Environment, Natural resource management, People, Policy

355. Wellbeing

This post is in memory of Ken Wallace, who died unexpectedly on 13 October 2021.

When economists evaluate a project or a policy, the way we measure benefits is essentially aimed at measuring the effect on human wellbeing. However, the way we do it treats wellbeing as a black box. We just ask how much people would be willing to pay (WTP) to obtain the benefits of the project, or willing to accept (WTA) as compensation for its adverse impacts. We don’t pry into the different aspects of wellbeing that might underpin the WTP or WTA. We generally assume that, as long as the total benefits are big enough, those details don’t matter.

Ken Wallace thought differently. As a result of his decades of experience as an environmental manager in Western Australia, he came to feel that understanding the different aspects of human wellbeing and how a particular project would contribute to them could be very helpful.

For example, talking through the different elements of wellbeing could help people think more deeply and clearly about what the benefits to them really were and how significant they were. It could also help managers to design projects that best delivered the aspects of wellbeing that people cared most about. And it could help to focus managers’ attention on the outcomes to be delivered, rather than jumping to the design or prioritisation of projects without having thought about outcomes (a common weakness in practice).

This was part of Ken’s motivation for enrolling in a PhD at UWA after he retired from the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions. Abbie Rogers, Milena Kim and myself agreed to be his supervisors.

The papers from his thesis cover various issues relevant to environmental planning (Wallace et al. 2017; Wallace et al. 2021). Here I’ll just talk about his work on wellbeing (Wallace et al. 2020). After reviewing various definitions of wellbeing he settled on: “a state of life that is, overall, consistently believed to be good for a person or group of people, all things considered. It comprises the various activities and preferred end states that are believed to constitute a good form of life.

He noted, “Framed in this way, wellbeing is a normative concept … Deciding the specific constituents of wellbeing is subjective and dependent on socio-cultural and other environmental factors. Given the normative aspect of wellbeing, a role for science is to research and advise people concerning the likely constituents of wellbeing and the consequences of seeking to fulfil specific combinations of such constituents.”

He then set about identifying a coherent set of end-state values that contribute to wellbeing, with the aim that these could be used for group planning in natural resource management. Having reviewed existing research in the area, he developed a set of criteria for judging whether a set of end-state values was suitable and sufficient for planning purposes (see Wallace et al. (2020) for details). This led to a proposed set of end-state values that wellbeing depends on, as follows:

Adequate resources. Having sufficient food, air, and water to support energetic needs, growth, and structural maintenance.

Aesthetically pleasing environment. Living in, and having access to, aesthetically pleasing environments – i.e., places where the structure and composition of elements give sensory pleasure.

Benign physical environment. An environment in which the physical properties lie within minimum and/or maximum boundaries (e.g., lead concentrations, temperature) that are conducive to wellbeing.

Knowledge-heritage fulfilment. Having sufficient access to the information contained in nature to support knowledge-heritage needs.

Meaningful occupation. Broadly defined here as work occupation or equivalent that provides one or more people with satisfying tasks.

Protection from other organisms. The security that comes from living in an environment in which the presence of other organisms, including disease organisms and humans, does not harm wellbeing.

Recreational satisfaction. The fulfilment that people derive from leisure activities.

Social fulfilment. The fulfilment one achieves through strong family and community relationships.

Spiritual-philosophical fulfilment. The fulfilment that arises from meeting, to a sufficient extent, one’s spiritual-philosophical needs to achieve wellbeing. Includes concepts such as a biodiversity conservation ethic.

He tested these out in various ways and he helped us use them in a research project in the Kimberley looking at how different groups in the community view different plausible development trajectories. Overall, they seemed to work well.

Ken’s untimely passing is terribly sad. A particular regret I have is that he won’t be around to progress the conversations we’d had about the relevance of his work within the world of non-market valuation. Without having a firm or concrete view on the matter, I have a hunch that an increased focus on the details of wellbeing might be a way of adding value to existing non-market valuation techniques. If someone would like to take that idea further, I’d be happy to talk.

Further reading

Wallace, K.J. and Jago, M. 2017. Category mistakes: A barrier to effective environmental management. Journal of Environmental Management 199: 13–20. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvman.2017.05.029

Wallace, K.J., Kiatkoski Kim, M., Rogers, A. and Jago, M. 2020. Classifying human wellbeing values for planning the conservation and use of natural resources. Journal of Environmental Management 256:  https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvman.2019.109955

Wallace, K.J., Jago, M., Pannell, D.J., and Kiatkoski Kim, M. 2021. Wellbeing, values, and planning in environmental management. Journal of Environmental Management 277: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvman.2020.111447