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Untangling the 'Environmentalist's Paradox': Is It All About Speed?

We need a better understanding of the 'environmentalist's paradox' - Why is human well-being improving globally when our environmental woes appear to be worsening all the time?

by Leo Hickman

We hear lots of concerned chatter these days – not least, here on this site - about peak oil, peak water, deforestation, resource depletion and the like, but a popular riposte offered by those doubting such concerns is something commonly referred to as the "Environmentalist's Paradox".

The argument goes thus: "Why, despite resource depletion and the degradation of ecosystems, is average human well-being improving globally?"

People such as Matt Ridley, author of the Rational Optimist, argue that environmentalists are needlessly downbeat about humanity's prospects. After all, we are a resourceful, adaptable, highly intelligent species more than capable of riding out any current concerns (if only we would de-shackle ourselves from free-market constraints).

As a counterpoint, we have the likes of Jared Diamond, author of Collapse, arguing that we should heed the lessons provided by failed civilisations of the past who extinguished themselves by over-exploiting their available natural resources.

The latest edition of the journal BioScience includes a fascinating paper which examines just this paradox. (hat tip: Scientific American.) "Untangling the Environmentalist's Paradox" (the PDF is available here free until it disappears behind a paywall in a month's time), co-authored by a team of scientists led by Ciara Raudsepp-Hearne of McGill University, lays out in detail the conflicting indices which underpin the paradox. The editorial introducing the article sets the scene:

Studies including the influential Millennium Ecosystem Assessment have concluded that the capacity of ecosystems to produce many ecosystem services is now low. Depletion of ecosystem services is expected to mean fewer benefits to humans, thus decreasing human well-being. Yet the composite Human Development Index, a widely used metric that incorporates measures of literacy, life expectancy, and income, has improved markedly since the mid-1970s in both rich and poor nations. The index correlates strongly with other measures of prosperousness. Some measures of personal security buck the upward trend, but the overall improvement in well-being cannot, it seems, be denied. Does this paradox mean that concern about ecosystem services is overblown?

The authors then present four hypotheses that might help to explain the environmentalist's paradox. Here is their summary:

1. Critical dimensions of human well-being have not been captured adequately, and human well-being is actually declining. Measures of well-being that suggest it has increased are wrong or incomplete. 2. Provisioning ecosystem services, such as food production, are most significant for human well-being; therefore, if food production per capita increases, human well-being will also increase, regardless of declines in other services. 3. Technology and social innovation have decoupled human well-being from the state of ecosystems to the extent that human well-being is now less dependent on ecosystem services. 4. There is a time lag after ecosystem service degradation before human well-being is negatively affected. Loss of human well-being caused by current declines in services has therefore not yet occurred to a measurable extent.

The authors effectively dismiss the first hypothesis, arguing that there is a large body of evidence to support the notion that human wellbeing is, on average, improving. As might be expected, the authors support the second hypothesis. With the third, they conclude that the available evidence suggests that the "decoupling" argument can't be supported.

But perhaps the most intriguing hypothesis – for me, at least – is the fourth. Can the environmentalist's paradox be explained away by the fact that there is a time lag between when we degrade our finite natural resources and when our well-being begins to be negatively affected? If so, what is this period of time likely to be? And will the transitional descent - when/if it finally begins - be slow or rapid? The answers to these questions will surely be key to working out who will ultimately prove to be correct out of the Diamonds or the Ridleys of this world.

When I think about this time lag I can't help but be reminded of the set-piece scene from the Oscar-winning Wallace and Gromit cartoon, The Wrong Trousers. Gromit, Wallace's canny dog, finds himself having to lay track as fast as he can in front of himself to ensure the toy train he's riding on remains in hot pursuit of the jewel-thief penguin escaping with a diamond. (Go to 1:28 on this video.) Using this as a metaphor, can humans keep laying the train track in front of them fast enough to avoid a nasty derailment? Can we keep perpetually delaying our fall and decline? The authors of the paper seem to be suggesting that our chances of doing so are diminishing all the time as the world becomes increasingly globalised:

There is growing evidence of approaching resource collapses in certain regions of the world, but less is known about how system- or service-specific collapses may interact with one other and result in major impacts on global human well-being. Local or regional collapses may lead to cascading problems associated with forced human migration and resource competition, which could have global-scale effects on human well-being. Alternatively, market forces and trade rules could cause rapid destabilization in resource markets, leading to outcomes such as the multiple food, oil, and financial crises of 2008, which took the world by surprise. The global financial crisis of 2008 also demonstrates the connectivity of the global economy, and the capacity of globalized systems to undergo abrupt and surprising declines. Whether human well-being will suffer at the global scale will depend on how humans adapt to ecosystem degradation and its associated collapses over the next few decades…

Highly adaptable human societies have at times successfully staved off the effects of environmental degradation by importing ecosystem services from other regions, enhancing the supply of ecosystem services in some areas, exporting negative impacts to other locations, and making more efficient use of ecosystem services.

However, evidence suggests that future adaptation will be different and probably more difficult, as resources near depletion at the global scale. Previously available options for migration and translocations of resource use are increasingly constrained by the scope of human use of the biosphere.

As you might expect with any academic paper, there are the necessary caveats and calls for further research. As Timothy M. Beardsley, BioScience's editor in chief, says in his editorial:

"The authors' conclusions are limited by the geographically aggregated nature of their data, and BioScience will publish commentary on aspects of their analysis in a future issue. Yet the article clearly strengthens the case for research that integrates human well-being, agriculture, technology, and time lags affecting ecosystem services."

Agreed: it's certainly a subject that I for one would welcome much more nuanced, detailed research and discussion.

This post originally appeared on The Guardian

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To be honest, this is not something I have really thought about. But I guess it makes sense. People sort of seem to be ignoring a lot of the environmental issues that are going on and just continue to worry about themselves only. Not real sure what we can really do to fix that.

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Posted by: sean on 4 Sep 10

Most people, I believe, do recognize the eviromental issues, however, big industry and corporations, worldwide, chose to only put on a show,as concerned parties, rather than obide and conform, to the real issues. Money is still the root cause of ignoring the global enviromental issues.

Posted by: Ron Burnett on 6 Sep 10

What if we could grow food in a way that enhances our natural resource base? Can we feed ourselves with a perennial agriculture that restores ecosystems? We can, and we will.

Posted by: Brad on 6 Sep 10

OMG – really!
Do we really perceive ourselves as some sort of parasite with a symbiotic (mutually beneficial) arrangement with our host – this great blue and green spinning ball?

Or is it likely that we are more akin to a thriving Virus that get fatter, healthier, and more populace just before the infection causes the complete demise of that which we have infected – again, this great blue and green spinning ball.

Posted by: don on 20 Sep 10

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