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II. Early Work Linking Technology and the Environment with Human Social Organization
III. Impact: Considering Humanity’s Effects on the Environment
A. Water Pollution
B. Soil Erosion, Depletion, and Unsustainable Agriculture
C. Declining Biodiversity
E. Global Warming
IV. Considering the Primary Human Causes of Environmental Impact
C. Affluence, Inequality, and Consumption
V. Looking Ahead as Society Moves Through the 21st Century
Throughout time, humanity has grappled with questions of how to survive and, in so doing, to meet the needs for basics such as food and shelter. Historically, humankind has used technology to assist in the pursuit of these survival basics. Researchers examining society from a comparative and historical perspective note that as subsistence technology has developed—for example, from the digging stick to the plow to the steam engine—so have there been profound changes in the ways societies themselves are organized (e.g., Lenski 1966; Lenski and Nolan 1984.
With the advance in technology, societies are able to acquire and produce more food and to accumulate surpluses. This leads to a number of profound changes in social and ecological processes, including changes in the numbers of people living in a society, and, more generally, on the planet, and in the patterns of accumulation and distribution of resources among those people. Furthermore, as technology allows for deeper incursions into the earth, the potential for environmental impact increases dramatically (Ponting 1991; McNeill 2000).
Because of the profound implications for the well-being, and perhaps even the long-term survival, of humanity, questions about interactions of social arrangements among human beings, the technologies they produce, and their impacts on the natural environment are vitally important to sociologists. Yet by their very nature, these questions involve a number of aspects, and as such, their study typically has been interdisciplinary. The study of social-technological-environmental interactions, by its very nature, draws on a number of subfields. We now turn to some of the attempts to bring social scientific analysis to these questions.
II. Early Work Linking Technology and the Environment with Human Social Organization
Some of the early attempts to examine these interrelationships were undertaken by sociologists, but with a heavy influence of other disciplines, most notably biology. These came to be known under a broad rubric of human ecology (e.g., Duncan 1964; Commoner 1971, 1992; Catton 1980, 1994; Catton and Dunlap 1978; Hawley 1981).
Human ecologists developed a framework that came to be known as the POET model, so named because of the acronym formed by the four major variables: population (human social), organization, environment, and technology. While this model served as a useful way to focus discussions about human-environmental interactions, it was not particularly influential in guiding empirical research. One of the chief criticisms spoke to the ecological nature of the model itself, in that it did not specify an outcome and did not make specific predictions (for an in-depth discussion, see Dietz and Rosa 1994).
As sociologists and others came to recognize the limitations of the POET model, it was modified by a number of researchers around several emerging themes. A series of arguments were advanced that a set of models should be specified that could predict environmental impacts, such as deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions, and air and water pollution. As a very general way of conceptualizing the problem, environmental impact was seen as being a function of population, technology, and human consumption levels (which came to be referred to in many of the models as “affluence” because of the high correlation in many societies between levels of wealth and patterns of consumption). They presented the IPAT model, in which (Environmental) Impact = Population * Affluence * Technology (Ehrlich 1968; Commoner 1971, 1992; Ehrlich and Ehrlich 1981, 1990; Dietz and Rosa 1994).
Each of the four terms can be defined in a number of ways, and as such, the IPAT model should be seen as a general framework rather than a specific predictor (Dietz and Rosa 1994). For example, while some of the same social factors that are linked with an environmental impact, such as greenhouse gas emissions, can also be used to predict deforestation, there are important differences as well. While population dynamics are important to consider in predicting environmental impact, specifics about population distributions are often more informative than overall levels of population. Studies, for example, show that rural population growth is much more closely associated with deforestation, while urban population growth is more closely associated with greenhouse gas emissions and levels of resource consumption (Burns, Kick, and Davis 1997, 2003).
Furthermore, the social factors most closely associated with what predicts one greenhouse gas (carbon dioxide) differ in important ways from those predicting another greenhouse gas (methane) (Burns et al. 1994; Burns, Kick, and Davis 1997; Jorgenson 2006). Much of the work has followed in this vein, and in a notable variant, researchers have reformulated the IPAT approach into the STIRPAT model, an acronym for Stochastic Impacts by Regression on Population, Affluence, and Technology (e.g., York, Rosa, and Dietz 2003). While all the specifics of these processes are beyond the purview of this entry, it is nonetheless important to realize that such distinctions as to the scope of precise causes of particular environmental impacts are important for researchers and policymakers to consider. Attention to such detail can often lead to insight about why there are findings that may be characterized as “conflicting” in the popular press. It is thus important to give detailed attention to each of the respective areas of the overall framework, as well as to the overall picture.
III. Impact: Considering Humanity’s Effects on the Environment
A. Water Pollution
In developing countries, approximately 90 percent of human sewage is simply dumped without any attempt at treatment whatsoever (World Resources Institute 1996:71). These discharges often go directly into water; yet even when the dumping is not direct, it often leaches into underground aquifers. Either way, this causes serious pollution problems and the public health risks associated with them. While adequate supplies of safe drinking water become more imperiled worldwide, it is a particularly acute problem in parts of the developing world where population growth is outstripping the local resources. By the most reliable estimates, for instance, by the year 2025, at least a billion people in northern Africa and the Middle East will lack water for basic necessities like drinking and sustaining their crops (Postel 1993).
Runoff of water contaminated by short-sighted farming practices, such as indiscriminate use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, as well as from concentrations of livestock animal waste from huge feed lots leads to a number of ecological and health problems, particularly for those living downstream from them (Steingraber 1998; Burns, Kentor, and Jorgenson 2003).
B. Soil Erosion, Depletion, and Unsustainable Agriculture
On average, farmland in the United States now has only about two-thirds as much topsoil as it did at the beginning of the nineteenth century (Pimentel et al. 1995). This is directly attributable to poor land management practices, such as raising one crop over large stretches of land (monocrop agriculture) and the extensive use of tractor plows and synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Typically, this leads to a situation in which soil is either blown away by wind or washed away by rain or by irrigation. Only on about 10 percent of U.S. farmland is soil being replaced as fast as it is being eroded, typically through the slow but rich process of naturally breaking down organic matter (Pimentel et al. 1995).
Historically, societies expanded their food production by increasing the amount of land dedicated to farming and grazing. This worked well as long as there was fertile soil that could be brought under cultivation. However, these increases are necessarily bound by the amount of total land available to a society, and ultimately by the size of the planet. Over time, only less fertile land was available, and people increasingly began to attempt cultivating land that needed something beyond what was available through the natural environment to produce food.
As Rachel Carson noted as early as 1962 in her landmark work The Silent Spring, a number of chemicals the U.S. Army developed under wartime conditions during World War II became generally available to farmers at the end of that war. These included herbicides and pesticides such as DDT, as well as synthetic fertilizers. Already by the 1950s, these had come into widespread use, particularly in developed countries (Brown, Flavin, and Kane 1992).
Since about 1980, the amount of land dedicated to farming has actually been decreasing for the first time in history; this trend is particularly strong in developed countries (Pimentel 1992). While it is true that greater amounts of food can be produced in the short run by the use of monoagriculture, pesticides, herbicides, and synthetic fertilizers, in the longer run, this leads to soil erosion and degradation.
C. Declining Biodiversity
The earth and its subregions are in a delicate ecological balance. Loss of a species leads to a number of problems, not the least of which is that the fragile balance often gets upset, sometimes leading to catastrophic results (Ryan 1992). For example, in the 1920s the people in Kern County, California, decided to eliminate threats to their crops and livestock. They killed every such threat they could find—skunks, coyotes, snakes, foxes, and beavers. For their efforts, they were repaid by being overrun by millions upon millions of mice, in what was (at least to date) the worst rodent infestation in U.S. history (Maize 1977, cited in Eisenberg 1998).
By some estimates, anywhere from 15 to 75 species in tropical rainforests go extinct on an average day (Ehrlich and Ehrlich 1981; Wilson 1990, 1992). Yet many of the “miracle drug” cures come from plants (many of them teetering on the edge of extinction) in those very rainforests (Soejarto and Farnsworth 1989).
The major social causes of deforestation involve population dynamics, the level and growth of economic development, and the structure of international trade (e.g., Rudel 1989; Kick et al. 1996; Lofdahl 2002; Burns, Kick, et al. 2003). However, changing technologies greatly affect all three of these major causes in different ways, meaning that technology affects deforestation indirectly and has done so throughout human history (e.g., Chew 2001; Diamond 2005).
The effects of population are often addressed in the context of urban population growth and rural population growth. For example, rural population growth increases the likelihood that forested regions will be transformed, cut, or burned for use in industrial activities, extractive processes, or agricultural production, and related technological developments only exacerbate the environmental impacts of these activities (Rudel 1989; Burns et al. 1994; Rudel and Roper 1997).
Rudel (1989) and Ehrhardt-Martinez (1998) argue that economic development in less developed countries will increase deforestation by expanding the availability of capital for productive ventures in extractive industries and agriculture (for further discussion, see Marquart- Pyatt 2004). Conversely, Burns, Kick, et al. (2003) find that the least developed countries experience the highest rates of deforestation, followed by middle-developed countries, and highly developed ones sometimes experience attempts at reforestation. This pattern can be attributed, at least in part, to a process of recursive exploitation, in which environmental resources of the least developed countries are acquired at a discount by entrepreneurs and corporate actors from both highly developed and developing nations, while the resources of developing countries accrue primarily to actors in highly developed countries (e.g., Burns, Kick, et al. 2003, 2006; Burns, Kick, and Davis 2006).
In a related vein, higher-consuming countries partially externalize their consumption-based environmental costs to less developed countries, which increases deforestation within the latter (see also Jorgenson and Rice 2005). This externalization largely takes the form of the flow of raw materials and produced commodities from less developed to more developed countries, and technological developments in extractive and productive sectors as well as transport (e.g., shipping) intensify the environmental degradation associated with these asymmetrical international exchanges (e.g., Bunker 1984; Jorgenson and Rice 2005).
E. Global Warming
The human dimensions of climate change and global warming are perhaps the most widely addressed human-environment relationships in the social sciences and policy venues. There is general consensus in the scientific community that global warming is indeed a reality and that human societies do contribute to the warming of the earth’s atmosphere through activities that lead to the emission of noxious greenhouse gases (National Research Council 1999). Atmospheric greenhouse gases absorb and reradiate infrared energy and heat back to the earth’s surface, which increases water, land, and air temperatures in the biosphere (Christianson 1999).
Two of the most serious greenhouse causing gases emitted into the atmosphere as a by-product of human activity are carbon dioxide and methane. In terms of scale, carbon dioxide accounts for the largest volume of greenhouse gas caused by humans; molecule for molecule, methane is an order of magnitude more effective at absorbing and reradiating infrared energy and heat back to the earth’s surface. The primary human activity contributing to carbon dioxide emissions is the use of fossil fuels. Methane emissions are increased by the refining of fossil fuels as well as through increased cattle production and large-scale agriculture activities, particularly the growing of rice (Jorgenson 2006).
IV. Considering the Primary Human Causes of Environmental Impact
With technological development comes the ability to dig deeper, to go farther into the earth, oceans, and space. While this allows people to produce more food, clothing, shelter, and luxury items, it also makes greater demands on the world’s resources and dramatically increases the accumulation of waste products.
Some analysts argue that the earth is robust enough to cope with waste products and will regenerate itself (e.g., Simon 1983, 1990; Simon and Kahn 1984; for counterarguments, see Ehrlich and Ehrlich 1981, 1990). While almost anything will be broken down and recycled by the natural environment, the question of how long this will take is crucial. For example, a single glass bottle can be broken down, but the process takes about 10,000 years. The use of technology in allowing people to extract resources and then to use them in increasingly exotic combinations has the potential to lead society to the point where the earth will not be able to regenerate itself in time for the human race to live and use technology in the way it does (Ehrlich and Ehrlich 1981).
Technology is most readily available in core societies, but it is also becoming increasingly widespread throughout the world, especially in rapidly developing countries. It is true, however, that if environmental regulation is promulgated at all, it tends to be done primarily in the high-consuming, developed societies. Thus, the developing societies often have a combination of technology with a lack of concomitant regulation. The result is that the developing societies are often places with some of the worst ecological degradation.
The former U.S. Vice President Gore (1993), for example, gives a tragic illustration of some of the social dynamics behind the Aral Sea drying up—a sea that had been the fourth largest landlocked body of water in the world and that had provided a livelihood for thousands of people. A number of factors contributed to this, not the least of which was an irrigation system that had been used to grow cotton in an otherwise desert climate. The cotton was grown originally for economic reasons—it could draw a better price on the world market than virtually anything else that could be grown there, but only in the short run. In the long run, the diversion of water effectively changed the hydrological cycle in that area. Once the hydrological cycle is changed, it is often changed permanently.
In this case, the technology was sophisticated enough to change the natural ecology in a dramatic way. This was done as a short-term response to economic pressures for survival in an increasingly competitive world. There was another component to the problem as well: With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Aral Sea was no longer entirely in one state (it was in a part of two contiguous newly created states, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan). The technological sophistication was not matched by environmental regulation.
If technology can be used to destroy the earth, could it also be used to help repair it? There are a number of beneficial uses of technology, and certainly, technological development can, if done with its environmental consequences in mind, harness some of those benefits. Ecologically sound energy sources, such as solar and wind power, are not currently in a state of development that enables them to compete with fossil fuels under current market conditions. However, with more research, it may well be that these ecologically sound energy sources become generally available.
Some theorists, most notably Julian Simon and his collaborators (e.g., Simon 1983, 1990; Simon and Kahn 1984), hold that technological development will help to alleviate society’s most pressing problems. Most notably, Simon believes that environmental problems will, given enough technology, be overcome. In fact, Simon and his collaborators criticize Malthus ( 1960) and his followers as well. Simon believes that increasing population size will lead to increasing levels of human interaction and, thus, the much greater probability that some of those people will develop critically needed technology.
Consider, too, that the internal combustion automobile, one of the greatest polluters of all time, was originally welcomed as a clean alternative to the pollution caused by horses in city streets. There is an important lesson here. Human actions, including the production and use of technological innovation, almost always have unforeseen or unintended consequences. Nobody develops a technology deliberately to pollute, yet pollution is often a consequence of technology. This is not to say that society should cease trying to develop technologically. Rather, we would do well to approach technology with enough humility to recognize that we cannot always control the outcome and that continually relying on technology to solve environmental problems may be flirting with disaster.
As of the beginning of the third millennium, there are over 6 billion people in the world, and that number is rising rapidly. Most of the very rapid population increases have taken place since the advent of the industrial revolution and the technological advances associated with it. Consider that the world population mark surpassed only 1 billion in about 1850 AD. According to United Nations projections, by the year 2025, that number will be up to 8 billion (United Nations Population Division 1995).
Over two centuries ago, Thomas Malthus ( 1960) noted that the technological progress associated with the beginning of the industrial revolution had a number of consequences for the human race. Malthus thought that with the increasing capacity of production, there would be a tendency for population to increase dramatically. While Malthus saw the ability of society to produce the necessities of life, such as food, clothing, and shelter, as increasing linearly (what he termed “arithmetically”), this would lead people to have many more children, and so the population would increase exponentially (what Malthus termed “geometrically”). The mismatch between the modest growth in the ability to produce resources and the tremendous growth in the size of the population would eventually lead to “overpopulation”; this term that Malthus coined— overpopulation—has been part of human dialogue ever since.
More specifically, Malthus argued that overpopulation and the problems associated with it, such as severe crowding and competition for scarce resources, would eventually lead to serious social problems. Recalling the Apocalypse, or the last book of the Bible, Malthus theorized that overpopulation would lead to its own “four horsemen” of the apocalypse. For Malthus, the four horsemen were war, famine, plague, and pestilence. Malthus has inspired a number of modern-day thinkers, who also see population growth as the central cause of a plethora of social and environmental problems (e.g., Ehrlich 1968; Ehrlich and Ehrlich 1990; Abernethy 1991; Bongaarts 1994; Pimentel et al. 1994; Cohen 1995; see also United Nations Population Fund 1991, 1997, 1999).
While absolute size of the population is crucial, distribution of the population is important as well (Burns et al. 1994; Burns, Kick, and Davis 2006). Dramatic increases in population, particularly in rural areas, often lead to serious environmental degradation in those areas, as people clear previously forested land, for example.
While the world’s population is increasing, and is now over 6 billion people, the greatest population increases are in the least developed countries. Unless resources can be increased (through, e.g., technological advance), the proportion of resources accruing to any given person, especially in the countries that are already the poorest in the world, will likely decrease over time.
While no one knows for sure the precise carrying capacity of the planet, there are a number of trade-offs that eventually must be made. One such trade-off, ultimately, may be a quantity/quality one, in which the planet may support, for example, a population of upward of 10 billion people but at a lifestyle greatly diminished from what is currently the case, especially in developed, mass-consumption-oriented societies (Cohen 1995).
Historically, the more developed a society, the greater the urbanization of that society. A century ago, for example, virtually all the major cities of the world were in developed countries. Over time, however, particularly in the late twentieth and the twenty-first centuries, the rapidly developing countries, such as India and Mexico, have been urbanizing very rapidly. United Nations (1992) projections are that some time in the first half of the twenty-first century, nine of the ten largest cities in the world will be in what world-system theorists would classify as semiperipheral countries.
With urbanization comes the concentration of humanly created waste, which is produced much faster than the time it takes to biodegrade. Hence, a number of environmental problems associated with urbanization will very likely continue to plague the Third World even more in the years to come. However, rural population growth also brings its unique problems. It is often the case that deforestation is precipitated by encroachment into rural areas.
An important idea in ecology is that of carrying capacity of the natural environment. Although it was originally conceptualized in terms of animal and plant species, with some important caveats, it applies to human beings as well (Catton 1980, 1994; Cohen 1995). Carrying capacity of an area refers to the number of members of a species that can live in that area. For animals, the area poses natural limits by virtue of the food and shelter available and in terms of the threats to a species’ livelihood through exposure to disease and competition from predators.
With some important caveats, many of the theories that have been developed to describe nonhuman populations can apply to human populations as well. The use of language and other complex symbol systems makes the human case quite distinct, however. Technology is made possible through those complex symbol systems and the accumulation of knowledge that accompanies them. This, in turn, makes it possible to alter the natural environment profoundly. While it is true that every species has an effect on its environment, human beings have, by far, had the most profound effect of all (Lenski 1966; Schnaiberg and Gould 1994).
Human beings can use technology to extend the carrying capacity of a place temporarily. The use of fossil fuel such as gasoline is a good example. Through techniques such as drilling into the earth and refining the crude oil found there, we are able to use energy that was fixed millennia ago. In so doing, we extend the carrying capacity, but we do so only temporarily. The oil itself takes much longer for nature to produce than for us to use it. Ecologists see the temporary extension of carrying capacity through technology as a prime case of overshoot (Catton 1980). However, it is also a principle of ecology that overshoot tends to be followed by some catastrophe that causes severe hardship and death. This condition is often referred to in the literature with the apocalyptic moniker of “crash”; historically, the greater the overshoot, the greater the severity of the eventual crash (Catton 1980; see also Diamond 2005).
C. Affluence, Inequality, and Consumption
As we have seen, population growth is related to environmental impact in a number of complex ways (Burns et al. 1998). Ultimately, every individual requires a certain amount of energy to survive. However, the level of affluence must be very carefully considered as well. There is a great deal of inequality, both within and among countries, in terms of the level of affluence.
In 1960, the richest 20 percent of the world’s population had an income about 30 times that of the world’s poorest 20 percent. Within one generation—by 1990—that proportion had doubled to 60—the richest fifth of the world’s population had incomes 60 times that of the poorest fifth (United Nations Development Programme 1994). With increasing affluence comes the increasing impact, or size of the “ecological footprint,” a person or a society makes (Jorgenson 2003; York, Rosa, and Dietz 2003).
Closely associated with the question of overall affluence is the question of how unevenly that affluence is distributed. In fact, one of the greatest critics of Thomas Malthus, and his ideas on overpopulation, was Karl Marx. Marx believed that the central human problem was distribution of resources, with a few people living in luxury, while many lived in poor, and increasingly desperate, conditions. While Marx had little to say about the effect of this on the environment (for an attempt to link Marx’s work with environmental concerns, see Foster 1999), the implications of his critique of Malthus are broad.
In our increasingly interconnected world, the relationship between production and environmental degradation can be seen in the context of the transnational social organization of agricultural and industrial production. This involves the control of global assembly lines, which largely involves foreign investment, and transnational corporations that are sometimes in partial cooperation with domestic firms. The process operates primarily in the interests of the firms themselves, which are largely headquartered in affluent, higher-consuming countries (Chase- Dunn 1998; Jorgenson 2003).
The findings of recent studies suggest that foreign capital penetration is a mechanism partly responsible for particular forms of environmental degradation, including carbon dioxide emissions, methane emissions, sulfur dioxide emissions, and water pollution intensity (e.g., Grimes and Kentor 2003; Shandra et al. 2004; Jorgenson 2006). It is not unusual for transnational corporations to make investments in less developed countries, which maintain lower environmental standards and policies than those found in the more affluent, high-consumption-oriented societies. A large proportion of foreign investment in less developed countries finances ecologically inefficient, labor- and energy-intensive manufacturing processes outsourced from developed countries. Moreover, power generation in the countries receiving foreign investment is considerably less efficient. This often results in increased emissions of noxious greenhouse gases (Lofdahl 2002).
Indeed, the transnational social organization of production is tied to the flows of natural resources and produced commodities between countries. Like foreign investment, international trade has become an increasingly salient issue in environmental sociology and other environmental social sciences (Lofdahl 2002; Jorgenson and Kick 2006). For example, the amount of resources a country consumes is largely a function of its level of economic development (Jorgenson 2003).
Paradoxically, nations with higher levels of resource consumption experience lower levels of environmental degradation within their borders, including deforestation and organic water pollution (Jorgenson 2003; Jorgenson and Burns 2004). International trade practices at least partially account for this paradox (e.g., Hornborg 2001; Jorgenson 2004). International trade blurs human responsibility for the environmental effects of production and consumption (e.g., Rothman 1998; Andersson and Lindroth 2001; Lofdahl 2002). Developed countries possess the international political and economic power and institutional infrastructure to achieve improvements in domestic environmental conditions while continuing to impose negative externalities (e.g., Chase-Dunn 1998; Foster 1999; Princen, Maniates, and Conca 2002).
More broadly speaking, there often is a mismatch between the logic of economics and that of ecology; while it makes sense economically to have large-scale production with many concentrations of specialized parts of the overall process around the globe, this tends to be damaging ecologically. Natural ecology works much better on a smaller scale, where waste and other by-products can be naturally recycled (Freudenburg 1990) and where production and consumption practices are more closely coupled (Foster 1999).
V. Looking Ahead as Society Moves Through the 21st Century
As we can see from the above discussion, there are numerous ways in which population processes, technology, and consumption patterns are intertwined. As a result, their influences on the environment alone and in combination are complex. Yet it is essential for social and natural scientists to continue to grapple with understanding these complexities. There is little doubt that many of the problems discussed in this research paper will get worse before they improve. Any progress that is to be made is likely to involve taking environmental problems seriously while at the same time moving the focus beyond any one single causative factor.
The specific contributory mechanisms most closely associated with environmental outcomes tend to differ by level of development of a country or region. Population processes are certainly linked with environmental outcomes, yet the level of resource consumption of a population, itself largely a function of affluence and the ways in which technologies are used, is a significant factor in environmental impact as well. Consider, for example, that per capita energy usage in the United States is over 50 times as much as in some Third World locales. Thus, although it is true that population increases have environmental consequences, it is shortsighted to stop at that observation. The ways in which populations use resources are profoundly important as well, and it is crucial to consider these factors in conjunction with one another if we are to obtain anything beyond the most simplistic of views.
That said, by virtually all projections, population will multiply significantly through at least the first half of the twenty-first century, with the most significant increases occurring in developing countries. As the human population increases, social scientists observe a number of related phenomena, such as per capita resource consumption and concentrations of population in urban areas. Higher levels of energy usage, in turn, mean greater impact on the environment, such as more extraction of fossil fuels and the degradation associated with them or more reliance on nuclear fission and, thereby, the creation of its poisonous by-products.
Increases in population and urbanization often tend to be accompanied by technological innovation, which could potentially be good for the environment (Simon 1990). Yet if history is any indicator, as new technologies are developed, they are often used to make deeper and more lasting incursions into the environment (Freudenburg and Frickel 1995). Technological innovation, thus, often has a net negative impact on the environment. As society develops in the twenty-first century, it will continue to be crucial that citizens remain vigilant about the ways in which technology is conceptualized and used.
Also of significance is the question of technological diffusion. With increasing global patterns of commerce, communication, and transportation, less developed countries are exposed to technologies heretofore typically confined to the developed world. Closely associated with technological diffusion are dramatically rising consumption patterns (e.g., Grubler 1991, 1997). Consider that with the United States currently having about 4–5 percent of the world’s population, it currently consumes about 25 percent of its energy. If every society consumed resources at the rate of developed countries, as those in North America and Western Europe do currently, the world’s resources, productive capacity, and sinks would be taxed far greater than they already are, beyond sustainable levels.
Yet consumption patterns are catching up the world over. Consider that China, the most populous country in the world, has very recently become the world’s largest consumer of a variety of commodities, from soybeans to lead and copper (Commodity Research Bureau 2005). As rapidly developing countries continue to move toward the standard of living of the most developed countries, the overall ecological impact on the planet will likely increase to heretofore unprecedented levels.
Thus, as we move well into the third millennium, we will face a number of daunting socio-environmental challenges. Air pollution and water pollution are increasingly pressing problems, which manifest themselves on a number of levels, from international to local communities. People in farming regions will increasingly have to grapple with exhaustion of topsoil in which to grow food. Worldwide, there are problems of global warming, deforestation, depletion of fresh water for drinking, and pollution of what resources there are left. Sources of food that many people have traditionally taken for granted, such as a steady supply of fish in coastal areas, are in dwindling supply.
While environmental degradation and resource depletion are worldwide problems, the specific causes and manifestations of the problems are quite distinct in different parts of the world. Certainly, the natural geography of a place— tropical, boreal, or temperate, for example—has a large effect on how people interact with the environment around them, both in terms of how they make their livelihoods and in terms of how they affect the environment. Every bit as important as the natural geography is the level of development of a country or a region—its level of affluence and technological sophistication—for this allows, and even encourages, people to have an impact on the environment.
Yet as we confront these daunting problems, a large portion of society appears to be in denial. In much of the developed world, consumption rates are at an all-time high—for example, sales of sport utility vehicles and other vehicles that consume high levels of fossil fuels and put a heavy burden on the air we breathe have increased to unprecedented levels.
There are energy technologies that are more friendly to the natural environment and thus more sustainable in the long run. However, many “alternative” fuel sources, such as solar and wind energy and hydrogen fuel cells, are not at the stage of development where they may be able to compete with fossil fuels of oil and coal in terms of costs in an open market.
Around the broad outlines we have discussed, a number of issues will continue to press society’s abilities. There will always be a need for energy sources. Inequality of access to energy and other resources will continue to be a problem. In addition to finding and making useable sources of energy and other resources, technology will need to be developed to face the inevitable consequences of making incursions into the natural ecosystem to acquire those resources.
With society moving into the twenty-first century, the challenges associated with the environment and the interrelated factors of technology, population, and patterns of consumption continue to present themselves. While societies have always faced such problems, the magnitude of environmental and technological challenges faced by the people in the twenty-first century is unprecedented in human history. There are more people than ever before with the technological wherewithal to make more profound incursions into the planet and its biosphere, consuming resources at greater rates than at any other time in human history. These factors promise to make questions regarding the environment and technology perhaps the most critical faced by society in the twenty-first century and beyond.
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