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Sustainable Development and Social Well-Being
Alex Steffen, 20 Jun 07
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As we've noted before, there is a strong relationship between environmental crises and social instability. Similarly, developing world communities with healthy environments and sound practices (from farming sustainably to building greenbelts) often see faster gains in alleviating poverty. This connection between sustainability and social well-being is so pervasive, it applies even to refugees.

So it should perhaps come as no surprise that two major recent studies have strengthened our understanding of that connection.

The first is a report by WRI, Nature's Benefits in Kenya: An Atlas of Ecosystems and Human Well-Being, which aims to use mapping tools and available data to show the links between ecosystem services and poverty:

Through a series of maps and analyses, the authors focus on the environmental resources most Kenyans rely on such as soil, water, forest, rangeland, livestock, and wildlife. The atlas overlays georeferenced statistical information on population and household expenditures with spatial data on ecosystems and their services (water availability, wood supply, wildlife populations, and the like) to yield a picture of how land, people, and prosperity are related in Kenya.

The report itself is exhaustive, but even reading through the journalist's guide gave me several flashes of new insight into how people in Kenya actually go about making a living and how the environment plays a part in their lives. Indeed, the report's innovative enough to have garnered a foreword by Kenya's own Wangari Maathai. The principles discussed, however, are pretty universal, while the information design is crisp and clear. It's a really solid piece of work.


The second is Foreign Policy's Failed States Index 2007. It's most dramatic finding was the extent to which environmental decline and state failure go hand-in-hand:

As the world warms, states at risk face severe threats to their groundwater, agriculture, and ecosystems, factors that can rapidly undo political and economic gains. This year’s index found a strong correlation between stability and environmental sustainability

This chart illustrates the connection pretty well.


On the other hand, as Worldwatch's latest report, Beyond Disasters: Creating Opportunities for Peace, the flow goes both ways: if the eco-decline/ poverty/ violence and corruption dynamics can cause disastrous social failures, working on all three elements at once -- a form of extreme environmental peacemaking -- offers the chance for radical improvements in dire situations.

UPDATE: Jamais has this to say about the Failed States Index:

An even bigger question is the direction of causation. To what degree is the environmental degradation or collapse in these states the result of the failure of governance, and to what degree is the environmental degradation or collapse a contributor to the failure of governance? Both can be true, of course, but is there a clear trend or pattern? This is an important question, because if environmental degradation tends to precede state collapse (not as the sole factor in the collapse, but as an important political "forcing"), the acceleration of global warming-related ecosystem disruptions will mean more than economic loss and climate refugees.

A good set of questions. I suspect that the answers could only be fully and accurately given in the form of one of those systems dynamics flow charts, with lots of arrows and squiggly lines. What's more, the answers would have to express contigency. History has gifted many failing states with particular and unique broken futures -- both environmental and political -- which in many cases were broken long before anyone currently in power took office. Indeed, many of the worst problems we now face have very long lagtimes, and leaders today have in many cases been handed bombs whose fuses are just now running short, despite having been lit decades ago.

Take the pressures of desertification in the Sahel, which are, it is widely conceded, at least partly climate-driven, and which are fueling various forms instability from Sudan to Mali. Some of the pressures result from decisions made recently, but many others are legacy problems (population growth -- created by better public health practices under colonial rule and since -- which out-distances rates of development, for instance) or even entirely not of local people's making (like climate change itself: responsibility for the vast majority of historic climate change emissions falls squarely on the shoulder of the US and Western Europe). So if states in the Sahel begin failing to an even larger degree, to what extent can we describe their environmentally-linked failures as their own? And to what degree do these states even have the means to address the challenges they face in terms of sustainability? What tools might be created to help them?

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(tried to post this a few days ago, but was treated as spam?)

Would it be ethical if a few philanthropists and NGOs focused their efforts on just a few of these nations for 10 years -- trying to move them to the right on this scale? I don't imagine this would have an immediate effect on the vertical, but there are probably other indicators that could be evaluated at that time: wealth distribution, % of poverty (with appropriate scaling), and who knows what else.

Posted by: Stephen A. Fuqua on 23 Jun 07

Mark Brown and Matt Cohen at the University of Florida have been working on a project in the Sahel to try to answer some of the questions raised with a Systems Ecology approach.

Posted by: Glen on 25 Jun 07

Interesting points. But which comes first, environmental degradation, or governance failure, isn't a central issue to me. I think we have to assume responsibility for the planet, and this means creating political stability and effective governance. There might be environmental outcomes that are outside our control now, but I'm sure we can all take much more responsibility than we have taken in the past, and this will lead to more control, even over outcomes such as desertification.

Knowledge is key, of course, and this is something that more effective governance can enhance. A stable political regime, I think, can encouage the creation and dissemination of knowledge.

Posted by: Paul Mullinger on 30 Jun 07



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