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The Environmentalist’s Paradox: Research Paper

Posted in Research by Kate Archdeacon on October 20th, 2010

Source: Stockholm Resilience Centre

Image: eliazar via flickr CC

From The environmentalist’s paradox: Centre researchers analyse why humans do better while the earth does worse:

For some time, ecologists have shown that the Earth’s life support systems are declining. However simultaneously, human wealth, health, education, and life span is increasing.

The paradox not an illusion

In a new paper centre researchers Garry Peterson and Maria Tengö together with collaborators from McGill University untangled these potential explanations of Environmentalist´s Paradox. The authors present four hypotheses to why human well-being is increasing while ecosystem services degrade:

1. Human well-being is actually declining because current ways to measure this are wrong or incomplete.
2. Food production and continued agricultural growth trumps all other ecosystems because only provisioning services are important for human well-being.
3. Technology makes human less dependent on ecosystem services
4. The worst is yet to come: there is a time lag after ecosystem service degradation before human well-being is affected.

As for the first hypothesis, Peterson and colleagues argue that there is a large body of evidence demonstrating that human wellbeing, even of the worst off, has increased during the past fifty years, suggesting that the paradox is not an illusion.

Mixed support for the other hypotheses

Their assessment of the second hypothesis is that agricultural ecosystems strongly support human wellbeing. However, support for hypotheses three and four is mixed. Despite great advances in technology and social organization that have increased the benefits people get from nature, we have increased rather than decreased our use of ecosystems.

There is little evidence from the past of sustained decreases in human wellbeing caused by environmental decline, but as the scope of human use of the planet has increased there are reasons to remain concerned about the future, says co-author Maria Tengö.

There is evidence that regulating ecosystem services that maintain stable environments for people are decreasing locally, while we are also pushing the entire earth system across its planetary boundaries.

These findings do not show that the environment is unimportant but rather that people are extremely innovative and adaptive. However, the careless destruction of ecological infrastructure is leaving people worse off than they would be if we made more thoughtful investments in ecological infrastructure. We have a lot of understanding of how humanity alters the biosphere, but little understanding of how these changes impact us, says Garry Peterson.

Time to invest in ecological infrastructure

The authors argue that humanity is under-investing in ecological infrastructure, and suggest three areas: agriculture, cities, and infrastructure, where increased management, research, and governance to enhance ecosystem services could yield major gains in human wellbeing.

Major reasons for this lack of investment are disciplinary boundaries among researchers and inadequate attention to environmental governance.

Researchers often address narrow aspects of global environmental change, based upon disciplinary assumptions that are often unconvincing to researchers outside their own discipline. We need research that addresses practical questions beyond disciplinary focus as well as increased theoretical and practical attention to environmental governance, say Peterson and Tengö.


Ciara Raudsepp-Hearne, Garry D. Peterson, Maria Tengö, Elena M. Bennett, Tim Holland, Karina Benessaiah, Graham K. MacDonald and Laura Pfeifer 2010 Untangling the Environmentalist’s Paradox: Why is Human Well-Being Increasing as Ecosystem Services Degrade? BioScience 60(8):576-589. doi: 10.1525/bio.2010.60.8.4

The environmentalist’s paradox

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