Taking Population Out of the Equation

Author(s): H. Patricia Hynes
Date Published: July 15, 2006

The debates in the United States about the impact of population growth on the environment emerged in the 1970s primarily among population control groups. A formula published in 1974 by two scientists, Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren, and then propounded by Paul and Anne Ehrlich in subsequent books has framed the population-environment debate over the past two decades, so much so that advocates and critics alike have been locked into its parameters.

The impact of humans on the environment (I) is equal to the product of population (P), consumption of goods (A), and the pollution generated by manufacture and disposal of those goods (T). Thus:

Environmental Impact = Number of People x Goods x Pollution Person Good or I = PAT where I is units of pollution.

Metaphors of "population bomb" and "population explosion" and images of teeming Third World mega-cities fortified the algebraic formula, gained it currency in environmental circles during the 1980s, and singularly weighted the P factor of IPAT. By 1990, environmental and population groups were consolidating a joint position that population was a major, if not the major, threat to the environment.

Further, as the environment and population debate becomes more nuanced, the P of IPAT increasingly refers to the one-fifth of humanity in Africa, Latin America, and South Asia who are absolutely poor and have the highest fertility rates, while the A and T are associated with the consumption and technology of the wealthiest and most industrialized fifth of the world's population. It is now common to read that the bottom billion and the top billion of the world--one by fertility rates, the other by lifestyle--pose equal threat to the planet. This facile adaptation of the IPAT equation obscures the differences of power, gender, race, and class between the poorest fifth of the world who are mainly poor women and children of color and the wealthiest fifth, the majority of whom are white men and international male elites.

An alternative feminist approach would reform IPAT so that key structural factors that have been omitted--the elements of social and environmental justice--are brought into the heart of the analysis and ultimately reframe public policy on environment and population. We can separate the survival activities of all people from the luxury ones of a minority, add factors that include military impact on environment and the environmental benefits of people as resource managers, and employ an analysis of male and female agency in each factor of the equation. The equation can be reformulated accordingly:

I = [PAT] + [PAT] + MAT - C
Survival Luxury
where [PAT] Survival is the aggregate of resources such as land,
forests, and water used by all humans for survival.

[PAT] Luxury is the aggregate impact of those humans
consuming luxury goods and services that generate signi-
ficant pollution, such as golf courses, speed boats, and
private planes.

M is the military population, particularly those with
authority over budget, arms technology, and defense

A is the consumption of renewable and non-renewable
resources such as land, oil, metal, and solvents for manu-
facture of military hardware, testing, maneuvers, and war.

T is the pollution generated by research, weapons
manufacture, testing, maneuvers, uranium and metals
mining, and waste disposal.

C is the environmentally beneficial work of natural
resource management, preservation and restoration,
indigenous dooryard gardens that preserve agricultural
biodiversity, urban forests, gardens and composting.

Working with unevenly reported data, researchers estimate, for example, that the military accounts for 5-10 percent of global air pollution, carbon dioxide, ozone-depletion, smog- and acid rain-forming chemicals. The Research Institute for Peace Policy in Starnberg, Germany estimates that 20 percent of all global environmental degradation is due to military and related activities. When these figures for a relatively small population of military personnel are contrasted with the lesser impact of the poorest billion people who are now the targets of international population control policy, it is clear that an environmental project on military and environment would address more structurally, more accurately, and more justly the most damaging human impact on the environment.

The original IPAT envisages humans as ecological parasites, predators, and polluters, having only a net negative impact on environment. Yet we have models of environmental stewardship in the Chipko forest saving movement of India and the Green Belt movement of Africa, in the stable existence of indigenous peoples in rain forests for centuries, and in community gardens in U.S. inner cities. Feminist environmentalists, geographers, and development experts have documented that the majority of environmental stewards and resource managers in developing countries are women. Adding the factor C to IPAT accounts for the positive environmental impact of some humans and exposes the difference between what Winona LaDuke calls the "industrial mind" and "indigenous mind".

Beneath the abstract, agentless word "population" is the substrate of sexual politics--the crosscutting domain within culture, social relations, history, economy, science, and sexuality in which women become pregnant. Environmental knowledge, no less than any other knowledge, begins with naming the agents within.

For example,

- How free are women to avoid pregnancy?

- What are the links between male subordination of girls and women--through rape,
unavailability of safe birth control and abortion, refusal to use or allow birth control, feminization of poverty, compulsory heterosexuality, and penetration as the paradigm of sexuality--and population rates?

- Why are the hormonal and chemically altering birth control technologies that carry risk of cancer, infection, and death developed for use on women while indigenous methods are ignored and low-tech methods for men are underutilized?

- Why don't men love women enough to use a condom or undergo a vasectomy and collectively demand more research on male birth control methods?

- If a country spends two times more on military armaments than on health and education, who is responsible for high fertility rates in that country if infant and child mortality is high, if contraceptives are not available when people want them, and if girls drop out of school sooner to help with household work?

- Do men and women spend and consume differently, both in quantity and kinds of goods, in developed and developing countries? What implications do these differences have for environmental policy on reducing consumption?

- If women have been systematically barred and discouraged from the physical sciences and engineering, who is primarily responsible for T of IPAT, that is, the global climate change-inducing and other polluting technology?

- Why is literacy for women the antidote to "educated men"? If power enables women to heal the earth's ills, why haven't "empowered men" solved fundamental social and environmental ills?

The appeal of an equation like IPAT is its simple, soundbite presentation; the downside is that it shuts out complex, structural causes of environmental destruction. Within a women's human rights framework--and within this framework only--does an analysis of fertility belong. The "population problem", if women are believed, is a consequence of their having less than full human rights. And this second-sex plight of women is a consequence of patriarchy.

(1) A complete analysis of the IPAT formula is available as a 64 page report entitled Taking Population Out of the Equation: Reformulating I=PAT. It is published and sold for U.S. $5.95 plus postage ($1.05 in U.S. and Canada; $3.50 Air Mail) by the Institute on Women and Technology, P.O. Box 9338, North Amherst, Massachusetts 01059-9338. For groups which have difficulty affording the publication, copies are available free of charge through the Population and Development Program (SS), Hampshire College, P.O. Box 5001, Amherst, Massachusetts 01002-5001, USA.

H. Patricia Hynes is Visiting Associate Professor of Environmental Policy at Tufts University and Director of the Institute on Women and Technology. An environmental engineer, she served as Section Chief in EPA's hazardous waste program and Chief of Environmental Management at the Massachusetts Port Authority. She is author of The Recurring Silent Spring, and EarthRight. She is completing a book on community gardens in inner cities.