There have been many commentaries recently about what is happening to Earth caused by global warming. Most of the commentaries focus on what needs to be done about reducing our greenhouse gas emissions and include suggestions such as putting a carbon tax on fossil fuels, moving to renewable energy or weatherizing our homes. However, the issue is more complex than those relatively simple solutions.
We must address all the underlying causes of global warming and the other devastations we are doing to the Earth, such as the Sixth Great Extinction. This is best understood by using the equation: I=PxAxT
This equation was first proposed in the early 1970s by two scientists named Paul Ehrlich (who had written “The Population Bomb” in 1968 and whose predictions were then demeaned but are now coming true) together with John Holdren, as a way to calculate the impact of humans on the environment.
Their equation explains that a population’s environmental impact (I) is a result of the size of the population (P) times the population’s affluence (A) times the technology (T) being used by that population.
By way of example, if the population of a country is the size of the current U.S. of 326 million, is quite wealthy and uses a technology of highly fossil-fuel consumptive vehicles, then its environmental impact via carbon (CO2) emissions is going to be very high. On the other hand, in 1800, when the U.S. population was only 5 million, income was generally very limited and the technology for transportation was largely by horses, then the carbon emissions from transportation and other sources were minimal.
According to the UN’s scientific experts, the world must cut climate polluting emissions to 45 percent below 2010 levels by 2030. And by 2050, it must reduce them to zero to avoid catastrophic global heating. We are on track to see at least 6.3°F warming by 2100, and much more after that. Numerous reports have shown that it is highly unlikely that civilization, as we know and expect it, is possible at an increase of 6.3°F.
We obviously can’t do much about reducing our population size in such a short period of time. However, thinking long-term, we must nonetheless stress the need to reduce our population numbers. For example, having one fewer child reduces a parent’s carbon footprint by 64 tons of CO2 a year.
Regarding the affluence factor, this relates to our economy and politicians. Developers and most economists keep saying, “we have to grow the economy.” Not only does this generate more greenhouse gas emissions, it degenerates the environment in many other ways, such as decreasing wildlife habitat. Instead, we should be moving towards what is called a “steady-state economy,” one that is more sustainable and benefits all people, not just primarily the rich. A steady-state economy doesn’t use natural resources beyond their renewable level.
Finally, the technology used, such as for renewable energy, is critical as many climate-change advocates discuss, but do not personally always follow. As an example, even most environmentalists use the technology of jet planes to enjoy their travel to foreign lands instead of limiting their recreation to enjoying the nearest forest land. And jet plane travel is greatly on the rise.
So we need to think of I=PxAxT at two levels. One is the systemic level involving governmental and corporate dimensions. For this level’s two dimensions, there is a need to have a more in-depth conversation about what is happening to Earth, what the moral responsibility is, and what can be done about it, such as a tax on fossil fuels.
The other level is the personal and spiritual one. What does the I-PxAxT equation mean for each of us? I know several people who live a lifestyle that conforms to this formula and they are quite happy people. My personal heroes are still Helen and Scott Nearing, who lived largely off the land here in Jamaica, Vermont, from 1932 to 1952, and then in Brooksville, Maine, for the rest of their lives. They wrote the book, “Living the Good Life” (1954), which inspired thousands of people.
As a couple, they had no children, although Scott had two sons by a previous marriage. Their daily formula was four hours of hard work growing their own food and living largely off the land with limited income by producing maple syrup while in Vermont and then blueberries in Maine, four hours of professional work, and then four hours of personal enjoyment such as playing music, reading, writing poetry. It certainly led to a healthy lifestyle for them with Scott living to 100 and then stopped eating as a means of deliberate death, and Helen lived to 91, dying as a result of a car crash.
We can deal with climate change and other environmental issues, although to do so, we do need to take a broader look at the causes, accomplishing this with the I=PxAxT equation as our lodestar.
George Plumb, of Washington, is a board member of Better (not Bigger) Vermont and the organizer of the 2014 report “What is an Optimal/Sustainable Population for Vermont?”