Human Well-Being and the Environmental Paradox

One of the arguments against environmental conservation is that there is an apparent paradox between environmental degradation and human well-being. In short, when viewed through certain lenses (such as the UN’s human development index), human well-being is increasing even as environmental health declines.

Scientists and economists expend a great deal of effort trying to untangle this paradox – perhaps most recently in a September 2010 Bioscience article titled Untangling the Environmentalist’s Paradox. In the piece the authors propose four possible reasons for this apparent paradox:

  • There’s a time lag between improved well-being and the effects of environmental degradation.
  • We’ve gotten technically advanced enough to separate human well being from environmental health.
  • As long as the ecosystems that provide food remain intact human well-being will increase.
  • We’re measuring the wrong variables and economic well-being is actually decreasing not increasing.

It is this last argument that is the most intriguing. How do you measure human well-being? The UN’s Human Development Index (HDI) while helpful in certain ways, is not an effective measure for arguing against the need for environmental conservation efforts in sustainable development.

The HDI is broken into four categories - life expectancy at birth, mean years of schooling, expected years of schooling, and gross national income per capita. The problem, however, with this sort of composite index, is that it hides a lot of factors.

For example, life expectancy as an indicator of health is helpful when looking for preventable death, such as from polio or other diseases with which we can easily vaccinate or prevent through proper sanitation. The problem, however, is that in many countries (such as the United States), people are living longer thanks to improved medical technology, but many of those years are sick years.

It’s questionable if a society that manages to extend the life of its life populace thanks to technology that allows it to mitigate the effects of the diseases that society itself creates is “healthy”. Stated differently many of the diseases in industrialized nations – from moderate depression, to type II diabetes, to heart disease, to the rise in autoimmune disorders – are strongly correlated with the structure of said society. Diabetes and heart diseases are strongly linked to how we eat, which itself is strongly correlated to large-scale agribusiness and mass environmental degradation. Similarly, mild-to-moderate depression can often be treated effectively with exercise and improved social connections: things that are eroded in modern American society with its focus on excessively sedentary work and a competitive rather than cooperative culture that erodes social cohesiveness. Furthermore, it’s increasingly believed that autoimmune disorders ranging from seasonal allergies to Crohn’s disease, in industrial nations are on the rise because people in those nations are too clean. Having co-evolved with a certain number of bacteria, when stripped of those bacteria our immune systems over-react and start attacking our own bodies. We are able to mitigate many of the original negative effects with a panoply of inventive pharmacological agents is a testament (non-ironically stated) to our pharmaceutical industry.

This, however, does not mean that we are healthy.

In addition, the HDI uses per capita GDP as an indicator of human well-being. The idea is, that as people’s income increases their well-being increases. Never mind that in developing nations increasing GDP is correlated with increasing environmental degradation, so that within the indicator itself there is this correlation between increasing human well-being and increasing environmental degradation. It also ignores movements such as that of the Zapatistas in Mexico who very deliberately are eschewing global measures and aiming for self-sufficiency. Says Vandana Shiva:

People are perceived as “poor” if they eat food they have grown rather than commercially distributed junk foods sold by global agri-business. They are seen as poor if they live in self-built housing made from ecologically well-adapted materials like bamboo and mud rather than in cinder block or cement houses. They are seen as poor if they wear garments manufactured from handmade natural fibres rather than synthetics.

Yet sustenance living, which the wealthy West perceives as poverty, does not necessarily mean a low quality of life. On the contrary, by their very nature economies based on sustenance ensure a high quality of life—when measured in terms of access to good food and water, opportunities for sustainable livelihoods, robust social and cultural identity, and a sense of meaning in people’s lives . Because these poor don’t share in the perceived benefits of economic growth, however, they are portrayed as those “left behind”.

Finally, this kind of measurement ignores that human well-being is predicated on direct access to ecosystem services beyond the role of ecosystems as a resource base. The emerging field of biophilia, or humanity’s innate affinity towards and need for natural systems, has shown that human well-being declines upon separation form natural systems. Lack of access to ecosystem services encompassed in green spaces has been shown to negatively affect our cognitive ability causing difficulty in memory, attention, and self-control. Studies out of Japan, by contrast, have shown that two night three day camping trip in the woods can reduce insulin resistance in type-2 diabetes patients while also increasing human immune function.

None of this is encompassed within the values that the HDI uses to indicate human well-being while also excluding harder to quantify indicators of well-being such as happiness, cultural diversity and community cohesiveness.

In other words – measuring human well-being is hard. This does not mean that we shouldn’t try, but it does mean that we should stop using it as an excuse as to why environmental conservation doesn’t matter.

Photo Credit: Queralt