Mother Pelican
A Journal of Solidarity and Sustainability

Vol. 13, No. 3, March 2017
Luis T. Gutiérrez, Editor
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Resisting Trump: The Great American Awakening

Robert C. Koehler

This article was originally published in
Common Dreams, 17 February 2017
under a Creative Commons License

Demonstrators protest President Donald Trump's immigration ban outside the Federal Court in Eugene, Oregon on Jan. 27. (Photo: David Geitgey Sierralupe/flickr/cc)

Old wounds break open. Deep, encrusted wrongs are suddenly visible. The streets flow with anger and solidarity. The past and the future meet.

The news is All Trump, All the Time, but what’s really happening is only minimally about Donald Trump, even though his outrageous actions and bizarre alliances are the trigger.

“As the nightmare reality of Donald Trump sinks in, we need to put our resistance in a larger perspective,” Bob Fitrakis and Harvey Wasserman wrote recently, describing Trump as “our imperial vulture come home to roost.”

The context in which most Trumpnews is delivered is miniscule: more or less beginning and ending with the man himself — his campaign, his businesses, his appointees, his ego, his endless scandals (“what did he know and when did he know it?”) — which maintains the news at the level of entertainment, and surrounds it with the fantasy context of a United States that used to be an open, fair and peace-loving democracy, respectful of all humanity. In other words, Trump is the problem, and if he goes away, we can get back to what we used to be.

In point of fact, however, the United States has always been an empire, a national entity certain of its enemies — both internal and external — and focused on conquest and exploitation. Yes, it’s been more than that as well. But the time has come to face the totality of who we are and reach for real change.

I believe this is what we are seeing in the streets right now. Americans — indeed, people across the planet — are ceasing to be spectators in the creation of the future. The protests we’re witnessing aren’t so much anti-Trump as pro-humanity and pro-Planet Earth.

As Fitrakis and Wasserman point out, Trump is “actually (so far) a moderate compared to scores of murderous dictators the U.S. has installed in other countries throughout the world. Especially since World War II, our imperial apparatus has constantly subverted legitimate attempts by good people to elect decent leaders.”

They present a partial list of “duly elected leaders the United States has had removed, disappeared and/or killed to make way for authoritarian pro-corporate regimes.” These leaders include: Patrice Lumumba of the Congo; Salvador Allende of Chile; Jean-Bertrand Aristide of Haiti; Mohammad Mossadegh of Iran; Jacobo Arbenz of Guatemala and many, many more. Their removals, and the installation of U.S.-friendly dictators, were accompanied by social chaos and mass killings.

Also included on the list were such names as Tecumseh, Sitting Bull, Chief Joseph — a few of the innumerable indigenous leaders who stood in the way of Europeans’ conquest of the Western Hemisphere, the mentioning of which opens a chasm of largely unexamined and whitewashed America history. Tens of millions of people died and numerous cultures were mocked and destroyed in his American holocaust spanning centuries.

This is part of our history and it can’t be diminished and written off any more than slavery can be written off. In our failure to face such history honestly, we remain trapped in collective unawareness — and thus trapped, we repeat history again and again and again.

As French anthropologist Rene Girard has said, in his book Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World, “. . . men kill in order to lie to others and to themselves on the subject of violence and death. They must kill and continue to kill, strange as it may seem, in order not to know that they are killing.”

This, so it seems to me, is the psychological and spiritual foundation of militarism and the military-industrial complex, which, among much else, has bequeathed Planet Earth with enough nuclear weapons to wipe out all existing life. Donald Trump, whose vision of American greatness is all about military triumph, commands some 4,000 of them. This is terrifying, but not simply because Trump is untrustworthy and impulsive. It’s terrifying that we’ve created a world in which anyonecommands that kind of power and that alone is a reason why the time for profound, deeply structural social change, is now.

And I don’t believe change will come from elected or appointed leaders, who, as they settle into office, have to make their peace with the current situation, a.k.a., the deep state, with its unquestioned militarism. This is the status quo Trump both represents and lays grotesquely exposed for what it is, like no other president in memory.

In other words, I don’t think we’ll ever vote real change into place. The social infrastructure won’t be seriously altered by those who are empowered by it, as Barack Obama, who was elected to be the bringer of hope and change, demonstrated during his tenure in office, in which he continued the Bush-Cheney wars.

Serious change will only emerge from an external force able to stand up to the existing momentum of government and the special interests attached to it. The multifaceted resistance we see on the streets — the great American awakening — may be that force.

One recent example is the huge outpouring of support that emerged last week in Phoenix, when Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos, married, mother of two, was suddenly seized and deported by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement during her yearly check-in

“I think we sugar-coat it by making it very procedural, but actually, that night she was kidnapped from her family,” community organizer Maria Castro said in a Truthout interview. She described the confrontation with the deportation authorities:

“Myself and about half a dozen people jumped in front and were being pushed. The van literally pushed me at least 30 feet, hyperextending my knees, hurting some of my friends, knocking some of my fellow organizers down to the ground. It wasn’t until we had one of the vehicles in front of the vans and then, another person started to hug the wheels and put his own life at risk, because this is just the beginning. This is the beginning of the militarized removal of our communities, of our families, and of our loved ones.”

With Trump as the official voice of the status quo, more people than ever before are becoming aware that “the way things are” can be challenged and changed. The moment is here. Social policy should not dehumanize anyone.


Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound is now available. Contact him at or visit his website at

No Degrowth Without Climate Justice

Matthias Schmelzer

This article was originally published in
Uneven Earth, 7 February 2017


Since the 2014 Leipzig Degrowth Conference, the argument that climate justice cannot exist without degrowth has repeatedly been made. In a keynote at the Degrowth conference in Budapest, in September 2016, I developed this line of thinking further and argued that the opposite is equally important: There is no degrowth without climate justice. My argument, which I presented as someone involved not only at the theoretical level, but also in concrete efforts to bring degrowth and climate justice together in terms of practices and people, is presented here in a concise way.

After the degrowth conference in Leipzig two years ago, people in the organizational committee were considering next steps that would allow the degrowth community to move forward. Our analysis was that if we want degrowth to leave the ivory towers of academia and lecture halls, we need to enter into alliances with other social movements; and if we want degrowth to move beyond lofty visions for future societies and towards intervention and action, we need to enter into a conflictual political arena, thus forcing degrowth to take clear stances. Even though a vision of transformation and a good life for all is important, if degrowth is worth anything, it should make a difference by intervening in political struggles.

Based on this analyses we decided to organize a degrowth summer school in 2015 in cooperation with the Rhineland climate camp. We thus entered a political field, in which concrete opponents – coal companies and their lobbies on the one hand and local communities and climate justice activists on the other – were struggling about the future of coal in the coming years. The summer school drew 500 people from around Germany and Europe who discussed degrowth and its relations to climate change, extractivism, justice, power, and capitalism. After the summer school, many participants took part in one of the hitherto largest actions of civil disobedience against lignite coal mining, in which more than 1000 people entered an open cast coal mine and blocked the operation of the huge diggers in Europe’s largest CO2 emitter. In 2016, Ende Gelände was repeated in Lusatia, and the 3000-participant strong blockade lasted two days. There was again a degrowth summer school under the title “Skills for System Change.” The summer of 2017 will see another degrowth-inspired summer school and a set of actions in the Rhineland that includes Ende Gelände, but will be much broader and possibly even bigger.

Ende Gelände 2016: Germany ~ Over 3500 people shut down Vattenfall's
lignite coal operations in a mass action of civil disobedience. Coal trains,
diggers, power plants - all disrupted. It's up to us to keep it in the ground.

The climate summit Truman show

This decision to enter into alliances with the climate justice movement and into the conflicts around coal already illustrates much of our stance on the Paris Agreement reached at the COP in Paris in 2015. First, that it proved a disaster precisely because it did not address the real problems, mainly that fossil fuels must largely stay underground and that we need a deep socio-ecological transformation. Second, that the Paris Agreement could not address these issues, because it largely stayed within the framework of economic growth, extractivism, and accumulation – albeit in a new form. And finally, that real change must come from stopping the drivers of climate change through concrete policies, public opposition, the building of alternatives, and direct action.

From the perspective of degrowth and climate justice movements, the Paris Agreement was a deceitful spectacle with potentially disastrous effects. What actually happened in Paris in November last year has been adequately described as the climate summit Truman Show: around the world, media headlines were enthusiastically celebrating the deal as ‘historic’ and ‘successful’, as the miracle of Paris, or even as  “31 pages of a recipe for revolution.” Cameras were showing the chief negotiator French foreign minister Laurent Fabius in tears, the climate advocate Al Gore enthusiastically clapping, and the room of delegates seemed to be in a collective delirium – and with it the entire media circus. Even many larger NGOs did not want to disturb this picture with their gentle statements, and the online campaigning platform avaaz described it as a “massive turning point in human history.”

Opening of COP 21 conference in Paris on 29 November 2015.
Source: COP Paris Flickr – Public domain photo taken by Benjamin Géminel.

Through the technocratic prism of the framework laid out by the UN climate convention, the summit achieved much more than has otherwise been accomplished during the last 20 years and far more than most observers had expected: 195 states actually achieved an agreement; and to the surprise of many in the last minute the 1,5 degree target was included in the final text.

However, this enthusiasm is highly misleading. It only makes sense from a narrow perspective that only focuses on the UN framework of negotiations and not on the broader political and economic context. One can ignore reality, but this does not make it disappear. Diplomacy and a perfectly staged show do not save the climate – this can only be done by leaving the greater part of fossil fuel reserves in the ground, stopping deforestation, and ending industrialized agriculture. And all of this needs to happen quickly, which requires a set of effective measures and policies.

But the Paris Agreement does not include mechanisms and measures to ensure that this target is met. In fact, the Paris Agreement cements and strengthens the illusion of decoupling growth and emission and of green growth through a new level of utopian technocratic optimism – negative emissions. In fact, the agreement willingly accepts missing the 1.5-degree target, and it contains many recipes for a new wave of neo-colonialism in the name of green capitalism. Instead of redefining and changing the economy and the mode of production and consumption that cause climate change, it redefines nature by turning it into a tradable commodity. The market mechanisms embedded in the agreement serve to enable the continuation of high consumption lifestyles in rich countries, while offsetting this overconsumption in the Global South and thus continuing colonial exploitation.

Beyond green capitalism

Degrowth stands in stark opposition not just to the continuation of a “brown” – fossil fuels-based and extractivist – capitalism, but also to the institutionalization of what seems the most likely alternative – a “green” capitalism based on the massive investment in renewable energies, global carbon trading regimes, and the economization of nature.

For many of us, the belief that there is “no climate justice without degrowth” is a fundamental motivation to engage in the degrowth community or movement. The climate justice perspective can inspire an understanding of degrowth that might be more appealing to some – an understanding of degrowth  as the democratically-led transformation to societies that are not based on the extraction or import of disproportionate amounts of resources and on the disproportionate use of sinks.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that this is only one side of the coin, since it stipulates that degrowth is more fundamental and the necessary precondition to achieve climate justice. Of course, there is great potential for cooperation and alliances between the two movements. But in the spirit of what was termed “alliances without subordination” at the Budapest conference in 2016, I want to turn this around and argue that the other side is equally important: There is no degrowth without climate justice, or – more comprehensively – ecological justice or even global justice.

If degrowth is not built on a comprehensive vision for global justice and fails to incorporate key elements that are clearer and more prominent in the climate justice movement than in degrowth discourses, it will not be the emancipatory project many wish it to be. What can the degrowth community learn from the climate justice movement? I want to highlight three key lessons.

Changing structures

First lesson, the focus on deep structural transformations, transformations in the economic, political, mental, and social structures of our societies. Of course, much has been written and said on this in the degrowth discussion – but it could move further. Beatrice Rodriguez Labajos said that activists in the global South generally think that degrowth is not radical enough, because it is not anti-capitalist and mainly focuses on individual lifestyle-change. Based on the discussions at the recent conferences, a consensus seems to be emerging that degrowth is indeed a proposal to overcome capitalism, and not just a new packaging for business as usual. Similarly, degrowth could be clearer on how to change political structures (for example in the discussions about global trade regimes such as TTIP and CETA, degrowth is largely absent), mental structures such as extractivism in all its forms, and social structures.

If degrowth is understood as a heterogeneous and evolving social movement in the making, one can understand the great variety of approaches taken by degrowth actors in terms of its main critiques, proposed alternatives and transformational practices – ranging from sufficiency-oriented adepts of voluntary simplicity to social-reformists, anti-capitalists and feminists. The climate justice perspective can help in strengthening those parts of the degrowth community that are not blind to issues of structural transformations.

Opposing hierarchies

Second, the climate justice movement is very strong in articulating and opposing hierarchies and power. Degrowth could learn that opposing all forms of power and domination is key if we want to achieve a more just society. And because the degrowth community is so strongly homogenous – just look around at the degrowth conferences –, it really needs to listen to and learn from others, both in the North and the South. In fact, climate justice is a movement of some of the least privileged people resisting the immediate loss of their livelihoods. The term goes back to the notion of environmental justice, and the origin of this term is highly illuminating. When the largely white and privileged American environmental activists resisted the dumping of industrial waste in the 1960s, they basically only cared about their own communities. This resulted in pushing the environmental costs down the social ladder, onto communities of color and the poor. In opposing this, these communities used the term “environmental racism” and “demanded environmental justice.” And in the 1990s, the term was then also used for the global problem of climate change.

In contrast to this, degrowth is a concept largely supported by some of the most privileged people on this planet – largely white, well-educated, middle-class people with Western passports  (on this, see a forthcoming study on the participants of the Leipzig Degrowth conference). It can even be conceptualized as the self-problematization of privileges in the context of what Ulrich Brand and Markus Wissen have called “the imperial mode of living”.

Because of this privileged homogeneity, degrowth needs to be particularly careful not to reproduce hierarchies, unequal distribution of power, and domination. We do not only need a decolonization of the economic imaginary – on which degrowth focuses – but, since they are all connected, we also need this decolonization in terms of sex and gender, race, class, sexual orientation, and all other forms of division and exclusion. How these and other hierarchies of the current capitalist, patriarchal, and (post)colonial societies can be overcome in a degrowth alternative and what they imply for degrowth strategies should be at the center of future degrowth and post-growth debates. To do this, degrowth needs to listen to and build alliances with the less privileged, not only in the global South, but also in the global North. In short, degrowth needs to become more intersectional and diverse.

Let’s look at two examples: In a recent project called “Degrowth in movements” we collaborated with protagonists from more than 30 other social movements and alternative economic approaches to discuss their relation to degrowth and how from their perspective degrowth should develop. The resultant essays provide fascinating insights – for example from the perspective of refugee movements, queer-feminism, trade unions, care, or food sovereignty -, which provide some entry points for degrowth to enter into broader alliances, reach out to new social groups, and strengthen its own critique of power and hierarchies. In another project – which was actually one of the outcomes of the degrowth summer schools in 2015 and 2016 – the Konzeptwerk Neue Ökonomie will be organizing a conference together with the transnational refugee activist network Afrique-Europe-Interact that will bring degrowth and refugee activists together in October 2017 to discuss the connections between flight and migration, self-determined development, and ecological crises from a practical and political perspective.

Embracing struggles

The third lesson seems to me to be the most important one. Degrowth can learn from climate justice the struggle. So far, degrowth is largely an academic endeavor to formulate and debate about alternatives, and grassroots efforts to strengthen low-impact lifestyles here and now. Both are vitally important. However, degrowth sometimes appears to be somewhat vague on key political questions, in particular in terms of what the necessary struggles that need to be fought to achieve degrowth are, what this would entail, and who are allies and enemies. To develop meaningful strategies for political change, degrowth should become more confrontational. Degrowth should not shy away from but rather face and embrace the conflicts that are necessary to achieve its goals.

One very concrete situation that the degrowth-climate justice alliance needs to organize against is that, while global carbon majors – the largest oil, gas, and coal companies worldwide – own 5 times more reserves of fossil fuels that are still in the ground than those that can be burned if humanity wants to achieve only the less ambitious 2 degree target, these reserves have largely already been turned into financial assets that are owned by companies and traded on international markets. Thus, alleviating climate change – and thus achieving one key basis for a degrowth transformation – is only possible if these companies are expropriated of these assets. They’ll do anything to avoid this. What does this mean for degrowth strategies? Also in this regard, the climate justice movement is showing the way. One great example is the Break Free campaign in May 2016, in which tens of thousands of people on 6 continents did something that politicians did not: they took bold, courageous action to keep fossil fuels in the ground. Degrowth should strive to engage more with on-the-ground struggles.

Teaser photo credit: By planet a. – Flickr: Mobilization for Climate Justice- Stop Chevron, CC BY 2.0,


Matthias Schmelzer works at the Konzeptwerk Neue Ökonomie and is a Permanent Fellow at the DFG-Research Group on “Post-Growth Societies” at the University of Jena. He has published on the ideology of economic growth, the history of economic ideas, and the degrowth movement and is currently involved in organising a conference about the relationships between migration, self-determined development and ecological crises.

Paul Ehrlich reviews Tobias and Morrison's most recent book —
"Anthrozoology: Embracing Co-Existence in the Anthropocene"

Paul R. Ehrlich

This article was originally published in
Millennium Alliance for Humanity and Biosphere, 31 January 2017
under a Creative Commons Licens

Bird Capture by Nate Edwards | Flickr | CC BY-NC 2.0

This article is a review of Michael Charles Tobias and Jane Gray Morrison’s most recent book –Anthrozoology: Embracing Co-Existence in the AnthropoceneIn Paul Ehrlich’s review, he likens the book to a poem; in a minor point he offers a correction to the origins of the IPAT equation which is referenced in the book. Following the review is an explanation of IPAT written by John Holdren in 1993 and re-published here with permission.

Most thoughtful people understand that very fundamental changes in the global culture of Homo sapiens are required if civilization is to persist.  That means ending the wrecking of its life-support systems, of which the microorganisms, plants, and other animals of our planet are critical parts, and becoming a civilization not focused on money, competition, consumption, efficiency, and colonialism.

Following work summarized in this brilliant book, in Carl Safina’s superb volume Beyond Words,[1] in David Montgomery’s excellent Other Half of Nature,[2] many of us are already altering our views of the living world.  We are realizing that people are basically cooperative assemblages of human and microbial cells, that other organisms (the “Others” in Anthrozoology) are often more “sentient,” “conscious,” “intelligent,” or “feeling” than usually assumed, and that humanity’s insane growthmania, combined with its uncaring annihilation of other life forms, is leading civilization directly toward collapse.

Tobias and Morrison, the authors of Anthrozoology, are both leading ecological philosophers and friends of mine (full disclosure), and I share many of their attitudes and conclusions.  Nonetheless, I found this a tough but entrancing book – forcing me to reexamine many of my own feelings, even while agreeing with its general thrust.  More and more people are recognizing that there is a crying need for reexaminations of humanity’s ethical duties to other human beings and (if any) to the other organisms with which people share Earth.  Anthrozoology is a reexamination of the latter – basically a long poem to the Others, and a long indictment of Homo sapiens for its ignoring of the Others’ needs and wants in service to humanity’s culturally-evolved wants.  And at the moment the most obvious of those wants is also lethal to civilization and to most of the visible Others (what will happen to Earth’s microbes is a more complex issue).  That lethal want, the perpetual expansion of human numbers and per capita consumption, also turns out to be impossible, as a horrific collapse will sooner or later amply demonstrate.

In many of today’s cultures some of Tobias and Morrison’s ideas will be pleasant if different.  That a parrot can communicate much to human beings, and even change their lives for the better and alter their thinking in significant ways, is a good example in the book.  More difficult to deal with are issues like vegetarianism (should the deaths of billions of chickens annually for human consumption be considered a “holocaust”?) and whether the feelings and desires of worms, cockroaches, or even Norway rats, should be a subject for human consideration.  Such questions are examined in Anthrozoology from a stunningly broad array of perspectives, including, literature, philosophy, religion, psychology, ecology, and evolution.  It deals with topics as diverse as Dunbar numbers and pyromaniac hawks to the art of Albrecht Dürer.

Science certainly gives little guidance in answering many of the questions Anthrozoology raises, but its poetry may be helpful.  In the end, though, much depends on the receptivity of the person and society to the themes of the poem.  Ethics are agreed-upon standards of behavior about what is good and bad.  They are entirely human decisions and become norms when there is broad concurrence.  Such concurrence requires advanced language with syntax, about the only major species feature that still can be viewed as characteristic only of Homo sapiens.  So we can have Jain ethics and SS ethics but (sadly) no Bonobo ethics.  Most human beings have decided that the unquestionable suffering of chickens being slaughtered is balanced by the nutritive and satisfaction benefits consumers receive – just as they (if they ever think of it) find that a captured impala’s terror and pain is balanced by the lion’s survival and satisfaction.  But having known a few chickens personally, and having watched a lot of impalas in the field, I can’t find an answer so easily.  When we’re considering the fates and feelings of individuals we can relate to (frightened pigs about to be slaughtered) or we can learn to relate to (brilliant octopuses that can sometimes outwit us), it becomes more difficult to continue long-established dietary habits.

There are a few places where I thought I detected mistakes in Anthrozoology, and then I thought: “There really can’t be mistakes in a poem.”  All would be trivial, even in an essay. At one place, though, Michael and Jane jabbed me right in the ego. They write (loc. 781) of the “famed Paul Ehrlich, John Holdren, Barry Commoner I=PAT equation.” The equation was actually developed by Holdren and Ehrlich to show how ridiculous was Commoner’s continuous claim that population growth and increasing consumption were not important in causing environmental problems, only faulty technologies were to blame.  With that claim, widely believed by non-scientists, he was probably the scientist who did the most to block solving humanity’s environmental crisis.  The details of his ideology and gross dishonesty need not concern us here, but John Holdren, just retired as head of the Government Office of Science and Technology Policy and President Obama’s science advisor, has permitted MAHB to publish his 1993 memo, “A brief history of IPAT” below.

I find myself uncertain or ambiguous on many of the themes of Anthrozoology, but of its most basic themes I’m convinced.  The human enterprise – a product of numbers of people and how much on average each consumes – is much too large, and our treatment of the Others is much too cruel and unthinking.  What to do? Read Anthrozoology and then discuss it with your friends.

[1] Safina C. 2015. Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel. Henry Holt.

[2] Montgomery D.R., Biklé A. 2015. The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health. WW Norton & Company.

A Brief History of “IPAT”

(Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology)

John P. Holdren (7 September 1993)

In late 1969, the then-prominent biologist Barry Commoner began claiming in speeches and lectures that he had sorted out the responsibility for the environmental crisis and had found that neither population growth nor rising affluence had much to do with it.  The culprit, he said, was ecologically inept choices of productive technologies in post-World-War-2 industrial societies.  He often used the figure 95 percent in these talks to describe the share of the “blame” for environmental problems attributable to faulty technology.  (The 95 percent claim is also made on page 176 of The Closing Circle, the 1971 popular book through which his argument reached its largest audience.)  During 1970 Commoner published these claims in a variety of unrefereed forums –Saturday Review, Congressional testimony, and the like– and in April 1971 his more detailed analysis, “The Causes of Pollution” (with Michael Corr and Paul J. Stamler) appeared in Environment.  That journal was then the house organ of the Scientists Institute for Public Information, which Commoner headed; I mention this because the transparent errors of arithmetic and logic in “The Causes of Pollution” would have precluded its publication in any competently refereed professional journal.

In the Environment article, Commoner and co-authors offered up, with great fanfare, their discovery that

pollution = (population) x (production/capita) x (pollution/production)

(an intellectual achievement roughly equivalent to noticing that GNP equals population times GNP per capita); and they proceeded to try, through a combination of biased selection of data, redefinition of widely understood concepts, and neglect of cause-and-effect relations, and with the help of major mistakes in arithmetic, to support the proposition that 95 percent of the problem resides in the last factor.  These flaws survived unscathed the expansion of the argument to 300 pages’ length in The Closing Circle, which appeared later the same year and hammered home relentlessly the simplistic message that neither population growth nor rising material consumption is a major cause of environmental disruption.  The culprit is faulty technology, brought about by a faulty economic system.  Here are some quotes from The Closing Circle:

“It seems clear, then, that despite the frequent assertions that blame the environmental crisis on ‘overpopulation’, ‘affluence’, or both, we must seek elsewhere for an explanation.”  (p 139)

“The pattern of economic growth is the major reason for the environmental crisis. A good deal of the mystery and confusion about the sudden emergence of the environmental crisis can be removed by pinpointing, pollutant by pollutant, how the postwar technological transformation of the United States economy has produced not only the much-heralded 126 percent rise in GNP, but also, at a rate about ten times faster than the growth of GNP, the rising levels of environmental pollution.”  (p 146)

“[M]ost of the sharp increase in pollution levels is due not so much to population or affluence as to changes in productive technology.” (p 177)

“[The technology factor] has a far more powerful effect on pollution levels than the other two.”  (p 211)

As it happened, prior to Commoner’s initial revelation that population and affluence are unimportant causes of environmental problems, I had started to collaborate with Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich on studies of more or less the same questions ­–the interactions of population, poverty and affluence, technology, and resource and environmental issues.  (I was then a doctoral student at Stanford in aeronautics and astronautics and theoretical plasma physics.)  Our first joint paper, “Population and Panaceas: A Technological Perspective” (written in late 1968 and published in the refereed journal Bioscience in December 1969), showed why technological “fixes” alone were unlikely to be able to cope with the pressures posed by the combination of population growth and rising material consumption.  We were dismayed to learn, at a conference at the end of 1969, of Commoner’s determination to persuade people that population growth and rising material consumption were nothing to worry about, and we began preparing a rebuttal.  It was presented as an invited paper to the President’s Commission on Population Growth and the American Future in November 1970 and was published in the 26 March 1971 issue of the refereed journal Science under the title “Impact of Population Growth”. In it, we took the position that ALL of the factors (population, affluence, technology, socioeconomic variables) are important, that they interact, and that neglect of any of them, or of their interactions, is dangerous.  Here are some quotes from our paper:

“Problems of population size and growth, resource utilization and depletion, and environmental deterioration must be considered jointly and on a global basis.  In this context, population control is obviously not a panacea – it is necessary but not alone sufficient to see us through the crisis.”  (3rd paragraph of the paper)

“Environment’ must be broadly construed to include such things as the physical environment of urban ghettos, the human behavioral environment, and the epidemiological environment.”  (5th paragraph)

“Complacency concerning any component of these problems –sociological, technological, economic, ecological– is unjustified and counterproductive.  It is time to admit that there are no monolithic solutions to the problems we face.  Indeed, population control, the redirection of technology, the transition from open to closed resource cycles, and the equitable distribution of opportunity and the ingredients of prosperity must ALL be accomplished if there is to be a future worth having.  Failure in any of these areas will surely sabotage the whole enterprise.” (conclusion of the paper;  emphasis in original)

As for the “IPAT” relation, Commoner’s version of the population-production-pollution identity had not been published yet when we wrote the Science article, and we chose to present the population-impact relation in a way that stressed its inherent complexity from the outset.  Here is our initial treatment of the subject from Science of 26 March 1971:

“The total negative impact of an [agricultural or technological] society on the environment can be expressed, in the simplest terms, by the relation

I = P * F

where P is the population, and F is a function which measures the per capita impact.  A great deal of complexity is subsumed in this simple relation, however.  For example, F increases with per capita consumption if technology is held constant, but may decrease in some cases if more benign technologies are introduced in the provision of a constant level of consumption….  Pitfalls abound in the interpretation of manifest increases in the total impact I.  For instance, it is easy to mistake changes in the composition of resource demand or environmental impact for absolute per capita increases, and thus to underestimate the role of the population multiplier.  Moreover, it is often assumed that population size and per capita impact are independent variables, when in fact they are not.”

The actual “IPAT” equation, using those symbols, appeared for the first time in the critique of The Closing Circle that Paul Ehrlich and I wrote and circulated widely in late 1971, and that was published together with Commoner’s rebuttal in the April 1972 Environment and the May 1972 Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.  We introduced the “IPAT” version as a vehicle for illustrating the flaws in Commoner’s use of the population-production-pollution identity, starting with the problem that “pollution” is too narrow a concept for what is being done to the environment (hence our preference for “impact”) and that “production” is too narrow a term to capture the array of effects associated with rising material well-being (hence our preference for “affluence”).  Here, in full, is the passage from our 1971/72 critique of The Closing Circle in which the “IPAT” equation made its first appearance in the literature:

“Commoner admits that the factors contributing to environmental impact are multiplicative, rather than additive; he offers (in a footnote to pp 211-212) the equation

pollution = (population) x (production/capita) x (pollution emission/production)

Here the second factor on the right, production per capita, is in some sense a measure of affluence, and the last factor, pollution per unit of production, is a measure of the relative environmental impact of the technology that provides the affluence.  For compactness, let us rewrite this equation

I = P x A x T      (1)

or, in terms of initial values and the subsequent changes, over a specified period of time,

I + delta I = (P + delta P) x (A + delta A) x (T + delta T)      (2)

Here I is for impact (a better word than “pollution” for reasons already explained), P is for population, A for affluence, and T for technology.  Let us also assume for a moment that the variables P, A, and T are independent; i.e., that a change in P does not cause changes in A or T, and vice versa.  We shall find later that this is not true, but it is the simplest assumption and the one most favorable to Commoner’s hypothesis.

It is immediately obvious from equation (2), of course, that the actual magnitude of the environmental deterioration engendered by an adverse change in technology depends strongly both on the initial levels of population and affluence and on such changes in these levels as may occur simultaneously with the change in technology.  A corollary is that population and affluence would be important factors in environmental degradation even if they were not growing.  A change for the worse in the technology of production is more serious environmentally if it occurs in a populous, affluent society than if it occurs in a small, poor one.”

We went on, in the critique, to elucidate many of the ways in which the factors are in fact causally interrelated, as well as showing how Commoner had mangled the logic and arithmetic even for the hypothetical case when they are independent.  In our conclusion to this critique, we wrote:

“In fixing the blame for environmental deterioration on faulty technology alone, Commoner’s position is uncomplicated, socially comfortable and, hence, seductive.  But there is little point in deluding the public on these matters; the truth is that we must grapple SIMULTANEOUSLY with overpopulation, excessive affluence, and faulty technology.”(emphasis in original)

Unfortunately, numerous writers revisiting “the population debate” in subsequent decades have chosen to expound at length on the content and significance of this 1969-1972 Ehrlich/Holdren/Commoner disagreement without, apparently, taking the trouble to read any of the original documents.  The result is passages like the following (from an op-editorial essay in Science of 25 June 1993 by National Academy of Sciences staffer Paul Stern):

“Scientific progress has been slowed by a futile debate about which of these factors is the most important driving force, a debate that rests on the erroneous assumption that the contributions of these forces can be assessed independently.  For example, in decades of sharp debate about the impact of population growth on the environment, some have argued that population growth is the primary cause of environmental cause of environmental degradation (2), others that population growth is environmentally neutral or even beneficial (3), and others that population is secondary to technological or socioeconomic factors (4).”

Under note (2), Stern cites the 26 March 1971 Ehrlich/Holdren paper in Science (from which I quoted at length above), as well as a 1974 Holdren/Ehrlich paper in American Scientist, entitled “Human Population and the Global Environment”, in which we are emphatic throughout that population, affluence, and technology are ALL important, that the “IPAT” relation conceals much complexity, that its component factors are causally interrelated and influenced by context, and so on.  Stern’s essay then goes on to inform the reader that:

“What has become clear is that the driving forces interact –that each is meaningful only in relation to the impacts of the others and that the environmental consequences of increased population are highly sensitive to the economic and technological conditions of that population (7).”

But everything that Stern appears to think has only recently “become clear”(his reference 7 being a 1992 National Research Council study for which he was the staff director) was in fact already clear –and clearly stated in the literature Stern misportrays– when Paul Ehrlich and I were writing about it in 1971.  Evidently Stern has not acquired the scholarly habit of reading the works he cites.

He is not alone.  As another example, consider the 1992 article by World Bank analyst R. Paul Shaw on “The Impact of Population Growth on the Environment: The Debate Heats Up” (Environmental Impact Assessment Review, Vol. 12, 1992). Shaw writes that the “IPAT” equation was “proposed by Paul and Anne Ehrlich in 1990” (p 29), characterizes their position as being that population growth “is largely responsible for global environmental degradation”, and cites with an apparent sense of discovery and approval the 1988 (re)statement by “leading environmentalist Barry Commoner” that “The theory that environmental degradation is largely due to population growth is not supported by the data.”  The rest of Shaw’s analysis is at a comparable level.

Consider, finally, a paper entitled “Population, Environment, and Development: Key Issues for the End-of-Century Scenario”, presented by Brazilian analyst George Martine at a 1992 international conference on environment and development.  Martine writes:

“A sizeable segment of the existing literature on population and environment has attempted to grapple with the intricacies of the theoretical interrelationships between environmental change and what appears to be a restricted list of variables: technology, population size, characteristics, and growth, consumption levels and patterns.  These relationships are customarily summarized in the formula:

I (impact) = P (pop.) x A (affluence) x T (technology).

In reality, however, the relationships between population size, consumption, and technology are much more complex than suggested in this formula. [1]The heated debates which have ensued within what appears to be a relatively limited number of variables can be partly attributed to this complexity, as well as to divergences of a theoretical-ideological character.  Inspiration for different stances has come from a gamut of contrasting positions ranging from malthusian to marxist to neo-classical.  Lack of hard data compounds the absence of consensus on appropriate methodological approaches and added fuel to the debate.  What’s worse, all of the different positions are correct, when examined from their own relative standpoints. [2]”

Under note [1], Martine refers the reader “for a more general discussion” to Paul Harrison, The Third Revolution: Environment, Population, and a Sustainable World (T. B. Tauris, 1992).  In that book, Harrison struggles with the complexities of “IPAT”, clearly handicapped by having read and talked to only Commoner on the subject, and gets some of it right and some of it wrong.  He accuses Ehrlich of lack of precision –not realizing, having not actually read the relevant literature– that it is Ehrlich AND Holdren he means to be (incorrectly) accusing –and he credits Commoner with “the seminal work” in the field.  He ends up saying, with Martine, that EVERYBODY is more or less right.  In note [2], Martine quotes Harrison as suggesting helpfully that “to overcome partial views, we treat our familiar three factors –population, consumption, and technology– as the proximate, direct determinants of environmental use which influence each other and are influenced by other factors.”

This last “insight”, which it appears that Martine believes Harrison discovered in 1992 (and perhaps Harrison DID learn of it only then), is of course the perfectly obvious position that Ehrlich and I took when we first wrote about “IPAT” in 1971.

As for the proposition that “all of the different positions are correct”, I must insist that when one position holds that only technology is important and another holds that technology, affluence, and population are all important, both positions are NOT correct; the first position is wrong, and the second one is right.  Of course, Martine may be onto something when he writes that the debate has been partly due to “divergences of a theoretical-ideological character”:  Ehrlich and I hold to the theory that logical argument, getting one’s sums right, and reading the references one cites are important principles in intellectual life; some of the other people in the debate evidently hold to the theory that these principles can be safely ignored.

Full citations to the two key Ehrlich-Holdren papers

Paul R. Ehrlich and John P. Holdren, “Impact of population growth”, Science, vol. 171, pp 1212-1217, 26 March 1971.  See also the longer version by the same authors under the same title in Commission on Population Growth and the American Future, Research Reports, Vol. III: Population, Resources, and the Environment, Ronald G. Ridker, ed., US Government Printing Office, 1972, pp 365-377.

Paul R. Ehrlich and John P. Holdren, “One-dimensional ecology”, Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists, May 1972, pp 16, 18-27.  A version of the same article was published without the permission or proofreading of the authors in Environment, April 1972, pp 24-34.


Paul Ehrlich is a Professor of Biology and President of the Center for Conservation Biology at Stanford University, and Adjunct Professor at the University of Technology, Sydney. His research interests are in the ecology and evolution of natural populations of butterflies, reef fishes, birds and human beings.

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