Once you become a follower of the Singularity University, you cannot help but optimistic (sometimes). Combine that with reading “Moonshots”, and you might believe that our current economic model, which is based on scarcity, will be replaced by an economic model based on abundance and dematerialisation.
More from less
The guy has a pedigree. So when he says that dematerialisation is happening, I think you should listen. It is cheerful too. He says that in recent years a pattern has emerged: the pattern of more from less. America, in short, is post-peak in its exploitation of the earth. The movement of ‘Ephemeralization,’ ” by which he meant satisfying human desires for consumption while using fewer resources from the physical world—fewer molecules, in short.
He takes a historical perspective, and the strangest aspect of the story is that we didn’t make many radical course changes to eliminate the trade-off between human prosperity and planetary health. Instead, we just got a lot better at doing the things we’d already been doing. We invented the computer, the Internet, and a suite of other digital technologies that let us dematerialise our consumption.
Four horsemen of the optimist
calls tech progress, capitalism, public awareness, and responsive government the “four horsemen of the optimist.” The good news is that all four are at present advancing around the world. The breakthroughs of the Industrial Era, technological, scientific, institutional, and intellectual, created a virtuous cycle of increasing human population and prosperity. As industrialised countries advanced and became more prosperous, they first started treating humans better. They stopped enslaving people or making children work and eventually gave up claims to foreigners’ lands. Better treatment of animals was slower to come and in some cases arrived too late to save a species. And better treatment of our planet came last of all.
The “Limits to Growth” report
Their first evidence-based claim was that many of the bad things confidently predicted by the environmental movement—chronic food shortages and famines; irreversible ecosystem collapses; mass species die-offs; crippling shortages of natural resources, etc. The team’s computer models showed that the planet would run out of gold within twenty-nine years of 1972; silver within forty-two years; copper and petroleum within fifty; and aluminium within fifty-five.
It kept on not happening
Instead, some of the things that were supposed to get much worse kept getting better. Not by divine providence, but in human ingenuity. The evidence around the availability of natural resources is that we were in no danger of running out of them anytime soon. As fertilisers, metals, coal, or other resources become more rare, they also get more expensive. What happened next was that the price surge activated human greed and combined it with human ingenuity. This combination of self-interest and innovativeness caused two things: a wide-ranging search for more of the resource, and an equally ardent search for substitutes.
The dematerialisation surprise
The conclusion is clear: a great reversal of our Industrial Age habits is taking place. The American economy is now experiencing broad and often deep absolute dematerialisation. We still make lots of vehicles, machinery, and other big-ticket items, just as we used to. But we don’t make them the same way we used to. We now make them using fewer resources. We’ve decoupled growth, in consumption, prosperity, and our economy, from resource use.
- Total timber use is down by a third, and paper by almost half, since their 1990 high points.
- The average milk cow’s productivity thus improved by over 330% during that time.
- Aluminium cans kept getting lighter.
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.
What causes dematerialisation
The four paths to dematerialisation slim, swap, optimise, and evaporate. Like knowledge itself, technologies accumulate. The number of potentially powerful new technologies increases over time because the number of available building blocks does. In the Second Machine Age, when we’ve finally figured out how to prosper while taking less. The Limits to Growth team pretty clearly underestimated both dematerialisation and the endless search for new reserves. Capitalism and tech progress combine to drive both of these trends—the use of fewer resources and the hunt for more of them—and neither of these two drivers is about to become less powerful. Our planet has amply supplied us for our journey.
“The fire of genius” is a wonderful label for technological progress. “The fuel of interest” is equally good as a summary of capitalism. The profit motive is an extremely powerful incentive for people and companies to create goods and services others will want to buy. Self-interest is not a flaw in capitalism, it’s a central feature. Capitalism will cause great prosperity to blossom, but only in a properly tended garden. Laws and courts are needed to protect the rights, property, and contracts of society’s weaker members. Public awareness and responsive government are an essential partnership for dealing with the externality of pollution and taking care of our fellow creatures.
The historical pattern has been that as people become wealthier, they demand cleaner air, land, and water. The world as a whole did a better job at protecting people in 2014 than did 80% of individual countries studied between 1949 and 2014. The second kind of public awareness—awareness of effective approaches for dealing with our challenges—is generally improved by education.
So tech progress, capitalism, responsive government, and public awareness have all advanced strongly in recent decades. First, they’ve contributed to widespread improvement in both the human condition and the state of nature.
- Over the past 20 years, the proportion of people living in extreme poverty has almost halved. Poverty pollutes, while affluence cleans up from its prior mistakes via public awareness and responsive government.
- Parks and other protected areas made up only 4% of the global land area in 1985, but by 2015, this figure had almost quadrupled, to 15.4%. At the end of 2017, 5.3% of the earth’s oceans were similarly protected.
- The amount of land used for farming in the United States has declined since 1982 by a Washington State–sized amount. After we stop farming the land, it eventually reverts to forest. Throughout the developed world, this process is now dominating, and overall reforestation has become the norm.
- Air-pollution death rates since 1990 have fallen in most countries, and years of life lost have fallen even more quickly.
Second, they’ve contributed to the concentration of economic activity: more and more output coming from a smaller and smaller number of counties, farms, and factories, and more and more gains going to fewer and fewer companies and people. Capitalism and tech progress don’t just lead to fewer people working on farms and in factories; they also lead to fewer farms and factories in total. It’s not that competition is decreasing (due to bad government policies, weak antitrust enforcement, or other causes) and a new crop of lazy monopolists is being grown. Instead, technology-fueled competition is fierce, and a new generation of sophisticated, leading firms is being forged.
Winner takes all
The leading firms have been able to capture more of their industry’s total sales and profits, while their rivals simply lumber along. I call this situation one of superstars and zombies within an industry; the more common phrase for it within economics is winner take all or winner take most. It’s extremely difficult for companies, even well-managed ones, to understand and extract the full value of powerful new technologies such as the steam engine, electrification, the smartphone, or artificial intelligence. Many companies are willing to spend money on the new technology, but surprisingly few are ready, willing, or able to make the changes required to fully exploit it.
Third, they’ve helped create increasing disconnection among people and declines in social capital. The sharp and sustained rise in deaths of despair is a public health emergency for the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2016, 197,000 deaths were related to suicide, alcohol, and drug abuse. This was more than four times the 44,674 people who died from HIV/AIDS at the peak of its epidemic in 1994. So why are deaths of despair growing now, even as the economy does? Suicides rise as people lose close ties to their extended family, their spouse (through divorce), or their place of work (through unemployment). Dropping out of society (to use an appropriate but unscientific expression) is a primary cause of suicide, and more than a century of accumulated evidence and research provide a great deal of support for this view.
What roles do the four horsemen play in all of this? How do they contribute to declining social capital and increasing disconnection and authoritarianism? Economic activity, as it brings people together to produce and exchange, builds bonds and social capital. So as economic activity declines, so does social capital. As factories close and farms go fallow in a county it’s not just output that decreases; the number of relationships does, too. The relationship between economic activity and social capital is a strong one. Capitalism and tech progress are directly contributing to dematerialisation, and to many fundamental improvements in both the state of nature and the human condition. But they’re also contributing directly to disconnection by concentrating economic activity and thereby eliminating bonds formed overwork in many communities. The author thinks that disconnection is the most worrying short-term problem we face, at least in America and other rich countries.
Social connection is a matter of survival
Social capital can be increased, and disconnection decreased in lots of ways. Joining a grassroots political or advocacy movement; volunteering to help vulnerable populations such as disabled veterans, refugees, or elderly people living alone; attending religious services and related activities; and teaching others your skills are all good ways to build links among people. Read “Thank you for being late”. We are the “the first self-endangered species. It used to take a person to kill a person; now, it is possible to imagine a world where one day one person could kill everyone. Social connection is a matter of survival.
Digital tools are technologies for creating technologies, the most prolific and versatile ones we’ve ever come up with. This spread of digital tools should make us optimistic about future growth: these tools are helping human capital grow quickly. As today’s poor get richer, they’ll consume more, but they’ll also consume much differently from earlier generations.
The best guess is that the rate of global climate change people will face over the next century will be about ten times as rapid as any change experienced by humanity during the last five millennia. The author talked with some of their leaders, and I believe they’re sincere in their desire to fight global warming. But another important reason is public awareness and how it affects companies’ activities.
Our obligation is not just to act, but to act in accordance with the facts. I believe that by far the most important thing we can do for the planet is inform ourselves, and to use the best available information to guide our actions and decisions. We base our views on theories and projections that seemed quite plausible at the time of the first Earth Day in 1970 but have since been shown to be badly wrong. Many of us believe things because we have an inherently zero-sum perspective: if someone is doing better, it must be because someone else is doing worse.
The climate is too important to be left to tribalism, cognitive biases, stale theories, intuitions and superstitions, unreasonable fears, and the misinformation campaigns of parties with vested interests. We have to do better than that. The stakes are too high. We have to follow the best available evidence and go where it leads us, even if that’s far from where we started.