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Human well-being and sustainability...

Human well-being and sustainability : the human determinants of change.

I personally found very inspiring the article on sustainability and human well-being by Gerhard Frank, a natural scientist and philosopher ; here I report some key passages of his paper.

« The impact of human activities on ecosystems have increased rapidly in the last few decades. While the majority of these can be considered beneficial to human well-being, there is growing evidence of adverse effects. The effects of adverse ecosystem changes on human well-being can be classed as direct and indirect. Direct effects occur with some immediacy through locally identifiable biological or ecological pathways. For example, impairment of the water-cleansing capacity of wetlands may adversely affect those who drink that water. Building dams can increase mosquito-breeding and thus the transmission of malaria. The deforestation of hillsides can expose downstream communities to the hazards of flooding. Indirect effects take a toll on well-being through more complex webs of causation, including social, economic, and political routes. Some may take decades to have an impact. For example, where farmlands under irrigation become saline, crop yields are reduced ; this in turn may affect human nutritional security, child growth and development, and susceptibility to infectious diseases. Beyond threshold points, limited or degraded supplies of fresh water may exacerbate political tensions, impair local economic activity (and livelihoods)—including industry—and reduce aesthetic amenity. These dynamic, interacting processes jeopardize various aspects of human well-being.
There have been many formulations and definitions of human well-being. Most commentators would agree that it includes […] :

  • I. the necessary material for a good life (including secure and adequate livelihoods, income and assets, enough food at all times, shelter, furniture, clothing, and access to goods) ;
  • II. health (including being strong, feeling well, and having a healthy physical environment) ;
  • III. good social relations (including social cohesion, mutual respect, good gender and family relations, and the ability to help others and provide for children) ;
  • IV. security (including secure access to natural and other resources, safety of person and possessions, and living in a predictable and controllable environment with security from natural and human-made disasters) ;
  • V. freedom and choice (including having control over what happens and being able to achieve what a person values doing or being).

These five dimensions reinforce each other, whether positively or negatively. A change in one often brings about changes in the others (Figure 1).
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The impacts of adverse ecosystem change do not fall evenly on human populations. Indigent, poorly resourced, and otherwise disadvantaged communities are generally the most vulnerable. Further, many poor rural populations rely disproportionately on the integrity and functions of local ecosystems and are likely to lack the means to import ecosystem services.
Impoverishment as a result of adverse ecosystem change may sometimes lead to a downwards spiral for such people. In all instances, the ability to achieve well-being is reduced by the diminished availability of ecosystem services.
One condition for personal well-being is the capability to adapt and achieve that which individuals value doing and being in situations of dynamic change. At the social level this may contribute to conflicts, necessitating trade-offs between the well-being of different individuals and groups.
Trade-offs may occur when, for example, material capital is accumulated at a cost of environmental security or cultural or spiritual values. This also has a temporal dimension concerning the well-being of others in the future. Addressing these issues leads into the sphere of values […] in a framework that combines concepts of equity, sustainability, livelihood, capability, and ecosystem stewardship. These are related to a value-based notion of well-being in which socially and ecologically responsible behavior plays a part. This in turn relates to the negative and positive effects of individuals’ lives, actions, and non-actions on ecosystems and on other people—both now and in the future.

Negative effects manifest especially through the unsustainable consumption of resources, the degradation of ecosystems, and the many impacts of the behaviors of people who are richer and more powerful on those who are poorer and weaker. Positive effects include sustainable relationships between people and ecosystems, as well as the provision and enhancement of present and future livelihoods, capabilities, and human well-being » [1].

Read the Part2 of this article - Human well-being and sustainability

Figure 1│ The main dimensions of well-being and its obverse, ill-being (Figure modified from [1]).

[1] Gehrard Frank, « Becoming sustainable : Human determinants of change. » Science of the Total Environment, vol. 481, pp. 674-680, 2014.

Alessia Armezzani, 12 mai 2015

Publié ou mis à jour le 12 mai 2015