Chapter 6: Revisiting the Metaphor of Human Health for Assessing Ecological Systems and Its Application to Ecological Economics
Ecological Economics for the Anthropocene: An Emerging Paradigm
Format: Book Chapter
Publication Year: 2015
Publisher: Columbia University Press
Place of Publication: New York, UNITED STATES
Source ID: shanti-sources-86341
Abstract: In this chapter, the authors discuss the notion of health as applied to humans and to ecosystems, and they explain how in both domains the state of health cannot be adequately defined or assessed using scientific terms and measures. They show that the notion of human health is elusive and the various definitions that have been attempted have serious shortcomings. Importantly, the myriad attributes and domains that make up the concept of human health cannot be measured uniquely in any individual, and there is no consensus as to how to uniquely define human health. Health goes beyond the internal signs reflected by physiological and pathological parameters measured by physicians, and even goes beyond the exteriorized signs of disability; and can even include the concept of “well-being,” and how a person “feels” about their health. Moreover, health is an evolving process, and individuals change in different ways through time. In short, human health in its entirety cannot be measured in a specific individual. The authors thus conclude that defining ecosystem health by appealing to the analogy of human health is incorrect— and certainly incorrect when considering only physicians as diagnosticians and healers. Ecologists acting as physicians to diagnose and correct pathology are of course correct and essential. Ecologists have developed myriad indices to measure various attributes of ecosystems. In parallel with humans, it is unlikely that a finite set of indicators can be developed or measured to be able to claim that an ecosystem is “healthy.” More importantly, assessments of ecosystem function and states do not require a clear definition of ecosystem health. In particular, complex indices that combine elementary ones to measure ecosystem health cannot measure all of the dimensions in complex ecosystems, and the use of complex indicators must be benchmarked; claiming that an ecosystem is healthy based on these types of indices can be fraught with error. The authors conclude that using these indicators in ecological economics— especially in terms of monitoring the effects of human activities on ecosystems and species at the local, regional, and global levels— requires a judicious choice of objectives as to which indicators are to be measured for the purposes of remediation and for making statements of policy.