Untangling the Environmentalist's Paradox: Why is Human Well-Being Increasing as Ecosystem Services Degrade?

Author(s): Ciara Raudsepp-Hearne, Garry D. Peterson, Maria Tengö, Elena M. Bennett, Tim Holland, Karina Benessaiah, Graham K. MacDonald, Laura Pfeifer
In: BioScience 60(8):576-589
Year: 2010
Type: Journal / article
Link to centre authors: Peterson, Garry
Full reference: 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

Publication review

Why do humans do better while the earth does worse?

Environmentalists have argued that ecological degradation will lead to declines in the well-being of people dependent on ecosystem services. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment paradoxically found that human well-being has increased despite large global declines in most ecosystem services.

We assess four explanations of these divergent trends:
1. We have measured well-being incorrectly

2. Wellbeing is dependent on food services, which are increasing, and not on other services that are declining

3. Technology has decoupled well-being from nature

4. Time lags may lead to future declines in well-being.

Our findings discount the first hypothesis, but elements of the remaining three appear plausible. Although ecologists have convincingly documented ecological decline, science does not adequately understand the implications of this decline for human well-being.

Untangling how human well-being has increased as ecosystem conditions decline is critical to guiding future management of ecosystem services; we propose four research areas to help achieve this goal.

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