April 07, 2011

The environmentalist's paradox and perpetual motion machines

A while ago I commented on Untangling the Environmentalist’s Paradox: Why Is Human Well-being Increasing as Ecosystem Services Degrade?, the article by Ciara Raudsepp-Hearne and others. The paradox is, how come is human well-being improving if "ecosystem services" are being "degraded?" And my answer was "because, to use the article's jargon, the Earth's capacity to provide services has increased." I quoted what Raudsepp-Hearne and coauthors wrote about increasing food production, clean water provision and disease regulation, and concluded:
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 [Human Development Index] depends on "nature." The HDI has improved almost everywhere. Therefore, "nature" is providing us with evermore and ever better goods and services.
I also pointed out that humans and their actions are the key reason "nature" is providing us with evermore and ever better goods and services. And in a comment answering a question by a reader I used these words: "human well-being is increasing because human capital is increasing. (Human capital includes things like knowledge, individual skills and efficient institutions.)

Now Megan Evans, writing in ConservationBytes, attributes to me much more than I said:
[T]here have also been some comments (here and here) directed from an alternative perspective – that humans simply don’t rely on natural resources to the extent that environmentalists purport, and the continued positive trend in HDI in the face of environmental degradation is confirmation of this assertion. The environmentalist’s paradox is not a paradox because global growth in human capital (such as knowledge and individual skills) is substituting for our reliance on natural capital – ultimately meaning that human well-being will continually improve without restriction.
Did I say that human capital (such as knowledge and individual skills) is substituting for our reliance on natural capital? No (although I did indeed say that knowledge and individual skills are human capital, word for word). Did I say that "humans simply don’t rely on natural resources to the extent that environmentalists purport"? No. This is what I wrote in my original post:
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."
Did I say or do I think that human well-being will continually improve without restriction? No. Is the idea that human well-being will continually improve without restriction a natural conclusion of what I did say? No. "Human well-being is increasing because human capital is increasing" does not lead to "human well-being will continually improve without restriction." Furthermore, several months ago, shortly before my post on the environmentalist's paradox, I wrote in a comment in ConservationBytes that humans might "be unable to prevent the destruction of the earth by the sun, or the infinite contraction (or expansion) of the universe, any of which would effectively end economic growth." Curiously, there is a comment by Megan Evans herself almost right below mine. 

After inventing my opinions Evans explains them in more detail to her readers. According to her, I believe in a naive circular flow model of the economy and I don't care about or don't understand the laws of thermodynamics, which leads me to believe in perpetual motion machines. She then puts forward some arguments for the idea that there are biophysical limits to economic growth and human well-being, and declares my views refuted. She also identifies my views with economists and her preferred views with ecologists - which further adds to the irony because I am an ecologist, not an economist - and asks for "much bigger and louder conversation between ecologists and economists," by which she probably means forcing the idea that we should be very worried about entropy down the throats of poor economists. 

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