Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Environmentalist's Paradox

Ciara Raudsepp-Hearne and colleagues, in an article in BioScience, have posed a fundamental question: Why is average human well-being improving globally, despite resource depletion and degradation of ecosystems?

The question comes from the juxtaposition of two different data sets. On the one hand, there is good evidence, from the UN human development index (shown at the left) that the average quality of life for individuals, irrespective of where they live, has increased over the past 35 years.

On the other hand, the influential Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and a variety of other studies of the biosphere have concluded that the capacity of ecosystems to produce many services for humans is now low.

These studies are often characterized as suggesting that the humanity's ecological footprint has surpassed the carrying capacity of the biosphere. If this is the case, why is quality of life continuing to rise?

The study assesses 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.

The findings discount the first hypothesis, but elements of the remaining three appear plausible. A tabular summary of the findings is shown below. For better viewing, click on the figure to expand it to full screen.

The article goes on to argue that, 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. To this end, they propose four research areas to help achieve this goal: 1) how ecosystem services produce multiple aspects of human well-being, 2) ecosystem service synergies and trade-offs, 3) technology for enhancing ecosystem services, and 4) forecasting the provision of and demand for ecosystem services.


  1. It seems likely to me that this is essentially a qualitative reinforcement of points from ecological economics. To use its crudest form, current well-being seems to depend more on "flow", or withdrawal from the stocks of our ecosphere, rather than on the total remaining stock itself. I mean, possibly clear-cut examples could be gold booms, fisheries and forestry, where high extraction rates lead to increases in all types of human welfare (though equality is not typically one of them), but as per Hypothesis 4, a "bust" follows.

    In ecological economic theory, you can draw down various resources, generating short-term economic goods, but the replenishment of these resources become compromised and therefore, at *some* time point, the flows will slow and then collapse. Even when flows slow, you may continue to get increases in "well-being", say, up until some inflection point between maximum withdrawal and total collapse. See i.e., On the Ehrlich–Simon bet: Both were unskilled and Simon was lucky, "Resource prices reflect the relative scarcity of different resource types, not their absolute scarcity. Given the basis upon which Ehrlich and Simon entered the bet, both men revealed their lack of understanding of the relationship between absolute resource scarcity and resource prices. In the end, Simon was lucky because factors other than a rise in absolute scarcity had the greatest impact on resource prices between 1980 and 1990." I would argue well-being would track to some extent with resource price...

  2. I think you're right that the article reinforces certain conclusions emerging out of ecological economics. But, it seems to me, that the article points in other directions as well. I don't think it is accurate to reduce the entire phenomena to a process where well-being tracks resource price.