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The IPAT's Problematic Economic Prism Denies Cultural Adaptation


In an economically and ‘fake news’-driven society,, it is hard to individually conceptualize lifestyle choices and differences in terms of environmental impact. Economists and environmentalists agree that money is the driving factor of our society, but what if we changed that mindset? Rather than seeing economics as the primary incentive for change, what if society deemed the planet worth enough to care about it’s health? Writers like Assadourian, Durning, Leopold, and White suggest that environmental harm is not merely about population, affluence, and technology, but instead the cultural prism through which we see and act on environmental issues. However, in order to understand the cultural argument about causes of environmental harm one must first understand the differentiation from the IPAT formula.

The IPAT formula represents the calculation of environmental impact equating to population times affluence times technology. The essence of this formula concludes that if any of those factors increase, environmental impact also increases. However, there are theories conflicting with this formula; for example, the Kuznets curve speculates that once a certain affluence is attained, environmental impact should theoretically decrease. Similarly, on a global perspective the concept of immigration does not matter in regards to population on a global scale. Therefore, the primary question is what is s the context of which these factors are animated in societies? Ultimately, the primary issue and pillar of the IPAT formula is the economic prism that it constrains itself to.

Modern environmentalist Aldo Leopold, evaluates this concern of the economic prism and proposed a solution through a term he coined coined ‘the land ethic’. This concept aims to change the mindset of viewing environmental issues via an economic prism and value the land in addition to economic decisions. Leopold suggests that there is an ethical sequence beginning with the individual, moving to the individual in society, and ending with the evolutionary possibility of ecological necessity. This final step of Leopold’s ethical sequence requires “changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such”. This rewiring of society would allow for an individual to recognize they are an interdependent part of the natural system, rather than the conqueror of it. Although there is skepticism of Leopold’s suggestion with concerns of sustainability needing to grow with an economy rather than separate from it, it should not be disregarded that there could still be a price tag on the cost of nature as an incentive for people to care.

Meanwhile, environmentalist and professor Lynn White Jr. not only argues that culture is vital to the environmental destruction, but also has an entity to blame as to why society views environmental issues the way it does with the finger pointed straight toward Christianity. White argues that the historical root of the environmental issues we are facing today date back to Christianity altering the relationship between people and nature. White boldly proclaims that “especially in its Western form, Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen”. This hypothesis is backed by White deconstructing the process of scientific and technological advancements as Christianity viewing civilization’s linear progress as a root theological concept. Whereas other religions see nature and humanity as a cyclical process, Christianity views nature as a belonging of man perpetuating Leopold’s mention of the humanity’s tendency to conquer nature.

Researcher Alan Durning also suggests a re-culturation process in his Dubious Rewards of Consumption due to the societal view of consumption being the answer to all problems. Durning points out that “measured in constant dollars, the world’s people have consumed as many goods and services since 1950 as all previous generations put together”, but how is this problematic? Durning is the first to admit that this issue is a psychological one rooted in the perception that “any relationship that does exist between income and happiness is relative rather than absolute. The happiness that people derive from consumption is based on whether they consume more than their neighbors and more than they did in the past”. Durning suggest that in order to begin rectifying environmental issues, society must fray the fabric of consumer society and addresses the questions of why individuals reach for material items in order to feel momentary happiness.

But is re-culturation even possible? The common thread of these environmentalist researchers seems to suggest changing the common mindset of individuals in order to invoke change of environmentally damaging lifestyle habits. It is important to understand that without a time machine it is unlikely and improbable to just scrap the history of Christian-Judea religions across the Western hemisphere. However, using religion as a means to mobilize people has historically been effective. Similarly, ridding the stigma of environmentalism or science and religion as being mutually exclusive is the best place to start. Understanding that previous scientists: Galileo, Einstein, and Darwin (to name a few), were all religious men seeking explanations of God’s marvel and work yielding science to explain religious contexts.

Senior Fellow at the Worldwatch Institute Erik Assadourian, encourages the school of thought revolving around cultivating an ecological philosophical missionary movement. The current state of the environmental movement is not mobilizing society to the capacity it should be in order to see large-scale change. “The fact that Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and other religions have spread and remained dominant social and cultural forces for the past few thousand years, and across a wide variety of geographic and cultural realities, reveals the power in this type of organizing: for the long term, around a deeper way of being and acting, and not just around a specific short-term campaign goal”. Suggesting that the environmental movement learns and follows suit, Assadourian encourages the movement to seek an ethics comparison to religious beliefs in order to strike a nerve in populations world wide. Emphasizing an understanding of suffering would allow for individuals internationally to grasp the harsh realities the planet is facing in regards to destruction and deterioration. Assadourian asserts that the success of religious and philosophical movements have been rooted in the “effective mix of a powerful philosophy combined with a timeless vision, beautiful stories, committed adherents, and perhaps most important, the promise of immediate assistance-the offering of food, clothing, education, livelihoods, medical care, even a supportive community”.

Courtesy of Red Bubble

And yet the concern that cultural change is impossible is usually the argument against it. However, within the past few decades alone the United States as well as many countries around the world have experienced revolutionary cultural changes: advancements of technology increasing the speed of life; wide-spread shift to Veganism as a marketing tool for restaurants and brands; social expectation of higher education; secularism and straying away from religion is no longer an ‘abnormal phenomenon’; gay marriage is legal in several countries; the civil rights movement in the United States; and the lack of smoking among younger generations. If the idea remains that affluence allows for individuals to buy their way towards sustainability, then when religion deems humans above nature it can be culturally changed to fit ecologicalism. Regardless of the economic prism, it has been seen that people respond to sustainability as a means of product recognition. For example, famous company Patagonia thrived off their Black Friday campaign “Don’t Buy This Jacket” and similar companies have followed suit in acquiring USDA certification, ethical reputation, and sustainable recognition as a means of profit base. Although this may seem counterintuitive in regards to mass consumption, it is a stepping stone towards the sustainability movement. In regards to buying products that may last longer or do not follow the “planned obsolescence” or “perceived obsolescence” prototype, individuals can still consume; however the view of consumption will be altered in quantity and quality. If products are being made ethically and sustainably to begin with, cultural change can begin to occur especially if given a boost from religious or philosophical communities.

Works Used in citation

Assadourian, Erik. “Converting the Environmental Movement into a Missionary Religious Force”.New Earth Politics ed. Simon Nicholson and Sikina Jinnah. 2016.

Durning, Alan. “The Dubious Rewards of Consumption” American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau. Bill McKibben. 2008. Library of America.

Leopold, Aldo. “The Land Ethic” A Sand County Almanac. 1949.

White, Lynn Jr. “The Historical Root of The Problem” American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau. Bill McKibben. 2008. Library of America.

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