Tuesday, August 25, 2015
Tuesday, August 25, 2015
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Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.

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A paradox that is no

How come the richer we get the less we die?

Ben Pile at Climate Resistance has a nice essay on the `environmentalist's paradox'. This is the superficially puzzling -- and to many greens, infuriating -- fact that people keep on getting healthier and wealthier when really they should, in all decency, be suffering terribly because of the deterioration of the earth's ecosystems.

Pile's starting point is a new paper that grapples wih the paradox. It puts forward four explanations

(1) We have measured well-being incorrectly; 

(2) well-being 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.

You can just hear their hearts lifting that that last prospect. Phew. Armageddon is delayed. Just you wait!

But of course the whole paradox is misconceived. Human beings do not just live off ecosystems. They garden and nurture them so that they are more productive -- and sometimes so boost their productivity that they support still more wildlife as well.

As Helmut Haberl has calculated, some ecosystems are now so much higher in primary productivity than their original wild equivalents -- principally because of fertilisers and irrigation -- that they can divert half their energy into human consumption and still support more wildlife as well. Other ecosystems, on the other hand, are less productive than before people began to interfere with them, and are having to support lots of people, so leaving much less for wildlife. The challenge is to make more of the latter like the former, capable of supporting lots of people and lots of wildlife.

It's not just food. There is energy, where a nuclear power plant places less strain on nature than ten thousand wood cutters gathering fuel for charcoal burners. And then there is shelter, where the use of steel and concrete and plastic, all from underground, takes away the need for wood from forests. And so on.

I would even argue that human beings sometimes encourage ecological diversity too. The flowers and birds of farmland where I live -- cornflowers and peewits and partidges, for example -- must have been very few and far between when this was just a monotonous oak forest. Likewise, the cliff-nesting birds that abound now -- house martins and sparrows and rock doves -- must have been scarce before towns. We create lots of different habitats -- urban, rural, agricultural, forested, scrubby and so on -- where before there was uniformity. Of course, in the process, we upset balances, drive species locally extinct and so on. But half the time we are taking away what we created. The corncrake no longer thrives where I live, but nor did it 5,000 years ago when it was all oak forest.

The environmentalist's paradox has it backwards. The most sustainable societies on the planet are the ones that don't rely on charcoal for fuel, or wild game for food. The richer we get the more chance we have of saving biodiversity.