Why is human well-being increasing as ecosystem services degrade?

Michael Giberson

Appearing in the September 2010 issue of BioScience: “Untangling the Environmentalist’s Paradox: Why is Human Well-Being Increasing as Ecosystem Services Degrade?

ABSTRACT: Environmentalists have argued that ecological degradation will lead to declines in the well-being of people dependent on ecosystem services. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment paradoxically found that human well-being has increased despite large global declines in most ecosystem services. We assess four explanations of these divergent trends: (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. Our findings discount the first hypothesis, but elements of the remaining three appear plausible. Although ecologists have convincingly documented ecological decline, science does not adequately understand the implications of this decline for human well-being. Untangling how human well-being has increased as ecosystem conditions decline is critical to guiding future management of ecosystem services; we propose four research areas to help achieve this goal.

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5 thoughts on “Why is human well-being increasing as ecosystem services degrade?

  1. Lol about 1) and 4). Doomsayers are a stubborn bunch!

    I’m two months into Macro I, and as we learn each model (Solow, RCK, Diamond), the conclusion is always the same – capital formation does not adequately account for economic growth. This is like a Pysiocrat version of the puzzle.

    The only hypothesis that seems promising to me is 3). But I would phrase it as “technology or institutions or some other mechanism increases productivity faster than population grows and resource factors deplete.”

    If they ever get their answer, I hope phase diagrams for “land-dot” are easier than the ones for “capital-dot”.

  2. For the same reasons that living standards were improving over the last decade whilst private and public debt was piling up.

  3. Mike: 2) is also pretty promising.

    Contrary to what some environmental advocates or obsessives think, people’s happiness/well-being actually has very little to do with a large number of the environmental statistics the former obsess over.

    For instance, species loss? Very little effect on human well-being at all. Almost zero. There are millions of species we don’t even know exist; losing thousands of them a year simply doesn’t affect our well-being in any noticeable way.

    (If enough of the right ones were lost that there was some serious environmental catastrophe at the macro level, yes. Problem is that seems spectacularly unlikely to occur; most of the species that are dying out, if the estimates are correct, are nearly indistinguishable insects that are easily replaced by more hardy or common varieties, or species that were already marginal or declining.

    Pandas, for instance, might well be doomed… and were probably doomed, in the long run [ie. in the next hundred thousand years or so], before mankind discovered fire.)

    People seem to confuse magnitude of their emotional reaction to extinctions with the magnitude of their effect – which rounds to zero.

    Alex: No, not remotely. Hell, increased wealth and the concomitant increased well-being are associated with decreased environmental impact. We’re not getting better off because we’re raping the earth and the bill will soon come due and destroy us all. More accurately, the better off we are the more we can afford things like clean power and reduction of waste emissions.

    There’s a reason that rich countries have clean air and water, and poor ones don’t – and it’s not the easy bete noir of “exporting pollution”. It’s that you have to be pretty well off to afford the capital and efficiency costs of emissions controls.

    Similarly, rich countries don’t have to rely on burning forests for heating and cooking, or burning lumps of coal in a pot stove…

  4. The environment is declining because human progress unfortunately necessitates the utilization of natural resources. It can be likened via simple macroeconomics, increasing pollution generally mean increased overall productivity, while the inverse occurs when the opposite happens. The two concepts share an inverse relationship. The ideal is to reach some sort of parity between consumption and productivity. This same ideal can be said about almost anything. For instance judges, I just read a story about how many of the judges on the bench today are abusing their power: http://lawblog.legalmatch.com/2010/10/14/judge-records-courtroom-proceedings-as-audition-tape-for-another-bad-court-reality-show/

    The reason is because as crime increases, more judicial staff is needed to process cases and in turn quality of judges decreases. That and you know, humans are naturally greedy creatures…

  5. Yes, I’d credit 2 and 3 for most of the story. But depletion of fisheries beyond naturally sustaining levels and use of non-renewable resources can contribute to a #4 effect (it is just that to a great degree these effects have been offset by knowledge-based efficiencies and expansions of capacity to support human well-being more effectively at lower cost, a #3 effect).

    Here are the extended versions of the four general hypotheses that they examine, which add some nuance:

    The four hypotheses are:

    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.

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