Culture, Intangibles and Metrics in Environmental Management

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Journal of Environmental Management



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The demand for better representation of cultural considerations in environmental management is increasingly evident. As two cases in point, ecosystem service approaches increasingly include cultural services, and resource planners recognize indigenous constituents and the cultural knowledge they hold as key to good environmental management. Accordingly, collaborations between anthropologists, planners, decision makers and biodiversity experts about the subject of culture are increasingly common—but also commonly fraught. Those whose expertise is culture often engage in such collaborations because they worry a practitioner from ‘elsewhere’ will employ a ‘measure of culture’ that is poorly or naively conceived. Those from an economic or biophysical training must grapple with the intangible properties of culture as they intersect with economic, biological or other material measures. This paper seeks to assist those who engage in collaborations to characterize cultural benefits or impacts relevant to decision-making in three ways; by: (i) considering the likely mindset of would-be collaborators; (ii) providing examples of tested approaches that might enable innovation; and (iii) characterizing the kinds of obstacles that are in principle solvable through methodological alternatives. We accomplish these tasks in part by examining three cases wherein culture was a critical variable in environmental decision making: risk management in New Zealand associated with Māori concerns about genetically modified organisms; cultural services to assist marine planning in coastal British Columbia; and a decision-making process involving a local First Nation about water flows in a regulated river in western Canada. We examine how ‘culture’ came to be manifest in each case, drawing from ethnographic and cultural-models interviews and using subjective metrics (recommended by theories of judgment and decision making) to express cultural concerns. We conclude that the characterization of cultural benefits and impacts is least amenable to methodological solution when prevailing cultural worldviews contain elements fundamentally at odds with efforts to quantify benefits/impacts, but that even in such cases some improvements are achievable if decision-makers are flexible regarding processes for consultation with community members and how quantification is structured.

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