Monday, October 31, 2011

Population pancakes

The following is based on a comment I left on an article by James Bradfield Moody, which was excerpted from The Sixth Wave: How to succeed in a resource limited world” by James Bradfield Moody and Bianca Nogrady (Random House, 2010).

Ian Angus and Simon Butler, in quoting one of my earlier articles in their excellent book "Too Many People?", also kindly pointed out that I=PAT is an identity not a formula.  They didn't realise that pancakes are important for understanding I=PAT.

I=PAT is an "identity", that is, it's true by definition. As such, using it to understand the problem risks getting caught in circular logic. Why not measure P as dollars of profit, or unit of GDP, or something else, instead of unit of population?

I=PAT also suffers from using averages. Per capita greenhouse impact (one measure of I in the identity) in Canada is very high, for example. If half their population emigrated, but the tar sands oil production continued, you might realise that most of those people were not actually related to the pollution caused from the tar sands. The tar sands pollution would continue unabated. Averages conceal a lot.

It's also incredibly reductionist. Let's say, pancake = eggs x flour x milk. That doesn't really describe a pancake does it? It doesn't describe your decisions about how to mix them, what proportions, how to cook them and so on. In fact it could be a recipe for dumplings or something else.

Analysing technology's impact (good or bad) is not wrong, but behind all this is politics and economics - which are invisible in the I=PAT identity. While population growth rates have been falling, rates of carbon pollution have been growing in the last 20 years.

Yes, unbridled consumption and wasteful and polluting technology are bad. Clean technology has great promise. But how did we end up with one and not the other? It all comes back to politics and economics. Let's focus our attention there.

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