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The IPAT Equation

and Its Variants
Changing Views of Technology
and Environmental Impact
Marian R. Chertow
School of Forestry and Environmental Studies
Yale University
New Haven, CT USA

environmental technology
Factor X In the early 1970s Ehrlich and Holdren devised a simple
IPAT equation
equation in dialogue with Commoner identifying three fac-
master equation
technological change
tors that created environmental impact. Thus, impact (I)
technological optimism was expressed as the product of (1) population, (P); (2) af-
fluence, (A); and (3) technology, (T). This article tracks the
various forms the IPAT equation has taken over 30 years
as a means of examining an underlying shift among many
environmentalists toward a more accepting view of the
role technology can play in sustainable development. Al-
though the IPAT equation was once used to determine
which single variable was the most damaging to the envi-
ronment, an industrial ecology view reverses this usage,
recognizing that increases in population and affluence can,
in many cases, be balanced by improvements to the envi-
ronment offered by technological systems.

Address correspondence to:
Marian R. Chertow
Yale School of Forestry & Environmental
205 Prospect Street
New Haven, CT 06511-2189 USA

Copyright 2001 by the Massachusetts

Institute of Technology and Yale

Volume 4, Number 4

Journal of Industrial Ecology 13


Introduction 1977). On the other hand, the result of this devel-

opment was a quantum leap in environmental im-
In a provocative article, Rockefeller University pact. Prior to World War II, smoke, sewage, and
researcher Jesse Ausubel asks: Can technology soot were the main environmental concerns
spare the earth? (Ausubel 1996a). It is a modern (Heaton et al. 1991, 5). In 1972, the revolution-
rendering of an epochal question concerning the ary thinker Barry Commoner opined: Most
relationship of humanity and nature, and, espe- United States pollution problems are of relatively
cially since Malthus and Darwin, of the effect of recent origin. The postwar period, 194546, is a
human population on resources. Surely, technology convenient benchmark, for a number of pollut-
does not offer, on its own, the answer to environ- antsman-made radioisotopes, detergents, plas-
mental problems. Sustainability is inextricably tics, synthetic pesticides, and herbicidesare due
linked with economic and social considerations to the emergence, after the war, of new productive
that differ across cultures. This article, however, technologies (1972a, 345).
discusses the imperative of technological change Commoner conclusively assigned blame, as-
and the role it can play in human and environmen- serting that his evidence leads to the general
tal improvement, particularly in the United States. conclusion that in most of the technological dis-
The vehicle used to begin the discussion of placements which have accompanied the
technological change, though phrased math- growth of the United States economy since
ematically, is largely a conceptual expression of 1946, the new technology has an appreciably
what factors create environmental impact in the greater environmental impact than the technol-
first place. This equation represents environ- ogy which it has displaced; and the postwar
mental impact, (I), as the product of three vari- technological transformation of productive ac-
ables, (1) population, (P); (2) affluence, (A); tivities is the chief reason for the present envi-
and (3) technology, (T). The IPAT equation ronmental crisis (1972a, 349).
and related formulas were born, along with the Commoners contemporaries, eminent envi-
modern environmental movement, circa 1970. ronmentalists Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren,
Although first used to quantify contributions to writing in the same set of conference proceed-
unsustainability, the formulation has been rein- ings as Commoner, disagree that technology is
terpreted to assess the most promising path to the dominant reason for environmental degrada-
sustainability. This revisionism can be seen as tion, emphasizing the importance of population
part of an underlying shift among many environ- size and growth, noting if there are too many
mentalists in their attitudes toward technology. people, even the most wisely managed technol-
This article examines the conversion of the ogy will not keep the environment from being
IPAT equation from a contest over which vari- overstressed (Ehrlich and Holdren 1972a, 376).
able was worst for the planet to an expression of Commoner, Ehrlich, and Holdren have been
the profound importance of technological devel- extremely influential environmental thinkers
opment in Earths environmental future. for a generation. Following their work came an
unprecedented barrage of regulatory activity in
the United States, initiated to alter human deg-
A Historical Perspective
radation of the environment. First, the National
In many ways, the modern environmental Environmental Policy Act of 1970, followed by
movement itself was a reaction to unbridled faith the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the
in technology, especially over the last 50 years. Toxic Substances Control Act, the Resource
On the one hand, contemporary researchers con- Conservation and Recovery Act, and more than
verge around World War II as the starting point of a dozen other less-well-known statutes, focused
a generation of unprecedented technological de- Americas attention on a range of threats to hu-
velopment springing from governmental policies man and ecosystem health. Interestingly, the
supporting scientific advance (Brooks 1987; Free- regulation of the 1970s relied to a large extent
man 1982; Smith 1990; Spiegel-Rosing and Price on technology and engineered solutions to con-

14 Journal of Industrial Ecology


trol and manage end-of-pipe pollution.1 The so- teractions of population, economic growth, and
lution to dirty technology was, through the force technological development.
of law, to use more technology to clean it up. The IPAT identity has led, in turn, to the
In the preEarth Day period, when Americans master equation in industrial ecology (Heaton et
were coming to grips with the unintended conse- al. 1991; Graedel and Allenby 1995). These have
quences of rapid technological development, been followed by two concepts in sustainability
blame tended to be placed on what Commoner research: the Factor 10 Club (1994) and Factor
referred to as ecologically faulty technology. Four (von Weizscker et al. 1997). The first two
With twenty years more data to examine, references, IPAT and the master equation, state
Ausubel sees Earth Day 1970 to be a possible in- relationships about technology and environmen-
flection point in a number of trends, including tal impact, whereas the use of Factor Four, Factor
population, and finds the message from history to 10, and even the Factor X debate described later,
be that technology, wisely used, can spare the are attempts to quantify potential impacts.
earth (Ausubel 1996a, 177). In reviewing the literature, an interesting his-
This move toward technological optimism, as tory emerges. The original formulation presented
discussed later in this article, has gained ground by Ehrlich and Holdren (1971, 1972a,b) was in-
in environmental circles. Although there are tended to refute the notion that population was
notable extremes in any distribution, and serious a minor contributor to the environmental crisis.2
limits to what scholars and practitioners often Rather, it makes populationwhich the authors
refer to as technological fixes, a better under- call the most unyielding of all environmental
standing exists of how technology, combined pressurescentral to the equation by express-
with improved design, can greatly aid the quest ing the impact of a society on the ecosystem as:
for sustainability. Indeed, the notion that tech-
I=PF (2)
nological choice is crucial for environmental im-
provement lies at the core of industrial ecology. where I = total impact, P = population size, and F
Such thinking revises the informal mantra of is impact per capita. As the authors explain, im-
U.S. technology policy from simply cheaper, pact increases as either P or F increases, or if one
faster in the flow of innovations to the market- increases faster than the other declines. Both vari-
place to, at a minimum, cheaper, faster, cleaner ables have been growing rapidly and are much in-
and, to some visionaries, it offers the transforma- tertwined. To show that the equation is nonlinear
tive mechanism for achieving sustainability. and the variables interdependent, Ehrlich and
Holdren then expanded their equation as follows: 3
Origins of the IPAT Equation I = P(I, F) F (3)
The relationship between technological in- This variant shows that F is also dependent
novation and environmental impact has been on P, and P depends on I and F as well. For ex-
conceptualized mathematically, as noted above, ample, rapid population growth can inhibit the
by the IPAT equation. IPAT is an identity simply growth of income and consumption, particularly
stating that environmental impact (I) is the in developing countries. On the other hand,
product of population (P), affluence (A), and cornucopians such as Julian Simon maintain
technology (T). that greater population is the key to prosperity
(Simon 1980). Ehrlich and Holdren comment
I = PAT (1)
extensively on the tangled relationship of these
Generally credited to Ehrlich, it embodies factors and note that almost no factor has been
simplicity in the face of a multitude of more thoroughly studied (1972a).
complex models, and has been chosen by many Technology, at this stage, is not expressed as a
scholars (Commoner et al. 1971a; Dietz and separate variable, but is discussed in relationship
Rosa 1994, 1997, 1998; Turner 1996; Wernick et to F, per capita impact. First, F is related to per
al. 1997) as a starting point for investigating in- capita consumptionof, for example, food, en-

Chertow, The IPAT Equation and Its Variants 15


ergy, fibers, and metals. Then, it is related to the Thus, for Commoner, environmental impact
technology used to make the consumption pos- is simply the amount of pollutant released rather
sible and whether that technology creates more than broader measures of impact; for example,
or less impact. The authors note that improve- the amount of damage such pollution created or
ments in technology can sometimes hold the per the amount of resource depletion the pollution
capita impact, F, constant or even decrease it, caused.4 His task, then, is to estimate the contri-
despite increases in per capita consumption bution of each of the three terms to total envi-
(1972a, 372). Although this statement recognizes ronmental impact.
the positive role technology can play, Ehrlich and Much to the consternation of Ehrlich and
Holdren generally conclude that technology can Holdren, Commoners effort to measure impact
delay certain trends but cannot avert them. as amount of pollution released leads to the con-
Commoner also plays an important role in clusion that technology is the culprit in almost
the formulation of the IPAT equation. every specific case he examines. Commoner goes
Commoners work in his popular 1971 book The on to compare the relative contributions of the
Closing Circle, and much of his scientific analy- three IPAT variables arithmetically: Population,
sis during the period of 19701972, were con- affluence (Economic good/Population), and tech-
cerned with measuring the amount of pollution nology (Pollutant/Economic good), in examples
resulting from economic growth in the United such as detergent phosphate, fertilizer nitrogen,
States during the postwar period. To do so, he synthetic pesticides, tetraethyl lead, nitrogen
and his colleagues became the first to apply the oxides, and beer bottles. He concludes that the
IPAT concept with mathematical rigor. In order contribution of population and affluence to
to operationalize the three factors that influence present-day pollution levels is much smaller
I, environmental impact, Commoner further than that of the technology of production. He
defines I as the amount of a given pollutant in- calls for a new period of technology transforma-
troduced annually into the environment. His tion to undo the trends since 1946 in order to
equation, published in a 1972 conference pro- bring the nations productive technology much
ceedings (Commoner 1972a), is: more closely into harmony with the inescapable
demands of the ecosystem (1972a, 363).
Economic good Pollutant Following the publication of The Closing Circle
I = Population (4)
Population Economic good (Commoner et al. 1971a), full-scale academic war
Population is used to express the size of the erupted between Ehrlich and Holdren on the one
U.S. population in a given year or the change in hand and Commoner on the other. In a fierce Cri-
population over a defined period. Economic good tique and Response published in the Bulletin of the
is used to express the amount of a particular good Atomic Scientists in March 1972, Ehrlich and
produced or consumed during a given year or the Holdren reject the mathematical basis through
change over a defined period and is referred to as which Commoner finds population a modest con-
affluence. Pollutant refers to the amount of a tributor to environmental impact. In their piece,
specific pollutant released and is thus a measure One-Dimensional Ecology, Ehrlich and Holdren
of the environmental impact (i.e., amount of charge that Commoner, in his zeal to blame faulty
pollutant) generated per unit of production (or technology, overemphasizes pollution, miscon-
consumption), which reflects the nature of the ceives certain aspects of demography, understates
productive technology (Commoner 1972a, the growth of affluence, and resorts to biased se-
346). Used in this way, the equation takes on the lection of data . . . and bad ecology. Their evident
characteristics of a mathematical identity. On fear comes from the possibility that uncritical ac-
the right-hand side of the equation, the two ceptance of Commoners assertions will lead to
Populations cancel out, the two Economic goods public complacency concerning both population
cancel out, and what remains is: I = Pollutant. and affluence in the United States (1972b, 16).
Commoner (1972b), in his Response pub-
Economic good Pollutant lished in the same issue of the Bulletin, offers a
I = Population
Population Economic good spirited defense of his mathematical and eco-

16 Journal of Industrial Ecology


logical competence and evokes supporting re- measure I, environmental impact or P, Pollu-
views by Sir Eric Ashby and Rene Dubos to the tion. The very first time the reference I = P A
intemperate onslaught by Ehrlich and T appears in writing is as part of the Critique
Holdren. Commoner reminds the reader that it and Response in 1972, in which Ehrlich and
was Ehrlich who first wrote: Pollution can be Holdren take Commoners equation from a foot-
said to be the result of multiplying three factors; note from The Closing Circle:
population size, per capita consumption, and an
pollution = (population) (production/capita)
environmental impact index that measures, in
(pollution emission/production) (6)
part, how wisely we apply the technology that
goes with consumption (Commoner 1972b, and, say, for compactness, let us rewrite this
42). Commoner originally quoted this in an equation:
April 1971 article in Environment written with
I = P A T (7)
colleagues Michael Corr and Paul Stamler.
Commoners interest in the Environment piece From this basis Ehrlich and Holdren dissect
and in a follow-up piece for a symposium held by Commoners mathematics. They point out that
the U.S. think tank Resources for the Future was Commoner uses his definitions of P, A , and T as
to try to operationalize the relationship first independent variables such that their effects on I
proposed by Ehrlich and Holdren, that is, to find are independent of each other. Ehrlich and
a way of entering the actual values for the sev- Holdren are careful to describe them as interde-
eral factors and thus computing, numerically, pendent as in formula (3) above. Ehrlich and
their relative importance (Commoner 1972b, Holdren also emphasize the multiplicative nature
42). Commoners team paraphrased this rela- of population. In a 1974 piece, they identify how
tionship, introducing the terms consumption population acts as a multiplier of consumption
and production into the variant as follows as: and environmental damages associated with hu-
man activity such that even if no one of the IPAT
Population size per capita consumption
terms goes up very much, it is the simultaneous
environmental impact per
increases in all the factors that cause extensive
unit of production = level of pollution (5)
environmental impact. They make the case that
At this stage Commoner brought to light a using them as independent variables tends to un-
letter Ehrlich and Holdren sent to colleagues in derestimate the impact of population.5
which they reveal that they had urged Com- In another article, Holdren and Ehrlich
moner not to engage in debate about which of (1974) offer yet another formulation of what they
the factors was most important because it would term the population/environment equation:
be counterproductive to achieving environmen-
environmental disruption = population
tal goals. Commoner takes great umbrage at the
idea of avoiding public discussion of scientific
damage/unit of production (8)
findings in favor of private agreements that, in
turn, erode democracy and the survival of a First, environmental disruption substitutes for I,
civilized society (1972b, 56). Commoner iden- impact, and damage, in the third term, is a pre-
tifies what he believes to be behind the debate: sumed outcome of each unit of consumption.
that Ehrlich is so intent upon population con- Note, also, the cross-substitution among the
trol as to be unwilling to tolerate open discus- many formulations of consumption and produc-
sion of data that might weaken the argument for tion. Sometimes production and consumption
it (1972b, 55). cancel each other out, and sometimes they do
Some of the issues raised between the two not. Sometimes the affluence term is used for
sides of this debate reflect the formative nature one or the other or for both as in the form pro-
of the ideas. Note that across the several differ- duction/consumption or production (con-
ent articles and books mentioned, there is not sumption). In Commoners original paraphrase
one single way of stating the variables or even of Ehrlich (equation (5)), in which he makes
consistency as to whether we are attempting to consumption part of affluence and production

Chertow, The IPAT Equation and Its Variants 17


part of technology and the terms do not cancel ample, although the consumption of non-
out, he goes on to make the now outdated state- returnable beer bottles went up almost 600 per-
ment that since imports, exports, and storage cent in the period 19501967, actual consump-
are relatively slight effects, total consumption tion of beer per capita increased a mere five
can be taken to be approximately equal to total percent. Thus, the affluence gain to the beer
production (Commoner et al. 1971b, 4). Today, drinker has been slight, whereas the technology
imports and exports are not slight effects, so we chosen to package and deliver the beer, which is
would not even try to equate U.S. production of no use to the consumer, has changed dramati-
with U.S. consumption. Even so, the relation- cally at the expense of the environment.
ship of production to consumption is not a focus Despite some differences in orientation be-
of these early articles. In fact, only in the late tween Commoner and Ehrlich and Holdren, the
1990s did an analytic discussion of consumption chicken-and-egg nature of this debatewhether
begin to take shape in the scientific community population or technology is a bigger contributor
(Stern et al. 1997; Berkhout 1998). to environmental damageis revealing. Does
an increased population call for improved tech-
nology, or does improved technology increase
Apples and Oranges
carrying capacity?6 (Boserup 1981; Kates 1997).
In comparing Commoner with Ehrlich and Even our latter-day technology optimist, Jesse
Holdren, there are often differences in time and Ausubel, is stymied by the technology/popula-
spatial scale. Commoner tends to write about tion link (1996a, 1996b). Just as he demon-
the present deteriorating environmental condi- strates a revolution in factor productivity in
tions in the United States, and sometimes fo- energy, land, materials, and water, especially
cuses more locally on a given pollutant. He gives since the time of the Commoner/Ehrlich debate,
light attention to resource use with his heavy he goes on to describe how the new technologies
focus on pollution. Ehrlich and Holdren have a serve to make the human niche elastic. If we
broader sweep and are less specific in space and solve problems, our population grows and cre-
time. They write in several of their articles about ates further, eventually insurmountable prob-
the underestimated role of diminishing returns, lems (1996a, 167). Would technology that is
threshold effects, and synergisms, as well as the not, in Commoners phrase, ecologically
relation between ecosystem complexity and sta- faulty, (1972a, 362), but rather ecologically
bility. They suggest that direct effects of envi- wise, merely delay the inevitability of environ-
ronmental damage such as lead poisoning and mental destruction, or is better technology our
air pollution are likely to be less threatening, ul- best horse in the race toward sustainability?
timately, than the indirect effects on human In a review of several models of anthropo-
welfare from interference with ecosystem struc- genic driving forces of environmental impact,
ture and function. They note numerous ex- Deitz and Rosa single out the IPAT equation be-
amples of the public services of nature cause it is easily understood, frequently used for
(Holdren and Ehrlich 1974), today better illustrative purposes and can discipline our
known as ecosystem services (Daily 1997). thinking (Deitz and Rosa 1997). They draw
Commoner and Ehrlich and Holdren even this conclusion despite their finding that the ef-
differ on a common meaning of affluence. fects of population and economic growth on en-
Ehrlich and Commoner generally consider a per vironmental degradation have not been
capita output measure. Commoner does not see extensively researched and are thus uncertain.
true affluence as the culturally prescribed ac- B. L. Turner (1996) finds the IPAT equation
cumulation of television sets and fancy cars, useful as a macro-scale assessment, noting that re-
more akin to consumption. Rather, he attempts gional and local scale assessments generally high-
to differentiate the technology used to deliver light other drivers of environmental changes such
goods from the actual contribution of those as policy, institutions, and complexity of social
goods to human welfare as a means of separating factors. Meyer and Turner point out that the IPAT
consumption from true affluence. For ex- equation is largely the product of biologists and

18 Journal of Industrial Ecology


ecologists and uses terms undefined in social sci- clear evidence that the IPAT progenitors were
ence. They comment that neither A (affluence) exposed to growth accounting in economics, we
nor T (technology) is associated with a substan- see that poor definition of a residual term is not
tial body of social science theory (Meyer and unique to the environmental field.
Turner 1992). Another critique leveled by Deitz and Rosa is
Conceptually as well as numerically, P, popu- that although the IPAT equation does allow for
lation, and A, defined as a per capita measure of some disaggregation of the forces of environ-
wealth, consumption, or production, have gen- mental change, including human impacts, the
erally been more accessible to researchers than disaggregation is too simple and does not allow
the T term. The product (P A) represents an for interactions among population, affluence,
aggregate measure of total economic activity, and technology (Deitz and Rosa 1998). As it
such as total GDP. In this case, T = I/P A or T stands, a direct relationship is formed such that
= unit of environmental impact per unit of eco- a 10 percent increase in P, A, or T creates a 10
nomic activity. Here, T, technology, becomes percent increase in environmental impact. Deitz
the residual of an accounting identity; it repre- and Rosa cite several studies that build upon the
sents everything that affects the environment IPAT model to enable it to capture more com-
that is not population or affluence. As Deitz and plexity and interaction among the variables.
Rosa observe, most social scientists are frus- They actually reformulate the IPAT equation as
trated by the truncated visions of the rest of the STIRPATmeaning Stochastic Impacts by
world offered by the T in the IPAT model Regression on Population, Affluence and Tech-
(1994, 287). In this sense, whether technology, nologyto be able to disaggregate P, A, and T
through the T term, is truly endogenous to the and to be able to use regression methods to esti-
master equation could be questioned (Grubler mate and test hypotheses. Their reformulation is
2001). Thus, Deitz and Rosa recommend that an I = aPbAcTde, where the variables ad can be ei-
independent measure of T be used and that re- ther parameters or more complex functions esti-
searchers be required to specify T rather than mated using standard statistical procedures and e
solve for it. is the error term (Deitz and Rosa 1994, 1997,
The notion of T as residual is a reminder of 1998). They have used the STIRPAT model to
an important antecedent to the IPAT quest to bridge the social and biological sciences in, for
disaggregate the elements of environmental im- example, studies of global climate change.
pact. Macroeconomists have been involved The IPAT equation has also been a source for
since the 1930s with efforts to disaggregate fac- the development of the literature on energy de-
tors of economic growth and productivity in the composition analysis, which disaggregated en-
economy (Griliches 1996). Robert Solows ergy intensity and extended and refined the
Nobel Prize in economics, for example, was asso- mathematics of IPAT (Greening et al. 1998,
ciated with his statistical explanation of the 1999; Gurer and Ban 1997). The use of the IPAT
causes of U.S. manufacturing growth from equation in research related to climate change,
19091949 (Clark 1985). He found that labor specifically energy-related carbon emission stud-
and capital, the traditional factor inputs of neo- ies, may be the most enduring legacy of IPAT.
classical economics, explained only about 10 Such formulations are typically stated as
percent of this growth. The rest, some 90 per- (Holdren 2000): Energy use = Population
cent, was residuala factor representing all GDP/person energy/GDP; and Carbon emis-
other contributions to growth such as education, sions = Population GDP/person carbon en-
management, and technological innovation. ergy. In this way IPAT has played a prominent
Later research identified about 3040 percent of role, particularly in the Intergovernmental Panel
the explanation for income growth to be attrib- on Climate Change assessments (IPCC 1996).
utable to technological change, with the poorly Ultimately, the evidence presented suggests
understood interdependence of the variables be- that the IPAT equation can be used to support
ing the most difficult challenge (Stoneman many different points of view. Ehrlich and
1987; Abramovitz 1993). Although there is no Holdren show how it supports the population

Chertow, The IPAT Equation and Its Variants 19


view. Commoner demonstrates how it supports technology-friendly, we might have avoided the
the harmful technology or Faustian view. Econo- flowery greenhouse effect in favor of the prob-
mist Julian Simon, representative of the lem of global dumpsites or the celestial emphy-
cornucopian view, believes that increasing popula- sema syndrome (Marx 1994, note 3). The root
tion and wealth is the driving force for new tech- cause of each of these problems, however, does
nological development (Simon 1981). That the not come from nature, but rather the human be-
IPAT formulation can be interpreted in so many havior and the complex practices that go along
ways represents a weakness and a strength: on the with it (Marx 1994). We lean to technologists in
one hand, it may simply be too broad and general part because of an inadequate understanding of
to account for the interrelationships among the the part played by ideological, moral, religious,
variables. On the other hand, it has not revealed and aesthetic factors in shaping response to envi-
a bias and need not be definitive to be extremely ronmental degradation (1994, 18).
useful as a thought model. There really has been
no underlying disagreement that each of the terms
The Transition to Technological
belongs to the equation in some way and so, as a
conceptual analytic approach, IPAT provides
readily identifiable common ground. If the approach of the environmental move-
The technology factor is also subject to mul- ment of the 1970s was to juxtapose the gains of
tiple interpretations. Ehrlich and Holdren cite a economic growth with the devastating reality of
fundamental problem associated with reliance on pollution, this approach changed in the 1980s.
technology by recognizing that no technology can The Brundtland Commission report in 1987
completely eliminate the environmental impact concluded that if humanity were to have a posi-
of consumption. They choose the example of re- tive future, then economy and environment had
cycling, which always results in some loss of ma- to be made more compatible. Sustainable was
terials, if for no other reason than the sad but paired with development to describe this state,
unavoidable consequences of the second law of and since that time there has been increasing
thermodynamics (1972a, 370). Commoner is the acceptance that economy and environment can
harshest on ecologically faulty technology and be mutually compatible (World Commission on
its singular environmental impact, but, on the Environment and Development 1987).
other hand, is quite receptive to developing new At the same time, the IPAT equation makes us
technologies which incorporate not only the keenly aware of our limited choices. The year fol-
knowledge of the physical sciences (as most do lowing the Brundtland report, one environmental
moderately well), but ecological wisdom as well chieftain, under the heading A Luddite Re-
(1972a). Because IPAT factors take us well be- cants, conceded that economic growth has its
yond technological choice, we quickly cross from imperatives; it will occur . . . seen this way, recon-
the realm of technologists, especially scientists ciling the economic and environmental goals so-
and engineers, into the realm of social scientists, cieties have set for themselves will occur only if
politicians, and the needs, wants, and desires of there is a transformation in technologya shift,
people. The ubiquity of C. P. Snows two cul- unprecedented in scope and pace, to technolo-
tures problem is especially evident in the IPAT gies, high and low, soft and hard, that facilitate
realm because organizing the relationships of economic growth while sharply reducing the pres-
population, environmental impact, and social sures on the natural environment (Speth 1988).
welfare puts analysts at the juncture of the scien- Here, James Gustave Speth, then president of the
tific and humanistic realms. As cultural historian World Resources Institute, converts the 1970s
Leo Marx points out, we often name environmen- suspicion, as expressed by Commoners condem-
tal problems after their biophysical symptoms, nation of ecologically faulty technology, into an
such as soil erosion or acid rain, and thus address expression of hope for transformed technology
them to scientists. Naming practices reflect the (see also Speth 1990, 1991).
dominant outlooks of the culture. For example, This line of argument is presented in a publi-
Marx points out that if we, as a society, were less cation of the World Resources Institute called

20 Journal of Industrial Ecology


Transforming Technology: An Agenda for En- cast the T term in a very positive light. In essence,
vironmentally Sustainable Growth in the 21st a new generation of technological optimists finds
Century (Heaton, Repetto, and Sobin 1991). that experiments in changing human behavior to
Heaton and colleagues recite a variant of the vary the course of P and A are highly uncertain.
IPAT equation resurrected by Speth in a back- Stated another way, Walter Lynn, while Dean of
ground paper a year earlier (Speth 1990) and the Cornell University faculty, cited the lack of
explain its critical importance to the future of progress in social engineering, and the success,
the environment in a section of their article even if temporary, of technological fixes. He ob-
titled Why Technological Change Is Key. served: Currently, technology provides the only
They write: viable means by which our complex interdepen-
dent society is able to address these environmen-
Human impact on the natural environ-
tal problems (Lynn 1989, 186).
ment depends fundamentally on an inter-
action among population, economic
growth, and technology. A simple iden-
Enter Industrial Ecology
tity encapsulates the relationship: The concepts of the IPAT equation are at the
Pollution GNP
core of the emerging field of industrial ecology.
Pollution = Population (9) Industrial ecology has been described as the
GNP Population
marriage of technology and ecology and exam-
Here, pollution (environmental degrada- ines, on the one hand, the environmental im-
tion generally) emerges as the product of pacts of the technological society, and, on the
population, income levels (the GNP per other hand, the means by which technology can
capita term) and the pollution intensity be effectively channeled toward environmental
of production (the pollution/GNP term). benefit. According to the first textbook in this
In principle, pollution can be con- new field (Graedel and Allenby 1995), indus-
trolled by lowering any (or all) of these trial ecology has adopted the following IPAT
three factors. In fact, however, heroic ef- variant as its master equation:
forts will be required to stabilize global
Environmental impact = Population
population at double todays level, and
raising income and living standards is a GDP Environmental impact (10)

near-universal quest. Indeed, economic person unit of per capita GDP
growth is a basic goal for at least 80 per-
This master equation incorporates the same
cent of the worlds population. These
relationships as the WRI equation, with some
powerful forces give economic expansion
changes in terminology. Once again we see the
forward momentum. In this field of forces,
variation between defining pollution, P, as WRI
the pollution intensity of production
has done, in contrast to defining environmental
looks to be the variable easiest to manipu-
impact, as in the master equation. WRI states
late, which puts the burden of change
the equation as an identitythe populations
largely on technology. In fact, broadly de-
cancel and the GNPs cancelso that Pollution =
fined to include both changes within eco-
Pollution. The master equation is not strictly
nomic sectors and shifts among them,
stated as an identity. Also, Graedel and Allenby
technological change is essential just to
use gross domestic product (GDP) for the afflu-
halt backsliding: Even todays unaccept-
ence term rather than WRIs gross national prod-
able levels of pollution will rise unless the
uct (GNP), which reflects a shift by the United
percentage of annual growth in global and
States in 1991 to the use of GDP in order to con-
economic output is matched by an annual
form to the practices of most other countries.
decline in pollution intensity (Heaton,
Although GNP is defined as the total final out-
Repetto, and Sobin 1991, 1).
put produced by a country using inputs owned by
Thus, whereas the IPAT equation can send the residents of that country, GDP counts the
us in several directions, recent interpretations output produced with labor and capital located

Chertow, The IPAT Equation and Its Variants 21


inside the given country, whoever owns the capi- rich and poor in many countries. GDP has been
tal (Samuelson and Nordhaus 1998). criticized as distortionary for measuring only
WRIs technology term is a measure of the quantifiable transactions, leaving out harder-to-
pollution intensity of production (the pollution/ measure, but critical, assets such as an educated
GNP term). Graedel and Allenby define their populace, healthy citizens, and a clean environ-
third term, qualitatively, as the degree of envi- ment (Cobb, Halstead, and Rowe 1995). 7 None-
ronmental impact per unit of per capita gross do- theless, to the extent that, as a blunt measure, real
mestic product, which they call an expression of GDP per person rises, it implies that wealth and,
the degree to which technology is available to subsequently, quality of life are more likely to be
permit development without serious environ- improving. Therefore, as in the I = PAT equation,
mental consequences and the degree to which both of the first terms presented here are headed
that available technology is deployed (Graedel upward, although estimates of how much vary
and Allenby 1995, 7). Although it is interesting widely.8 In the emerging industrial ecology view,
to observe the back and forth of the use of I, im- using technology to reduce environmental impact
pact versus P, pollution in the history of the IPAT can, theoretically, not only compensate for the
equation, it is not surprising that such a macro impact of more people, but also the impact of more
view makes it difficult to capture true differences affluent people. Increasing wealth without back-
in types and dynamics of specific impacts that are sliding as described by WRI, or even while de-
difficult, if not impossible, to aggregate. creasing overall impact, is a worthy, if challenging
Characteristic of each T term is the assump- goal. According to Graedel and Allenby:
tion that the pollution it defines can be reduced.
Curiously, this usage leaves room for being less The third term, the amount of environ-
bad, for example, through pollution reduction or mental impact per unit of output, is pri-
eco-efficiency, but does not really express the marily a technological term, though
potential human and environmental benefit that societal and economic issues provide
can come from technology (McDonough and strong constraints to changing it rapidly
Braungart 1998). All in all, WRIs formulation and dramatically. It is this third term in
and that of the master equation are similar along the equation that offers the greatest hope
the lines we have seen since the Commoner/ for a transition to sustainable develop-
Ehrlich and Holdren debate, but give further ment, and it is modifying this term that
definition to A and T. A sense of progress exists is the central tenet of industrial ecology
in that Ehrlich and Holdren as well as Com- (Graedel and Allenby 1995, 8).
moner, although using a multiterm equation,
were really most interested in pursuing a single Until recently, the third term, technology, has
cause. Still, the more recent emphasis on pollu- been seen as a continuous source of pollution:
tion per unit GNP or GDP is not a satisfactory technology, for example, to mine, manufacture,
universal definition of technology, leaving room and drive with all the environmental harms such
for continual reconsideration. activities create. Other differences are concealed
Let us examine the three terms of the master by the macro nature of the IPAT equation and its
equation and IPAT more broadly. In practice, at variants. In the master equation, the T term is de-
the global level, there is strong upward pressure fined as the amount of environmental impact each
on the first term, population, even as we debate unit of a countrys wealth creates averaged over
the range of those increases (Marchetti et al. the population as a whole. In reality, this is an
1996). Similarly, the common desire to improve oversimplification. Countries with clean, energy-
quality of life translates into an increasing second efficient production have been able to produce
term, affluence, as well. Affluence, as measured by greater wealth with less per-unit environmental
gross domestic product (GDP) per person, spreads impact. The poorest countries are least likely to
the worth of a countrys economy over the popu- have clean air, water, and sanitary systems. But
lation. Clearly, this, too, is a generalization. Per even here anomalies exist, summarized in discus-
capita figures miss growing disparities between sions of the environmental Kuznets curve, which

22 Journal of Industrial Ecology


considers a nuanced relationship between A, af- ter or sulfur dioxide, as shown in figure 1, follow
fluence, and I, impact, such that an environmen- the environmental Kuznets curve hypothesis,
tal emission might rise as income increases until a worsening at first and then improving as income
particular level is reached, at which point emis- increases (Hosier 1996). Many researchers have
sion levels begin to fall (Arrow et al. 1995). been interested in the relationship of affluence
As indicated below, no universal rule exists: and environmental impact and have determined
Impacts such as waste and carbon dioxide emis- that the condition of impact worsening and then
sions increase with wealth, whereas other indica- improving with income is most typical of short-
tors, such as urban concentrations of particulate term, local indicators such as sulfur, particulates,
matter and sulfur dioxide, decline over specified and fecal coliforms, but not to accumulated
income levels (see figure 1). Some indicators, stocks of waste or long-term dispersed indicators
such as urban concentrations of particulate mat- such as CO2 (Rothman and de Bruyn 1998).

Figure 1 Relationship of affluence (per capita income) to various environmental impacts.

Sources: Hosier (1996) from Shafik and Bandyopadhyay, background paper; World Bank data.

Chertow, The IPAT Equation and Its Variants 23


Earlier discussions of T, and IPAT in general 1987). Therefore, using these equations predic-
from Ehrlich onward portray a curiously passive tively would enhance the theoretical basis of
role for the technology producer. Either technol- IPAT ideas, for example, determining how much
ogy is used abstractly, as in Ehrlich and Holdrens technology versus how much increase in popula-
writing, or it is assumed to be static in that the tion and affluence would be reasonable goals for
producers just keep on doing what they have countries and for the global commons. Recently,
done before. Interventions, then, are policies two agendas have been established that set targets
from above rather than revisions of the mind- for technology and environmental impact.
sets of the technologists. In contrast, industrial F. Schmidt-Bleek, while with the Wuppertal
ecology has deep roots in engineering and the Institute, presented the Carnoules Declaration
physical sciences, so it is not surprising that its of the Factor 10 Club in 1994. The Factor 10
practitioners would put stock in the T term, with Club has focused on the need to substantially
which they are most familiar professionally. But reduce global material flows. Its advocates be-
neither is it easy to assure that any given tech- lieve that the current productivity of resources
nology, let alone T, technology collectively, will used must be increased by an average of a factor
be beneficial rather than harmful. By offering a of ten during the next 30 to 50 years. This is
systems approach to environmental/technical feasible if we mobilize know-how to generate
interactions, industrial ecology research can pro- new products, services, as well as new methods
vide an essential link between the episodic use of of manufacturing (Factor 10 Club 1994, 8). We
promising technology and the long-term, less see here reliance on know-how and methods
defined goal of sustainable development. of manufacturing that again emphasizes the T
Another critical component industrial ecolo- term of the IPAT equation, in this case to create
gists have brought into the discussion of anthropo- a specific sustainability target.
genic environmental impacts is the participation Weizscker, Lovins, and Lovins (1997) state
of private industry. In describing the industrial in their book, Factor Four: Doubling Wealth,
character of industrial ecology, the first issue of the Halving Resource Use, that the amount of wealth
Journal of Industrial Ecology notes that it views extracted from one unit of natural resources can
corporate entities as key players in the protection quadruple. Their goal that we can live twice as
of the environment, particularly where techno- wellyet use half as much might be expressed
logical innovation is an avenue for environmental in IPAT terms as achieving 2(A) with only
improvement. As an important repository of tech- .5(T). They define technological progress nei-
nological expertise in our society, industrial orga- ther as a reduction in pollution nor as a gain in
nizations can provide crucial leverage in attacking labor productivity, but, overall, as a gain in pro-
environmental problems by incorporating envi- ductivity of resources. Up until now, tremendous
ronmental considerations into product and pro- gains in productivity have come from substitut-
cess design (Lifset 1997, 1). ing resources for human labor. They are con-
cerned that such substitution has gone too far
and been inconsiderate of overusing resources
The Factor X
such as energy, materials, water, soil, and air.
Neither in the IPAT equation, nor in Their research is devoted to an efficiency revo-
Commoners quantitative work, nor in the master lution that shows the potential for fourfold
equation in industrial ecology is there an attempt gains in resource use.
to quantify the relationship of technology and Factor Four and the Factor 10 are specific, if
environmental impact in a prospective way, al- ambitious, expressions of the potential impact of
though this has entered some of the global cli- T, the technology term. They are also future-
mate change work cited earlier. Still, a threshold oriented, setting a goal for corporate and policy
for sustainability is that it meets the needs of the direction. The four- to tenfold increase in aggre-
present without compromising the ability of fu- gate economic impact, PA, can also be thought of
ture generations to meet their own needs (World as a twofold increase in P, population, over the
Commission on Environment and Development next 50 years, and a two- to fivefold increase in A,

24 Journal of Industrial Ecology


affluence. Picking up on Factor Four and the Fac- of the environmental movement, much has
tor 10, Lucas Reijnders of the University of changed, in large part because of the alarm
Amsterdam writes of The Factor X Debate sounded in the postSilent Spring era by Ehrlich
(Reijnders 1998), in which researchers have gone and Holdren, Commoner, and many other
even further than a factor of four or ten to propose thoughtful researchers and policy makers. Still,
long-term reductions in resource use as high as 50 much of the change was motivated by pessi-
times. This would occur through dematerializa- mism, captured in this statement of Holdren and
tion, eco-efficiency, or increased natural resource Ehrlich at the end of their 1974 article:
productivity relying mainly on the T of the IPAT
Ecological disaster will be difficult
equation. Of course, until environmental impact
enough to avoid even if population limi-
is defined with great specificity, the choice of dif-
tation succeeds: if population growth
ferent X factors, including the baseline of Factor
proceeds unabated, the gains of improved
Four and the Factor 10, is arbitrary. Reijnders
technology and stabilized per capita con-
notes that whereas the debate in the United
sumption will be erased, and averting di-
States is still largely within the NGO community,
saster will be impossible (Holdren and
the concept of Factor X and the importance of
Ehrlich 1974, 291).
quantifying objectives has influenced policy in
several European nations, including Austria, Ger- Indeed, these are still controversial issues. En-
many, and the Netherlands. vironmentalists of the 1970s who were pessimis-
Do Factor X policies put the entire onus for tic continued to sound alarms in the 1990s
environmental improvement on the technology (Ehrlich and Ehrlich 1990; Commoner 1992;
variable? Some would tag WRI and the indus- Meadows et al. 1992). Deep ecologists will not
trial ecologists as implying that nothing can be wake to find themselves warm to technological
done about population and increasing wealth. optimism. But a great deal more consciousness
This is too pessimistic a reading. The effective- about environmental issues exists internationally,
ness of population programs has been demon- especially among global institutions such as the
strated in many parts of the world, for example, United Nations, the World Bank, and other fi-
in China, Japan, and Thailand (Miller 1994). As nancial players (Schmidheiny and Zorraguin
a matter of basic fairness, few would want to 1996). Indeed, the notion that environmental
deny the improvement in the standard of living problems can be addressed and even advanced
for the worlds peoples implied in the affluence through technical and procedural innovation has
term. Neither can the three terms be considered achieved its own name in the European environ-
in isolation. Rather, interactive effects exist, as mental sociology literatureecological modern-
demonstrated by Ehrlich and Holdren. Still, as ization (Hajer 1996; Mol and Sonnenfeld 2000).
Reijnders concludes, although there is no agree- In the United States, environmental policy, for
ment on the relative importance of technology all its warts, has made an enormous contribution
in achieving a Factor X for economies as a at the end of the pipe, and is slowly migrating to-
whole, one still may note that the Factor X de- ward more integrative policy. Similarly, in corpo-
bate is characterized by a remarkable technologi- rate environmental policy, researchers can now
cal optimism. This is especially so if one views measure the early stages of a change in emphasis
this debate against the background of a widely from regulatory compliance toward overall pro-
held supposition that environmentalism has an cess efficiency (Florida 1996), even at the ex-
antitechnological bias (Reijnders 1998, 18). pense of sales in the traditional end-of-pipe
environmental industry (U.S. Department of
Commerce 1998).
The Call of the Optimist
Upon reflection, I believe that Commoner
Just as all ecological problems are contextual, (1972a) anticipates the work defined by Ausubel,
so too are the issues confronted by IPAT, which WRI, and industrial ecologists. He calls for a
may shed light on why it has multiple interpre- new period of technological transformation of
tations. Since it was introduced in the early days the [U.S.] economy, which reverses the counter-

Chertow, The IPAT Equation and Its Variants 25


ecological trends developed since 1946a 2. A precursor to the IPAT formulation by sociolo-
transformation that reconnects people and their gist Dudley Duncan in 1964 was the POET
ecosystems: model (population, organization, environment,
technology). According to Deitz and Rosa
Consider the following simple transforma- (1994), the model showed that each of these
tion of the present, ecologically faulty, re- components are interconnected but did not
lationship among soil, agricultural crops, specify quantifiable relationships.
the human population and sewage. Sup- 3. To trace the origins of these equations accurately
pose that the sewage, instead of being in- is challenging. The IPAT ideas emerged in 1970
troduced into surface water as it is now, and 1971. Particularly relevant was an exchange
by Commoner and Ehrlich and Holdren in the
whether directly or following treatment, is
Saturday Review during 1970 followed by a meet-
instead transported from urban collection
ing at the Presidents Commission on Population
systems by pipeline to agricultural areas, Growth and the American Future held on No-
whereafter appropriate sterilization pro- vember 17, 1970, the findings of which were not
ceduresit is incorporated into the soil. published until 1972. However, Ehrlich and
Such a pipeline would literally reincorpo- Holdren and Commoner produced numerous
rate the urban population into the soils publications in the meantime, which helped
ecological cycle, restoring the integrity of steer the IPAT debate in new directions. Ehrlich
that cycle . . . Hence the urban population and Holdren used I = P(I,F) F(P) in the 1972
is then no longer external to the soil cycle findings, but a slightly different version, I = P
. . . But note that this rate of zero environ- F(P) in their earlier article from Science in March
of 1971, which is otherwise almost identical to
mental impact is not achieved by a return
the 1972 conference report. Both equations try
to primitive conditions, but by an actual
to express a similar point, that P and F are inter-
technological advance. active and can increase faster than linearly.
4. In fact, one of the reviewers of this article sug-
Conclusions gested that this use of the IPAT equation might
better be called EPAT, showing the emphasis
This article underscores that technology, al-
on E for Emissions rather than the totality of
though associated with both disease and cure for
I for all impacts.
environmental harms, is a critical factor in envi- 5. The authors use the example of the impact of lead
ronmental improvement. Thus, important rea- emissions from automobiles from 1946 to 1967 and
sons can be found to continue to develop find that population has increased 41 percent; con-
frameworks such as industrial ecology, that focus sumption, measured as vehicle-miles per person,
on cures. The overall shift from pessimism to op- has doubled; and lead emissions per vehicle-mile
timism, captured here through changing inter- increased 83 percent. Hence, 1.41 2.0 1.83 =
pretations of the IPAT equation and its variants, 5.16, or, subtracting 1.0, a 416 percent increase in
is shown to be partly fatalistic, in that few alter- total impact. This illustrates that although no vari-
natives exist to the imperative established by the able more than doubled, the cumulative impact is
multiplicative. Had population not grown but been
Brundtland Commission; partly pragmatic, in
held constant, then total impact would only have
that technological variables often seem easier to
been 1.0 2.0 1.83, or 3.66, reflecting a 266 per-
manage than human behavior; and partly a con- cent increase, illustrating the multiplier effect (see
tinued act of faith, at least in the United States, Holdren and Ehrlich 1974, using corrections to the
in the power of scientific advance. variables suggested by Commoner 1972b).
6. Editors note: For an application of decomposi-
Notes tion analysis to materials flows, see Hoffrn,
Luukkanen, and Kaivo-oja, Decomposition
1. Indeed, the very prescriptive laws of this period Analysis of Finnish Material Flows: 19601996,
have been criticized by researchers for becoming Journal of Industrial Ecology, this issue.
so specific in their standards as to preclude tech- 7. Further, these authors point out that the GDP
nological innovation (NACEPT 1991; Heaton et measures socially and environmentally destruc-
al. 1991; U.S. Department of Commerce 1998). tive behavior as an economic gain. Pollution, for

26 Journal of Industrial Ecology


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