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As Environment Degrades, Our Well-Being Grows?

• April 05, 2011 • 1:22 PM

The environment is faltering even as measurements show human well-being is improving. How long can that last?

Earth’s ecosystems are steadily deteriorating thanks to unsustainable practices like overfishing, rainforest clearing and natural gas “fracking.” So, wouldn’t it follow that human beings around the globe are getting sicker, poorer and less satisfied with their lives?

Not so, according to Ciara Raudsepp-Hearne, an environmental consultant and part-time lecturer at Montreal’s McGill University. In “Untangling the Environmentalist’s Paradox: Why Is Human Well-being Increasing as Ecosystem Services Degrade,” published i n the September issue of BioScience, Raudsepp-Hearne and colleagues found that global decreases in ecosystem services like carbon sequestration, water purification and photosynthesis coincided with an unexpected improvement in a wide variety of human progress criteria.

Of course, global trends may not show up everywhere. As BioScience‘s editor wrote in a letter accompanying the issue with Raudsepp-Hearne’s paper, “Aggregate global human well-being is, apparently, growing — though it is obviously declining in some places.”

Raudsepp-Hearne began the project after working on the 2005 Millennium Ecosystems Assessment. Sifting through the results, she realized that the information had not been fully analyzed. “There were thousands of pages of great findings,” she says, “but we hadn’t really come to a major conclusion about the relationship between ecosystem services and well-being.”

A closer look revealed that the key indexes of human development — education, health, water, sanitation and even happiness factors — were increasing around the globe. And, says Raudsepp-Hearne, the latest United Nations Human Development Report, published in late October, substantiated the environmental paradox her team uncovered.

Evaluating the intermingling of human advancement and the environment cannot be addressed through a single explanation, so Raudsepp-Hearne focused on four hypotheses:

1. Well-being was simply measured incorrectly. “Of all the global data sets available today, not one supports the hypothesis that human well-being is actually decreasing,” she says. “People’s gut reaction is that it’s not possible; of course human well-being is decreasing.” And though she says global security and the mounting occurrence of natural disasters have raised some concerns, these aren’t significant enough to cancel out the overwhelming evidence presented by surveys like the Human Development Index. Raudsepp-Hearne and colleagues reject this hypothesis outright.

2. Well-being depends on food services, which happen to be increasing. For Raudsepp-Hearne, of all the ecosystem services, food production is so important for human well-being that it effectively compensates for any decline in other services. The authors point to a study showing that when small areas of coastal mangrove forests are converted to shrimp farming there’s a net benefit — although there is a dampening effect once a certain threshold is crossed. “I wouldn’t say the food hypothesis is the one we feel most strongly about,” says Raudsepp-Hearne, “it’s just that we think food systems is where one of the frontiers of research should be.”

3. Technology has “decoupled” well-being from nature. In other words, thanks to innovation, humanity has grown less dependent on ecosystems. As Raudsepp-Hearne wrote: “Improvements in energy-use efficiency, transportation, logistics and preservation have enhanced the benefits that people can gain from ecosystem processes. Perhaps one of the clearest examples of this progress is humanity’s rising ability to grow more food on smaller amounts of land.” Even so, the authors go on to explain that despite increasing efficiency, the “decoupling” is partial at best.

4. There’s a time lag in the deterioration of ecosystem services. Indeed, things may appear rosy now, but our future could very well become grim once we begin to experience the impacts of human-caused transformations of the ecosystem. However, as the authors wrote, “…uncertainty about the duration, strength, and generality of this lag prevents us from providing strong support for this hypothesis.”

Raudsepp-Hearne is not downplaying the effects of environmental degradation. But when the study first appeared, she says people read the first paragraph and reacted strongly, saying, for example, “human well-being is increasing because we’re changing ecosystems to suit our needs and there’s no paradox there.”

For example, Matt Ridley, former science and technology editor for The Economist and author of The Rational Optimist, blogged that the authors have it backwards.

“But of course the whole paradox is misconceived,” he wrote. “Human beings do not just live off ecosystems. They garden and nurture them so that they are more productive — and sometimes so boost their productivity that they support still more wildlife as well.” For Ridley, modern building materials like plastic, steel and concrete constitute an improvement over the centuries-old use of wood. As the title of his book (and blog) suggests, Ridley believes humanity will likely be much better off in, say, 2111.

But Gerald Nelson, a senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute, is more cautious about the future. “The reason to be pessimistic is that we are having just quantitatively a larger impact on the Earth than we were even 50 years ago. There’s more of us and we demand more resources, and the demands are growing rapidly in some parts of the developing world. You know the classic problem, dumping CO2 into the atmosphere. It’s not a big deal when there aren’t very many of us, right?”

Nelson responded to the Environmental Paradox paper in January with “Untangling the Environmentalist’s Paradox: Better Data, Better Accounting, and Better Technology will Help,” which also appeared in Bioscience. He wouldn’t call his paper a “critique,” but his commentary does take issue with several of Raudsepp-Hearne and her colleagues’ observations.

“I agree,” he wrote, “with this description of the environmentalist’s expectation with a slight but significant word change: Ecological degradation and simplification will eventually be followed by a decline in the provision of ecosystem services, leading to a decline in human well-being.”

He notes Raudsepp-Hearne’s failure to directly discuss the drawdown of resource stocks, which Nelson says would eventually resolve the paradox. And though he agrees the issue is alluded to in the time lag hypothesis, Nelson says the process of drawing down makes it possible for a given ecosystem service to be provided over extended periods.

Perhaps more significantly, Nelson disputes Raudsepp-Hearne’s premise that psychological well-being can be measured. “The economist in me says that well-being has many different dimensions, but the ones I can measure are physical. There are cultural and geographical elements, both of which are mutable across at least generations,” he says.

But Raudsepp-Hearne affirms the impact of the environment on people’s health and, hence, on their psyche. “Studies show the value of eco-system service to healing patients for example, which is a psychological contribution. People feel better and improve their health if they are in a beautiful place or have access to nature. There are few studies like that but they do exist and they do suggest you can measure psychological components of eco-system services.”

Nelson also disputes the paper’s automatic connection of food availability to well-being, pointing out the increasing rates of obesity in the United States and Europe. Raudsepp-Hearne, however, sees obesity as a separate issue. That problem, she says, “is politics and policy and what food is available for different demographics.”

As for her hypothesis that “human ingenuity has decoupled us from dependence on ecosystems,” — a theory she herself is lukewarm about — Nelson insists that every species modifies its environment to optimize its survival.

The question remaining is just how many natural systems and processes will undergo irreversible damage and how soon all of this might occur. Says Raudsepp-Hearne, “We need to figure out where in the world we’re most at risk, what systems are most at risk, what ecosystem services are most at risk and how to adapt to that and manage it better so we can improve the way we live on the planet.”

 

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Arnie Cooper
Arnie Cooper, a freelance writer based in Santa Barbara, Calif., covers food, travel and popular culture, as well as architecture and the sustainability movement. He is a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal's Leisure and Arts page; his writing has also appeared in Outside, Esquire, Orion and Dwell. He's working on a memoir about his childhood experiences in New York City.

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