Human Wellbeing: The Environmentalist’s Paradox

Earth & Moon from MarsPhoto: NASA

Our planet is under stress. From all over the world, reports are coming in of invasive species, chemical spills and human encroachment destroying habitats and forcing species into extinction. Then there are the recently confirmed biologists’ fears that biodiversity is in decline. Due to industrial emissions, the global climate is changing agriculture. Food production is under pressure from heat stress and drought. Deforestation is depleting our forests and fresh water is becoming as scarce as petroleum. The world appears in bad shape due to human exploitation.

Paradoxically, humans are doing quite well, thank you very much. From a historical perspective, global production is near the highest it’s ever been and in spite of the recent recession, world economic growth exceeds global population growth. Literacy rates and life expectancy are at the highest they’ve ever been and continue to rise. Countries like China and India that were recipients of foreign charity 50 years ago are now major exporters and will soon eclipse the economies of the US and Europe to be the largest economies in the world. There are more middle-class working people in China and India respectively than in the US or Europe.

Earth RisePhoto: NASA

This paradox has not been lost on environmental scholars. Researchers at the American Institute of Biological Sciences have released a report analyzing the paradox of “How, with the planet in such stress, how can humans do so well?” They suggest that the paradox comes about because a misunderstanding of the meaning of “well being.”

(1) We have measured well-being incorrectly;
(2) We have been measuring well-being based on our dependency on food services, which are increasing, rather than on other ecological services that are in decline;
(3) We are allowing technology to decouple our well-being from nature;
(4) We are not accounting for time lags in future declines in well-being.

Blue MarblePhoto: NASA

Unfortunately, the article does not submit an alternative definition for well-being that could attain wider acceptance. This means there is a lack of common ground on which to move forward. Perhaps it would be advisable to consider the Human Development Index (HDI) used by the United Nations Development Programme. This includes quantified measurements of life expectancy, knowledge and education, standard of living and purchasing power parity.

There are other indexes suitable for measuring well-being. Whichever one might be chosen, it is imperative that common ground be found if we are to see dialogue toward progress on this questions raised by the paradox.