No Innocents in the Battle for Environmental Sustainability

by Sam Harrell

Discussions and debates on the issue of our environmental future often generate more heat than light. We tend to be polarized into camps when such discussions take place. Some have their eyes only on climate change, others on population control. Still others swear that new technologies will save our planet from its current path toward destruction.

The fact is, all of these elements are important. There is no need to take sides. Environmentalists have long realized that the inter-relationships between such factors hold keys to our future. Take for example a simple formula used in the field of Environmental Science that illustrates these inter-relationships. I = PAT.   The “I” in the formula is (environmental) Impact, “P” is population growth, “A” is affluence or consumption levels, and “T” represents technological efficiency. Thus, global environmental impact is determined by relationships between population growth, affluence/consumption levels and the technologies available for processes such as energy production, manufacturing, food production and transportation.

Developed, industrialized countries often point a finger at developing countries like Kenya with skyrocketing birth rates that threaten to overburden existing resources. They are right. Developing countries in turn tend to blame developed, industrialized countries for too much pollution (China) or conspicuous consumption (USA). They are also right. All of us, it seems, are desperate for new technologies that will allow us to do more with less. Fine, but not a comprehensive solution since many of these technologies, like GM food production, hydraulic fracturing for natural gas production, etc., have serious ecological costs of their own and tend to ignore many of the underlying issues.

The reality is that we are all complicit in environmental sabotage. There are no innocents in the battle for sustainability. The burgeoning population of our planet is indeed catastrophic and will in the near term overwhelm any technological advances toward greater efficiency. Can you imagine a Nigeria with almost 400 million or a Kenya with almost 100 million people in 35 short years from now (by 2050)? We can’t just blame China for raping the environment and pollution when the bulk of goods they produce are exported for use elsewhere. The hard reality is that this planet has provided us with a limited resource base and demand for these resources will very soon outstrip supply. Consumption levels in the affluent West certainly lead to the overexploitation and waste of limited natural resources, even as those resources are procured elsewhere. The appetite for consumer goods only increases as developing countries transition to industrialized countries with all the attendant appetites. Technology, as great as it is, cannot be counted on to counter these excesses.

We need to wake up to the fact that there simply are no shortcuts. Our very survival depends on reducing population growth to replacement levels and more equitable distribution of consumptive resources so that those who have too little will have enough. Since resources are limited, Western, developed nations will have to trim the fat. New technologies will greatly assist us on this journey but wholesale reliance on the same will be to our detriment.