I have recently had several encounters with people who think that the human population should be restricted or reduced ‘for the sake of the planet’. Anyone who has taken a course in Environmental Studies will be aware of the basic Environmental Impact formula:
EI = P x R x T
In other words, the total environmental impact of humans on the planet (EI) arises from a combination of three factors – the number of humans on the planet (P), the average per capita level of resource use (R) and the technological efficiency of producing these resources (T).
My encounters got me thinking about the nature of this formula. It is a very simple formula, if P increases then EI increases, if R increases then EI increases, and if T decreases then EI increases. However, behind the simplicity lurk a number of assumptions and complications. The primary assumption is that any increase in EI is bad. The primary complication concerns the nature of EI. What exactly is EI?
Let us first consider the primary assumption that any increase in EI is bad. This means that any increase in P or R, or any decrease in T, is bad. Now, one might believe that in the distant past, when P was very low, that an increase in P was not bad. If one believes this, then one is surely correct. However, it is important to recognise that in the distant past the EI formula did not exist. The very fact that the EI formula was devised indicates that humans see increases in P and R as a problem, as a bad/dangerous thing. So, I am suggesting that the assumption lying behind this formula has always been that any increase in EI (any increase in P or R, or any decrease in T) is bad; this seems to be intrinsic to the formula. Have you ever heard anyone say any of the following?
For the sake of the planet I think that the human population size should be increased.
For the sake of the planet I think that all humans
consume more resources.
For the sake of the planet I think that we should use resources less efficiently.
I doubt it! The assumption is always that ‘for the sake of the planet’ equates to reductions in EI, not increases in EI. Do most humans really know what is in the interests of the planet? Or, do they just assume that they know? When everyone (or almost everyone) unquestioningly assumes something to be true, then there is a reasonable chance that they are wrong! Indeed, from the perspective of my philosophy, the almost continual increase in EI from the bringing forth of the human species to the current day, can be seen as a good thing. This continually increasing EI is effectively a direct measure of the growing strength of the force to environmental destruction. And, as we have seen, the growing strength of this force is a good thing, a sign that life on Earth is thriving and heading towards a successful technological birth.
Let us now consider the nature of EI. It doesn’t seem to be a very useful thing to imagine. EI is an attempt to envision the total environmental impact of all humans that live on the Earth; it is a formula, an image constructed in the human mind. ‘Out there’, on the planet itself, there are simply a diverse range of individual environmental impacts. Believing that any reduction in EI (this creation of the human mind) is a good thing has some seemingly unsavoury implications. For example:
1. If 50 humans die in a motorway pileup this is good, as reductions in P reduce EI.
2. If unemployed people are put to work using simple technology, in the process replacing technologically more efficient machinery which requires no human labour, then this is bad, as reductions in T increase EI.
3. If 100 people move out of extreme poverty/near starvation and start eating more food this is bad, as increases in R increase EI.
4. If 100 people start eating less food and move into a state of near starvation this is good, as decreases in R decrease EI.
I am not convinced that we should see any of these things (these changes in EI) as being either good or bad for the environment. I am not convinced that these supposedly ‘good’ eventualities (the reductions in EI) would be ‘for the sake of the planet’/beneficial outcomes for life on Earth. I think we would be much better off simply looking at individual situations/problems and giving up on the EI formula. When we do this then we can give up the simple idea that increases in P, or increases in R, are automatically bad.
For example, one major environmental problem is biodiversity loss. If P or R increase in a particular location this might lead to a serious loss of biodiversity. However, if the same increase in P or R occurred in another location there might actually be a resulting increase in biodiversity. The realities of the state of the planet cannot be adequately captured in a simple formula.
Another major environmental problem is climate change. I am sure you can easily appreciate that P and R can increase without having any impact on the climate; this means that EI would be increasing but that this wouldn’t affect this environmental problem (although there could be a tipping point past which an increase in EI would have an affect).
Then, of course, there is human-induced global warming. Let us look at this environmental problem from the perspective of the EI formula. The assumption is that an increase in P (or an increase in R; or a decrease in T) is bad because it contributes to global warming. So, ‘for the sake of the planet’ P should be reduced, or maintained, or restricted in its growth. You will be aware that I believe that a proper assessment of the situation that we are in reveals that this environmental problem needs a particular solution; this solution is the active technological regulation of the GMST. So, this means that maintaining P, or restricting the growth of P, or reducing P, is not a solution to the problem. Future changes in P are of minimal significance to either the problem or the solution to the problem. The EI formula effectively becomes redundant. Future changes in P, R and T will affect EI, but they will not affect this environmental problem, or its solution, in any meaningful way.
So, the EI formula doesn’t seem to be that useful, and it also leads to simplistic broad-brush thinking. For example, ‘for the sake of the planet we should reduce P’.