In the fields of natural resource management and environmental governance, programs, projects, and advocacy often address structural factors at the community level, the landscape level or the national level, but tend to focus much less on individual behavior, except as an outcome of those structural factors. Projects for community-based natural resource management (CBNRM), for instance, usually focus on policies at the national level and institutions at the community level. Landscape approaches similarly tend to revolve around collaboration among groups—stakeholder groups and/or communities. If the behavior of individual human beings is considered, it is often understood as the outcome of external factors such as institutions, politics, economics and, ultimately, incentives. Common objectives include, “getting the policies right”, “getting the institutions right”, and “getting the incentives right”. When efforts are directed toward the level of the individual human being, they often focus on skills development and “awareness raising”.
A human being, however, is more than just a utility-maximizing calculator possessing some particular inventory of knowledge and some particular set of skills and affected by some particular, external incentives. Moreover, projects, programs, policies, advocacy and networks are implemented in the end by human beings. These collective efforts depend not only on structural factors, but also on the energy, aspirations and vision of those individual human beings.
One way to approach thinking about the people whose actions affect sustainability as real, multi-dimensional human beings is with the concept of virtues. In everyday language, a virtue is an admirable property or quality, a particular moral excellence. Virtues include qualities such as patience, perseverance and courage. But more than mere characteristics that happen to be desirable, virtues are capacities that we can strengthen and develop.
I prefer not to talk about virtues as values, because values can imply something that is arbitrary and contingent. Today, I value a good cappuccino, challenging questions to think about, and time spent in quiet contemplation; tomorrow, I may value something else. You may value the beauty of the forest, me its ability to provide timber and medicinal plants, and someone else may value the price that the land where the forest is located could fetch. It’s helpful to think of virtues not as values in this sense but as forces that are more fundamental and real. People can harness them, much as we can harness electricity or gravity.
The list of qualities that we might consider to be virtues is long. Here, I want to highlight four that are relevant for the people involved landscape approaches, whether as facilitators or as participants. These are not necessarily the most important virtues—they are simply four that I believe are relevant but are often underappreciated.
Humility involves recognizing that other human beings are as important as you are. Being humble means accepting that you are not perfect, which helps to create a willingness to learn. It also means appreciating what others have to offer. This encourages collaboration, which is essential for landscape approaches.
Love of Beauty
Landscape approaches are concerned with nature and our place in it as human beings. Love of beauty, when focused on the beauty of the natural world, helps you to draw energy to see you through the hard work that will be needed, through the slogging through nitty-gritty details, and through the inevitable setbacks. When combined with humility, it helps us to recognize that we as human beings are not autonomous but rely on the amazing complexity and bounty of nature.
There is no blueprint for using a landscape approach—making it work involves adapting strategies and methods to the social and ecological context. And this kind of flexibility and ability to adapt depends on having insight into that context. Inquisitiveness is a mental resource that can help to fuel learning, propelling people toward such insights. Inquisitiveness combined with love of beauty is often the driving motivation for learning about the natural world, whether by scientists or by lay persons.
When interests, identities, visions and values do not align, empathy helps us to appreciate the other person’s reality and makes it easier to find common ground. When empathy is combined with inquisitiveness, it inspires us to search for and create harmony in the diversity of people, land uses, ecosystems, and resources that are connected to any landscape, which, I would argue, is the real spirit of landscapes approaches.When empathy is combined with inquisitiveness, it inspires us to search for and create harmony in the diversity of people, land uses, ecosystems, and resources that are connected to any landscape Click To Tweet
Thoughts on using virtues in our work
For those of us who are professionals who work with landscape approaches—and with any other dimensions of natural resource management, conservation, and sustainability—I wonder what it would look like to explicitly make the cultivation of virtues part of our work—not merely something personal that I as an individual think about and perhaps try work on, but just as we have elements in our programs that address policies, institutions, incentives, knowledge and skills, what would it look like to also have elements of programs that aim at cultivating these and other virtues? The idea is not as far-fetched or airy-fairy as it might at first seem. Interest in the science of virtues is growing: there is the scholarly work happening at the University of Chicago and Baylor University, for example. And there is also organized social action taking place with frameworks built around virtues—the Virtues Project, for instance.
If cultivation of virtues were to become an explicit component of environmental programs, it would be important avoid letting such efforts come to resemble the preachiness and condescending assumptions that sometimes infect “awareness raising” strategies, but I suppose it would involve helping people to become more aware of when they are and are not practicing particular virtues. It might also involve using the language of virtues when building capacity for negotiation and deliberative collective decision-making. These are just speculations—ultimately, I have only the vaguest idea of what the cultivation of virtues would look like in the context of landscape approaches. I do suspect, though, that it could help us better think of the people involved as real, multi-dimensional human beings.