The Dematerialization of the American Economy

In my last post, I described several different ways in which the American economy is producing more from less: corn production has dramatically increased even as corn acreage has leveled off; the use of basic commodities in the U.S. is shrinking; U.S. water withdrawals have plateaued; carbon emissions are dropping even as GDP continues to increase.


What causes all of this dematerialization?  Andrew McAfee makes a persuasive case that dematerialization is driven by both capitalism and technological progress.  Here are several examples:

  • Fertile Farms. In 1982, 380 million acres of the U.S. was under cultivation.  In 2015, total farm acreage had dropped by 45 million acres.
  • Thin Cans. In 1959 a Coors beer can weighed 85 grams.  By 2011 this was reduced to 12.75 grams.
  • Gone Gizmos. Today a single pocket sized iPhone contains an altimeter, atlas, barometer, calculator, camcorder. camera, clock radio, compact discs, compass, GPS device, mobile telephone, tape recorder, etc., etc.
  • Taking Stock of Rolling Stock. In the 1960s major railroads owned thousands of railcars, only 5% of which moved on any one day.  If that could have been increased to just 10% per day, only half as many rail cars would have been needed.  Today each piece of rolling stock has a radio-frequency identification tag and the country’s 450 railroads have real-time visibility over their rolling stock.

What is going on?

  • We want more all the time but not more resources. Economic growth has become decoupled from resource consumption.
  • Materials cost money that companies would rather not spend. Competition forces companies to operate as efficiently as possible.
  • Innovation is hard to foresee. Neither the fracking revolution nor the world-changing impact of the iPhone were forseen in advance.
  •  As the Second Machine Age progresses, dematerialization accelerates. The Industrial Era allowed us to overcome the limitations of muscle power.  Our current era of great progress in computing allows us to overcome the limitations of mental power.

Conclusion.  “We are now lightening our total consumption and treading more lightly on our planet.  We’re accomplishing this because of the combination of technological progress and capitalism, which let us get more from less.”

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8 thoughts on “The Dematerialization of the American Economy

  1. There is a piece in the WSJ this AM (10/25) about automation and its historically disruptive attributes. Once again, the poorly acknowledged reign of Queen Elizabeth I from 1558-1603 received an eyeblink acknowledgment. Historically, it is likely that her policy to keep England out of foreign wars set the stage for England’s vigorous industrialization during the following 200 years. Concurrently, its Commonwealth eventually included worldwide colonies.

    Now, we find ourselves in the midst of a struggle to reverse the effects of declining “social cohesion,” community by community. It possibly represents the linchpin blocking our nation’s future survival. The ultimate signal represented by this Post would indicate that we are probably on track to eventually augment the “social mobility” benefits offered to each citizen at the time of their birth. Admittedly, it does not seem that way now. I can only say that our state of Nebraska is probably on the leading edge of this process, state by state.

  2. Little acknowledged nationally, Nebraskans enjoy the most transparent and trustworthy state governance within our nation. Our State government has no indebtedness, maintains a substantial rainy-day fund with real dollars at a bank, and has a representative process to reconcile the basic urban-rural needs of its citizens. The State has joined with several other States to apply the Design Principles for managing a Common-Pool Resource for preserving the legitimate water rights applicable to the Republican River in southwest Nebraska. Note, it has taken 20+ years to accomplish, but it means that local vested interests participate equitably in monitoring and contributing to its success.

    From a social mobility stand-point, Nebraska has the highest level of emigrant engagement per state citizen participation among all the 50 States. As a reminder, social mobility refers to the prevalence among families that a person will eventually have a higher income as compared to their parents. Across our state, there are many communities with local collaborative processes to mitigate the adversities that lead to entrenched poverty for families. In Omaha, such a group was formed several years ago that led to a locally managed and funded process to solve immediate problems occurring among the various safety-net capabilities. If a family suddenly loses housing but needs help with a deposit for subsequent housing, there is a process to solve this need with a 48-hour turn-around response that is locally funded. This function is connected with its associated “collaborative” group to improve the problems associated with affordable housing options, employment, and education.

    Finally, our community is now 20-years past the completion of the EPA’s lead poisoning mitigation process in North Omaha. It seems that we are beginning to see its benefit by a decrease in our city’s annual homicide death rate. There is still a vigorous lead paint surveillance process that is applied to any major home remodeling project. And, our community policing efforts benefit from broader community awareness. My own church, not unlike most churches, regularly considers the options to mitigate the possibility of a mass shooting incident. Recently, I attended an event in Kearney involving representatives from state-wide communities convened to acknowledge their local efforts and attended by Federal representatives of its Children’s Bureau. They gave wholesome testimony to our State’s progress as compared to the other States.

    • Thanks for your extensive information about all the mechanisms Nebraska has in place to address human calamities in our state. I was unaware of the 48 hour turnaround service for family emergencies. How does one access this service? Just in case I ever hear of a family situation in need of quick help.

      • The emergency response process is initiated by personnel of the collaborative’s member institutions, e.g., social service agencies, hospitals, licensed health providers. It is likely to be broadened considerably in the near future. Homelessness issues, real or impending, can already be accessed by anyone with a cell-phone at “211”.

        In my post, I neglected to define SOCIAL COHESION. Here goes: “A broadly shared expectation among a nation’s communities that the persons residing within each other’s community are trustworthy and that each community’s prevalence of these trustworthy persons is related to their own community’s continuing collaboration with their adjacent communities to endow each other’s SURVIVAL COMMONS, aka augmented safety-net, with sufficient Social Capital.”

        Since SOCIAL CAPITAL is a term with a variety of definitions, I propose this one:
        “The pervasive capability among a community’s persons to apply the norms of trust, cooperation, and reciprocity for resolving the social dilemmas they encounter within their community’s municipal life that becomes sustainable when generational caring relationships increasingly permeate the community’s social networks.”

        AND, to be complete, here is a definition for a CARING RELATIONSHIP: “A variably asymmetric, social interaction between two persons that begins with a beneficial goal to enhance each other’s autonomy and flourishes from a timely obligation to communicate ‘in harmony’ with warmth, non-critical acceptance, honesty, and empathy.” Each person’s lifetime is hopefully populated with a variety of enduring caring relationships, especially during early childhood. They become a bit complicated when we begin to think carefully about HEALTH and FAMILY.

  3. You, or someone else with your experience and outlook, should write a book about Social Capital, Social Cohesion and Caring Relationships as implemented, for instance, by all the various social welfare operations, both public and private, in Nebraska. Perhaps such a book has already been written. If so, I would certainly like to know about it so that I could read it. I think it would be a fascinating story and of great interest to a wide audience.

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