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The Human Well-Being Paradox

March 7, 2012

A key challenge to environmentalists is explaining why human well-being has so greatly improved in the last century while the environment has significantly degraded.  If we can’t do this, how can we hope to build public support for our work?  Isn’t a core message that environmental destruction will make us and future generations less happy?

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment reported that two-thirds of assessed ecosystem services were declining just as gross national product (GNP) and the human development index (HDI) had increased in the last 50 years.  (The HDI is a measure of life expectancy, literacy, education, and standards of living for countries worldwide.)

So what has happened?  Raudsepp-Hearne et al. explored four explanations and found #’s 2-4 most persuasive:

(1) We have measured well-being incorrectly; (2) well-being is dependent on food services, which are increasing, and not on other services that are declining; (3) technology has decoupled well-being from nature; (4) time lags may lead to future declines in well-being.

On the importance of food services:

By improving crop yields in many developing countries, agricultural innovations associated with the Green Revolution have contributed to higher caloric intake and decreased child malnourishment by as much as 14.4% and 7.9%, respectively. Globally, the production of grains, meat, and fish has more than kept pace with population growth, meeting the basic needs of people in most regions of the world and allowing for increases in health and life expectancy…

At the global scale, forest cover, biodiversity, and fish stocks are decreasing, while water crowding, soil degradation, natural disasters, global temperatures, and carbon dioxide levels are on the rise, and land is becoming increasingly subject to salinization and desertification. However, across countries, we found no correlation between the HDI and the available data on nonfood ecosystem services, including forest cover and percentage of land under protected-area status (proxies for many cultural and regulating services), organic pollutants (a proxy for air and water quality), and water-crowding index (a proxy for drinking water availability.

On technological decoupling:

An increasingly efficient use of ecosystem services could reduce the total demand for services. We found abundant examples of ecosystem services being more efficiently used through the development of new forms of social organization, such as trade, as well as through methods of manipulating and using ecosystem products. For example, improvements in energy-use efficiency, transportation, logistics, and preservation have enhanced the benefits that people can gain from ecosystem processes…

Fossil fuels, technology, and innovation have allowed people to substitute reliance on engineered services for ecosystem services. Fossil fuels have greatly enhanced human well-being with minimal additional use of ecosystem services by allowing people to make use of energy accumulated over the history of the biosphere. Furthermore, medicine, improved sanitation, and better water sources have compensated for widespread deterioration in water quality and have greatly reduced child mortality. The construction and operation of infrastructure to replace degraded ecosystem services—for example, irrigation and flood control, the breeding of novel crop varieties, and the use of fossil fuels to produce artificial fertilizers and pesticides—have increased the benefits people are able to extract from agriculture. Smil estimated that about 40% of all protein in human diets depends on nitrogen fertilizer produced from fossil fuel. To date, productivity gains from artificial fertilization have exceeded losses resulting from declines in natural soil fertility and water infiltration in soil, and slowed the expansion of agriculture into other ecosystems.

There are, however, considerable limitations to technology’s ability to replace ecosystem services. First of all, most substitutes do not replace ecosystem services but extend their benefits or functionality; this is the case in most water filtration plants, for example. Additionally, Ehrlich and Goulder suggested that substitution is not possible once the stock of the original resource falls below some critical value. Even before such thresholds are reached, substituting artificial services for ecosystem services can be expensive, both in terms of the substitutes’ development and maintenance costs, and of the forgone benefits of alternative uses of ecosystems.

It is also worth considering how technology has decoupled the link between ecosystem services and psychological well-being. The authors found limited decoupling of the link, but what if psychological measures of well-being were used instead? The internet’s vast stores of information, social networks, and smart phones may support life satisfaction even as the environment continues to decline.  Importantly, the author’s did not and could not evaluate psychological well-being as measurement is still in its conceptual infancy.

Finally, on time lags:

Evidence suggests that we are approaching the limits of resource use at the global scale. Recent studies have shown that humans have a larger footprint than the ecological carrying capacity of the world. This “global overshoot” is only temporarily possible, and depends on the presence of natural capital stocks to be depleted…

Marine fisheries around the world are substantially depleted; humans already appropriate 50% of global freshwater runoff, and use is increasing. The availability of new sources of high-quality energy is limited.

These explanations lead us to ask: where do the ecosystem degradation thresholds lie and what non-linearities exist in our adaptive capabilities?

More here.

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