I recently read a good paper by Richard York, Eugene A Rosa & Thomas Dietz 2003 Footprints on the Earth: The environmental consequences of modernity. American Sociological Review 68(2) 279-300.
The paper uses the statistical analysis of several competing models of what shapes human impact on the earth. The test models of ecological modernization (that democratic capitalist development is developing solutions to environmental problems – i.e. the environmental kuznets curve), political economic (the neo-Marxian treadmill of production), and ecological models (Impact=Population X Affluence X Technology). They found that population and economy size are the best predictors – by far – of a country’s ecological footprint. There is no evidence of ecological modernization, and a little support for political economic models, such as urbanization increases ecological footprint.
Basic material conditions, such as population, economic production, urbanization, and geographical factors, all contribute to environmental impacts and explain the vast majority of cross-national variation in impacts. Factors derived from neo-liberal modernization theory, such as political freedom, civil liberties, and state environmentalism have no effect on impacts.
The sobering note from this analysis is our failure to detect the ameliorating processes postulated by neoclassical economics and ecological modernization theorists. This suggess we cannot be sanguine about ecological sustainability via emergent institutional change.
A key consquence is that because of high levels of consumption in affluent nations, even a slow rate of population growth in these nations is at least as great a threat to the environment as is rapid rate of population growth in less developed nations. After all, the footprint of the typical American is nearly 25 times greater than that of the typical Bangladeshi.
ISI selected Footprints on the Earth as a fast breaking paper in Sociology last year.
A bibliography of their related research is avaiable in the STIRPAT Bibliography.