Sunday, February 14, 2021

Demateralizing the economy isn't happening (Hint: All that material is actually hiding in plain sight)

If you are trying to prove something is true and certain facts get in the way, it's almost always useful to exclude them. This is apparently what technology cheerleader Andrew McAfee has done in his recent book More from Less, which claims that advanced economies have been dematerializing for something like the last 40 years. Simply put, those economies are producing more output with little or no increase in physical resources.

There's just one little problem as anthropologist Jason Hickel points out in his review of More from Less: McAfee forgot to count the physical resources used in making products imported from other countries by all those advanced economies. McAfee only counts those resources extracted within the boundaries of the advanced countries.

I am highlighting Hickel's piece not so much as a book review. There are dozens of books making similar ridiculous claims that are contradicted by the facts. I am highlighting the piece because Hickel provides perhaps the clearest, most concise refutation of the nonsense that McAfee and others like him are peddling.

Let me touch on the high points though I encourage you to read the full article:

  1. "There has been zero dematerialization. No green growth. It was all an illusion of accounting."
  2. Global resource use has actually been accelerating faster than growth in the global economy. We are becoming more resource-intensive, not less.
  3. Ecologists believe human societies are 90 percent over any sustainable rate of resource consumption.
  4. The economy can't become infinitely more efficient. There are limits on how much efficiency can be taken out of any process as each increment of efficiency in resource use is more costly to implement.
  5. Increases in efficiency don't reduce resource use in most cases anyway. They paradoxically increase it as prices decline for goods affected by the efficiencies and the goods therefore become affordable to more people who increase the demand. This is often referred to as the Jevons Paradox.
  6. "The only fail-safe strategy [to avoid economic collapse] is to impose legally binding caps on resource use and gradually ratchet it back down to safe levels." [The caps are necessary because of the aforementioned Jevons Paradox.]
  7. Human well-being beyond a certain level of consumption does not rise linearly with more consumption. In some cases economies with significantly lower per-capita wealth than the United States have higher measures of well-being such as life expectancy.
  8. These higher measures have been achieved in part by redistributing existing wealth in the form of universal health care, low-cost or free education, and other public investments in the population.

I have written about various related issues in previous pieces including The unbearable lightness of information; Human well-being, economic growth and so-called decoupling; The Coal Question Revisited; and Why Energy Efficiency Won't Matter Without Energy Caps among others. My point in listing these pieces which date all the way back to 2008 is that the facts and conclusions that Hickel relies on have been known for some time. In fact, the Jevons Paradox was formulated in 1865 by economist William Stanley Jevons in his booklet entitled The Coal Question. The book suggested that coal supplies in Great Britain would not last hundreds of years as was widely believed, but would run out much more quickly as exponential growth in their use continued. Jevons turned out to be right. These ideas are nothing new...except perhaps to McAfee who seems unaware of them.

As you might expect, McAfee's soothing account of a future of continuing economic growth with less and less environmental impact sits well with the world's ruling elite. Hickel mentions that More from Less fans include "the writer Steven Pinker, European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde, and the economist Larry Summers, plus CEOs, bankers, and a number of Silicon Valley celebrities." None of those on the list should be surprising. They have either provided a very sunny, almost Panglossian view of our contemporary society (Pinker) or they will benefit from a narrative that does not force them to make hard choices or share their power.

It turns out that the now-you-see-it, now-you-don't sleight of hand that invokes the dematerialization idea isn't very clever at all. It only requires that you ignore the plain facts, accept faulty arguments, and sit back and let the tech overlords and ruling elite make all the decisions for you. The fact that indicators for such major environmental problems as climate change, deforestation, soil depletion, water depletion, toxic pollution of our land, air and water have continued to get worse and worse is not supposed to bother you. Any minute now those problems will all start going away as we move into the bright, light dematerialized future.

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Naked Capitalism, Le Monde Diplomatique,, OilVoice, TalkMarkets,, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. He can be contacted at


Unknown said...

It is interesting Kurt that virtually none of the plethora of plans, policies etc about net zero emissions, future fuels etc even investigates whether there is enough minerals to support this transition. An increasingly body of scientific literature suggests that the mineral resources will fall well short.

Deliberate ignorance I wonder?


september 16 said...

Fossil fuels, you got to love them and hate them at the same time. Our present civilization is the product of a one time gift of fossil fuels. Literally everything in the built world is the result of their exploitation. Our problem is that instead of treating them as precious resources not to be squandered, we've gone on a consumptive binge driven by an economic system that doesn't believe in limits. Considering that the USA's electricity usage represents only 17% of its total energy usage and most of that electricity is powered by fossil fuels and nuclear, It's amazing to think that people actually think we can somehow convert all of our energy usage to electricity powered by "renewables" without actually looking at all the resources i.e. rare earths and metals that would have to be mined, transported, manufactured, sited and installed, and then taken to the dump at the end of their useful lifespans. We should be thinking about using less of everything instead of more.