The Affluence-Technology Connection: Metrics, Analysis, and Implications for Sustainable Technology
thesisposted on 01.05.2020, 00:00 authored by John MS Mulrow
The affluence-technology (A-T) connection is a reference to a popular framing of technology's role in bringing about environmental sustainability, as encapsulated by the IPAT equation (Impact = Population × Affluence × Technology). This thesis explores the A-T connection through the development and application of new metrics that reveal how technological attributes and consumption affluence influence and relate to each other. The work is focused on modern transportation systems in a United States context and includes a detailed examination of this system through three different measurement frameworks. Each of the presented studies points to mechanisms by which the A-T connection diminishes impact reductions from technological efforts typically viewed as “sustainable.” Increasing mode-speed reduces the solution space for the achievement of climate goals; expanding the speed-distance (i.e., sociotechnical) boundaries of personal transportation drives increased transportation activity; emerging transportation technologies succeed by claiming sociotechnical space traditionally occupied by the personal vehicle; and the efficiency benefits of fuel switching are diminished when full material-energy cycles are factored in. The metrics and mechanisms described in this thesis show that the affluence-technology connection can be quantitatively measured using a combination of public survey and technical data. The lesson for sustainable technology development and deployment is that this connection could be factored into the calculation of impact-reduction potential. Furthermore, factoring this connection in may serve to dampen such calculations. The thesis concludes with a discussion of this conundrum and a call for future research to clarify, calculate, and ultimately reframe the prospects for truly sustainable technology. Doing so will require a willingness to consider lower affluence outcomes and slower technological configurations.