Monday, July 21, 2008


I = PAT, like the Ecological Footprint, is one quick way to measure the impact of the human species on our environment.

I = PAT is shorthand for Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology Efficiency Factor. In other words, our impact on our environment is equal to our population multiplied by our consumption multiplied by the efficiency of our technologies that create our affluence.

If you have ever heard a politician advocate for the environment, he or she will always focus on the "T". Why? Hmmm... improving efficiency and technology is not controversial. It does not require sacrifice, or changing habits, challenging sacred cows, mentioning the gigantic elephants in the room. It does not require asking people to wear a sweater or suggesting fewer children.

No one wants to give things up. People want their stuff. They want the way of life that they have grown accustomed to. They want to have as many children as they'd like. And who can blame them? The American middle class promise is that if you work hard and smart, you can have whatever you want.

So the technology factor provides a nice little loophole for politicians. It provides a way for them to assure us that we can have our cake, and eat yours too.

Technology provides business with an opportunity to sell new products and make a profit. It offers a way to promote the new Apollo Project, with plenty of government-supported programs for every Senator's constituency. It appeals to the American's fondness for gadgets and faith in ingenuity. Technology is new, and slick, and sexy.

Al Gore has proposed a prime example of the technological approach. Now I'm not sure what the downsides are to turning us into a nation of wind and solar users - I support wind and solar power - except that it allows us to maintain the illusion that this is the answer. Could his strategy be to get the country to build the right infrastructure first, and sacrifice later? I don't know. Personally, I think we should conserve first, and re-think the way that we have developed our lives and our infrastructure.

Still, the truth is that any type of approach to our serious ecological and resource dilemmas will have to take into account ALL 3 of the I=PAT factors - population, affluence/consumption, and efficiency. No one wants to admit this, so we keep on producing technology-will-save-us ideas and pretending they are going to solve everything.

Al has proposed a bold idea, and gotten climate change and energy policy back in the news. He's trying to give us a hope for a better future, if we all pull together and get our butts in gear. Thanks to him for that. It's just too bad that our most high-profile guru can't buck it up and propose something really controversial ... like conservation, which could have an immediate impact on our climate emissions, instead of renewable energy, which won't be in place for at least 5 years down the road.


MeadowLark said...

This is exactly the reason I was so horrified by the "Pickens Plan". I saw it as simply a way to say "Keep using too much... we'll technology our way out of this!"

T. Boone Pickens may not have to conserve, nor may the president who might I add has such "faith" in the oil industry that his ranch is entirely off-grid (thus he won't really be affected by rising costs, now will he), but the REST of us simply MUST if we are going to survive the future.

OK. That sounded dramatic. But you know what I mean. Good post. Thanks.

Chile said...

The elephant in the room with technological solutions is that they require tons of resources and energy to build, and often to maintain. Many of the promising technology doesn't ramp up to large-scale use, either, or at least hasn't been proven yet.

So, yeah, we need more "action" on the individual level but that's political suicide. A politician's #1 goal is to get re-elected. Period. (Harsh lesson learned while interning and working on the Hill as an idealistic youth.)