Capitalism and technological progress are driving dematerialization.
This statement will come as a surprise to many, and for good reason. After all, it’s exactly this combination that caused us to massively increase our resource consumption throughout the Industrial Era. Through most of history, capitalism and tech progress have always lead to more from more: more economic growth, but also more resource consumption.
So what has changed? How are capitalism and tech progress now getting us more from less? To get answers to these important questions, let’s start by looking at a few recent examples of dematerialization.
America has long been an agricultural juggernaut. In 1982, after more than a decade of steady expansion due in part to rising grain prices, total cropland in the country stood at approximately 380 million acres. Over the next 10 years, however, almost all of this increase was reversed. So much acreage was abandoned by farmers and given back to nature that cropland in 1992 was almost back to where it had been almost 25 years before. This decline had several causes, including falling grain prices, a severe recession, over-indebted farmers, and increased international competition.
A final factor, though, was the ability to get ever-more corn, wheat, soybeans, and other crops from the same acre of land, pound of fertilizer and pesticide, and gallon of water. The material productivity of agriculture in the United States has improved dramatically in recent decades. Between 1982 and 2015 over 45 million acres — an amount of cropland equal in size to the state of Washington — was returned to nature. Over the same time potassium, phosphate, and nitrogen (the three main fertilizers) all saw declines in absolute use. Meanwhile, the total tonnage of crops produced in the country increased by more than 35%.
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