A degrading natural world poised against a generally improving humanity: or, the Environmentalist's Paradox

From  NASA


This is a topic that needs some straight addressing - which is the tension between a worsening climate situation, and some human stats that are inarguably improving. How can we tell an integrated story about this? From Medium’s OneZero, this extract from Bryan Walsh’s EndTimes really helps.

It begins with the undeniable stats on our climate degradation:

  • The world has 30% less biodiversity than when Columbus hit the New World in 1492.

  • The global population of vertebrates has declined by 52% between 1970 and 2010.

  • The current extinction rate is 100 to 1,000 times higher than it has been during normal — meaning non-mass extinction — periods in biological history, with amphibians going extinct 45,000 times faster than the norm.

  • One point eight trillion pieces of plastic trash, weighing 79,000 tons, now occupies an area three times the size of France in the Pacific Ocean

  • Great Pacific Garbage Patch is expected to grow 22% by 2025.

  • And the climate change that has happened — about 1.6 F in warming since 1901 — and the climate change that is to come.

Yet, says Walsh, we have to note that human beings, in the round, have thrived over this period:

  • Economist Angus Maddison estimates that between 1500 and 2008, global average per capita gross domestic product (GDP) multiplied by more than thirteenfold

  • Most of that gain was in recent years, as globalization helped lift more than a billion people out of extreme poverty in the developing world since 1990 alone… yes, the same years when environmental damage, including the first signs of climate change, began compounding.

  • It’s not just GDP - The Human Development Index (HDI) is a composite statistic developed by the Pakistani economist Mahbub ul Haq to track life expectancy and education, as well as per capita income.

  • Graph every country for HDI since 1990 and you’ll see — with the occasional ups and downs of individual nations — a decidedly rising trend that shows no signs of reversing.

What happens when economic growth temporarily halts and rolls backward? Walsh suggests that shows the climate crisis/prosperity paradox even more:

  • The 2008 global financial crisis and its immediate aftermath. The Great Recession led to a loss of more than $2 trillion in economic growth globally, a reduction of nearly 4%.

  • By one estimate the crisis cost every American nearly $70,000 in lifetime income.

  • The real human cost of the financial crisis was in broken families, sickness, even death.

  • One study found that the crisis was associated with at least 260,000 excess cancer-related deaths around the world, many of them treatable.

  • As unemployment rates rose, so did suicide rates — a correlation that has been seen in past financial crises.

  • The destabilizing wave of populism around the world can be traced back to the 2008 crisis, and how its aftermath was mismanaged.

  • Nothing we’ve experienced with climate change or any other environmental threat compares — yet — to the sheer suffering that was inflicted on the world when the wheels of growth temporarily stopped.

How should we think about the Environmentalist’s Paradox, in ways that don’t freeze our brain? Walsh has four approaches:

  1. It could be that humanity only appears to be better off (though the wellbeing indicators are solid)

  2. It may be that our amazingly improved food production in last hundred years seems much more of an achievement, compared to climate degradation - we’re no longer just one bad harvest away from disaster

  3. Tech advance and greater wealth may make us less dependent on a healthy ecosystem. The planet may depreciate - but we will be exponentially richer

  4. It may be that the worst is yet to come…

Oops. As Walsh notes:

In hypothesis 4, the material benefits that humanity has enjoyed over the last few decades have been purchased on overextended carbon credit. Just as previous credit bubbles have inevitably led to painful economic contractions, so it will be with our subprime environmental loans.

The desire of 7 billion-plus human beings for a Western-style middle-class lifestyle, with all the energy and meat and pollution that entails, is not sustainable, environmentally or economically. The bill will come due, and when it does, no degree of innovation will save us from collapse.

Number 4 is generally the view that we’ve been chastened into, at A/UK by Extinction Rebellion, and other figures like George Monbiot..

Walsh makes the point that these four attitudes behind the paradox, and the ambiguities they generate, is similar to the way that environmentalists have to try to communicate the wide range of climate crisis scenarios.

Because of range of outcomes, the mean average is what they usually lead with - with the destructive possibilities of the worse pathways suppressed. But it means we aren’t properly mentally prepared for a much worsening condition.

As Walsh also cites from research, there’s a 10% likely scenario of global warming that gets so high at the end of this century that it “snuffs out human life as we know it”. This hasn’t really entered into our mindsets - until protesters like the school strikers and XR allow it into their messaging, and place it right in the middle of our attention. As Walsh quotes in his book:

“Will the planet still be around then, too?” the climate economist Gernot Wagner asked when I visited his then-office in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 2018. “Yes. Will society as we know it? No. The rich will be fine. They’ll buy a second air conditioner and fly their private jet to Aspen. The poor as usual will suffer extraordinarily more than the rich. But is it an existential risk for them? No.”

More here.