Human Well Being and The Environment



For sustainable development to be achieved, links between the environment and development must be examined. It is also important to consider the end point of development: human well being. The evolution of ideas on development has made this concept central to the policy debate. This idea, and the state of the environment are strongly interlinked. Establishing how environmental changes have impacts, and showing the importance of environment to humans, is the focus of this discussion.



Defining human well being

Defining human well being (see Box 1.2) is not easy, due to alternative views on what it means. Simply put, human well being can be classified according to three views, each of which has different implications for the environment:

– The resources people have, such as money and other assets. Wealth is seen as conducive to well-being. This view is closely linked to the concept of weak sustainability, which argues that environmental losses can be compensated for by increases in physical capital (machines) (So low 1991). The environment can only contribute to development as a means to promote economic growth.

– How people feel about their lives (their subjective views). Individuals’ assessments of their own living conditions take into account the intrinsic importance that environment has for life satisfaction. According to this view, people value the environment for its traditional or cultural aspects (Diener 2000, Frey and Stutzer 2005).

– What people are able to be and to do. This view focuses on what the environment allows individuals to be and to do (Sen 1985, Sen 1992, Sen 1999). It points out that the environment provides the basis for many benefits, such as proper nourishment, avoiding unnecessary morbidity and premature mortality, enjoying security and self-respect, and taking part in the life of the community. The environment is appreciated beyond its role as income generator, and its impacts on human well being are seen as multidimensional.

BOX 1.2 Human well-being is the extent to which individuals have the ability and the opportunity to live the kinds of lives they have reason to value. People’s ability to pursue the lives that they value is shaped by a wide range of instrumental freedoms. Human well-being encompasses personal and environmental security, access to materials for a good life, good health and good social relations, all of which are closely related to each other, and underlie the freedom to make choices and take action:

  • Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing, and not merely the absence of disease or illness. Good health not only includes being strong and feeling well, but also freedom from avoidable disease, a healthy physical environment, access to energy, safe water and clean air. What one can be and do include among others, the ability to keep fit, minimize health related stress, and ensure access to medical care.
  • Material needs relate to access to ecosystem goods-and-services. The material basis for a good life includes secure and adequate livelihoods, income and assets, enough food and clean water at all times, shelter, clothing, access to energy to keep warm and cool, and access to goods.
  • Security relates to personal and environmental security. It includes access to natural and other resources, and freedom from violence, crime and wars (motivated by environmental drivers), as well as security from natural and human-caused disasters.
  • Social relations refer to positive characteristics that define interactions among individuals, such as social cohesion, reciprocity, mutual respect, good gender and family relations, and the ability to help others and provide for children.

Increasing the real opportunities that people have to improve their lives requires addressing all these components. This is closely linked to environmental quality and the sustainability of ecosystem services. Therefore, an assessment of the impact of the environment on individuals’ well-being can be done by mapping the impact of the environment.

The evolution of these ideas has progressed from the first to the third, with increasing importance being given to the real opportunities that people have to achieve what they wish to be and to do. This new understanding of human well being and the environment has several important aspects. First, multidimensionality is viewed as an important feature of human well being. Consequently, the impact of the environment on human well being is seen according to many different dimensions.


Second, autonomy is considered a defining feature of people, and of well-being. Autonomy can be defined broadly as allowing people to make individual or collective choices. In other words, to know whether an individual is well requires considering his or her resources, subjective views, and the ability to choose and act. This concept of human well-being highlights the importance of understanding whether individuals are simply passive spectators of policy interventions, or, in fact, active agents of their own destiny.


Context of human well being

The potential for individuals, communities and nations to make their own choices, and maximize opportunities to achieve security and good health, meet material needs and maintain social relations is affected by many interlinked factors, such as poverty, inequality and gender. It is important to note how these factors relate to each other, and to the environment. You might be interested in an informative paper on human rights and climate change.

Individuals’ assessments of their own living conditions take into account the intrinsic importance that the environment has for life satisfaction. Credit: UNEP Fourth Global Environment Outlook – Mark Edwards/Still Pictures

Poverty and inequality

Poverty is understood as a deprivation of basic freedoms. It implies a low level of well-being, with such outcomes as poor health, premature mortality and morbidity, and illiteracy. It is usually driven by inadequate control over resources, discrimination (including by race or gender), and lack of access to material assets, health care and education (UN 2004).

Inequality refers to the skewed distribution of an object of value, such as income, medical care or clean water, among individuals or groups. Unequal access to environmental resources remains an important source of inequality among individuals.

Equity is the idea that a social arrangement addresses equality in terms of something of value. Distributive analysis is used to assess features of human well-being that are unequally distributed among individuals according to arbitrary factors, such as gender, age, religion and ethnicity. When an analysis of this distribution focuses on its lower end, it refers to poverty.




When seen in a dynamic perspective, inequality and poverty are better understood through the concepts of social mobility and vulnerability. Mobility relates to the ability of people to move from one social group, class or level to another. Environmental degradation may be responsible for locking individuals within low mobility paths, limiting opportunities to improve their own well-being.



Vulnerability involves a combination of exposure and sensitivity to risk, and the inability to cope or adapt to environmental change. Most often, the poor are more vulnerable to environmental change. Broad patterns of vulnerability to environmental and socio-economic changes can be identified so that policy-makers can respond, providing opportunities for reducing vulnerability, while protecting the environment.



Gender inequality

An analysis of distributive impacts of the environment on human well-being cannot ignore features such as gender. Gender inequality is one of the most persistent inequalities in both developed and developing countries, with the majority of people living in poverty being women (UNDP 2005b). Women and girls often carry a disproportionate burden from environmental degradation compared to men. Understanding the position of women in society, and their relationship with the environment is essential for promoting development. In many cases, women and girls assume greater responsibilities for environmental management, but have subordinate positions in decision making (Braidotti and others 1994). Women need to be at the centre of policy responses (Agarwal 2000). At the same time, it is important to avoid stereotyping these roles, and to base responses on the complexities of local realities (Cleaver 2000).

Women and girls bear the brunt of collecting fuelwood, tasks made harder by environmental degradation. Credit: UNEP Fourth Global Environment Outlook – Christian Lambrechts

Environmental change and human well-being

One of the main findings of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment is that the relationship between human well being and the natural environment is mediated by services provided by ecosystems.

Ecosystem services include provisioning services, such as food and water;regulating services, such as flood and disease control; cultural services, such as spiritual, recreational and cultural benefits; and supporting services, such as nutrient cycling that maintain the conditions for life on Earth.

Changes to these services, as a result of changes in the environment, affect human well-being through impacts on security, basic material for a good life, health, and social and cultural relations (MA 2003). All people – rich and poor, urban and rural, and in all regions – rely on natural capital.

The world’s poorest people depend primarily on environmental goods-and-services for their livelihoods, which make them particularly sensitive and vulnerable to environmental changes (WRI 2005). Furthermore, many communities in both developing and developed countries derive their income from environmental resources, which include fisheries, non-timber forest products and wildlife.



Source: United Nations Environment Programme, 2007, Fourth Global Environment Outlook: environment for development Assessment Report, pages 45-49,