It’s the End of the World As We Know It . . . and I Feel Fine

Environmentalists have never been very good at predicting the apocalypse, but that doesn’t keep us from trying. Such was the case in 1968, when Paul Ehrlich published The Population Bomb. Seven years later, he warned that hundreds of millions of people would starve due to widespread famine and that society would enter a “genuine age of scarcity.” But the bomb turned out to be a dud (at least in the near term), and the specter of mass starvation remained exactly that—a specter.

Still, doomsaying can be a hard habit to kick. In 1980, Ehrlich famously bet the economist Julian Simon that the prices of five metals (harbingers of resource shortages) would rise by decade’s end. But 1990 came and went, and the prices had actually dropped. While Ehrlich has since offered caveats—the price of oil doubled during the same decade, he notes—the fact remains that he gambled and lost.

All of which raises a question that makes environmentalists squirm: why has the human condition— incontrovertibly and inconveniently, it would seem—gotten better and better, even as most ecosystem services have declined? In a recent BioScience paper, a team of researchers led by Ciara Raudsepp-Hearne of McGill University confronts this “environmentalist’s paradox.” (1)

The authors consider four possibilities. First, the numbers are wrong, and we actually aren’t doing fine. But they are quick to reject this. The Human Development Index has increased in all major regions of the world over the past 35 years, while the global poverty rate has dropped by nearly 75 percent. Even with the recent spate of local catastrophes—an inundated Pakistan, a scorched Russia—humans by almost any measure are living longer, healthier lives than ever before.

What about food, then? Few revolutions have matched the impact of the Green Revolution, and human well-being depends largely on having enough to eat. Since food availability is increasing, perhaps it overwhelms whatever other privations we suffer. But while all this is true, the authors consider food a factor in the paradox but not an explanation.

In a similar vein, maybe technology is the savior, having (as the authors put it) “decoupled well-being from nature.” But support for this idea is ambiguous at best. Even with advances in technology, we still depend on ecosystem services more than ever. And it’s not as though technologies make us less dependent on those services—rather, they tend to let us use more of them than we were able to before. Which is how we end up with things such as—oh, say—deep-sea oil drilling or fracking.

This leads to the fourth hypothesis: that we have not yet begun to feel the full brunt of our depredations, due to a time lag, and wholesale collapse may be just around the corner. This is at once the most plausible answer and the most frustrating. The authors purport to tackle something that makes us uncomfortable, but their lasting message is one that leaves us in a very comfortable place. The environment is going down the tubes. Even if we haven’t paid for it yet, we’re about to—just you wait! Sound familiar? It’s Ehrlich’s old gamble. ❧

—Eric Wagner

1. Raudsepp-Hearne, C. et al. 2010. Untangling the environmentalist’s paradox: Why is human well-being increasing as ecosystem services degrade? BioScience 60(8):576-589.

Eric Wagner is a freelance writer based in Seattle, Washington.

Illustration ©Lorenz/Avelar/Getty

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4 Comments

  • Pete Hart February 14, 2011 at 11:46 am

    I would strongly challenge the authors’ conclusions based on using per-capita GNI as a principal portion of their index. If for no other reason, inequity in distribution of income and wealth has skyrocketed. Per-capita figures are an economist’s way of ignoring what life is really like for millions, while ignoring the disturbing effects of concentration of wealth and income.

    Reply

  • Mike Quinn February 16, 2011 at 8:42 am

    The world made a grave error by paying attention to Ehrlich while completely ignoring Hubbert… Yes, we are living longer and healthier (particularly if you ignore skyrocketing obesity rates). The reason should be as obvious as the traffic noise you almost surely hear outside your window as you read this…

    A gallon of gas, which can be had for $3, can propel your (of your next-door neighbor’s) large SUV down the road at over 60mph for roughly 20 miles in 20 minutes. And what effort does the driver exert to accomplish this most amazing feat? Why all that’s required is a slight and sustained pressure of one’s big toe on the gas pedal! This effort is so slight, the return is so great and the ancestral memory of draft animals is so distant that we are obliged to ignore the Buick in the living room. Without gasoline, it would take an estimated 500 of your (non-obese) friends to provide enough force to move said SUV at said distance and rate, thus for a mere $3, one can purchase 500 man-hrs of work.

    If one works an hr at minimum wage, one can buy 2 gallons of gas, thus an hr of work can be turned into the equivalent of 1,000 man-hrs of work equivalent. No where else on the planet is one guaranteed to instantly get at least a 1,000 to one return on investment except when pumping gas…

    And now for the bad news. We are indeed running out of oil.

    See this 1976 video clip of M King Hubbert explaining peak oil:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ImV1voi41YY

    A more humorous (?) view of our situation:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ulxe1ie-vEY

    Reply

  • Steven Earl Salmony March 16, 2011 at 5:43 am

    As humanity’s most luminous beacon of truth, science provides us with a last best hope for the survival of life as we know it on Earth. We must make certain that scientific evidence is never downplayed, distorted and denied by religious dogma, politics or ideological idiocy.

    Let us not fail for another year to acknowledge extant research of human population dynamics. The willful refusal of many too many experts to assume their responsibilities to science and perform their duties to humanity could be one of the most colossal mistakes in human history. Such woefully inadequate behavior, as is evident in an incredible conspiracy of silence among experts, will soon enough be replaced with truthful expressions by those in possession of clear vision, adequate foresight, intellectual honesty and moral courage.

    Hopefully leading thinkers and researchers will not continue supressing scientific evidence of human population dynamics and instead heed the words of Nobel Laureate Sir John Sulston regarding the emerging and converging, human-driven global challenges that loom ominously before humankind in our time, “we’ve got to make sure that population is recognized…. as a multiplier of many others. We’ve got to make sure that population really does peak out when we hope it will.”

    Sir John goes on, “what we want to do is to see the issue of population in the open, dispassionately discussed…. and then we’ll see where it goes.”

    In what is admittedly a feeble effort to help John Sulston fulfill his charge to examine all available scientific evidence regarding human population dynamics, please give careful consideration to the following presentation and then take time to rigorously scrutinize the not yet overthrown science from Russell Hopfenberg and David Pimentel regarding human population dynamics and human overpopulation.

    http://www.panearth.org/GPSO.htm

    Please accept this invitation to discern the best available science of human population dynamics and human overpopulation; discover the facts; deliberate; draw logical conclusions; and disseminate the knowledge widely.

    Thank you.

    Reply

  • Resolving the Environmentalist’s Paradox « ConservationBytes.com April 6, 2011 at 10:31 am

    […] accounting will help to resolve the paradox, while most commentators across the blogosphere (see here, here, and here) focussed mainly on the final hypothesis proposed by Raudsepp-Hearne to explain […]

    Reply

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