IPAT Formula

I=PxAxT (commonly pronounced “eye-pat”) is a formula alleged to describe the factors that cause environmental degradation.  In this formula, I stands for impact; P for Population; A for Affluence (or amount consumed); T for Technology.  It alleges that the three factors compound. 

NG (Mar 2011) recently gave credence to the formula by putting a full page illustration of how “I” has exploded over the last 111 years.  Since 1900, world GDP (a measure of A) and the number of patent applications (a measure of T) have grown even faster than the population.  Human impact (I), which had been growing steadily since the industrial revolution, started to explode exponentially after WWII, a phase some scientists now call the “great acceleration.”

But, as it turns out, IPAT isn’t particularly useful, and NG was wrong to give it the publicity it did.  It is far too simplistic to account for the complex array of interactions that take place between the variables.  Also, the formula categorizes all “T” as something negative, something harmful to the planet.  This is obviously not the case.

One modificaion suggests that I=(PxAxT1)/T2.  This formula distingishes between technology for mass production (T1) and technology that improves efficiency and/or reduces pollution (T2).  According to this modification, the turning point in the “I” curve will come when PAT1<T2.

While the latter is still a gross oversimiplication, it attempts to show slightly more defensible relationships.

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3 Responses to IPAT Formula

  1. roger hansen says:

    The following is a letter to the editor of NG from Rick Whitson, SLC (Jun 2011):

    “I was very intrigued by the chart of contributing factors (population, affluence, and technology) to the human impact on our planet, and I found the accompanying mathematical formula, I=PAT, to be clever if not discouraging. However, I would like to propose a fourth factor, education–and use it as a divisor in the formula to mitigate the effect of the multipliers. Neither affluence nor technology should be inherently damaging on a large scale. I believe that their lasting effects have more to do with how we use these resources. And as for population, that too can be mitigated with a good dose of education.”

  2. roger hansen says:

    The following is a letter to the editor of NG from Kemi George, Williamsburg, VA (Jun 2011):

    “While technological growth can help us consume and introduce more new pollutants, it can also ameliorate the effects of increasing popularion and consumption. The development of substitutes for chlorofluorocarbons allowed us to maintain high levels of growth while reducing our impact on ozone depletion. With our population approaching seven billion, technology may be our only option for sustainability.”

  3. roger hansen says:

    The following is a letter to the editor of NG from Al Rogers, Duryea, PA (Jun 2011):

    “Our impact on our environment will not be mitigated until we devise an economy that does not depend on constant increases in consumption and production. This is a tall order, but even total population stability will not work without it.”

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