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Abstract

Dietz, Thomas, and Eugene A. Rosa. 1994. “Rethinking the Relationship Between Human Venefits and Environmental Costs.” XIV meeting of the Society for Human Ecology, 19 October 2006. Bar Harbor, Maine.

Most theories of environmental impact assume that exploitation of the
environment provides benefits to human well-being. However, this assumption has not
been subject to much empirical discipline. We propose a model of Efficient Well-Being
(EWEB) inspired by the Stochastic Frontier Production Models commonly used in
economics. EWEB assesses a nation-state’s efficiency in enhancing human well-being
through the use of economic, natural and human resources. The approach suggests
shifting analytic attention from the elusive question whether a nation is sustainable to the
more tractable question of how efficient a nation is in producing human well-being while
minimizing adverse environmental impacts. Drawing on sustainability theory, we
conceptualize human well-being as a function of physical capital, natural capital and
human capital. In a preliminary test of this approach we operationalized human wellbeing
as life expectancy, flows of physical capital as gross domestic product per capita,
flows of natural capital as the ecological footprint, and human capital as education.
Using data from 135 nations, we find that controlling for physical and human capital,
exploitation of the environment has no net effect on well-being. This suggests that
improvements in well-being may be possible without adverse effects on the environment
and that many nations could substantially improve their efficiency in using human and
natural resources to generate well-being.

Keywords:
Sustainability, human well-being, ecological footprint, Stochastic Frontier
Production Models

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