Capitalism Is Helping Us Use Less Stuff. No, Really.

We’re getting more efficient about resource use because of, not in spite of, the world’s dominant economic system

Illustration: Jackson Gibbs

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.

Fertile farms

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%.

Thin cans

Tin cans are actually made of steel coated with a thin layer of tin to improve corrosion resistance. They’ve been used since the 19th century to store food. Starting in the 1930s, they began also to be used to hold beer and soft drinks.

In 1959 Coors pioneered beer cans made of aluminum, which is much lighter and more corrosion resistant than steel. Royal Crown Cola followed suit for soda five years later. As Vaclav Smil relates, “A decade later steel cans were on the way out, and none of them have been used for beer since 1994 and for soft drinks since 1996. [. . .] At 85 g the first aluminum cans were surprisingly heavy; by 1972 the weight of a two-piece can dropped to just below 21 g, by 1988 it was less than 16 g, a decade later it average 13.6 g, and by 2011 it was reduced to 12.75 g.”

Manufacturers accomplished these reductions by making aluminum cans’ walls thinner, and by making the sides and bottom from a single sheet of metal so that only one comparatively heavy seam was needed (to join the top to the rest of the can). Smil points out that if all beverage cans used in 2010 weighed what they did in 1980, they would have required an extra 580,000 tons of aluminum. And aluminum cans kept getting lighter. In 2012 Ball packaging introduced into the European market a 330 ml can that held 7.5% less than the U.S. standard, yet at 9.5 g weighed 25% less.

Gone gizmos

In 2014 Steve Cichon, a “writer, historian, and retired radio newsman in Buffalo, NY,” paid $3 for a large stack of front sections of the Buffalo News newspaper from the early months of 1991. On the back page of the Saturday, February 16, issue was an ad from the electronics retailer Radio Shack. Cichon noticed something striking about the ad: “There are 15 electronic gimzo type items on this page. [. . .] 13 of the 15 you now always have in your pocket.”

The “gizmo type” items that had vanished into the iPhone Cichon kept in his pocket included a calculator, camcorder, clock radio, mobile telephone, and tape recorder. While the ad didn’t include a compass, camera, barometer, altimeter, accelerometer, or GPS device, these, too, have vanished into the iPhone and other smartphones, as have countless atlases and compact discs.

Apple sold more than a billion iPhones within a decade of its June 2007 launch and became the most valuable publicly traded company in history. Radio Shack filed for bankruptcy in 2015, and again in 2017.

What’s going on?

There is no shortage of examples of dematerialization. I chose the ones above because they illustrate a set of fundamental principles at the intersection of business, economics, innovation, and our impact on our planet.

Our wants and desires keep growing, evidently without end, and therefore so do our economies. But our use of the earth’s resources does not. With the help of innovation and new technologies, economic growth in America and other rich countries — growth in all of the wants and needs that we spend money on — has become decoupled from resource consumption. This is a recent development and a profound one.

There is always a strong incentive for a company in a contested market to reduce its spending on resources (or anything else) and so eke out a bit more profit. After all, a penny saved is a penny earned. As profit-hungry companies seek to use fewer resources, they can go down four main paths.

First, they can simply find ways to use less of a given material. This is what happened as beverage companies and the companies that supply them with cans teamed up to use less aluminum. It’s also the story with American farmers, who keep getting bigger harvests while using less land, water, and fertilizer.

Economic growth has become decoupled from resource consumption. This is a recent development and a profound one.

Second, it often becomes possible to substitute one resource for another. Total U.S. coal consumption started to decrease after 2007 because fracking made natural gas more attractive to electricity generators. If nuclear power becomes more popular in the United States, we could use both less coal and less gas and generate our electricity from a small amount of material indeed.

Third, companies can use fewer molecules overall by making better use of the materials they already own. Companies that own expensive physical assets tend to be fanatics about getting as much use as possible out of them, for clear and compelling financial reasons. For example, the world’s commercial airlines have improved their load factors — essentially the percentage of seats occupied on flights — from 56% in 1971 to more than 81% in 2018.

Finally, some materials get replaced by nothing at all. When a telephone, camcorder, and tape recorder are separate devices, three total microphones are needed. When they all collapse into a smartphone, only one microphone is necessary. That smartphone also uses no audiotapes, videotapes, compact discs, or camera film. The iPhone and its descendants are among the world champions of dematerialization. They use vastly less metal, plastic, glass, and silicon than did the devices they replace and don’t need media such as paper, discs, tape, or film.

If the Enlightenment led to the Industrial Era, then the Second Machine Age has led to a Second Enlightenment — a more literal one. We are now lightening our total consumption and treading more lightly on our planet. In America, the United Kingdom, and other rich countries, we are past “peak stuff ” and are now using fewer total resources year after year. We’re accomplishing this because of the combination of technological progress and capitalism, which now let us get more from less.

From More From Less by Andrew McAfee. Copyright © 2019 by Andrew McAfee. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Andrew McAfee, an MIT scientist, studies how technology is changing the world.

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