egalitarian and harmony values.17,18 Cultures that emphasize egalitarianism and harmony are more likely to call for cooperative regulation of resources,17 whereas groups that hold mastery values get ahead by controlling and changing the social or natural environment. Mastery values align, however, with hierarchy values, because efforts to achieve success often result in unequal allocations of resources.16

Schwartz found that American culture emphasized mastery and hierarchy values more than harmony and egalitarian ones.19 In general, English-speaking nations and regions had “a cultural orientation that encourages an assertive, pragmatic, entrepreneurial, and even exploitative orientation to social and natural environments.”19 Our study area on Canada’s southwest coast was anomalous, with a culture exhibiting deep connections to natural places.20

Cultural values associated with place geographies are entangled with other types of cultural values, characterizing sectors, socioeconomic classes, organizations, and many other types of in-groups. In general, cultural groups tend to encompass those with whom we feel close, those with whom we frequently interact, and those with whom we identify.21 A rapidly expanding body of literature describes strong social-psychological forces that coax us into comfortable echo chambers, entrench our thinking, and move us towards positional extremes when values collide.22,23 Economy versus environment conflicts with value priorities in opposition are predictably intractable.

Values in Contentious Energy Projects

Our research examined the role of values in two cases of contentious proposed energy projects, to assess how better outcomes for biodiversity might be achieved. One was the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, to increase intercontinental exports of diluted bitumen from Alberta’s oil sands, the third-largest oil reserve in the world (Figure 1). The proposal generated protests, arrests, and court challenges, primarily on BC’s populous south coast. Most at issue were impacts to the climate and the marine environment, including an endangered population of Killer Whales. After being approved by the federal government in late 2016, a federal court of appeal quashed the project in August, 2018, anticipating reconsideration of marine impacts and additional consultation with Indigenous groups.

In the second case, climate activists aligned with clean energy supporters against other green groups and individuals concerned for watersheds on BC’s Central Coast. The Bute Inlet hydroelectric project would have been the largest run-of-river project in Canada, comprised of 17 sites on three river systems. It was delayed by the proponent to conduct additional field work and analysis, then formally withdrawn in 2016.

When we examined the values of a sample of people engaged with these projects, the theories held true. Survey respondents who prioritized SE values were significantly more likely to support the energy projects, regardless of whether the project was fossil fuel-based or renewable. Those who aligned with ST-nature values were more likely to be against the pipeline expansion, while environmentalists with similar ST-nature values were on both sides of the run-of-river project. Support for the projects was moderately or weakly correlated with hierarchy and mastery values, and negatively correlated with egalitarianism and harmony values. Associations were also evident when considering hypothetical energy projects. Notably, nearly 63% of project supporters – all with high SE and low ST-nature scores, said they would be neutral should energy projects conflict with environmental protection, claiming their position would be context-dependent.

Fig. 1 Case study areas
Photo. 1 Protests at a public meeting with the Ministerial Panel for the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion Project in Victoria, BC, August 23, 2016.
Photo. 2

The Orca or Killer Whale is an icon on Canada’s west coast, decorating totems, gardens, buildings, clothing, and much more. With the pipeline expansion, an estimated 29 additional Aframax tankers carrying diluted bitumen would travel each month through critical Orca habitat, threatening a declining population and a thriving whale watching industry.

Pulled to the Poles

When we analyzed values- and identity-frames in online media stories and materials shared by organizations, we found these emphasized extremes (e.g., pipelines or no pipelines, a moratorium on run-of-river projects or a green power corridor), and interprovincial conflict in the case of the pipeline.22, 24 And on a day of local protest of the pipeline expansion, the Twitter hashtag #breakfreeCan linked 950 tweeters from around the globe, primarily through well-established activist organizations and leaders with strong positions and messages (Figure 2).

A more detailed social network analysis of the combined pipeline expansion and run-of-river project networks revealed limited flows of information between supporter and opponent organizations (Figure 3), and mostly negative supporter-opponent relationships in the pipeline project component (Figure 4). This component also showed extensive cooperation and collaboration among well-established environmental organizations and new, project or issue-based organizations. Older organizations had greater reach (i.e., most of the flow network was within two steps), akin to government agencies and political organizations. Groups that had formed in response to the project were brokers or bridges, increasing the connectedness of the network and flow of information.

Into the Middle and Productive Dialogue

By contrast, members of environmental groups engaged with the run-of-river project tended to report positive relationships, even when their organizations were at odds. This suggests positive relationships flow from similar values. However, the run-of-river network component included a subset of the BC Energy Forum, a professionally facilitated collaborative dialogue process among environmental groups and the clean power industry to address energy, climate, and ecosystem challenges.25 Relationships between clean energy companies and other collaborators in the forum were more positive than those between companies and non-profit groups outside of it, reflecting either the design of the forum to include industry-friendly organizations, or its ability to build trust.

Regardless, anonymous interviews with survey respondents from both projects revealed the extreme positions bolstered by organizations and media outlets were inconsistent with what most individuals personally felt. “How can one person say that this is the only way our economy moves forward, and another organization is saying this will be the death of our society? So the truth lies somewhere in the middle” (pipeline opponent, organization leader). Not infrequently, they viewed their own organizations as barriers to productive dialogue. “I understand the value of hyperbole and alarmist language to get people to pay attention. I actually felt a little uncomfortable with the sky is falling kind of rhetoric we were employing” (run-of-river opponent, organization spokesperson).

Foremost was the notion that honest, charitable conversations were missing. Even those whose organizations were central to the conflict wanted to see productive exchanges of ideas leading to mutual agreement. “I’m not talking from the perspective of who I work for. As myself, I just feel like the issues everybody brings forward – both sides are all important issues, and they have to be, because those are perspectives of individual people, and it’s what’s important to them, and that needs to be respected and it needs to be frankly embraced. I feel like there’s no middle ground” (pipeline supporter, organization spokesperson). Another, a journalist, remarked, “The debate is so polarized… you end up with only a few people really wanting to engage in that conversation – environment on one end, oil companies on the other, and the rest of the public is kind of left switching off from that. It’s like sitting at a dinner table conversation where your uncle and your sister are fighting, and everyone else is just tuning out.”

We believe that meaningful and productive dialogue may be contingent on anonymous, rather than face-to-face exchanges, at least in the early stages of deliberation. It should occur before bridging organizations have been created in response to a project, and before media outlets and others have framed contentious issues. This generally means it is best conducted prior to the onset of environmental assessment and other planning processes. The engagement process itself can take many forms (e.g., virtual real-time dialogues,26 virtual World café,27 or Delphi methods28). In the absence of anonymity, deliberators should be outwardly moderate, arms-length from leadership, or otherwise detached from the extreme voices in their networks.

Fig. 2 Twitter network of Break Free Canada protest of the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion on May 14, 2016, by time zones. Pacific Time is local to BC. The inset shows Greenpeace Canada communicating from Quito, Equador.
Fig. 3 Network flows. Groups n=195, participants n=43. Created with Kumu, 2017. The large cluster on the left, the pipeline network, has numerous connections with the smaller hydro project cluster on the right.
Fig. 4 Positive and negative network relationships. Groups n=195, participants n=43. Created with Kumu, 2017.

Coming to Terms with a Common Vocabulary

We found values-based disparities in the interpretation of terms routinely used in natural resource decision-making, such as risk, uncertainty, and mitigation. They were also present in goal-oriented terms, such as balance and public interest. When people lack a common vocabulary, it hinders mutual understanding and may act as a barrier to exchanges of ideas and agreement. Here, we examine the discrepancies associated with the term public interest.

Public interest is not defined in environmental impact legislation, however Canada’s National Energy Board, the regulator for the pipeline expansion, referred to public interest as “a balance of economic, environmental and social interests that change as society’s values and preferences evolve over time” [emphasis ours].29 In determining that the project was in the public interest, the Board placed significant weight on its national economic benefits, namely access to Pacific Rim markets. It noted that most of the residual burdens – such as the risk of marine spills, were regional or local.29 The Board also contradicted its assertion that the project was unlikely to cause significant adverse environmental effect, by saying it would have significant effects on an endangered Killer Whale population.

Our research participants knew they disagreed on what was in the public interest, but were mostly unaware that the disagreement was rooted in their interpretation of the term itself. In describing public interest, project supporters focused on the economic and social benefits accruing to society from private development. Dating back to the gold rush and national railway, private enterprise had “built the fabric” of the province and nation and made them strong and prosperous. Communities had become better places to live. Supporters believed companies could and should be constrained with conditions, such that publicly-owned lands and resources were respected and investments remained attractive. They believed people directly affected by a project were entitled to advocate for their interests, with caveats that legal, traditional, and ethical rights must yield to rules of paramountcy (i.e., national over regional, regional over local, and local over individual interests). Public interest was predominantly utilitarian, providing the greatest good for the greatest number. What it was not, however, was consensus or social license (i.e., broad local support).

By contrast, project opponents mainly emphasized the responsibility to protect the public and its interests from self-serving corporate interests. This was perceived as a shared responsibility – among decision-makers, scientists, non-profit organizations and others. As such, it encompassed the freedom to advocate for the public interest and the ability to make a difference. Maintaining functioning ecosystems to meet basic needs such as clean water, considering impacts to future generations, recognizing when regions were already oversubscribed with development, exploring less harmful alternatives, preventing companies from supplanting the rights of citizens, and requiring monitoring and compensation were all included in the responsibility to protect. Integrity, in the form of neutrality or independence from industry and ideological governments, was seen as co-requisite with responsibility to acting in the public’s best interest. Unlike supporters, they did not see hierarchical paramountcy as a factor in public interest. “You can’t say we’re going to destroy this region in a whole bunch of ways, but don’t worry, this is for the good of the country.”

In evaluating public interest, people were speaking different languages. SE-oriented people largely welcomed resource applications, seeing them as opportunities for gaining advantage for best possible living, while ST-nature-oriented participants judged them with suspicion, as potential threats to biodiversity and a stable climate. By integrating the most important definitions or find a single one that works for all, deliberations can be grounded in the same basic language.

Challenge My Views, Not My Values

To overcome values-based polarization, it may seem reasonable to try to modify people’s values to be more similar, or to achieve a certain end. To safeguard biodiversity, we may wish key decision-makers to prioritize ST-nature values, for example. However, values are mostly stable, enduring over a range of scenarios and time.14,31 If we deeply care for nature now, we will probably care later, too.

Values are generally accepted as causally prior to views.32 However, in 33 views statements across a range of relevant issues (e.g., nature’s role in the economy, urgency of climate change and biodiversity loss), only two were moderately or strongly correlated with values scores and level of support for the project. Views either varied over the range of responses, or people on either side of the project and values divides mostly agreed; divergent values had not prevented them from developing similar views. On areas of disagreement, supporters and opponents alike were willing to have their views challenged.

The views of survey respondents diverged significantly on two statements related to the transition of fossil fuels to renewable forms of energy. Follow-up interviews revealed that most project opponents believed the transition was within reach, while many supporters – particularly pipeline supporters, felt the transition would take a long time. At the same time, more than 90% felt climate change and biodiversity loss were interconnected and pressing problems that must be considered in all decisions for lands and resources, more than 9% believed climate was more important than biodiversity loss, and no one saw climate change and biodiversity loss as distant threats. The issue was the speed of transition, not the need for transition.

However, the intensity of the threats was felt differently. Pipeline opponents, and climate action advocates especially, viewed additional fossil fuel infrastructure as an imminent danger to Earth’s ecosystems and inhabitants. In believing that an expeditious transition was accessible, they felt the pipeline expansion was immoral. It would disproportionally externalize the costs of climate change to those least able to contend with them – poor human populations and innocent wildlife.

Less concerned about transition time were those who understood fossil fuels to be firmly entrenched in a global economic system. Most viewed fossil fuel as a critical source of energy upon which most of Earth’s habitants rely. For them, a hasty transition would result in widespread hardship, disproportionately affecting vulnerable regions with limited or no energy services. The pipeline expansion was regarded as tried-and-true transportation infrastructure connecting a largely land-locked resource to a lucrative market, not a dangerous turning point for humanity.

Examining nine opposing arguments on transition time, we found facts supported both sides in every instance. For example, in support of a short transition, pipeline opponents argued that global demand for oil will depend on global agreements and the policy choices we make. In support of a longer one, supporters argued the global demand for oil would be high for decades. In its final report regarding the pipeline expansion, the National Energy Board was of the view that world demand would increase for the next 20 years, long enough to justify the project.29 The International Energy Agency’s 2016 World Energy Outlook based its main scenario on the Paris Agreement on climate change. In this scenario, growth in oil demand slowed, but topped 103 million barrels per day by 2040 (from 98 mb/d). However, the Outlook also stated that the signal from governments was that fossil fuels would continue to be a bedrock of the global energy system for many decades to come. It warned the fossil fuel industry to prepare for policy shifts and a much sharper transition. In other words, both arguments were supported by the world’s most authoritative source of energy market analysis and projections.33 By confronting the assumptions behind dissenting views to develop a common ‘fact base’, we contend that it is possible to bridge the gap between views without condemning people on either side of a values division to one position or another.

Appreciating Values Diversity

A productive dialogue regarding transition time, or biodiversity loss and climate change more generally, requires an appreciation for values diversity. Values are sociological and psychological raw material, flowing through our networks and ourselves, shaping our assumptions, interpretations, and positions.22 Although it is foolhardy to typecast individuals onto one side or another of a values divide, the stereotypical strengths of SE and ST-nature values make a compelling case. People prioritizing ST-nature values may be more likely to recognize local ecological thresholds, safeguard ecosystem connectivity, or assist the migration of species. Those who prioritize SE values may be more likely to develop inexpensive renewable technologies that hasten transition, or carbon capture technologies that allow fossil fuels to be safely used. Values are untapped assets, representing different angles on problems and solutions.10,34 Meadows believed that multiple lenses allow for a more complete understanding.10 “When the world is more messy, more crowded, more interconnected, more interdependent, and more rapidly changing than ever before, the more ways of seeing, the better.” And when people with explicitly diverse values come together to deliberate, they may elicit a Medici effect,34 where intersections lead to extraordinary insights and innovation. By accepting values diversity, developing a language respecting values pluralism, and building a fact base for dissenting views and assumptions, we may finally transcend economy versus environment conflicts.


Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council supported this doctoral research.


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Holly J.K. Clermont

Registered Professional Biologist and Doctor of Social Sciences, Royal Roads University, 2005 Sooke Road, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada


Ann Dale

Professor, School of Environment and Sustainability, Royal Roads University


Leslie King

Professor, School of Environment and Sustainability, Royal Roads University


Maureen G. Reed

Professor and Assistant Director, School of Environment and Sustainability, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada

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