Determining Factors

Here’s a question for you. In Part 2 of this post, we can compare answers.

During the course of human history, what three technological inventions have had the most environmental impact in terms of resource consumption and disposal?

The IPAT formula is a conceptual tool that allows us to focus on those factors most responsible for our present human-environment imbalance at global, regional, and national levels.  We can use it as a guide to help us answer the technological invention question above.

I = P x A x T
Impact (I) equals the product of Population (P), Affluence (A: per person consumption of P), and Technology (T: labour-saving devices that augment P‘s lifestyle).

Although written as a mathematical expression, the IPAT formula is similar to Ecological Footprint analysis in that it attempts to identify the major factors responsible for humans’ impact on the environment and to calculate their differential effects.

Population is obviously important, especially because it has been increasing exponentially since the industrial revolution about 250 years ago. The statistics are startling: it took about 195,000 years to reach a population of 1 billion in 1800; now we expect to reach 7 billion by next year – an increase of 600% in little more than 200 years! That’s a lot more mouths to feed, bodies to clothe, and people to house.

And that’s not the whole story. Although requirements for human survival are minimal, many of us exceed what is necessary to sustain life. Here we confront the difference between human needs and human wants.

Victoria, for example, has grown from a western trading outpost that supplied the bare essential human needs, to a burgeoning city able to fulfill all of human needs and wants.

Affluence reflects the extent to which we live as we want rather than as we need – and since the industrial revolution, we have created such surplus that an increasing proportion of us consume more than we need.  This trend is evident even over a short time. For example, according to Worldwatch Institute (Vital Signs 2005), in 1950 the world had 50 million passenger cars – one car per 51 people. In 2004, there were 551 million cars on the road, one for every 12 people! The most commonly used measure of affluence is Gross Domestic Product, the total value of all goods and services produced by a particular population.

Technology is the sum of tools, machines, and material objects that people develop to assist them in their daily lives. It is measured by per capita energy consumption on the assumption that most technological devices require auxiliary energy to function.  From prehistoric stone tools to modern spaceships, these inventions expand humans’ capacity to alter the natural environment for their own purposes. And like population and affluence, technology has increased exponentially, such that the majority of the world’s population now lives in technological environments called cities.

Consider the relative impact on the environment of sticks that early hunter/gatherers used to dig the ground compared to shovel loaders the size of three-story buildings that operators use to excavate the Alberta tar sands and you get an idea of what “exponential increase” means.

According to the World Bank’s World Development Report 2010, high-income countries have only 16% of the world’s population, but produce 73% of its income!

The impacts of population, affluence, and technology vary tremendously around the world. According to the World Bank’s World Development Report 2010, high-income countries have only 16% of the world’s population, but produce 73% of its income! They are the principal drivers of affluence and technology, while low and middle-income countries are largely responsible for population. Yet because we share the same planet, it is incumbent upon all of us to negotiate equitable solutions that will allow subsequent generations to enjoy life on earth as we do.

Part 2 of this post will continue examining the differential impacts of these three components. In addition, I want to compare all of our answers to my question about which three technological inventions have had the greatest environmental impact. To do this, please list your choices in the “Comments” section below and provide reasons so that I can assess your answers. Try to think of the full implications and repercussions of whatever inventions you choose.

Do you remember “For Want of a Nail”?

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

Alan Hedley is a retired University of Victoria Sociology Professor. He’s currently searching for ways to contribute to a more equitable and sustainable human existence on planet Earth – and blogging about his journey.

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