Sustainable Well-Being: the reciprocity between human and environmental ecosystems, and the need for better indices

“…human societies are complex socio-economic adaptive systems, which in turn are embedded in more complex adaptive ecosystems”

Imran, et. al

It is risky to be alive. The impacts of climate change are observed at every level in our biosphere, from nutrient cycling to air circulation. Whether we acknowledge our hand in transforming our earth or not, the climate is changing and at a rate never seen (Solomon, Qin and Manning Sec 3.9). We now buy, sell, trade and accept ever increasing levels of risk; the degree and extent of which depends on our individual and socio-economic means, but even this is changing. Locations once considered relatively safe from natural disasters are growing scarce. 

The existing scholarship on the human-environment interaction is largely linear, giving only a partial view of the relational dynamics. But “…human societies are complex socio-economic adaptive systems, which in turn are embedded in more complex adaptive ecosystems” (Imran et al. 138). We are intimately intertwined with the natural world and as such, a better understanding of the reciprocity between us and the environment is needed.

Indicators

We all use indicators. I look forward to holding a yardstick next to my squirming toddler because his growth conveys his health and speaks to my ability to care for him. Often indicators help us gauge quantifiable features, (such as height or weight), but not always. How do we measure the subjective components of human existence like: love, happiness, even grief? 

The need for a better understanding of hazard mitigation, compelled researchers to look at the indicators or variables we use to measure what we consider important. These signals are powerful because they also instruct what we value. (Meadows 2). But when choosing them, we must keep in mind they are not the ends, but rather, the means. For example: if we value health, height can be an indicator of such in a growing child, but alone, it is not health. The median household income in a census block might be one indicator of the population’s well-being, but alone, it is not well-being.

Well-Being

“However, in countries with a high standard of living, increase in wealth is not synonymous with increase in wellbeing.”

Helne and Hirvilammi

On the surface, the concept of human well-being is fairly straight-forward. It refers to how people and populations fair in the current world, and is most often measured through the Human Development Index (HDI) and reductively, through Gross Domestic Product (GDP). In application, however, most researchers rarely use a sufficient amount of indicators for inequality and mental health, choosing instead the GDP as an aggregate. These omissions, coupled often with no country or site specific data, means the well-being reported is a global average and may mask significant regional problems (e.g. marginalized people and their proximity to degraded ecosystems).

“If human wellbeing is perceived in economic terms, as utility or as satisfaction derived from consuming goods, economic growth can be seen as a necessary precondition for human progress. However, in countries with a high standard of living, increase in wealth is not synonymous with increase in wellbeing. Consumption growth, on the contrary, detracts from people’s subjective wellbeing…” (Helne and Hirvilammi 169). 

Sustainable Development

The World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) were the first to officially define sustainable development as activity “…that meets the needs of present generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. (Though sustainable development does not always mean “growth”, it is important to note the two terms are often interchanged, especially when modeling probabilities). Scholars argue the WCED’s definition is vague by design, its ambiguity largely a political maneuver.

…if sustainable development is measured only through indicators of financial gains or losses at the expense of ecosystems, then money becomes the goal and consequently, what we value.    

Even studies intended to increase sustainable building and planning practices, erroneously make use of cost/benefit analyses of ecosystem services. They refer to benefits as the goods humans extract from the environment (air, water, timber ect.), while the costs refer to what humans lose when ecosystems are disrupted or destroyed (water filtration, collapses resulting in a reduced level of human benefit) (see Kuch). This approach may be quite helpful in the arduous process of passing environmental protection legislation. But if policy is best influenced through evidence of the economic benefits at the sacrifice of others, then we have chosen poor indicators, or what is worse, our chosen indicators have also become the ends. If our system is positioned to measure poorly chosen variables, then these metrics will produce the means, not the intended end (Meadows 66). In other words, if sustainable development is measured only through indicators of financial gains or losses at the expense of ecosystems, then money becomes the goal and consequently, what we value.    

Discussion

The confusion over what constitutes sustainable development and what positively affects well-being , is evidenced by their respective applications and measures. Too often growth is emphasized over improvement. Sociologists Tuula Helne and Tuuli Hirvilammi observe how the new normal is to separate studies of sustainable development into three blocks of measurement: ecological, social, and economic (169). They warn that, “although the dimensions of sustainable development are presented as equally significant, their equal treatment is illusory, the economic dimension overshadowing the other two dimensions” (169). The result of such treatment is the marginalization and commodification of nature (Imran et. al. 11). 

We cannot divorce ourselves from the natural world no more than a plant can remove itself from polluted soil. 

We cannot fully understand how over expansion affects well-being until we stop prioritizing the costs and benefits in terms of economics. Moreover, by focusing on what is easily quantifiable, we effectively ignore the interconnectedness of the human-nature relationship. We cannot divorce ourselves from the natural world no more than a plant can remove itself from polluted soil. 

Newton’s third law of thermodynamics is generally interpreted as: for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction. He elucidates by writing “If you press a stone with your finger, the finger is also pressed by the stone” (Newton 20). This implies that Newton did not mean the actors must be in motion, (as his law is often illustrated), but rather the action of one produces an equal but complimentary response in the other. I am not suggesting Newton’s third law be literally applied to the study of well-being and sustainable development, but if used metaphorically, we see the basic principle is a pattern repeated throughout socio-ecological systems. Sometimes an action’s compliment comes rapidly, sometimes it takes time.

Conclusion

Because humans have so drastically altered the biosphere “…another global-scale state shift is highly plausible within decades to centuries” (Barnosky et. al. 57). We are besieged by overwhelming levels of environmental degradation and as such, a holistic understanding of the human-nature relationship is crucial for our survival. For development to truly be sustainable, we must consider all facets of well-being. To achieve high well-being, we must also practice true sustainability. Future work should therefore focus on creating a system of measurement that not only combines indicators of sustainable development and well-being, but also considers social and ecological measures as much (if not more than) economics.

© 2020

WORKS CITED

Barnosky, Anthony D., et al. “Approaching a state shift in Earth’s biosphere.” Nature 486 (2012): 52-58.

Helne, Tuula and Tuuli Hirvilammi. “Wellbeing and Sustainability: A Relational Approach.” Sustainable Development (2015): 167-175.

Imran, S, K. Alam and N Beaumont. “Reinterpreting the Definition of Sustainable Development for a More Ecocentric Reorientation.” Sustainable Development 22.2 (2014): 134-144.

Kuch, Benjamin. “The relations between ecological sustainability and geographical proximity: a review of the literature.” International Journal of Technology Management & Sustainable Development (2017): 97-114.

Meadows, Donella. Indicators and Information Systems for Sustainable Development: A Report to the Balaton Group. Workshop Report. Hartland Four Corners, VT: The Sustainability Institute, 1998. Document.

Newton, Isaac. The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, Volume 1. RareBooksClub, 2012.

Solomon, S., et al. Technical Summary. In: Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge and New York City: Cambridge University Press, 2007. <https://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/ar4/wg1/en/ts.html&gt;.

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