September 09, 2010

The environmentalist's paradox

Ciara Raudsepp-Hearne and others write in their article Untangling the Environmentalist’s Paradox: Why Is Human Well-being Increasing as Ecosystem Services Degrade?, published in Bioscience:
Although many people expect ecosystem degradation to have a negative impact on human well-being, this measure appears to be increasing even as provision of ecosystem services declines. From George Perkins Marsh’s Man and Nature in 1864 to today (Daily 1997), scientists have described how the deterioration of the many services provided by nature, such as food, climate regulation, and recreational areas, is endangering human well-being. However, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA), a comprehensive study of the world’s resources, found that declines in the majority of ecosystem services assessed have been accompanied by steady gains in human well-being at the global scale (MA 2005).
They say that the "Earth’s capacity to provide these services is decreasing." Actually all the things we enjoy in life ultimately depend on "nature," a rich "environment," or "the Earth’s capacity to provide services". Everything we enjoy depends on the physical, chemical and biological processes that define the natural world around us. We have good reasons to take care of "nature."

How much do we get from "nature?" Raudsepp-Hearne and coauthors rightly use gross domestic product (GDP) per capita as a measure of material human well-being. They are right not because GDP is a perfect measure, but because it is the best we have. Actually, they use a slightly modified metric of GDP, the Human Development Index (HDI), which aggregates information on GDP, life expectancy, literacy and schooling. With food, health and education being almost universally demanded by humans and together accounting for more than 30% of GDP, it is not surprising that the four components of the HDI are strongly correlated.

Raudsepp-Hearne and coauthors restate the well-known fact that these and other objective measures of human well-being are improving all over the world. And then comes the paradox. How come is human well-being improving if "ecosystem services" are being "degraded?" What is going on?

My answer is that HDI has increased because, to use the article's jargon, the Earth's capacity to provide services has increased. Raudsepp-Hearne and coauthors explicitly admit this for the case of food, which is one of the "ecosystem services" they discuss.
In conclusion, available evidence suggests that the benefits of food production currently outweigh the costs of declines in other ecosystem services at the global scale, and that this is a strong contributing factor to the environmentalist’s paradox.
They also hint at the positive impacts of improved clean water provision and disease regulation, also counted as "ecosystem services," on people's health.
Global epidemiological studies have argued that a significant portion of the global burden of ill health is attributable to degraded land, water, and air; for example, 8% to 10% of malnutrition cases may be attributable to land degradation (Smith et al. 1999). Other studies state that as much as 40% of world deaths are due to environmental degradation, although the term “environmental” is used in the broadest sense to include all forms of pollution and some lifestyle choices (Pimentel et al. 2007).
My conclusion is, to paraphrase Raudsepp-Hearne and coauthors, that available evidence suggests that the benefits of clean water provision and disease regulation outweigh the costs of declines in other ecosystem services, and that this is another strong contributing factor to the environmentalist’s paradox.

In the end, if we keep applying the same reasoning to all the components of objectively measurable human well-being, the Raudsepp-Hearne's paradox vanishes. The HDI depends on "nature." The HDI has improved almost everywhere. Therefore, "nature" is providing us with evermore and ever better goods and services.

Raudsepp-Hearn and coauthors don't think this is the whole solution to the paradox and they go on to discuss the possible role of technology in explaining it. They examine the hypothesis that "technology and social innovation have decoupled human well-being from ecosystem degradation."
We examine evidence that greater efficiency of use and substitution of ecosystem services has significantly lowered human reliance on their provisions.
Does this mean that technology has made us less reliant on, say, food? This doesn't make sense and, not surprisingly, trying to find whether technology has freed us from "nature" and "degradation" turns out to be fruitless. The authors don't reach any clear conclusion. It could not be otherwise.

Raudsepp-Hearn and coauthors also examine the possibility that well-being at any time is the result of past, not current, performance. If so, our current well-being would depend on what "the Earth's capacity to provide services" was at some point in the past. And it is possible that we are currently undermining this capacity and compromising our future well-being. If this is true, the paradox becomes irrelevant and standard environmentalists may be right in their denunciation of "ecosystem degradation." Raudsepp-Hearn and coauthors agree with them and list their worries about the future consequences of climate change, pollution, depletion of oil, fertile soil and wild fish, and other problems.

Their list contains a couple of errors. They say that "estimates of human appropriation of net primary productivity (NPP) suggest that it cannot expand much more, as humans already consume a large proportion of Earth’s NPP." But "the Earth's" NPP is not fixed. It can grow and so the fact that we "consume a large proportion" of it is irrelevant. They say that global trade decreases human well-being by making "people more susceptible to rises in global food prices." The opposite is true. Global trade makes people better off by increasing food availability and thus decreasing food prices. It also makes food availability and prices less volatile by spreading risk.

Buried near the end of the article there is a little jewel of wisdom - the key to unravel all the paradoxes and confusion about "ecosystem services." Raudsepp-Hearn and coauthors want to "improve human capacity to produce ecosystem services that enhance human well-being." That's right. Once we understand that what we are really talking about is services produced by humans, everything - GDP, HDI, the "Earth's capacity to provide services", "the world's resources", "ecosystem degradation", the role of technology - falls gracefully into place.

3 comments:

  1. HDI is not the only measure, and is not the correct measure. See Nature's "Planetary Boundaries" Sept 2009.

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  2. Dear Marcelino,

    thanks for a nice article. I'm not sure if I understood the last sentence. Could you please explain?


    Dalia

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  3. Dalia, human well-being is increasing because human capital is increasing. (Human capital includes things like knowledge, individual skills and efficient institutions.) In comparison, material resource availability and ecosystem change are unimportant. Thus, there is no paradox.

    Raudsepp-Hearne and coauthors try to convey the false message that wealth (food, health, culture) comes from nature and not from human effort. This forces them to use their convoluted language - "the Earth’s capacity to provide services", and so on.

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