PULLMAN, Wash. – Technology and modernization alone won’t rescue our planet from the detrimental environmental impacts of industrialization and other human activities, according to a WSU researcher and leader in developing a way to scientifically model and assess human interactions with the environment.

In fact, research by WSU sociologist Eugene A. Rosa and colleagues, Richard York of the University of Oregon and Thomas Dietz of Michigan State University, shows population growth has such a profound impact on the global environment that it readily outpaces the benefits of industrial modernization and improved environmental technologies.

Through the creation of a research program called STIRPAT, the trio has developed a highly refined way of systematically and empirically assessing the human-generated factors that drive adverse environmental impacts. Using the STIRPAT statistical model, they have examined what is known as the “ecological footprint,” a quantitative measurement of the stress placed on the environment by demands for available lands and resources to meet the need for food, housing, transportation, consumer goods and services.

In a variety of cross-national analyses of the driving forces behind environmental degradation, STIRPAT persistently identifies population size as the primary influence on the global environment, Rosa said. The research demonstrates also that there are factors creating dramatic inequities in the amount of resource consumption and waste emissions between the earth’s nations. While population growth in all nations is the major influence on the environment, the detrimental environmental impacts are most pronounced in nations in which the population is the most affluent.

“With few exceptions, we find that the environmental impacts of population growth increase with affluence,” he said. “The effect is much higher in developed nations than in under-developed nations. For instance, the ecological footprint of the U.S. is about 20 times that of a country like Bangladesh.”

The findings by Rosa and his colleagues challenge a number of environmental theories that have emerged over the past decade suggesting that improving technological efficiency and declines in the resource requirements of modernizing nations will ultimately lead to environmental sustainability, offsetting the negative impacts of ever-increasing growth in population and human consumption.

“When we analyze the ability of increasing technological efficiency to counteract the environmental impacts of increasing population and consumption, we find that even if we were to achieve a four-fold increase in efficiency among all nations – which is a very unrealistic expectation – negative environmental impacts still increase, although at a much reduced rate,” he said.

For some specific negative environmental impacts, such as that from carbon dioxide emissions, the researchers found that there is a theoretical point at which growth in a nation’s per capita gross domestic product begins to produce benefits sufficient to begin to offset negative environment influences. But while such hypothetical levels of economic growth can be successfully modeled, Rosa argues they are not realistically attainable.

“Our data show that to achieve environmental sustainability on a global level for carbon dioxide, for instance, under best circumstances every nation in the world would need to achieve a gross domestic product per capita of $10,000 or more,” he said. “This is a highly unrealistic possibility, given that more than 75 percent of the world’s nations have a GDP per capita of less than $5,000. Many of these nations are in the Third World, where hope of sufficiently rapid economic expansion is all but impossible within a viewable horizon.”

Such findings provide little support for the theories predicting a decline in a nation’s environmental impacts in the mature stages of economic development, Rosa said.

“This suggests we’re not likely to achieve ecological sustainability by continuing to pursue endless economic growth, ignoring our growing population and hoping for a last-minute technological fix that will solve our problems,” he said.

Instead, Rosa believes achieving environmental sustainability will require new and complex programs and strategies. Such efforts will need to address the rate of population growth, the question of how to reduce consumption practices without necessarily reducing quality of life, how scientific innovation can develop new types of resources and how increasingly efficient industrial and waste-treatment processes can be adopted.

”There is no magic bullet. The ramifications for our society are potentially profound,” he said. “Achieving sustainability may require a fundamental change of values and changes in the way we have been doing things for a very long time.”

 

Rosa is currently the Edward R. Meyer Distinguished Professor of Natural Resource and Environmental Policy in the Thomas S. Foley Institute for Public Policy and Public Service, past chair and professor of sociology, affiliated professor of fine arts, affiliated professor in environmental science and regional planning, and faculty associate in the Center for Integrated Biology.

His research has focused on environmental topics – particularly energy, technology and risk issues – with attention to both theoretical and policy concerns. His recent research is devoted to the complementary topics of global environmental change and risk assessment, with the focus of the first topic on structural features of national environments and the focus of the second on the decision processes for addressing environmental challenges.

Late last year, Rosa accepted an invitation from the National Academies to serve as a member of the committee on human dimensions of global change for the National Research Council/National Academy of Sciences. The appointment was based on his research contributions to further the understanding of the human factors in global environmental impacts and his contributions to environmental science policy.

He has previously held numerous appointments with U.S. National Research Council/National Academy of Sciences and in 2004 accepted an appointment to that group’s Committee on Metrics for Global Change Research.

In 2003, Rosa was among 348 individuals elected by their peers as fellows in the American Association for the Advancement of Science for his “pioneering research on technological risk, energy, and global environmental change and for innovative and effective service to the environmental social sciences.”