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Values as Linkages: Opportunities for Sustainability planning

Why there is a problem with values usage and how to address this problem Our conversations are peppered with the word “values”, like a linguistic condiment. It is jargon. It is rhetoric. It relies on stereotyping. The word seems so much more likely to create new problems than solve existing ones that at times I wondered whether simply banning the word would be the best remedy. Instead I examined the value of the word “values” and found redemptive value. There is no single definition of the word. Some equate values with moral values, presented absolutely and immune to challenge. Others equate values with changeable attitudes, measurable static representations of what a culture values in a given moment. Economic values are treated as existing in a world apart from value judgements. Putting people with their different definitions and usages together into a social process is a recipe for miscommunication and confusion. The prevalence of the word “values” in our conversations is relatively recent. In my PhD research I traced the origins of multiple meanings of the word back to the late 1800s when Nietzsche began to use the word “values” as a tool to challenge ideals and absolutes. But just as with other words that change their meaning over time, new usage does not take hold uniformly and continues to be adapted to even newer fashionable ideas and purposes, in different ways applied by different people to different circumstances. Inevitably, multiple usages and meanings coexist. Though values usage originated as an attack on absoluteness, in a classic case of linguistic perversion, the word “values” itself is now frequently equated with absolute beliefs, as unchallengeable and beyond criticism arbitrary truths. What the history of usage and multiplicity of meanings demonstrates, however, is that we have a choice in deciding how to use the word. That choice can be exercised unthinkingly, resulting in the messy situation we now have, or it can be a thoughtful choice. But because we have a choice at all, the problem of multiple and incompatible meanings of the word presents opportunity and advantage. Arrived at well or poorly, if multiple and coexisting usages and meanings are to be understood as all belonging to the same class or category of words that we call “values”, the only way to stand above the fray is by treating all values as relative. Further, this means that all values are contextual and open to challenge. All values are judgments. All values involve relationships and coming up with a value of any kind requires us both to recognize and to make linkages. 1

Values as Linkages: Opportunities for Sustainability planning Sustainability and firm ground The flexibility we have in addressing Sustainability may prompt a desire to search for a solid place on which to plant our feet. But this desire isn’t peculiar to the search for Sustainability. We may plant our feet in science and we may plant ourselves in what we call “moral values”, thinking both are suitable as a solid foundation for making choices--in different ways to different people. It matters what solid ground we choose as a starting point because that same solid ground will shape the journey that follows. As we survey the surrounding topography from our chosen solid ground, our perspective is necessarily limited. There is a lot going on around us that we can’t see. Even solid ground comes with unknowns and unimaginables. The difficulty in even defining Sustainability, let alone understanding how far along the road we are to being sustainble, shows that we can’t treat it as a solid ground where there is no chance at all of an earthquake. Sustainability planning, therefore, is incompatible with tools that require us to treat them as absolutes. If values as understood as tools that portray absolutes--beyond challenge and criticism--then they constrain Sustainability planning by denying full access to the topography. This type of tool requires turning a blind eye. It results in neglect and a lack of transparency and is no different from locking the closet door so no one can check for flammable materials. If instead, all values are treated as relative, then absolute values can no longer claim to be immune to challenge and become a different kind of tool. Once open to evaluation and re-evaluation, the ground of moral values is no longer so solid as we may have thought. And there is no longer any reason to characterize Sustainability itself as “a value”, above challenge and scrutiny. Calling Sustainability “a value” makes it abstract and disconnected from details. Understood as beyond challenge, such such an understanding of Sustainability masks just how or why people can value specific things quite differently but still all value Sustainability. Those details are important. In order to move forward, we need to get at those details and to make linkages among details and between details and the big ideas. Those linkages are the clue to understanding values, what is valuable and why and how, because value lives at least as much in the details as it does in the big ideas. Only then do values have the potential to be a useful tool for Sustainability planning.


Values as Linkages: Opportunities for Sustainability planning Tracking the word “values” in three examples: Vision 2020 was a Sustainability planning process with a high degree of public involvement, undertaken by the then Region of Hamilton Wentworth from 1990 to 1996. It remains a good example of how a poor grasp of the multiple meanings of the word “values” can lead to unexpected results for planners. The glowing abstract values set forth in the preamble to the Vision 2020 process were set aside during the public process once people started talking about details. The organizers kept trying to orchestrate an uncontroversial and positive onward and upward momentum, in the spirit of the glowing values in the preamble and even to the point of discouraging debate about what was then the hottest topic in town, the proposed Red Hill Valley Expressway. At the end of the process, when the planning department had to summarize public input, planners declared that something they now called “the people’s set of values” had not been addressed during the process and was in fact “a barrier” to achieving Sustainability. The “people’s set of values” was critical and specific--pertaining to items that required action and changes, such as bike routes and higher density development. These values lacked a claim to or even a connection to the moral high ground with which the glowing preamble values had been imbued. The preamble values were retroactively renamed the “public’s values”. It was never made clear whether the people’s set of values and the public’s values were considered competing interpretations of Sustainability. That they were in disconnected suggested competition, however, and foretold how Vision 2020 would soon become marginalized and relegated to jargon. Had there been a better grasp of the word “values”, the process could have turned out quite differently. What people wanted was attention to specifics. What they got were platitudes and a process that fizzled not long out of the starting gate, despite winning accolades as having been exemplary.

Wind Turbines and Prince Edward County When industrial wind turbines were proposed in Prince Edward County a couple of years ago, hard line Sustainability advocates took over the middle ground by declaring that they were the only ones pursuing the values of Sustainability, barring from the Sustainability stage other people who may also have thought of themselves as sensitive to environmental issues, social, and economic issues. 3

Values as Linkages: Opportunities for Sustainability planning Many had moved to The County with the specific intention of decreasing their own personal impact on the environment. The so-called “Sustainability values” were abstract and general in their support for industrial wind energy. They claimed a firm moral ground that was not open to challenge and they equated Sustainability with this firm moral ground, a strategic manoeuvre that marginalized competing interpretations of Sustainability. Opponents claimed wind turbines proposals needed to be scrutinized in detail, just like any other proposed industrial operation. Because in this case Sustainability was not a real middle ground but far off at the other end of the spectrum, opponents had to fight not only the decision makers but also the hardliners for credibility. Although extremes on both sides would have been unlikely to move from their respective ends of the scale, the process was unnecessarily divisive because there was no room in the middle for the undecided who simply wanted to know whether or not what they were being told was true and were interested in the details. As with the case of Vision 2020, with one side clinging to abstracts and the other immersed in details, competing sides were actually competing proposals for Sustainability but were not recognized as such. A different understanding and usage of values could have created a middle ground for competing interpretations of Sustainability.

The Niagara Escarpment and transportation corridors In the two examples above, we have seen values usage playing a role in creating schisms. One side is critical and interested in details, the other positive, abstract, and portraying itself as immune to challenge. Another now familiar dichotomy is the environment versus jobs issue in relation to highways being built through the Escarpment. It is such a common story that opposing sides are now stereotypes. Recently, the Hamilton Spectator played into that stereotype by headlining an article “Jobs trump escarpment, says Hudak” (17 Jan 11) even though in the article Hudak is not quoted as actually having used those words. Values understood as relative, critical, and contextual challenges to big ideas could link the two sides by breaking up larger issues into smaller issues in the 4

Values as Linkages: Opportunities for Sustainability planning search for value. If, for example, the larger goal is to improve the economy, then opponents to the highway could present competing proposals to improve the economy in other ways. If farmland is to be sacrificed to a highway corridor, for example, is there a potential higher use of the farmland that could trump the other side’s assumption that farmland value is lower than the potential value of a highway corridor. In the eyes of many, the value of the escarpment increased when it was declared a Biosphere Reserve. But this term has now been used so often to defend the Escarpment that it has become jargon and is losing its power to persuade. Something new needs to happen if people are to increase the value they place on the Escarpment. The Niagara Escarpment Biosphere Fund is working towards this by its focus on specifics, such as food produced on the Escarpment. Food needs to be transported. People need money to buy food. Economy is part of the Biosphere Reserve and Escarpment defenders can rightly claim as much of an interest in economy as urbanites, politicians, and manufacturers. In the Vision 2020 process, the economic dimension of Sustainability was not included in the public process but instead contracted out to a smaller group of experts. The practice of isolating economic issues follows the same pattern of separating values that are about morality from values that are about economics. Isolating economics from other aspects of life is incompatible with Sustainability planning. An understanding of values that allows us to reach out across these artificial categories, for that is all they are, creates opportunities for different ways to organize our thinking. Although PC leader Hudak is favouring jobs over the escarpment, he is also supporting protection of environmentally sensitive lands surrounding the Eramosa Karst in Stoney Creek. (25 Feb 10, Stoney Creek News “Hudak pressing for protection of land surrounding Eramosa Karst). Regardless of whether this is simply a strategic move, Hudak has effectively linked jobs and the Escarpment by supporting both in different contexts. A good grasp of the values tool will use both instances to create new linkages. We use tools to organize our thinking. The word values is but one of these tools. Whether it is an appropriate and useful tool is at least in part up to the user.


Values as Linkages: Opportunities for Sustainability planning ADDENDUM The purpose of this paper was to argue that we need a better grasp of the problems with usage of the word “values” if we are to continue using the word in social processes such as Sustainability planning. An academic treatment of this topic is available online in my PhD dissertation at http:// This theory about values was developed using a version of Grounded Theory Methodology. Research using this methodology does not start out with developing a hypothesis to be tested but instead develops hypotheses by a process of moving back and forth between details and theory building. A good end to this process is the emergence of a theory that fits all of the details but the process does not guarantee at the outset that any such theory will emerge. The validity of the theory depends on the breadth of research accumulated as raw data, the analytical skills of the researcher and the integrity of the researcher in refusing to reinterpret details to force-fit some hypothesis to which the researcher has become partial. When I first chose to research values, and scanned the literature for a definition of values that would allow me to link my work with previous research, I found a multitude of definitions, choosing one of which would have required me to commit, arbitrarily at that point, to one or another understanding of what we mean when we use the word “values”. I chose not to do so but instead to explore why this problem presented itself. It is not uncommon for a particular definition of values to be restricted in application to a single work or article. That many definitions of values are incompatible makes any general overview of research about values or even claims about values problematic. This problem is not restricted to academic literature but is just as prevalent in everyday speech. I gathered over 3000 examples of how the word values was used in all areas of life and literature, making no attempt in the gathering process to ensure representation in the categorical ways we now tend to sort values, for example, moral values, economic values, social values, religious values, and so forth. Instead I compared and contrasted by scrutinizing the examples to find new ways to categorize them, so that categories were based on actual usage rather than assumptions or stereotypes. Lastly, I need to emphasize that this research was focussed on usage of the word “values” and not on the content of values. The finding of the research that all values should be treated as relative is completely separate and different from making a judgement about the content of values. It implies, for example, that calling matters of religious faith “values” instead of “beliefs” demeans such 6

Values as Linkages: Opportunities for Sustainability planning beliefs by turning them into something relative. Similarly, it is unproductive to portray the Niagara Escarpment as“having values, suggesting that the values are independent of humans. If all values are understood as being relative, then things and ideas can’t “have” values that are not assigned to them by humans. What is not assigned by humans is not “a value” but something else that needs to be referenced by another word.

Author and Presenter: Anne Varangu, PhD Affiliation: President, Niagara Escarpment Foundation Niagara Escarpment Foundation 193 James Street South Hamilton ON L8P 3A8 905-529-9503 president at nefpresident at Home PO Box 10280 Stn Winona Stoney Creek, ON L8E 5R1 905-643-2686 vana.ann at


Values as linkages: opportunities for sustainability planning  

Paper presentation at Leading Edge 2011 Conference by Anne Varangu

Values as linkages: opportunities for sustainability planning  

Paper presentation at Leading Edge 2011 Conference by Anne Varangu