Economic Impact of Population and Technology on the Environment

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Economic Impact of Population and Technology on the Environment

Ask any economist what two things have changed in the past three or so million years since humans first began appearing in demographically significant numbers and he will tell you with unwavering confidence: population and technology. And that economist would be right. These two factors are the root cause of every change in the standard of living we have experienced since the dawn of humanity. Any anthro-ecologist posed with the same question and will offer up little more than a puzzled look. Only two? The point, here, is that economists have a certain tendency to apply Razor's Axiom to every situation imaginable. Looking at the effect humans have on the environment is most commonly a qualitative exercise. While it may be possible to count sheer number of deer hunted or square miles of forest burned as the result of human involvement in nature, such calculations are more commonly done with anecdotes and broad estimates. Ask an economist to measure the damage done to the environment by humans and you will hear about equivalent and compentating differentials two quantitative methods of valuing a qualitative loss. Both neccesitate understanding humans' preferences and values, and take an understandably anthropocentric view of the Earth. Regardless, in absolute, per capita, and relative terms, both of those differentials have increased consistently over the course of human history.

The first step in evaluating human impact on the environment is to elucidate what we consider human-caused ecological damage. There are, not surprisingly, a great many approaches possibly in defining such a broad concept, but there are a few basic principles which are nearly universal bads. The damages in this illumination are defined with a Darwinian perspective. One such bad is the loss of diversity among non-human population. This loss of diversity can take the form of extinction of plants or animals, a loss of genetic diversity among one species, or a forced-relocation of an existing population. Another bad is the transformation of terra, whether intentional or unintentional, as the result of human activity. Examples are common think 1930 s Oklahoma Dust Bowl and are often caused by agricultural activities. The next step in evaluating the extent human-caused environmental damages lies in the measurement of such damages. Since no dollar value can be placed on the extinction of a species, we must estimate the value that species contributes to the Earth s consumption (evaluating changes in consumption is the only way we can say that one situation is better than another).
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