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.”