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As nature declines, so does human quality of life, study finds

Indigenous Juruna children on the Xingu River. Image by Kelly Lima/ISA.

  • Researchers working with the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) reviewed more than 2,000 studies to determine how environmental decline is affecting human well-being.
  • The study found “unambiguous declines” in quality of life related to half of the IPBES categories of nature’s contributions to humanity.
  • Where the results were mixed, negative impacts were often felt more acutely by low-income people and poorer countries.

The past 50 years have seen a catastrophic decline in the planet’s ecosystems and natural environments. Every day at least 32,300 hectares (80,000 acres) of forest vanishes, and the size of wildlife populations has dropped by an average of 60%, according to a headline-grabbing 2018 study by WWF.

To some, this destruction is an unfortunate side effect of human economic development. To others, it’s symbolic of a species out of whack with its surroundings that’s rapidly creating the conditions for catastrophe. But while the debate over the costs and benefits of humanity’s march deeper and deeper into nature rages across the globe, few studies have tried to quantify one of the central questions of that debate: is all this change making us better or worse off?

In a study published last October, a team of researchers working with the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) sought to answer that question. The IPBES is a cooperative intergovernmental body set up by the United Nations in 2012 — similar to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), but with an eye on biodiversity and ecosystem services instead of carbon emissions.

The researchers, representing 12 countries on five continents, reviewed more than 2,000 studies published in scientific journals along with other materials. They found that almost across the board the destruction of the environment is making people worse off, and where the results were mixed, negative impacts were often felt more acutely by lower-income people and in poorer countries.

“We reviewed the science literature that looked at various ways that nature contributes to human well-being, so it was a huge synthesis of existing data, and we were trying to summarize the status and trends of these various benefits that people realize from nature,” said Stephen Polasky, professor of ecological and environmental economics at the University of Minnesota and one of the report’s authors.

To arrive at a coherent data set, Polasky and his colleagues had to find a way to categorize the different ways that other researchers have assessed the benefits of nature in their work. They landed on four categories: “potential contributions” of nature, “realized contributions,” environmental conditions, and impacts on people.

The first two were separated by looking at whether humans are currently benefiting from an ecosystem’s services, or aren’t at present but could at some point in the future. So, for example, the destruction of a tract of forest was counted as a decline in nature’s potential contributions regardless of whether it was providing services to humans or not, whereas it was measured as a change in realized contributions only if that change affected human life.

Environmental conditions were given their own distinct category in order to differentiate the way nature responds to change from how those underlying changes affect humans. The example that the researchers used to explain this was pollution: as water sources become more polluted, the contribution of nature to human well-being increases as ecosystems work harder to filter out pollutants, but the overall environmental conditions humans live in have worsened.

Finally, those three data sets were combined and analyzed to determine their overall impact on quality of life across 18 of IPBES’s categories of nature’s contributions to humanity.

Figure showing the results of the study’s analysis of changes in nature and their effect on human well-being.

In half of those categories, researchers found “unambiguous declines” in quality of life that were directly caused by changes in nature since 1970. This included a rise in deaths through air pollution, damage to the pollination systems crucial to the reproduction of plant species used by people, and the impact of environmental catastrophes like floods and wildfires.

“If you live in the tropics and there are mangroves that help protect you from coastal storms and flooding, we can quantify, for example, how much protection does a mangrove or a coastal wetland actually provide? And what’s the reduction in the probability that you’re going to be flooded,” Polasky told Mongabay. “In the end, we can quantify in monetary terms the reduction in property damages.”

The most positive impacts were seen in the conversion of ecosystems into commodity production for consumer goods, along with the employment those changes generated. The study said it was easier to gather data on those impacts because they’re typically registered in economic statistics, as opposed to less straightforward services that nature provides related to identity, culture, and psychological well-being.

According to Polasky, limited data on the latter impacts — crucial for Indigenous and rural people across the world — is a gap that needs to be filled by social science and anthropological research in order to build a complete picture of the human cost of nature’s decline.

“When you’re talking about identity and experience, you’re talking about how people think and feel about things, and it’s harder to quantify that,” he said. “The social sciences and humanities have not been as centrally involved in these kinds of assessments, and that’s a gap. Hopefully as we go forward we’ll start to fill some of those gaps in.”

The data that did exist for the “identity” and “experience” categories indicated that the impacts of environmental change aren’t being felt evenly among social classes both within and across countries. As rural and Indigenous people lose access to ecosystems and are in some cases forced to move to urban areas, more well-off people are able to draw on economic resources at their disposal to visit and immerse themselves in wild spaces.

“People losing identity and direct experience in nature is all correlated to these global imbalances between rural and urban needs, and it’s an issue also of human rights in terms of land grabbing in areas under the customary control of Indigenous people and rural communities,” said Yildiz Aumeeruddy-Thomas of the French National Centre for Scientific Research and a co-author of the study.

In other words, as ecosystems have been damaged or destroyed through economic growth and other human-driven change, the global poor are suffering a decline in their quality of life while the rich are able to find ways to counter some of the effects.

Researchers were careful to point out that their results reflected the specific impacts of changes in the environment, and didn’t account for offsetting rises in well-being generated by declining poverty rates and technological innovation.

Overall, though, Polasky said the review paints a grim picture of the accelerating damage humanity is inflicting on itself through its approach to biodiversity and nature.

“There’s lots of things that nature does with how ecosystems work, such as how they filter pollution and how pollination works to provide food. Many of these things are kind of hidden benefits of nature that we take for granted, but when you lose them, and you lose those benefits, that has real consequences for human beings,” he said. “We’re seeing those consequences borne out now, and if we continue on these trends they’re likely to get worse.”

Banner image: Indigenous Juruna children on the Xingu River in Brazil, courtesy of Kelly Lima/ISA.


Brauman, K. A., Garibaldi, L. A., Polasky, S., Aumeeruddy-Thomas, Y., Brancalion, P. H. S., DeClerck, F., … Verma, M. (2020). Global trends in nature’s contributions to people. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences117(51), 32799-32805. doi:10.1073/pnas.2010473117

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