More From Less

More From Less
By Andrew McAfee
Scribner, New York, 2019

More From Less is a book about dematerialization

Demawhat

No, it’s not some sort of Star Trek transporter technology. Dematerialization is the phenomenon of producing the same goods from less material and energy. It’s real, it’s important, and Andrew McAfee thinks it can help save the planet.

McAfee is a principal research scientist at MIT.  He’s the co-author, with Erik Brynjolfsson, of The Second Machine Age (review) which I hugely enjoyed and highly recommend, and a business-focused follow-up book, Machine Platform Crowd (review).

To understand dematerialization, consider the humble soda can.  When I was a kid growing up in Canada, soda cans (we called them pop cans) were made of three parts: a rectangular piece of aluminum rolled into a cylinder with a seam joining the edges, plus a top and a bottom that were attached to the cylinder.  Today’s soda cans are quite different.  Grab one out of your fridge and you’ll notice the cylinder and the bottom are all one piece. There’s no seam. Only the top needs to be attached.  And the metal is a lot thinner than it used to be.  Back in the early 1960’s aluminum cans weighed about 85 g, according to data from the book.  By 2011 they weighed just 12.75 g. We now use about 80% less metal – less material — to make a can. 

Now soda can makers haven’t done this out of the goodness of their hearts.  They’ve done it to cut costs.  But using less material is good for the environment too. 

A subtler example: your smartphone.  Obviously, it’s a phone.  But it’s also a watch, a flashlight, a radio, a music player, a tape recorder, a camcorder, a newspaper, a compass, a magnifying glass and a whole pile of other things too.  The smartphone replaces them all.  You don’t need to buy those things anymore.

Finally, using less energy overall, and more renewable energy is yet another kind of dematerialization where material energy sources like coal, oil and gas are replaced by non-material sources like wind and sunlight.

McAfee says dematerialization occurs in four ways: 

  • Slim:  Use less material to make the same goods, like aluminum soda cans.
  • Swap:  Substitute new materials for more expensive or more damaging materials, such as switching from coal and oil to natural gas or renewables for electricity generation. 
  • Optimize:  Make better, more efficient use of the materials you already have so you don’t need to buy more, which explains why you rarely see empty seats on airplanes anymore.
  • Evaporate:  Replace materials with nothing at all, like your smartphone does.

Dematerialization is hugely beneficial both economically and environmentally.

Here’s where it gets interesting:  McAfee argues that the American economy has reached a point where GDP can keep growing without a corresponding increase in the amount of resources we’re consuming.  This is called decoupling

“With the help of innovation and new technologies, economic growth in America and other rich countries – growth in all of the wants and needs that we spend money on – has become decoupled from resource consumption.  This is a recent development and a profound one.”  [p. 109]

Profound indeed!  If dematerialization and decoupling are both happening at the scale McAfee claims, then we don’t need to worry so much about catastrophic Malthusian scenarios where we run out of essential resources.  Even climate change becomes a little less threatening if we’re actually using less material and energy to produce the goods we need and want. 

But are we?

McAfee presents convincing evidence that relative dematerialization is widespread. Making the same item with less material than before, like a soda can, is relative dematerialization. But if demand for soda keeps increasing and we make more and more cans, pretty soon the savings from dematerialization (and from recycling) will be outweighed by all the additional cans.  In absolute terms we’ll still be consuming more aluminum.  Similarly, while your smartphone replaces a knapsack full of other devices, if you buy a new one every year or two are you actually dematerializing in total?

Now zoom out from a single product to an entire economy.  Relative dematerialization occurs when total material and energy consumption is growing more slowly than the economy as a whole.  Absolute dematerialization would occur If material and energy consumption remained flat or better yet declined while the economy kept growing.  Then we would truly be making more from less and growth would truly be decoupled from resource consumption. 

Can we really achieve absolute dematerialization?  Even while population growth and rising demand, especially from developing countries, continue to drive consumption of more and more goods?

McAfee walks us through data showing absolute dematerialization in the US for some important materials like aluminum, copper, steel, gold, crop land, and even energy.  This is critically important: the data shows that total US consumption of these materials has peaked, in some cases as far back as the year 2000 and has been steadily declining.  His startling conclusion is that the US economy is now experiencing absolute dematerialization and so are some European countries.    

Contrary to those who say we need to radically restructure our world to move away from a model based on economic growth, McAfee says we need to encourage growth, particularly in developing countries, to help them get to the stage where their economies also move past “peak stuff” and start to dematerialize. 

“… instead of worrying about the world’s poor becoming richer, we should instead be helping them upgrade economically as much and as quickly as possible.  Not only is it the morally correct thing to do, it’s also the smart move for our planet.”  [p. 237]

His approach is fundamentally market based.  He devotes several chapters of the book to a vigorous defense of markets, capitalism and technology while acknowledging their historical sins and short comings.  If you’ve read Stephen Pinker’s Enlightenment Now (review) this will be familiar ground. 

Now McAfee isn’t saying we’re out of the woods, especially on climate change, pollution and endangered species.  Nor is he claiming that dematerialization alone is a panacea for the world’s environmental problems. Responsive government and public awareness also play an important role in dealing with the nasty side-effects — economists call them “negative externalities” – of economic activity.  He advocates measures such as pricing carbon emissions, either through a carbon tax or a cap and trade system. 

McAfee’s main idea in More From Less is that capitalism, technological progress, responsive government and public awareness – what he calls the four horsemen of the optimist – have already brought about absolute dematerialization in the US, and that given time, they can do it globally so that we humans “tread more lightly on the planet.” 

Unsolicited Feedback

The optimist (and the capitalist) in me really wants to believe McAfee is correct, but some alarm bells are going off in my head.    

Just before reading More From Less I read Vaclav Smil’s mammoth book Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities (review). Smil throws cold water on decoupling and absolute dematerialization.

“Decoupling economic growth from energy and material inputs contradicts physical laws:  basic needs for food, shelter, education and employment for the additional billions of people to be added by 2100 will alone demand substantial energy flows and material inputs.  True, those inputs will have lower relative intensities … but the absolute totals will keep rising (with continued population growth) or will moderate but remain substantial.”  [Growth, p. 492]

And he cites a paper by James Ward of the University of South Australia and his associates called Is Decoupling GDP Growth From Environmental Impact Possible?  The paper concludes that,

“… growth in GDP ultimately cannot plausibly be decoupled from growth in material and energy use, demonstrating categorically that GDP growth cannot be sustained indefinitely.”

On the other hand, McAfee cites a couple of papers that support his position on dematerialization (see Related Links below).  So the question of whether absolute dematerialization is possible, let alone whether it can be achieved worldwide, is by no means settled.

Now I’m particularly concerned about climate change.  On that front there are some encouraging signs like this report showing that global electricity generation from coal is set to decline by 3% in 2019, its largest drop ever, and this article talking about the increasingly important role of utility-scale batteries for energy storage. 

But even if we assume for the moment that McAfee is correct and that the world is on track to achieve dematerialization at global scale, it is not clear that we will get there in time to avoid the worst effects of climate change.  In fact, the United Nations 2019 Emissions Gap Report warns that,

“GHG emissions continue to rise, despite scientific warnings and political commitments.”  [Executive Summary, p. iv]

And further,

“There is no sign of GHG emissions peaking in the next few years…” [Executive Summary, p. v]

McAfee recognizes the dangers of climate change and I think he makes some sensible recommendations as well as some controversial ones like using more nuclear power.  But we’re facing a time constraint.  I don’t think we have time to simply let economic development play out at its current pace. I think we’re going to need more aggressive policy measures. And we’ll need international cooperation and leadership to achieve them. I didn’t find that sense of urgency in More From Less and I think that’s a gap in the book.

Still dematerialization is happening.  Whether it is happening fast enough or widely enough may be open for debate, but More From Less is an important book worth reading.  McAfee’s passion for the subject comes through in his engaging, well-paced writing.

I hope Andrew McAfee is right, but I’m not quite convinced. I plan to read more and blog more about this.

Related Links

a16z Podcast: The Environment, Capitalism, Technology
Marc Andreessen and Sonal Chokshi interview Andrew McAfee

The Return of Nature – How Technology Liberates the Environment by Jesse Ausubel
This 2015 paper provided the inspiration for More From Less

Peak Stuff by Chris Goodall
A complimentary paper from 2011 about dematerialization in the UK.

Is Decoupling GDP Growth from Environmental Impact Possible? by James. D. Ward and associates. This paper says “no”.

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