The Icarus effect: if the environment is going to hell, how is it human well being is increasing?

"Fly my pretties!"

Underpinning many of the arguments used by environmentalists is the assumption that environmental degradation will impact human well being.   

However with this argument there is a seeming contradiction: a broad range of indicators have shown that human well being around the globe continues to improve.   

As the environment seems to be heading for collapse, on a range of measures such as health, education and per capita wealth things are improving. Indeed, this counter-charge is often thrown at anyone arguing we should act to protect the environment: “But things are only getting better!”   

It’s often referred to as the “environmentalists paradox”, and is the theme of a recent paper

“Global degradation of ecosystems is widely believed to threaten human welfare, yet accepted measures of well-being show that it is on average improving globally, both in poor countries and rich ones. A team of authors writing in the September issue of BioScience dissects explanations for this “environmentalist’s paradox.” Noting that understanding the paradox is “critical to guiding future management of ecosystem services…” [1] 

The researchers point to three possible explanations to this paradox:   

“The researchers resolve the paradox partly by pointing to evidence that food production (which has increased globally over past decades) is more important for human well-being than are other ecosystem services. They also establish support for two other explanations: that technology and innovation have decoupled human well-being from ecosystem degradation, and that there is a time lag after ecosystem service degradation before human well-being will be affected…” 

In short, technology and modern agricultural practices have “decoupled” us from our reliance on “ecosystem services” (i.e. resources, water, food sources). It would seem human ingenuity has triumphed over natural limits. 

Or has it? 

Traditionally, societies have mitigated these issues by importing “ecological services” from elsewhere: 

“Highly adaptable human societies have at times successfully staved off the effects of environmental degradation by importing ecosystem services from other regions, enhancing the supply of ecosystem services in some areas, exporting negative impacts to other locations, and making more efficient use of ecosystem services…” 

However in world that has become globalised, there is no where else to go. We cannot pack up and move somewhere else as the planet is full: 

“…evidence suggests that future adaptation will be different and probably more difficult, as resources near depletion at the global scale. Previously available options for migration and translocations of resource use are increasingly constrained by the scope of human use of the biosphere…” 

Has our global society reached the limits to growth? 

Are there limits to growth?  

In reading this paper I was very much reminded of the 1972 publication “The Limits to Growth” (LtG).  

Frequently maligned by those critical of environmentalism, this work famously argued that there are, well, limits to growth

“The Limits to Growth is a 1972 book modelling the consequences of a rapidly growing world population and finite resource supplies, commissioned by the Club of Rome. Its authors were Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III. The book used the World3 model to simulate[1] the consequence of interactions between the Earth’s and human systems. The book echoes some of the concerns and predictions of the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus in An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798). 

Five variables were examined in the original model, on the assumptions that exponential growth accurately described their patterns of increase, and that the ability of technology to increase the availability of resources grows only linearly. These variables are: world population, industrialization, pollution, food production and resource depletion. The authors intended to explore the possibility of a sustainable feedback pattern that would be achieved by altering growth trends among the five variables…” 

Famously, LtG was one of the earliest examples of using a computed to model the “real world”. Utilising a simple model known as World3, the authors of LtG looked how humanity interacted with the “global system”. Controversially they made the “prediction” that left unchecked, growth could lead to a kind of societal collapse. 

While many have tried to ridicule LtG as being a simple fear mongering, a recent study from the CSIRO have tracked the predictions made by LtG and notes that they are actually in line with those made in 1972: 

“In 2008 Graham Turner at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in Australia published a paper called “A Comparison of `The Limits to Growth` with Thirty Years of Reality”.[5][6] It examined the past thirty years of reality with the predictions made in 1972 and found that changes in industrial production, food production and pollution are all in line with the book’s predictions of economic and societal collapse in the 21st century…” 

One should note that LtG did not make specific predictions about dates or political developments. It simply noted that there is a finite supply of resources, and that at some point you will exhaust those. 

Without corrective measures, we could be heading for trouble. 

The Icarus Effect: overconfidence and the failure of technology 

So can we expect “end of the world” within the next few decades? 

Perhaps not: I’m not going to alarm readers with cries of “The End is nigh, repent!” 

But we might experience some nasty, disruptive shocks. 

There is truth to the idea that in exhausting our resources and negatively impacting the environment, we’re setting the scene for future disasters. Those of us wanting policy makers and politicians to act on climate change are concerned about it’s disruptive effects on both our society and economy. It’s about prudent risk management, not an attempt to install a Communist world government. 

And yet, as we march towards a world increasingly impacted by global warming both politicians and the general public seem deaf these concerns. Indeed, the science is becoming truly alarming. 

My own pet explanation for this is what I call “The Icarus Effect”. 

Famously in the myth of Icurus  we see the combination of hubris and tragedy.

Icarus believed the wings his father devised to help them escape the confines of his prison on Crete allowed them to transcend all boundaries. His confidence emboldened him such that he ignored the warnings of his father not to fly to close the sun… and well, you know the story.

Icarus flew too close to the sun, and thus the wax that held his wings together melted and he plunged to his death in the Mediterranean sea. 

Like Icarus, we may find that in ignoring the warnings – and trusting that our technology has “decoupled” us from all constraints – may lead to a rather nasty fall. 


[1] Untangling the Environmentalist’s Paradox: Why Is Human Well-being Increasing As Ecosystem Services Degrade? Ciara Raudsepp-Hearne, Garry D. Peterson, Maria Tengö, Elena M. Bennett, Tim Holland, Karina Benessaiah, Graham K. MacDonald, and Laura Pfeifer

8 thoughts on “The Icarus effect: if the environment is going to hell, how is it human well being is increasing?

  1. Joel says:

    Beyond just hitting limits, there’s also the potential that disrupting the climate reduces the rate of growth from what it might have otherwise been. So you might have better crop-growing techniques in a more inclement growing season; or better disease-control strategies but a fantastic climate in which to be a mosquito. The effects of that are probably harder to quantify, though.

  2. I suspect the overall human success while ecosystems fail is a short-term effect as we get ever better at reaping. It’s not sustainable and will lead to long-term degradation of ecosystems and human activity. For instance, the per-capita production land has globally decreased over the past few decades and there are no other lands to move to. Likewise, fresh water availability is decreasing. As we continue to to practice degrading agricultural methods, we’ll also lower our farming land available as well.
    Did you, by chance, see the post on Climate Safety on Johan Rockstrom’s presentation? It discusses this slip into new stable zones and the connectivity of a range of environmental factors.

  3. adelady says:

    My depressing take on this is that 15000 heat related deaths in Russia and 1000+ deaths from drowning in Pakistan do not foretell wondrous benefits for all of us.

    If climate disruption increases these sorts of events – with the consequent crop losses from flood and drought – we might see less of this kind of analysis.

  4. Ray says:

    Have any of you read The Sceptical Environmentalist?

  5. Watching the Deniers says:

    Lomborg is a great example of the Icarus Effect. His techno-fetishism and new found fondness for geoengineering should be of concern. Having argued that we should ignore climate change as a problem, he how suggests we should deliberately manipulate it.

  6. […] The Icarus effect: if the environment is going to hell, how is it human well being is increasing? &l… ch_client = "markayi"; ch_type = "mpu"; ch_width = 550; ch_height = 250; ch_non_contextual = 4; ch_vertical ="premium"; ch_sid = "unche"; var ch_queries = new Array( ); var ch_selected=Math.floor((Math.random()*ch_queries.length)); if ( ch_selected < ch_queries.length ) { ch_query = ch_queries[ch_selected]; } […]

  7. Ron Hogan says:

    This is a great article to read.It’s true that “technology and modern agricultural practices have “decoupled” us from our reliance on “ecosystem services” Thanks for sharing this.

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