Concerns over environmental protection and sustainability have been at the forefront prompting scholars and environmental scientists to investigate the driving forces that have asignificant impact on the environment. It was discovered that each day humans engage in activities that affect the environment. However, the character and nature of human interactions with the environment are quite broad. Therefore, it was important to identify specific underlying factors that influence human impact on the environment and the severity of each factor. The IPAT model, proposed circa 1970 by Ehrlich and Holdren, postulates a mathematical and theoretical framework that analyzes the determinants and factors of human impact on the environment (Chertow, pg. 13). The model indicates that human environmental impact represented as (I) is the product of three key variable factors, population (P), affluence (A), which is total consumption, and technology (T) (Chertow, pg. 14). Conceptualization of the IPAT model has been used widely and represents the efforts of environmentalists, ecologists, and population regarding the effect that population, affluence, and technology have on the environment. The relationship is complex and yields either positive or adverse effects. The focus of this article is the effect of technology on human environmental impact.
The IPAT model and its reformulationsin relation to technology (T)
Human Impact (I) = Population (P)×Affluence (A) × Technology (T)
The interaction of these three factors provides an approximation of the magnitude of human impact on the environment (Dietz and Rosa, pg. 175). The effect can either be positive or negative. Due to the multiplication factor in the equation, it is clear that the equation proposes rigidity in tackling each factor in isolation. However, in reality, this is not the case because the factors effect each other and are not necessarily independent variables. An increase in population may influence affluence which consequently influences technology and so on. Therefore,in order to achieve sustainability it is crucial to tackling the IPAT factors togetherby analyzing the effect they have on each other (Chertow, pg. 14). Many scholars have used the features of the IPAT model using it as an orienting perspective to provide different formulations regarding these three factors and their effect on the environment. The IPAT model has both appealing features and limitations that have sparked discussions and debatesbut ultimately regardless of formulations, the issues addressed are geared towards improving environmental impact (Chertow, pg. 15). An analysis of different literature shows that many scholars propose a stochastic reformulation of the IPAT model that involves disentangling of these factors in a bid to further explain thespecific and definite impact on each factor and proportion in relation to the environment. In this section, I will review these formulations and whether the level of technological impact on the environment is accounted for and to what degree.
A review of the history of the IPAT model shows that initially, Ehrlich and Holdren proposed a different formulation which was primarily based on the notion that population is a major contributor to environmental degradation (Chertow, pg. 15).
I = P× F
Where I = total impact, P= population size, and Fis impact per capita. While population remains an independent variable, all other factors that have the potential of affecting the environment are condensed in the F variable depending on how they affect impact per capita. In this equation, the role of technology is not accountedfor, but a breakdown of the equation by the authors indicates that technology is expressedin relation tothe factor (F). The reason for this relationshipis attributed to the manner in which technology affects per capita consumption because the use of technology is responsible for the production of consumables like food, energy, manufactured products.Therefore, the authors recognize the role of technology in making consumption possible. That technology can create limited or more impact that can hold F constant or impact it through an increase or a decrease. Although the equation recognizes the role of technology, its impact is explained in a truncated manner without offering conclusive explanations.Today, modernization has led to the development of harmful technologies especially in countries that are significantly developed like China, The United States, developed countries in Europe etc. these harmful technologies, such as production factories, fuel-guzzling vehicles and machinery have the effect of having a negative impact on the environment (Miller & Spoolman, pg. 57).
Another popular reformulation is depicted in Commoner’s work that seeks to account for the effect of pollution activities on the environment. In his book, The Closing Circle, Commoner applies and redefines the factors of the IPAT concept to account for the level ofpollution in the United States during the 1970s. In the reformulation, environmental impact designated as (I) is re-defined to mean ‘the number ofpollutants in the environment.’ And the equation is as follows:
I = Population× Economic good/ population×Pollutant/ economic good
Again the factors in the equation do not account for technology as such. Instead of exploring broader measures of environmental impact, Commoner’s intent is to focus on pollution and how the three factors of the IPAT model contribute to pollution. From his explanation, technology is responsible for the adverse effects of pollution on the environment. According to Commoner, a comparison and measure of the level of pollution contributed by the three variables indicate that technology, unlike population and affluence, leads to excessive pollution. His primary focus is the technology responsible for production and manufacture of products like detergents, fertilizers, oxides, lead, and bottles which if not properly disposed will pollute the environment. He proposes regulation and re-evaluation of technological production systems that align with the protection of the eco-system (Chertow, pg. 16). His work does not highlight the mitigating effects of beneficial environmentally friendly technologies such as solar systems, air pollution equipment, carbon converting systems etc. Current trends in environmental conservation involves the adoption of these technologies to sole challenges in environmental degradation.
By definition, technology refers to the application of science and improved systems to industry inspired by scientific knowledge. The upsurge in technological capabilities has prompted the analysis of the impact of technology in the context of environmental sustainability, especially in the recent years. The impact is differential; there are various resource-efficient technologies and some equally adverse ones. The role of technology in impacting the environment is seen in the production primarily. One of the key elements that impact the environment regarding technology is the use of resources. Based on scarce resources, technology can be beneficial in that; it can facilitate execution of specific processes using fewer resources. On the other hand, some technological systems require scarce resources which may result in degradation of the environment or pollution. An example is non-renewable resources such as exotic forestry, rare metals, and fossil fuels. Additionally, the issue of waste is important when discussing technology. Over the years, improved systems have been developed that encourage a green eco-system such as combating emission of harmful gas emission such as C02 emissions,through conversion to non-harmful gasses (Dietz and Rosa, pg. 178). However, owing to theindustrial revolution and the fossil fuel culture, these environmental friendly initiatives are undercut by practices that harm the environment. As a result, there is increased waste which consequently leads to pollution. Also, there is the argument that advancements in technology increase the other factors of the IPAT model, such that, there is increased production which leads to increased consumption (A). Also, with improved technology, mortality rates are lowered and consequently population increases.
In general, technology can have either a positive or an adverse effect on the environment. The choices made in the use of technology ultimately determines the effect on the environment. From the IPAT model and its reformulations, the role of technology (T) is depicted in a truncated light; this is despite the importance of the impact of technology on the environment and its influence on the other variables of the model. It is imperative to define and devise an operational definition of what the variable (T) entails in order to mitigate adverse effects on the environment.
Chertow, Marian R. “The IPAT equation and its variants.” Journal of Industrial Ecology 4.4 (2000): 13-29.
Dietz, Thomas, and Rosa, Eugene A. “Effects of population and affluence on CO2 emissions.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 94.1 (1997): 175-179.
Miller, G. Tyler, and Scott Spoolman. Sustaining the earth. Cengage Learning, 2014.