Evaluating the Environment
Unprecedented growth of consumerism in both developed and developing nations (those with a high growth rate of GDP) characterised by increased use of environmental resources put a threat to environmental sustainability. This essay discusses sustainability issue with the help of I=P x A x T equation. The equation signifies that the impact of any population or nation on environmental sources or sinks (I) is product of its population (P), its level of affluence (A) and the damage done by the technologies that support that affluence.
The concept of carrying capacity is also discussed at length. The issue of technology transfer to low income nations, reduced consumption and improved management of environmental resources are the issues highlighted in this essay. Carrying capacity is one of the most controversial subjects in the population literature and there is numerous definition of the term put forward by different scholars. Earth’s capacity to support people is dynamic and uncertain and is determined both by natural constraints and by human choices concerning economics, environment, culture and demography.
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Human choices are not captured by ecological notions of carrying capacity that are appropriate for non-human populations (Cohen, 1995, p. 341). The carrying capacity of an eco-system is the largest population that can be supported without diminishing the eco-system’s supportive capacity (O’Neill, MacKeller, Lutz, 2001, p. 95). Conventionally, ecologists would argue that a certain population size can be sustained within a region or eco-system by judging the demand for and supply of natural resources in that region.
However, with humanity, this carrying capacity seemed to be meaningless because technologies and consumption choices can vary strongly and population over the globe can draw on resources from the entire biosphere, and not just locally available products (Schmidt, 2005, p. 79). According to Ehrlich, Ehrlich and Holdren (1977) human carrying capacity is a function of the impacts that population, affluence and technology have on natural system, the population in this equation has traditionally been seen as the root cause for many social and environmental ills.
The arguments has been made, however, that by focusing chiefly on population, the impacts of affluence and technology are overlooked, shifting attention away from the environmental impacts of affluence and technology in developing countries and balance their impacts on the environment with those of the rising population. Carrying capacity is a function of technology and can be raised or lowered either through an improved or impoverished technology. The level of economic development and technological application is one of the major determinants of a region’s human carrying capacity (Phillips, 2005, p. 135).
Impact of technology on carrying capacity depends not only on the size of the population but whether the technologies used are highly polluting or green. A large population using low impact technology could have same level of impact as a smaller but more affluent population using a highly polluting technology (Harris, 2004, p. 6). As demonstrated by the Ehrlich equation, as developing nations with large populations and limited economic advancement can generate adverse affect on environment, similarly a technologically advanced highly affluent population can affect the environment through the use of polluting technologies (Rose, 2000, p. ). While increase in the level of technology may raise economic efficiency, the impacts of such technologies can lower the level of carrying capacity itself, thus bringing the economy closer to carrying capacity in a backward fashion (Czech, 2000, p. 91). The choice and development of technology determines whether they are expected to increase or reduce human impact on the environment. Technologies applied to help extract more want satisfaction from a given unit of resource input can increase welfare without increasing impact.
This is increasing technology in the service of economic development rather than growth (Prugh, 1999, p. 35). Technological innovation enhances efficiency in resource use, but does not increase carrying capacity. Rather carrying capacity may actually be reduced due to the application of technology, particularly on non-renewable resources. Use of technology to increase short term energy through exploited eco system, although seems to enhance productivity actually erode the resource base permanently (Ree, 1996).
Affluence can act as a driving force by way of extracting more from this finite earth. The inversely proportional relation between the carrying capacity and increase in the level of affluence of a nation can be gauged from the current experience of China, where consequent upon a rise in the level of affluence, there is large scale switch over from vegetarian to non-vegetarian food. This resulted in additional demand for food grain for animals, thus intensifying the pressure on world’s available food grain supply (Enrlich and Enrlich, 1998, p. 0). However, the opposite school of thought believes that countries with high rate of consumption often have been relatively successful in protecting, preserving, safeguarding, and controlling both soil and water environment, and in arresting pollution and other environmental health risks. Environmental protection laws have better success rate in the affluent countries because an affluent society can pay for environmental protection, which ensures higher success rate (Meyer, 2001, p. 34).
In terms of energy consumption and carbon emission, results from one of the most rapidly developed economy with spectacular growth of GDP over the past decades have shown that consequent upon economic growth and rise in affluence level, rate of energy consumption is growing unabatedly, which places the country in a challenging position in balancing its economic growth with environmental sustainability. (Byrne, Shen and Lee, 1996, p. 455). However, there is exception too and increased economic growth may not always give rise to increased energy consumption.
Consequent upon increased rate of GDP by 40% during 1973-1988 in the U. S. , energy consumption level remained more or less constant. Although emission sometimes increases with GDP, no general relations hold between growth in the conventional sense and rise in emission level (Sagoff, 2004, p. 166). The developed countries are in the process of delinking their economic growth from energy use. An international comparison of energy intensity among several income groups shows a trend towards economic growth based on decreasing energy consumption for developing countries.
The developing countries should also act towards adoption of less energy intensive development strategies (Byrne, Shen and Lee, 1996, p. 456). Human beings have a highly developed ability to use technology to modify the apparent carrying capacity of a certain eco-system (Ogot and Kremer, 2006, p. 306). The benefits of using improved technologies would be in the form of less energy consumption per unit of output and minimizing the negative impact on environment.
The effort towards substituting current environmentally unsustainable technologies with benign and cost effective technology can bring immense benefit to the global community. Use of non-conventional source of energy such as solar or wind energy by reducing or eliminating the use of fossil fuel can reduce carbon sequestration, thereby reducing air pollution. Identifying other low carbon fuel source to meet the gap between energy demand and supply is an urgent step towards a carbon neutral environment.
Currently the world is facing a tremendous challenge with an ever growing population, level of consumption, and rapidly changing and advancing technologies. The time has come to evolve a human society that has currently surpassed the level of global sustainability. Unsustainable and haphazard use of technologies has resulted in degradation of agricultural land, rapid loss of topsoil and forest cover, enhanced global warming and stratospheric ozone depletion.
Global cooperation among scientists, particularly among developed industrialised nations and developing nations can be an important step towards ultimate sustainability. Transfer of technology from the developed nations to the technologically poor developing nations is daunting but nevertheless a welcome step. However, the key to effective technology transfer is knowledge transfer because technology can be applicable only through knowledge key (Li Hua, 2004, p. 5).
Technology up gradation, though a challenging task has to be pursued, for only the use of appropriate technology can ensure environmental sustainability. Scientific knowledge and wisdom is a sine qua none for taking informed decision towards the goal of attaining greater sustainability. Various global environmental assessment groups like the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) and Global Bio-diversity Assessment Group (GBAG) has provided excellent knowledge base for taking informed decisions towards sustainable environmental decision making.
The scientific community can definitely play a pivotal role in neutralising the ill effects of over-consumption consequent upon rising affluence and large scale use of unsustainable technological application. The most desired, yet unfulfilled needs of society include more comprehensive information, understanding, and technologies for society to move toward a more sustainable world, one which is ecologically sound, economically feasible, and socially just.
From the perspective of the developing world, however, sustainable environmental management is possible only through local level support. Although macro level activity is important for realising global sustainability goal, small scale activities in the local level can also significantly contribute towards sustainability on a global scale (Ghai and Vivian, 1995, p. 1). For achieving global sustainable development, there is need for fundamental change in the ways a society produces and consumes.
Countries over the world should promote sustainable production and consumption patterns, and the developing countries should act as the torch bearer. All the relevant groups, at the national, international and private level should relentlessly work towards changing unsustainable consumption and production patterns. As per the Johannesburg plan of implementation, the transition towards sustainable consumption and production within carrying capacity of the eco-system may be achieved within a pre-determined target of 10 years.
Wherever appropriate, economic growth and environmental degradation should be delinked through improved efficiency and sustainability in the use of resources and production processes and reducing source degradation, pollution and waste. In order to encourage the production of and use of cleaner technology, training and orientation may provide incentives and increase capacity building. Following the golden rules of green chemistry based on “prevention is better than solution” motto, one can help reduce environmental degradation and prevent ecological destruction and biodiversity loss.
Designing of chemical products with less toxicity and greater efficacy, technically and economically practicable raw material of feedstock, minimizing the use of auxiliary substances, use of less potent substances in chemical processes, use of degradable chemical products are some of the principles of green chemistry which reduces or eliminates the use or generation of hazardous substances which are harmful to the environment and degrade the biosphere (Anastas and Warner, 1997, p. 30).
Chemical pesticides which provides farmer with an important tool, if used improperly can endanger the health of users, rural community and consumers and can indiscriminately kill non target species, including natural enemies of pests. Although banned in industrial countries, some pesticides are still in use in the poor developing countries in large scale which calls for stricter controls in pesticide residues on food products. Judicious use of technology would involve choosing a technology that fits local conditions and endowments and can be used effectively to pursue particular environmental, economic and social objectives.
Technologies which are complicated and requires scarce technical expertise to operate and maintain should be avoided. When environmental protection and conservation is at the core of choosing the appropriate technology, minimising pollution, energy use or raw material inputs would be the focus. A technology is appropriate from economic growth perspective if the required input is abundant. For instance, in the developing countries where labour is abundant, labour intensive technology is more appropriate (Mirovitskaya, 2001, p. 109).
The development and use of eco-friendly technologies is critical to maintaining and improving quality of life. By using eco-friendly technologies, resources can be utilised as efficiently as possible and quality of life can be increased along with increased industrial productivity with minimum harm to the environment. Technological advancement along with economic and population pressure have made it possible to provide improved health care, enhanced industrial productivity, food supply, faster communication and new energy sources to minimize environmental damage.
One important aspect of technological advancement is the transfer of technology from developed to developing nation. Power generation plants which are both energy efficient and economically viable, offer potentials for increasing energy efficiency in the developing countries. Another important step towards use of sustainable technology is to build indigenous technological capacities. While role of government is instrumental in bringing about sustainable technological development in a region, the private sector has a critical role to play in the incorporation of new energy efficient technology as also in the technology transfer process.
Finally, the pathway to sustainability with improved environmental quality, particularly for the developing countries require changes in the use of unsustainable and polluting technology, increasing efficiency of energy supply and energy use, development and use of fuel efficient transport, and to use fossil fuel in a less polluting manner, where dependence on fossil fuel is unavoidable. Environmental problems facing a developing nation differ from developed nations. In case of developed nations, the environmental quality improves with a rise in income level.
However, developing countries of the third world, like China and India, with tremendous growth rate of GDP, is unable to check the growing environmental degradation consequent upon rapid industrial growth and over-consumption. Energy intensive yet energy inefficient economic growth has led to mounting air quality problems. What energy planners in rapidly developing countries like China and India need to keep in mind is delinking of economic growth and energy consumption through introduction of higher efficiency and environmentally sustainable technologies and synchronized resource planning approaches.
Technological change coupled with improved understanding of the links between economic activity and environmental damage, is enabling countries to grow more rapidly with less environmental impact than was possible earlier. Adoption of environmental policies and the investment and technological innovations induced by such policies imply that the mistakes of unsustainable environmental practices of the past do not have to be repeated. Lastly, to ensure sustainable development within the carrying capacity of the biosphere, current imbalances in the global pattern of consumption and production have to be addressed.
Excessive demands and unsustainable lifestyles among wealthy few in the developing world put stress on the environment which can be addressed through a multi pronged strategy focusing on demand, meeting the basic needs of the marginalised population, reducing wastage, and use of limited resources in a judicious way. The essence of sustainable development can be summed up in a lucid definition put forward by the UN division for sustainable development, “ as the development that meets the need of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.