Humans Get Better, Planet Gets Worse: It's the Environmentalist's Paradox


Photo credit: Wakx via Flickr/CC BY-SA

A recent paper in the September issue of BioScience took on the so-called 'Environmentalist's Paradox'. That paradox poses a question along these lines: Why is it that human well-being has increased over the years, while the planet's resources have been severely degraded -- and how is that trajectory continuing today despite increasing damage to key ecosystem services? The question is harder to answer than it would seem, but a couple worthy articles sprung up to address the topic. Grist's David Roberts fleshes out the current state of the paradox:

More people have more money, better health, more mobility, more food, and more security than ever before in human history. That chart on the [below] is from the Human Development Index, which tracks life expectancy, literacy, and other indicators of human well-being. The lines are heading up almost everywhere. Humanity doesn't seem to be suffering unduly for its environmental sins.


The natural world, however, is going to sh*t. Species are dying off, the oceans are acidifying, forests are getting eaten by pine beetles, ice is melting, and plains are becoming deserts.

And that's just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. But environmentalists and economists have been arguing for decades that we're on the brink of exhausting this or that resource, which would have a tangible negative impact on the general quality of life. But in terms of the things that seem to matter to us as humans, judging by that chart above, that impact hasn't ever come, and things are in fact still improving. But how can we humans be on a persistent up-and-up, with the planet in a near death spiral?

Bradford Plumer's article at TNR, "The Earth's Busted Up, Yet Humanity's Doing Just Fine. Why Is That?" narrows the possible answers to four main contenders:

1. Maybe humanity isn't really better off.
2. Advances in food production are more important than anything else.
3. Technology makes us less dependent on ecosystem services.
4. The worst effects of ecosystem degradation are still yet to come.
Of these, it's generally agreed that #4 is the most compelling, and I'd agree. Technology make eventually make us less dependent on natural resources, but for now, I'd argue that it has equally allowed us to up the rate by which we consume them. As for #1, by the generally capitalist standards that most societies have sought to define themselves by in the modern age, most countries are better off now than before (see again the above chart).

But it's #4 that seems the most right on. As of now, we're in the process of blindly consuming without much regard for the impact on future generations. That rate of consumption has increased exponentially worldwide over the last decades, and with whole new legions of consumers standing at the gates, seeking the standard of living that we enjoy in places like the US, Europe, and Japan, the 'environmentalist's paradox' won't seem like such a paradox for long -- it will seem like a cruel joke.

Worldwide fisheries are gravely endangered but demand is increasing. Deforestation continues at a fearsome rate. Fossil fuels are being burned in greater and greater quantities. The list goes on, of course. These are all important industries that have helped increase the well-being of people around the world, for the moment. But Joe Romm is right to ask whether the global economy is a Ponzi scheme, unsustainably propped up on the unwitting backs of future generations. And sure, there have been calls to alarm regarding resource consumption before -- but never when there were 9 billion people in the world, getting richer and demanding more stuff.

More on the Environmentalist's Paradox
Responding to Ecosystem Degradation
Connecting the Dots: Population Growth, Consumerism & Biodiversity
Destroying Ecosytems is Bad Business, Big Companies Invest in Nature

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