Does IPAT guarantee the end of the world?

Many see IPAT as a set of mathematical laws that guarantee the imminent collapse of modern civilisation. The global population is growing and, as the argument goes, multiplying the terrible impact we have on important ecosystem services, so that when it hits 10 billion people and climate change and peak oil undermine our way of life: we’re doomed. But is that what IPAT really guarantees?

So what is IPAT? The wiki shows how IPAT describes how our population, consumption, and technology choices all harm the environment.

I = PAT is the lettering of a formula put forward to describe the impact of human activity on the environment.

I = P × A × T

In words:

Human Impact (I) on the environment equals the product of P= Population, A= Affluence, T= Technology. This describes how our growing population, affluence, and technology contribute toward our environmental impact.

However, I see I=PAT as good news! Eventually. After some big changes.

But now it’s bad news because were using the wrong energy Technology.

Let’s run some numbers. Let’s give one first world consumerist lifestyle an Affluence of 1 unit of impact, just for convenience. So IMPACT = 7 Billion of us living convenient modern lifestyles in big homes and apartments in big cities and driving and eating. A lot. Living in suburbia. That’s 7 Billion units of IMPACT.

Now, if that wasn’t bad enough, we need to multiply it by the terrible energy Technology we use. We burn oil and gas and coal, and lots of it, to power all this. Because they cause mountain top removal, particulate pollution in big cities, poisoned groundwaters, fracking, coal-seam-gas, spills, the occasional oil war, and the mother-of-all-bombs known as climate change, I think we need to give our fossil fuel Technology a rating of 2 units of IMPACT. Now let’s run IPAT.

IMPACT = P (7 Billion) * A (1) * T (2) = 14 BILLION: a dying world.

The ecosystem services are dying, forests are shrinking, fisheries are declining, climate is warming, topsoil is blowing away, half the world’s rivers don’t reach the ocean, and toxic loads are bio-accumulating through the food chain. I get it. An impact of 7 Billion is bad news!

Now let’s see what happens if we hit 10 billion people, but replace the energy Technology.  Let’s cancel climate change, quickly. With the right legislation, we could deploy over half our nuclear power and switch to mostly electric cars in about 10 years (see figures here), probably finishing in 20 years. We would then have a clean electricity grid and transport system. What happens then? Because we’ve cancelled climate change,  stopped open-pit coal mining, reduced oil shipments and accidents, stopped fracking and coal-seam-gas mining, and all the particulate pollution and smog, I reckon our clean nuclear T would cut the impact of T tenfold! So let’s make T 0.2

Now run IPAT.

IMPACT = P (10 Billion) * A (1)  * Technology (0.2) = ONLY 2 BILLION!

That’s roughly one seventh of today’s fossil fuelled world. In other words, this whole IPAT formula is a very rough conceptual framework that describes how various things either multiply harm, or divide it. Simply removing fossil fuels from our energy Technology would turn T into a divider, not a multiplier. A quick build out of nuclear power and electric & boron cars would give us more time to stop population growth (by only positive policies such as educating and empowering women in developing countries. The UN shows that this is the single greatest thing we can do to slow population growth.)

And that’s just the energy T: which I believe is the single greatest impact we’re having on the world today. But there are, of course, other limits to growth. But we haven’t touched on new recycling T’s and transport T’s and farming T’s and water T’s and city planning T’s and sewerage nutrient recovery T’s. With enough energy and enough time, we can do so much to slow and even reverse today’s negative impacts on the environment. We can get there. We just have to get the legislation through as soon as possible. And we may just discover that a nuclear green world of 10 billion people is an awesome place to enjoy!

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