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IPAT considered harmful (#3 of more)
March 20, 2014 - 8:01pm

IPAT (environmental Impact = Population * Affluence * Technology) is deeply embedded into the mind of pretty much any student who’s ever taken an Environmental Studies course.  Previously, I pointed out that notating the formula as a multiplication is misleading, and that expressing the formula using discrete, averaged, variables is destructive of meaningful information. 

But problems with the IPAT formulation run far deeper than that.  IPAT treats its three exogenous variables – population, affluence and technology – as if they were mutually independent.  A key pair, affluence and technology, aren’t independent at all.  Indeed, they’re profoundly intertwined.  And understanding their intertwined nature is key to understanding not so much that the IPAT formula (as amended) has conceptual validity, but how it is that the world we live in exhibits the particular P, A and T values which are responsible for giving us our current state of I.

There’s a pervasive myth that technology is neutral.  ‘It’s not the existence of a particular technology which shapes our world, it’s how people use it.’  Nothing could be further from the truth.  For technology to be neutral, it (in all its variety) would have to be engendered randomly, or perhaps spring full-grown from the forehead of Zeus.  Instead, technologies are conceived, developed and selected for pervasive use because they increase “affluence”, at least for and in the mind of the person(s) doing the selecting.  James Burke has done an admirable job of demonstrating this in his various “Connections” TV series, books, and other materials.  Burke’s message isn’t really intended to be radical or subversive, but his tales of (for example) how the development of plastics has roots in medieval Dutch ship design clearly show how technologies are chosen and progress is shaped by the immediate interests of those doing the choosing.  Technology evolves, then, in order to increase affluence – at the very least, some people’s affluence (which distinction gets lost if the exogenous variables are simplified as averages [which may, itself, be an example of technology {the IPAT formulation} being shaped to serve specific interests]) – so when IPAT treats technology and affluence as independent variables and then multiplies them together, the net weight of A increases exponentially, and it pretty much absorbs the effects of T.

This is one reason I’m always suspicious when students express faith in technological fixes to sustainability problems.  So long as the operative interests of those who choose which technologies become dominant resemble the operative interests of those who shaped the technologies that got us into this mess, technology’s not going to save us.  With apologies to Einstein, we can’t solve the major problems that face us with the same mindset we used while we created them.  Treating technology as if it were an independent variable (intentionally?) overstates its power and lulls us into believing the myth of progress.  The IPAT formulation, no matter initially how well-intentioned, serves to obscure this truth.

 

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