The Environmentalist’s Paradox
The signs are all around. Many places in the world show degradation of the air, water, and soil. Species becoming extinct as natural habitats are being destroyed. The emissions of greenhouse gases that can alter the planet's climate are unacceptable. All the environmental issues put together amount to a very serious threat to human welfare. Yet at the same time, all accepted measures of well-being show that, on average, quality of life is improving around the globe. How does an environmentalist call society into action under such conditions?
A team of researchers examine this issue of the "environmentalist's paradox" in the latest issue of the journal, BioScience. They confirm that improvements in overall well-being are real, despite overwhelming evidence of ecosystem decline. The aggregate complacency that is occurring can be attributed to three main culprits.
- Increases in food production
- Technological innovations that decouple people from ecosystems
- Time lags before well-being is affected
The team of authors, led by Ciara Raudsepp-Hearne, agrees with the influential Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, which rates the capacity for ecosystem services for human purposes as low. They also agree with the Human Development Index (measures income, life-expectancy, and literacy), which shows significant improvements in the last forty years.
Unfortunately, the authors find little reassurance for a continued rise in aggregate well-being in the coming years. The observed effects to the environment threaten new gains in agricultural production. These threats can come in the form of wild temperature swings as well as an increased prevalence of floods and droughts. Technological advances can provide only a limited buffer in this regard. There is mixed evidence that society will be able to successfully adapt to further environmental degradation.
The team argues against complacency by pointing out what they call "ecosystem brittleness." They urge a greater understanding by researchers and decision makers, of the actual benefits of healthy ecosystems to human welfare. In the end, understanding this environmentalist's paradox is crucial to guiding future management of nature's services.
Link to Millennium Ecosystem Assessment: http://www.millenniumassessment.org/en/index.aspx
Link to Human Development Index: http://hdr.undp.org/en/statistics/