The environmentalist’s paradox

The Guardian cites a recent paper (pdf) from the journal BioScience that seeks to explain the ‘environmentalist’s paradox’: as human well-being continues to increase, ecosystem services — defined by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment as benefits people receive from ecosystems — have deteriorated.

From the paper:

Studies including the influential Millennium Ecosystem Assessment have concluded that the capacity of ecosystems to produce many ecosystem services is now low. Depletion of ecosystem services is expected to mean fewer benefits to humans, thus decreasing human well-being. Yet the composite Human Development Index, a widely used metric that incorporates measures of literacy, life expectancy, and income, has improved markedly since the mid-1970s in both rich and poor nations . . . Does this paradox mean that concern about ecosystem services is overblown?

I’m often skeptical of Soylent Green doomsday collapse scenarios.  Our selfish genes and our ingenious minds have until now not only perpetuated human survival but also constantly prompted us to invent new and better ways to enjoy our survival.

Nonetheless, many societies have collapsed over time.   From Easter Island to Greenland to Cahokia to Jamestown people groups have contributed to their self-destruction or -deterioration through a variety of factors.  But isolated incidents are much different from a collapse of all of civilization, or from a deterioration of global human well-being.  This distinction is a source of my skepticism.

I do, however, share one predominant concern with many people.  We don’t completely understand linkages among ecosystems or regional and global effects of isolated ecosystem collapses.  As the paper tersely explains:

There is growing evidence of approaching resource collapses in certain regions of the world, but less is known about how system- or service-specific collapses may interact with one other and result in major impacts on global human well-being. Local or regional collapses may lead to cascading problems associated with forced human migration and resource competition, which could have global-scale effects on human well-being . . .

If destroying an isolated ecosystem — or just reducing benefits from its ecosystem services — has negative secondary and tertiary effects, and if the destroyers don’t care about those effects because they don’t suffer from them, we have trouble.  Obviously such concerns comprise many economic and environmental debates, notably climate change.  Further complicating matters are the collective action problems inherent to potential solutions to such a predicament.  It will take creativity to overcome the nature of the quandary — concentrated benefits enjoyed by the walruses and dispersed costs borne by observers and global bystanders.

Still, we don’t yet see decreased global well-being:

There is strong evidence that humanity has an unprecedented effect on the biosphere, and there is evidence that these impacts are reducing human well-being in some places.  However, there is only weak evidence that declines in the global biosphere are reducing aggregate human well-being at the global scale.

Hence the environmentalist’s paradox.  But we must likely deal with global effects of ecosystem linkages in the (near?) future.  In the meantime, we should look to Brazil as a case study — many of its problems resulting from competing claims on resources are ahead of the global curve, and hopefully many forward-looking solutions will be too.

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