The Good News Paradox

This year's Human Development Index (HDI) came out last week and it was full of good news. The HDI started out 20 years ago to provide a way of indexing development and progress that gives a fuller picture of human well being than GDP's shallow economic calculations. This year's report celebrates the fact that over the past 40 years “average life expectancy rose from 59 to 70 years, primary school enrolment grew from 55 to 70 percent, and per capita income doubled to more than $10,000.”

This is great stuff.  But the question that the HDI asks is can it be sustained?  Can we hope so see similar gains in the next 40 years?

Climate Change and Development
The main threat, which haunts the report, is climate change. By some projections, much of the already wealthy North will not directly feel the negative impacts of climate change until late in the century. But many of the areas where gains have been made in access to education, nutrition and life expectancy are also going to be the most vulnerable to climate change. As the HDI puts it:

“The main threat to maintaining progress in human development comes from the increasingly evident unsustainability of production and consumption patterns. .... The consequences of environmentally unsustainable production are already visible. Increased exposure to drought, floods and environmental stress is a major impediment to realizing people’s aspirations. .... The continuing reliance on fossil fuels is threatening irreparable damage to our environment and to the human development of future generations.”

Unrealized Urban Possibilities
Cities have an important place in all this. Beyond coastal communities that will face increased flooding, all of the world's ever growing cities are directly dependent on external supplies of food, potable water, and energy that make it possible for such a high density of people to live together in relative comfort.

With 40% reductions in staple grain crops currently expected by mid century (as well as a bundle of other climate related disasters) the spectre of resource conflicts and urban unrest is very real. At the same time, decoupling urbanization from increased energy use could play a huge part in mitigating the intensity of climate change. Unfortunately recent reports on the US and China show that this is – on the whole – simply not happening. There are some innovators.  I've written about many of them here. But they are the exception not the rule.

This contrast between how good things are and how challenging they will get is a bit of a brain twister. Even if you understand the issues, at an intuitive level it all seems slightly unreal. How can things be going so well if they are really going so badly? (something Andrew Revkin also riffs on over at Dot Earth)

The Environmentalist's Paradox
Dr. Ciara Raudsepp-Hearne, a close friend and recent graduate of McGill's Dept. of Geography, made waves in September with a paper (pdf) on exactly that dilemma. In the paper, which got picked up by the Guardian and a variety of other international media, she dubs this sticky situation the “Environmentalist's Paradox.” Beyond just supplying a catchy name, she and her co-author's go some way to explaining how – exactly when the HDI show that enormous gains have been made since the 1970s – reports like the Millenium Ecosystem Assessment show that the capacity of the world's ecosystems to provide key services are in decline.

Given the unprecedented burdens we are placing on the planet's resources, projecting forward from past data is tricky. But with that proviso, Ciara and her co-author's argue that on the one hand, agricultural innovations have helped increase human well being despite declines in other areas, and on the other that there is a time lag between the damage we do to our ecosystems and when we feel its impacts. In other words, it takes a bit of time before the chicken's come home to roost.

Cities of Change
Going into a century of rapid climate change with already depleted ecosystems is a frightening prospect. But, as the HDI points out, in many ways things are better than ever. To keep that going on a rapidly urbanizing globe means designing urban systems that are more resilient to climatic shocks, resource shortages (and the social tensions they create), and that also impose a lighter load on the ecosystems we depend on. 

Concretely, that means more attention to technical projects like decentralized renewable energy that increase the resilience and efficiency of our hard infrastructure. It also means continued progress on social issues like education, health, and equality that build the resilience of our societies. Change happens, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Our cities need to be ready to respond to both.


4 Responses to "The Good News Paradox"

David Hastings said... 10 November 2010 at 21:04

Right on the mark with your concern about sustainability. It might be worth also asking: is there an opportunity to do better than the HDI?

The HDI may have been bold in 1990. But it has actually regressed this year in number of countries included. Last year it was demonstrated that a HDI could be issued covering about 60 more countries than covered in the 2010 global Human Development Report.

Two years ago, the spirit of the 1994 Human Development Report, which discussed people-centric human security, was (hopefully) given a lift with the release of the Human Security Index:
Version 2 of the global HSI will be released in December:
HSI V2 is crafted around a trinity of economic, environmental, and social fabric indices, which are combined to form the composite HSI. Environmental fabric is arguably the most difficult of the three to craft well, particularly when trying to build upon the good efforts of groups who have created characterizations such as the Environmental Vulnerability Index and the Environmental Performance Index. However, people engaged in this effort are optimistic that progress is being made. "Community-level" HSIs have been drafted for the USA (in colleague review) and for a developing country (surprisingly easy to start, at least, with publicly available data for many developing countries).

The Website contains some discussion. Though it is currently a bit thin on data at present, it should have much of the HSI V2 data either posted or linked to within a few weeks-months.

Alex Aylett said... 11 November 2010 at 09:11

thanks for commenting. The HSI approach is a really interesting one. It seems like a great functional application of conclusions in some of the IPCC's work (like the 2000 Special Report on Emissions Scenarios) that developmental factors play a huge role in determining how well a community can reduce emissions or adapt to a changing climate.

Being able to map that overlap between environmental risk and social, economic, and political risks is a powerful thing.

It also seems doubly relevant for cities as they try to figure out what their priorities should be going into an unstable century.

Where can I find some of those community level HSIs? I'd love to take a look at them.

David Hastings said... 4 October 2012 at 22:35

Oops! Alex, sorry for missing this.

Here are two links.
1. Prototype to the county level for the USA. The index has gone beyond what is sketched here, but good publications are lagging a bit. Official review of the data has also lagged, or prototype data presentations would have been posted by now..

2. Prototype to the provincial level for Thailand:

Characterizing the environmental aspects of human security risk has been quite a challenge. With most data conceived around instruments making traditional measures, and few data sets mapped to administrative units (which are often [a] the reporting units for socio-economic data and [b] where actors make decisions which influence well-being). The presentation linked to below attempts to address this issue:
There is a link to the recorded presentation (made by a colleague due to budgetary constraints on travel).

Hope these could be of some interest, even if offered belatedly.

Regards, David

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This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

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