One of the bigger problems with the IPAT formula (environmental Impact = Population * Affluence * Technology, or a variant thereon) is in its choice of words. Particularly the word “affluence”.
“Affluence” is far from being value-neutral. In classroom discussions, most Environmental Studies profs explain that what’s meant is the benefit that comes from consuming natural resources, and it’s the consumption of those natural resources – not the benefit directly – that creates environmental impact.
But what sticks in students’ minds is “affluence”, not “consumption of natural resources”. And only the most truly enviro-radical students are willing even to discuss the possibility of trading away some affluence just to reduce impact. There must be some other way. A desire for affluence, after all, is what brings most students (at least, most undergrads) to Greenback in the first place. If it’s not students’ own desires to achieve affluence, then their parents’ desires for them. And, increasingly of late, it’s not just desire – it’s desperation. If our graduates don’t achieve a certain level of affluence, however will they pay off all those student loans which they incurred in its pursuit?
Using the term “affluence”, whatever its original intent, merely puts a warm fuzzy face on the fact of consumption. If we called it by its right name, a greater number of students might be willing to make compromises. But labeling consumption as “affluence” has the effect of directing students’ attention, when they consider how environmental impact might be reduced, towards some combination of population control and technological advance. Neither of which is the prime culprit.
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