EPE TIG Week: What’s Valuable about the Environment? by Bethany Laursen

Hi, I’m Bethany Laursen, philosophy & sustainability graduate student at Michigan State University and principal consultant at Laursen Evaluation & Design, LLC. Hooray, it’s Earth Week! Why is this something to celebrate? Because we value the environment, and that’s a wonderful, terrifying responsibility for us as evaluators.

Values are wonderful and scary because they are powerful. They can unite us into collective action to improve the world. But they can also permanently split families, churches, organizations, and partnerships. To us “help society” types, these schisms can feel like the worst possible outcome and thus like they ought to be avoided at all costs.

It’s true schisms are awful, but it’s also true they are not the worst possible outcome. In fact, the worst possible outcome of an evaluation is that we ignore or misrepresent what’s actually valuable. In that case, by definition we have failed at our jobs. But not only that—we will have failed to help society.

Lesson Learned: Maintaining harmony is not the same as, nor does it always accompany, making the world a better place.

Evaluation requires making an accurate, transparent, systematic judgment about the merit, worth, or significance of something. As E. Jane Davidson regularly reminds us, “E-valu-ation – it’s not spelled like that for nothing!”

Rad Resource: “Why genuine evaluation must be values-based” by E. Jane Davidson

However, very few evaluators have training in value theory, which is a subfield of philosophy undergirding ethics. I think this is a shame and shortcoming that our training programs should urgently correct. As Michael Scriven has written, “The last frontier of evaluation [is] ethics.” How can we be expected to make accurate, transparent, systematic value judgments without training in how to make accurate, transparent, systematic judgments about values?

For those of us who don’t have or expect to receive training in ethical or value theory, we can still improve our practice:

Hot Tip 1: Train yourself. Start with the works linked in this post; then write your own post, form a community of practice, talk with a philosopher, or find instructional materials online.

Hot Tip 2: Bring someone with such training onto your team. Find a value theorist at your local university, seminary, or Indigenous tribe. Ask EvalTalk. Network at conferences like the 9th Annual conference on Values in Science, Medicine, and Technology.

Evaluating according to what is truly valuable is always important, but it is crucial for the survival of our earth community. Human flourishing—the common good—is interwoven with environmental flourishing. We must therefore get specific, accurate, actionable, and explicit about what flourishing means in any given case. Those things answer the question, “What’s valuable about the environment?”

Hot Tip 3: If you are confused about what is valuable for your evaluand, or if you’re nervous about saying it aloud, a good place to start is showing what will lead to mutual human-environmental flourishing in your context. Almost everyone will value such flourishing, and you’ll join a growing group of Blue Marble evaluators.

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Environmental Program Evaluation TIG Week with our colleagues in the Environmental Program Evaluation Topical Interest Group. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from our EPE TIG members. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365@eval.org. aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.


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