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Book Review: How We Learned to Prosper Using Fewer Resources

Monday, October 7, 2019
Irving Wladawsky-Berger

"We have finally learned how to tread more lightly on our planet. It’s about time,” writes Andrew McAfee in the Introduction to his new book, More from Less: The Surprising Story of How We Learned to Prosper Using Fewer Resources — and What Happens Next.

McAfee is Co-Director of MIT’s Initiative on the Digital Economy and a Principal Research Scientist at the MIT Sloan School of Management, as well as a prolific writer of books and articles. He previewed the book at MIT on October 2.

“For just about all of human history our prosperity has been tightly coupled to our ability to take resources from the earth,” he adds. “So as we became more numerous and prosperous, we inevitably took more: more minerals, more fossil fuels, more land for crops, more trees, more water, and so on. But not anymore. In recent years we’ve seen a different pattern emerge: the pattern of more from less.”

What led to the emergence of a more-from-less pattern? The book provides a provocative answer to this question. The most important forces responsible for the change are technological progress and capitalism.

Many will find this conclusion— the book’s central thesis— somewhat bizarre and hard to accept, notes McAfee. Wait a second, they might say. Aren’t these the same two forces that have caused the massive increase in the use of resources and in environmental harms over the past two centuries? Haven’t we been supporting our industrial era prosperity by chopping down forests, digging out resources, killing animals, and fouling our planet’s air and water?

We sure have, but we’ve now turned the corner. And, we’ve done so without radically reducing the trade-offs between human prosperity and the health of our planet. “Instead, we just got a lot better at doing the things we’d already been doing. In particular, we got better at combining technological progress with capitalism to satisfy human wants and needs.”

 

The critical change was not to capitalism, which has continued to spread around the world despite a number of recent bumps in the road. What has been radically transformed is the very nature of technological progress. “We invented the computer, the Internet, and a suite of other digital technologies that let us dematerialize our consumption: over time they allowed us to consume more and more while taking less and less from the planet.This happened because digital technologies offered the cost savings that come from substituting bits for atoms, and the intense cost pressures of capitalism caused companies to accept this offer over and over.”

In this overview, McAfee writes that the book is organized around asking and answering six key questions about the human condition, the state of nature, and the relationship between the two. Let me briefly discuss each of the questions.

What’s the history of human prosperity and our relationship with our planet?  Human prosperity and population growth are closely intertwined. It’s a story with multiple periods. The first was a very long period of very slow annual population growth — well below 1% — from prehistoric times until the early 1800s, when the population was around one billion. For most of this time, the vast majority of people were living on the brink of starvation, and the population was limited by the number of people the land could sustain.

Next came a period of high population growth. The new technologies of the Industrial Era led to rising standards of living and major health care improvements. Previous limits to growth and prosperity were significantly reduced. The world’s population reached two billion in the late 1920s, then four billion in the mid 1970s, and six billion in 2000. Annual growth rates increased particularly fast in the 20th century, reaching a peak of around 2.1% in the 1960s before starting to systematically decline.

However, the Industrial Era was hard on the planet. “We extracted ever-more resources from it, hunted many species to the brink of extinction or beyond, and greatly polluted the air, land, and water. As human population continued to increase these harms continued to accumulate, until many came to believe that our species was a grave threat to our planet.”

What’s happening now?  The third population period is now unfolding, characterized by much slower growth rates. Our current population is around 7.7 billion, with an annual growth rate of 1.1%. Global population is expected to peak toward the end of this century. The median projections of the U.N. Population Division estimate that the population will reach 9.8 billion with a growth rate of 0.5% in 2050, and will peak around 2100 at roughly 11.2 billion with a growth rate of 0.1%.

Standard of living, as measured by Standard of living GDP per capita , has been rising all over the world. Data from the World Bank and other sources show that the world’s overall GDP per capita dramatically increased from under $500 in 1960 to over $11,000 in 2018 in current U.S. dollars. But, while prosperity has been steadily increasing, resource consumption has started to decline in most advanced economies, including the U.S.

“The country now generally uses less metal, fertilizer, water, paper and timber, and energy year after year, even as output grows. This phenomenon is known as dematerialization of the economy, and it’s bringing us into what I call a ‘second enlightenment’ — a literal one…The United States, in short, is now getting more from less; the country is post-peak in resource use and other exploitation of the environment. Similar patterns are seen in other rich countries.”

Why did things change?  Dematerialization is mostly the result of technological progress and capitalism. IT, the Internet, mobile devices, and advancing technologies are enabling companies to do more with less. At the same time, the competitive pressures of global capitalism are forcing companies to embrace these technologies to increase revenue and profits while becoming more efficient and reducing costs — that is, to do more with less.

“However, capitalism and tech progress don’t solve all of our environmental problems. They don’t deal well with pollution, which is a negative side effect of a lot of economic activity, and they don’t spare endangered animals. So we need another pair of forces: public awareness and responsive government…Together capitalism, tech progress, public awareness, and responsive government are the four horsemen of the optimist. When they’re all in place, we tread ever more lightly on our planet.”

What are the consequences of this change?  The so-called four horsemen are driving other important changes throughout the world — some positive and some negative:

  • Improvements for both human and nature. Over the past several decades, the world has been getting quietly but relentless better, including increased life expectancydeclining poverty; reduced maternal and child mortality; better access to knowledge, education, food, clean water, and sanitation.
  • Increased concentration. While capitalism and tech progress let us do more with less, they’ve also led to rising economic inequality, as their benefits are going to fewer regions, companies, and people.
  • Greater disconnection, that is, a troubling decrease in our social interactions and relationships, resulting in increased depression and political polarization.

What does the future hold?  “More of the same. There’s every reason to believe that capitalism and tech progress will cause dematerialization to deepen and broaden.” In a decade, America is likely to be using fewer resources that it does now, “no matter how much its population and economy grow over the next ten years.”

What do we need to do differently?  There are two urgent priorities: reduce greenhouse emission and reverse the disconnections and declines in social capital that we see in so many communities. “Our planet is getting hotter and we humans are getting colder; neither of these is a healthy trend. Governments, companies, philanthropies and other nonprofits, as well as families and individuals all have roles to play in these areas and in simultaneously improving both our prosperity and our planet.”


Originally published at https://blog.irvingwb.com.