Is it possible to quantify the impact that human beings are having on the Earth? It is easy to use words like “huge” or “irreversible” or “catastrophic” but it is actually possible to put a number on it? We can measure the amount of carbon dioxide in terms of parts per million. We can measure the increasing acidity of the oceans. We can guess at the amount of plastic being released into places where it shouldn’t be. But is there a way to quantify the overall impact?
Probably not, although there is a useful equation that allows us to at least examine some of the variables that govern the extent of our impact, hopefully with a view to reducing it. Some of you may well be familiar with the IPAT equation in environmental literature. Its creation is generally attributed to Paul Ehrlich, although according to the Wikipedia page the equation actually emerged from a debate in which Ehrlich was only one of three participants.
I think it’s fairly self-explanatory, but do check out the Wikipedia page for a short-but-good definition. It basically explains that what is happening in terms of human impact is a product of our growing numbers and our increasing affluence. If we were achieving sufficient advances in the efficiency of the technology required to produce this affluence, it’s just possible that we could reduce our overall environmental impact, but at the moment our technology is not advancing fast enough to offset the exponential growth in our population and material consumption.
I first came across the equation in Paul Gilding’s excellent book, The Great Disruption: Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring On the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World, an ultimately optimistic book in which he foresees the need for a significant environmental crisis that will lead to a Great Awakening, in which the human race will collectively slap itself on the forehead and wonder what the heck it was thinking when it completely messed up its one and only planet. (You can get the 18-minute version of Paul Gilding’s thesis in his TED Talk, The Earth Is Full.)
More recently, a friend sent me the link to a variation on the IPAT, as explained by Ray Anderson in his TED Talk on the business logic of sustainability. A friend of Amory Lovins, founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, and influenced by Paul Hawken’s business writings, Ray Anderson transformed his carpet business into an eco-responsible business that now aims to have zero impact by 2020.
He first of all rearranged the IPAT equation so that T is divisor rather than multiplier, then revised it again to what he calls “The New Civilisation” so that A becomes a, symbolising decreased emphasis on affluence, and H added into divisor to stand for Happiness (satisfying all human needs)
I = P x a
T2 x H
I’d like to suggest a further refinement, so that W for Wisdom is factored in, although my algebra isn’t quite good enough to be sure where it would go. I think it would be:
I = P x a
T2 x H x W
but please feel free to tell me if I’m wrong!
What are your thoughts? What other variables do you think we can or should introduce to the equation to reduce the environmental impact of humankind? Do you think the formula is helpful, or does it just tell us what we already knew without offering solutions? Please post a comment and let me know!
Back to that “H” – there is also a formula for defining happiness. H = S + C + V, where:
H = your enduring level of happiness
S = your biological set point
C = conditions of your life
V = your voluntary activities
Trying to incorporate that into the IPAT formula truly does defeat my algebraic abilities, but it might be fun to discuss the Happiness Formula separately in a future Philosophy Friday. Yes?