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We need a better understanding of the ‘environmentalist’s paradox’

Leo Hickman, Guardian
We hear lots of concerned chatter these days – not least, here on this site – about peak oil, peak water, deforestation, resource depletion and the like, but a popular riposte offered by those doubting such concerns is something commonly referred to as the “Environmentalist’s Paradox”.

The argument goes thus: “Why, despite resource depletion and the degradation of ecosystems, is average human well-being improving globally?”

People such as Matt Ridley, author of the Rational Optimist, argue that environmentalists are needlessly downbeat about humanity’s prospects. After all, we are a resourceful, adaptable, highly intelligent species more than capable of riding out any current concerns (if only we would de-shackle ourselves from free-market constraints).

As a counterpoint, we have the likes of Jared Diamond, author of Collapse, arguing that we should heed the lessons provided by failed civilisations of the past who extinguished themselves by over-exploiting their available natural resources.

The latest edition of the journal BioScience includes a fascinating paper which examines just this paradox. (hat tip: Scientific American.) “Untangling the Environmentalist’s Paradox” (the PDF is available here free until it disappears behind a paywall in a month’s time)…
(3 September 2010)
The report is available online as a PDF: Untangling the Environmentalist’s Paradox. -BA

The environmentalist’s paradox: we do better while the earth does worse

David Roberts
… His argument is pretty simple: More people have more money, better health, more mobility, more food, and more security than ever before in human history. That chart on the right is from the Human Development Index, which tracks life expectancy, literacy, and other indicators of human well-being. The lines are heading up almost everywhere. Humanity doesn’t seem to be suffering unduly for its environmental sins.

The natural world, however, is going to sh*t. Species are dying off, the oceans are acidifying, forests are getting eaten by pine beetles, ice is melting, and plains are becoming deserts. Remember the study in Nature about “planetary boundaries” and how we’ve crossed a bunch of them?

So what explains the disparity? Why are people doing better even as ecosystems are doing worse?

That’s the subject of a new paper in Bioscience called “Untangling the Environmentalist’s Paradox: Why Is Human Well-being Increasing as Ecosystem Services Degrade?” Brad lists the researchers’ four possible answers:

1. Maybe humanity isn’t really better off.
2. Advances in food production are more important than anything else.
3. Technology makes us less dependent on ecosystem services.
4. The worst effects of ecosystem degradation are still yet to come.

… The problem is that No. 3 is better stated like this:

3. Cheap and abundant fossil fuels have made us less dependent on ecosystem services.
(3 September 2010)
The report is available online as a PDF: Untangling the Environmentalist’s Paradox. -BA

Smile, You’re an Activist!

Robin Petré, In These Times
Marching or signing a petition is a surefire way to find happiness, researchers say.

… Activism fulfills human needs on several levels. According to the study, it satisfies one’s eudaimonic needs—the need for a sense of meaning and purpose to life. More superficially, it fulfills the hedonic need to feel pleasure.

Kasser says that activism “does a fairly good job at satisfying” the four psychological needs that must be met for a person to be happy: autonomy, competence, security and connection to others.

“I don’t doubt that part of the reason activism is good for people’s well-being is that they experience higher levels of connection to other people,” Kasser says. “We are not trying to say that the only way to increase your well-being is through political activism, but we are saying that it is a good one.”

Kasser reckons that being mad about something—environmental degradation, for example—can motivate some people. He resists the idea that activism should be a catalyst for anger. On the other hand, activism will benefit you no matter what the motivation.

“You can be angry about some social injustice that you see, and if you engage in activism, it may not make your anger go away, but it seems like it provides you with other kinds of well-being, probably because you know you’re trying to do something about the thing you’re angry about,” Kasser says.
(12 May 2010)

The Weirdest People in the World?

Joe Henrich, Steven J. Heine, and Ara Norenzayan, Behavioral and Brain Sciences

Behavioral scientists routinely publish broad claims about human psychology and behavior in the world’s top journals based on samples drawn entirely from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic (WEIRD) societies.

Researchers—often implicitly—assume that either there is little variation across human populations, or that these “standard subjects”
are as representative of the species as any other population. Are these assumptions justified?

Here, our review of the comparative database from across the behavioral sciences suggests both that there is substantial variability in experimental results across populations and that WEIRD subjects are particularly unusual compared with the rest of the species—frequent outliers. The domains reviewed include visual perception, fairness, cooperation, spatial reasoning, categorization and inferential induction, moral reasoning, reasoning styles, self-concepts and related motivations, and the heritability of IQ.

The findings suggest that members of WEIRD societies, including young children, are among the least representative populations one could
find for generalizing about humans.

Many of these findings involve domains that are associated with fundamental aspects of psychology, motivation, and behavior—hence, there are no obvious a priori grounds for claiming that a particular behavioral phenomenon is universal based on sampling from a single subpopulation.

Overall, these empirical patterns suggests that we need to be less cavalier in addressing questions of human nature on the basis of data drawn from this particularly thin, and rather unusual, slice of humanity. We close by proposing
An uncorrected, unedited version of the paper is downloadable as a PDF here

A Short History of Progress

A Short History of Progress is a book-length essay penned by Ronald Wright and published in 2004. Ronald Wright argues that our modern predicament is as old as civilization itself: a 10,000 year old experiment we have participated in but seldom controlled. He examines the meaning of progress and its implications for civilizations — past and present — arguing that the twentieth century was a time of runaway growth in human population, consumption, and technology that has now placed an unsustainable burden on all natural systems. For Wright the twenty first century represents our last opportunity to succeed where our forefathers almost without exception have not.

… Wright borrows from Joseph Tainter in identifying three models of societal collapse — the “Runaway Train”, the “Dinosaur”, and the “House of Cards”[2] (p. 107, 128) — emphasizing that they usually operate in combination and going further in suggesting that civilization itself “is an experiment, a very recent way of life in the human career, and it has a habit of walking into what I am calling progress traps” (p. 108). “Material progress creates problems that are — or seem to be — soluble only by further progress … the devil here is in the scale: a good bang can be useful; a better bang can end the world” (p. 7). In addition to describing in detail these sorts of technological “progress traps” throughout the book — including even the invention of agriculture itself — Wright labels such cultural beliefs and interests that act against sustainability — and hence civilizational survivability as a whole — the very worst kind of “ideological pathology”:
(accessed 27 August 2010)
Recommended by long-time EB contributor Jim Barton.