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Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.

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Technology reduces human impact

The always perceptive Indur Goklany has turned his attention to IPAT, the formula by which some environmentalists insist that human impact (I) gets worse if population (P), affluence (A) or technology (T) increases. This simple formula has become highly influential, but it fails to explain why human well being keeps increasing as P, A and T climb ever higher:

 

Environmentalists explain away this inconvenient truth as merely implying that we have managed to postpone disaster and it will be all the worse when it comes. But it's far more plausible that what's going on is that much new technology actually reduces impact.

The acres needed to support a single person's lifestyle keep going down and down. Today the same 700m hectares of land devoted to growing cereals produce three times more food than they did in 1961. Today burning coal to make electricity is 40% efficient, whereas a Newcomen engine was 1% efficient.

Those are food and fuel example, but there are others relating to shelter, clothing and even light. An electric light bulb requires far, far less land than a tallow candle made from the fat of a sheep did -- for an equivalent amount of light. (Does anybody have the exact numbers here: I have been trying to find out how many candles could be made from a single sheep or a single sperm whale spermaceti organ?)

Land isn't everything, of course. But the same is true of other resources. Whales, for example. If petroleum had not been discovered, most whales would be extinct.