Untangling the environmentalist's paradox: Why is human well-being increasing as ecosystem services degrade?

Ciara Raudsepp-Hearne, Garry D. Peterson, Maria Teng, Elena M. Bennett, Tim Holland, Karina Benessaiah, Graham K. MacDonald, Laura Pfeifer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

366 Scopus citations


Environmentalists have argued that ecological degradation will lead to declines in the well-being of people dependent on ecosystem services. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment paradoxically found that human well-being has increased despite large global declines in most ecosystem services. We assess four explanations of these divergent trends: (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. Our findings discount the first hypothesis, but elements of the remaining three appear plausible. Although ecologists have convincingly documented ecological decline, science does not adequately understand the implications of this decline for human well-being. Untangling how human well-being has increased as ecosystem conditions decline is critical to guiding future management of ecosystem services; we propose four research areas to help achieve this goal.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)576-589
Number of pages14
Issue number8
StatePublished - Sep 2010
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported by the Canada Research Chairs program and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.


  • adaptation
  • ecosystem services
  • human well-being
  • sustainability
  • time lags


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