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The environmental paradox

Why, if the world’s ecosystems are under siege, do people seem to be prospering? When a group of Canadian researchers posed the question, they touched a nerve.


In 2005, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, a comprehensive examination of the world’s resources undertaken by an international network of environ-mental researchers, released a report about ecosystems and human well-being that, in some respects, was something of a head-scratcher. According to the report, the world’s ecosystems are imperiled, largely as a consequence of human activities. No surprises there for anyone who’s read a newspaper in the last 20 years. But the report also offered a couple of conclusions that seemed at odds with one another.

It noted that “approximately 60 percent of the benefits that the global ecosystem provides to support life on Earth (such as fresh water, clean air and a relatively stable climate) are being degraded or used unsustainably.” One would think that such a dangerous state of affairs would result in life swiftly becoming much more difficult for those dependent on these ecosystem services – us. And yet the report acknowledged that, for the most part, humans are faring surprisingly well.

There are dire problems, to be sure: more than one billion people lack access to safe water supplies. But, according to several key quality-of-life indicators, most people on the planet are doing reasonably well. Better than they used to, in fact.

One of the researchers who contributed to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment report was Ciara Raudsepp-Hearne, then a graduate student at McGill University who was interested in the services provided by ecosystems. Working with some McGill colleagues, she decided to investigate this seeming contradiction a little further.

“Our gut feeling was, ‘This can’t be right,’” says Dr. Raudsepp-Hearne, now a consultant for the Alberta government as well as an instructor for McGill’s Panama Field Studies Semester. “Just sitting around talking, we brought all kinds of examples that seemed to indicate that [humans weren’t doing all that well] – the disappearance of languages, for instance, or the serious difficulties faced by indigenous peoples throughout the world.

“But when we looked at the evidence, we had to conclude that human well-being has been increasing.” Life expectancy rates are climbing, infant mortality rates are plunging, and poverty rates are in decline.

Last fall, Dr. Raudsepp-Hearne and her colleagues published a paper in the journal BioScience that explored this “environmentalist’s paradox” – if the world’s ecosystems are under siege, why do people seem to be prospering? The researchers quickly realized they had touched a nerve.

The paper attracted the attention of journalists and bloggers at major publications including Scientific American, the Guardian and the New Republic. Publishers contacted the McGill team, wondering if they might be interested in expanding the paper into a book.

Dr. Raudsepp-Hearne can understand the interest. The paper addresses a tricky topic with some serious public policy implications. Politicians have been slow in addressing climate change, and this is likely linked to the fact that many people have yet to see their lives affected by environmental degradation in any substantial way, she says. “We decided to tackle this head on” in the BioScience paper.

The team proposed four possible explanations for resolving the environmentalist’s paradox:

  1. Humans are already worse off than we realize.
  2. Human well-being is mostly dependent on food, and food generally has been abundant in recent years.
  3. Humans have been shielded from some of the harsher consequences of climate change by our technological ingenuity.
  4. The worst is yet to come.

Dr. Raudsepp-Hearne and her colleagues concluded that the environmentalist’s paradox can best be explained as a combination of the last three factors. And that final factor in particular is one that we should all be worrying about.

“The science is all there,” she says. “There are quite a few resilient scientists out there devising all sorts of impressive ways to predict the sorts of regime shifts and collapses we’ll be seeing” in the not-too-distant future. If we don’t start taking concrete steps to improve things, warns Dr. Raudsepp-Hearne, the environmentalist’s paradox won’t be much of a paradox in a few years, as our quality of life begins to suffer because of our inaction.

University Affairs approached some other environmental experts to get their take on the issues raised by the McGill team. Here are their thoughts.

Sooner than we think

Damon Matthews, an assistant professor in Concordia University’s depart-ment of geography, planning and environment, is skeptical about the notion that humans are prospering in an era of environmental decline. “I’m not totally convinced that we are thriving,” he says.

The McGill team largely based its conclusions on the Human Development Index that examines such variables as life expectancy, education and per-capita gross national income. If some humans are thriving, says Dr. Matthews, “a lot of that depends on what part of the world you’re living in and how your life has been affected by environmental degradation so far. Those of us who are thriving in the Western world have been doing it partly on the backs of the people living in the global South.”

Dr. Matthews studies the resilience of carbon sinks – forests, oceans and other ecosystems that play an essential role in managing the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. A contributor to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, he says the news on carbon sinks isn’t good. Thanks to deforestation and other factors, “carbon sinks are clearly becoming less effective” as a natural buffer against some of the consequences of climate change, he says.

“The effects of climate change on northern developed countries are quite subtle for the moment.” A consequence that one of his students is investigating is that warmer temperatures might be shortening the time period and geographic places where Canadians can play hockey on outdoor rinks.

But in some countries, like Australia with its now-frequent droughts, the impact of climate change is more visible, he says. Northern countries will experience the impact soon enough, because disruptions to tropical food production will have repercussions in North America, he predicts. “The greatest impact on the northern world at first might be in the increase of environmental refugees that we’ll see. I don’t think that these repercussions are that far off. I don’t think we have decades.”

More food than ever

“On a global scale, we’ve never seen the kind of food production that we’ve seen in the last 50 years,” says John Cranfield, a professor of food, agricultural and resource economics at the University of Guelph.

He agrees with the McGill researchers that a key factor was the Green Revolution, which took place from the 1940s to the ’70s. New approaches and technologies were introduced in agriculture and led to improved grain crops in many developing countries. This in turn gave more people access to nutritious food, even as population rates kept climbing.

But the McGill team warns that this relative abundance of food can’t last forever. Some of the things that we are doing to get food now, like overfishing, will come back to haunt us. Some aspects of environmental decline, like soil degradation, will lead to crop shortages.

Dr. Cranfield doesn’t downplay these concerns, but he is optimistic. “When human beings face a challenge, they innovate. They find ways around the problem. The Green Revolution is itself an example of how human ingenuity can trump the challenges we face.”

He also warns against well-meaning solutions that aren’t carefully thought out. “Some people see locally grown food as the panacea to solve all problems, but that isn’t universally true.” A recent British study indicated that importing tomatoes from Spain was actually better for the environment than growing them locally in greenhouses, he notes. “You can store a whole lot of tomatoes on an airplane, and greenhouses are actually pretty horrendous in terms of producing greenhouse gases.”

Dr. Cranfield does see one storm cloud on the horizon: increasing volatility in food prices. “My concern is that agricultural producers lack incentives to stay in. That could lead to a rise in the consolidation of agricultural producers and a move to more homogenous practices. What would that mean for things like organic growing techniques, or the production of livestock in a manner that is sensitive to animal welfare?”

Technology, good and bad

Is technology serving as a partial safeguard against the effects of environ-mental degradation? Neil Thomson, chair of the department of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Waterloo, believes the answer is yes. But before technology can be directed towards an environmental problem, policymakers are the ones who need to determine which problems are the most pressing.

“Inside the issue of technology is the issue of compliance,” Dr. Thomson asserts. Governments in North America have made important strides in terms of improving things like air quality and water safety. “In setting policies and standards, you set up the challenges for scientists and engineers to find ways to use technology to meet those criteria.”

But policymakers generally have an imperfect sense of the science behind environmental challenges and little knowledge of the types of technology that can be used to try to address them. Says Dr. Thomson, “That’s why more scientists and engineers need to speak up and get involved.”

His own research involves contaminated sites – assessing different types and levels of contaminants and finding effective technological methods for improving the quality of the soil and groundwater at these sites. In his work, Dr. Thomson has discovered that technology rarely provides an easy fix. “Every site is different. Some are relatively easy to deal with and some are quite hard to treat. Sometimes, the technology that is currently available just won’t work.”

And sometimes technologies that are developed to deal with specific problems have unintended consequences. “Refrigeration was a huge technological advance – we can’t possibly overestimate the importance of refrigeration to food safety,” notes Hadi Dowlatabadi, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Applied Mathematics and Global Change at the University of British Columbia’s Institute for Resources, Environment, and Sustainability. But the CFCs produced by refrigerators ate away at the Earth’s protective ozone layer for decades, notes Dr. Dowlatabadi. “Every technology,” he says, “can be good or bad.”

The worst is yet to come

Queen’s University environmental biologist John Smol is quick to agree with the BioScience paper’s conclusion: while the decline of the world’s ecosystems may not have lessened the quality of life that many people experience, that is going to change dramatically in the years to come.

The effects of environmental degradation have been largely incremental so far, notes Dr. Smol, but things will happen very quickly “once we reach certain thresholds. Climate change is the big game-changer for all of us. In fact, change is happening much more quickly than I once predicted.”

If people enjoy a higher standard of living these days, he observes, it’s due in part to our profiting from the over-exploitation of natural resources, many of them non-renewable. People have been happy to enjoy the benefits of environmentally damaging practices – for example, an abundance of food that has led to depleted fish stocks or industrial growth at a cost of polluting the atmosphere.

“It’s like we’re all sitting in a big fancy restaurant, enjoying a lavish meal. The waiter is circling around, waiting to give us the bill, but none of us wants to pay it. I’m afraid that when people look back at our generation, and they see how little we did, they’ll think we were stupid and selfish.”

In his own research, which has garnered him the Killam Prize and the Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal, Dr. Smol examines how lakes are altered over time through their interactions with their environments. His work was instrumental in outlining the damage caused by acid rain. “Acid rain is not a complete success story, but we were able to get legislation passed that made a real difference.”

Even though climate change is far more complex, he says that past experience shows that governments and industry can be prodded into action. “With the Montreal Protocol, we managed to finally get somewhere with [restricting CFCs]. Medical experts came in and told governments, ‘This is the level of skin cancer that you’ll be seeing in your countries if you don’t do anything.’ Industry screamed, but they ended up finding replacement products that were actually cheaper to produce. The fact that I still rage about these things means that I still have hope.”

In their paper in Bioscience, Dr. Raudsepp-Hearne and her collaborators call for more research into the ways that people benefit from the ecosystems that surround them. One area that she believes gets short shrift is the role the environment plays in forming our cultural identity and sense of place.

“It can be something as simple as enjoying the shelter from shady trees as you walk to school,” says Dr. Raudsepp-Hearne. “You take it for granted, but you miss it once it’s gone. I think we have to think differently when we assess the benefits of ecosystems. Too often, if we can’t attach a money value to something, we don’t think it’s worth studying.”

Daniel Mccabe
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  1. Rob / April 4, 2011 at 09:38

    This is very interesting, though I’m a little disappointed in the 4 explanations to solve the environmentalist’s paradox, which is based on two principles: the environment is degrading and humans are thriving. Three of the explanations are designed to explain how the second principle is inaccurate, whereas no explanation suggests that the first principle may be inaccurate. It seems rather unscientific to not consider both sides of the paradox.

    Given the political climate around these issues, I think it is important to be scientifically and philosophically rigorous in this research.