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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

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

(1) We have measured well-being

(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

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.


By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  Uncategorized