Environment, Development and Sustainability

, Volume 10, Issue 6, pp 787–825 | Cite as

Will progress in science and technology avert or accelerate global collapse? A critical analysis and policy recommendations

  • Michael H. HuesemannEmail author
  • Joyce A. Huesemann


Industrial society will move towards collapse if its total environmental impact (I), expressed either in terms of energy and materials use or in terms of pollution, increases with time, i.e., dI/dt > 0. The traditional interpretation of the I = PAT equation reflects the optimistic belief that technological innovation, particularly improvements in eco-efficiency, will significantly reduce the technology (T) factor, and thereby result in a corresponding decline in impact (I). Unfortunately, this interpretation of the I = PAT equation ignores the effects of technological change on the other two factors: population (P) and per capita affluence (A). A more heuristic formulation of this equation is I = P(T)·A(T)·T in which the dependence of P and A on T is apparent. From historical evidence, it is clear that technological revolutions (tool-making, agricultural, and industrial) have been the primary driving forces behind successive population explosions, and that modern communication and transportation technologies have been employed to transform a large proportion of the world’s inhabitants into consumers of material- and energy-intensive products and services. In addition, factor analysis from neoclassical growth theory and the rebound effect provide evidence that science and technology have played a key role in contributing to rising living standards. While technological change has thus contributed to significant increases in both P and A, it has at the same time brought about considerable eco-efficiency improvements. Unfortunately, reductions in the T-factor have generally not been sufficiently rapid to compensate for the simultaneous increases in both P and A. As a result, total impact, in terms of energy production, mineral extraction, land-use and CO2 emissions, has in most cases increased with time, indicating that industrial society is nevertheless moving towards collapse. The belief that continued and even accelerated scientific research and technological innovation will automatically result in sustainability and avert collapse is at best mistaken. Innovations in science and technology will be necessary but alone will be insufficient for sustainability. Consequently, what is most needed are specific policies designed to decrease total impact, such as (a) halting population growth via effective population stabilization plans and better access to birth control methods, (b) reducing total matter-energy throughput and pollution by removing perverse subsidies, imposing regulations that limit waste discharges and the depletion of non-renewable resources, and implementing ecological tax reform, and (c) moving towards a steady-state economy in which per-capita affluence is stabilized at lower levels by replacing wasteful conspicuous material consumption with social alternatives known to enhance subjective well-being. While science and technology must play an important role in the implementation of these policies, none will be enacted without a fundamental change in society’s dominant values of growth and exploitation. Thus, value change is the most important prerequisite for avoiding global collapse.


Collapse Consumption Eco-efficiency Industrial ecology IPAT equation Population growth Rebound effect Steady-state economy Subjective well-being Sustainable development 


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Marine Sciences LaboratoryPacific Northwest National LaboratorySequimUSA
  2. 2.Critical Science InstituteCarlsborgUSA

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