Bradford Plumer: Can things really be getting better for human beings if the planet they live on is getting worse?
Charles Kenny's terrific new book, Getting Better, covers a wide range of global development issues: public health, education, democracy -- it's all in there. And Kenny makes a convincing case that the quality of life in poorer countries has improved greatly over the years -- and will likely continue to improve -- even if incomes in those countries remain stubbornly difficult to lift. And yet, there's one topic that Kenny's book touches on only glancingly: the environment.
After all, ecologists have been warning us for some time now that the environmental picture is assuredly not getting better. We're consuming the Earth's natural resources at an unsustainable rate, and humanity's pushing up against some dangerous thresholds in the biosphere. We're pumping more and more carbon dioxide into the air. The planet's getting hotter. The oceans are acidifying. Forests are getting mowed down. Species are vanishing. Freshwater supplies are in peril. So, one might ask, isn't this a good indication that things are going to get worse? What happens when countries like Tuvalu are underwater or rainfall patterns in Africa are disrupted by climate change? Disaster, right?
Except it's not that simple -- and this brings us to a paradox that various ecological experts have been struggling with for some time (and a topic that dovetails nicely with Kenny's book). Last September, a team of researchers led by McGill's Ciara Raudsepp-Hearne published a paper in BioScience that took note of the "environmentalist's paradox." The paradox goes like this: By most standard measures, the planet's ecosystems have been in bad shape for awhile now -- and that's widely assumed to have unpleasant consequences for humanity, particularly for poorer nations. Yet, as Kenny notes, human well-being has never been better. Why is that?
One possible explanation, offered up by Raudsepp-Hearne and her colleagues, is that humanity isn't really better off. Maybe all the ongoing environmental degradation is making our lives miserable and we just haven't noticed it. For instance, natural disasters seem to be affecting more people than ever before. Yet, overall, this hypothesis is hard to take seriously -- Getting Better offers ample evidence that life is getting better.
A second potential explanation for the paradox, also noted in the BioScience paper, is that, as far as human well-being is concerned, advances in food production have greatly outweighed any of the ecological damage we've wrought. Think about the Green Revolution. Yes, modern-day farming has led to the spread of chemicals everywhere, and yes, we seem to be disrupting the planet's nitrogen cycle, and yes, humans have been depleting water tables-just read this piece on fears that a Dust Bowl may return to the southwestern United States once the Ogallala Aquifer runs dry. But the invention of artificial fertilizer and the development of high-yield crops have allowed the world to feed itself even as the global population has skyrocketed. As Kenny notes in Getting Better (and in a recent FP essay), technological innovation has so far allowed humanity to escape the dire consequences of population growth predicted by the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus and his modern intellectual heirs. And that, one could argue, is what matters most.
A third explanation for the paradox? Maybe technology has simply made us less dependent on our surrounding ecosystems than most environmentalists tend to assume. Indeed, as Kenny argues in his book, there's not much evidence that a country's level of development hinges on having a favorable (or unfavorable) climate. It could just be that humans are really good at overcoming environmental disadvantages. We've learned to grow more crops on less land. We know how to desalinate water. We can shelter ourselves from heat waves. After the British chopped down all their forests, they simply developed another energy source -- coal -- without missing a beat. So it's quite possible that technology will help us survive whatever future environmental apocalypses come our way.
On the other hand, it's also possible that future environmental problems will be qualitatively different from the ones we've faced so far. Do we really have the technology to adapt to, say, massive ocean acidification -- or the collapse of the world's fishing stocks? That's hardly a given. And that's why Raudsepp-Hearne and her co-authors floated a fourth hypothesis -- namely, that the worst effects of ecosystem degradation are yet to come. We've put a lot of carbon in the air, and it's taking awhile for that to translate into a few degrees (or more) worth of temperature rise, but once that comes, things will get worse.
Then there's a fifth explanation for the environmentalist's paradox, which gets discussed in Matthew Kahn's excellent book Climatopolis: How Our Cities Will Thrive In A Hotter Future. Kahn points out that climate change is going to be a big problem that will cause a lot of suffering and misery. But, in all likelihood, overall well-being will continue to improve -- in much the same way that, say, the Vietnam War caused a lot of death and destruction in Vietnam but had very little effect on the country's long-term growth rates. In other words, the observation that things are "getting better" overall can obscure a lot of nastiness at a micro level.
So that's the big question: Will global development keep improving if environmental degradation proceeds apace? What's fascinating about the BioScience paper I mentioned earlier is that there's a lot that researchers simply don't know about the relationship between ecosystem services and human well-being. For now, human existence keeps improving in real and meaningful ways. But is that always going to be the case?
Bradford Plumer is an associate editor of the New Republic.