Did you know the world's paper consumption peaked in 2013 and total global paper use has been declining ever since? Or that since 1982, America has taken an area the size of Washington State out of cultivation while simultaneously increasing total crop tonnage by 35%?
Welcome to the power of "dematerialization." I first encountered this idea while reading Buckminster Fuller's 1969 "Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth," although he called it "ephemeralization." MIT economist Andrew McAfee takes Bucky's idea and updates it for the world of 2019, writing a clear synthesis of many of the key ideas of the last 50 years. "More from Less" presents a strong case against neo-Malthusian alarmism and is required reading for anyone who wants to have an informed conversation about economics and the environment.
McAfee's central thesis revolves around what he calls the "four horsemen of the optimist" - namely technological progress, capitalism, public awareness, and responsive government. These forces combine to create new solutions for many of the major challenges we face. In the environmental sphere, this manifests as the reduction of natural resource inputs into economic production, hence the title "More from Less."
But don't humans have unlimited wants? Don't we always want to consume more? McAfee elegantly deflates this classic argument with one of the best one-liners in the book:
We do want more all the time, but not more resources.
Or, said another way, I really just want to buy a pair of pants - I don't care about the nitrogen and water inputs used to grow the cotton that goes into the pants.
This intellectual approach stands in stark contrast to the alarmist rhetoric of other members of the academy, especially tenured Stanford biology professor and notable neo-Malthusian Paul Ehrlich. McAfee devotes an entire chapter to the Paul Ehrlich / Julian Simon bet on the future prices of commodities - a bet Ehrlich famously lost. In the same tradition, McAfee actually puts up $100K of his own money for a series of commodity bets he lists at the end of the book! For deeper reading on the topic, check out Yale professor Paul Sabin's "The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble over Earth's Future."
McAfee's book is a timely and clear synthesis of history of big ideas in environmental economics. Here's a (partial, semi-chronological) list of many of the usual suspects along with a few surprising characters:
- Thomas Malthus - the intellectual grandpa of resource scarcity alarmism
- de Tocqueville - a footnote wryly comments that de Tocqueville references are de rigueur for any "serious" book about America
- Adam Smith, Marx, and Engels - it is a book about economics, after all!
- Thorstein Veblen - author of "Theory of the Leisure Class" (1899) and intellectual father of the theory of conspicuous consumption
- Buckminster Fuller - early thinker on "ephemeralization" of production (1960's and 70's)
- Paul Ehrlich - famous neo-Malthusian alarmist and author of "The Population Bomb" (1968)
- John Holdren - Obama's science advisor and frequent collaborator with Paul Ehrlich
- Donella Meadows - part of the "Limits to Growth" (1972) team and the "Club of Rome"
- Julian Simon - economist, Ehrlich antagonist, and author of "The Ultimate Resource" (1981)
- Ronald Coase - won a Nobel for being the intellectual father of cap and trade
- William Nordhaus - Yale prof and climate economist
- Vaclav Smil - one of Bill Gates' favorite authors and a prodigious producer of really dense books on resource flows in the global economy
- Bjørn Lomborg - controversial author of "The Skeptical Environmentalist" (1998). Sort of a bold move for McAfee to favorably cite him!
- Robert Putnam - author of "Bowling Alone" (2000)
- Tyler Cowen - author of "The Great Stagnation" (2011) and perhaps our generation's greatest reader? Not mentioned by name, but McAfee takes a shot at his big idea - "I believe that technological progress today is faster than ever before in our history."
- Daron Acemoglu - author of "Why Nations Fail" (2012)
- Matt Ridley, Stephen Pinker, Hans Rosling - authors of popular modern books about how the world is getting better
- Johann Hari - author of "Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs" (2015) about the epidemic of alienation in America
These thinkers create ideas that drive policy in the real world. That's a big responsibility. Incorrect analysis can lead to immense human suffering, a prominent theme in one of my all-time favorite books, "Seeing Like a State." McAfee notes that Song Jian, the architect of China's infamous "One Child Policy" was heavily influenced by the book "Limits to Growth." As modern China struggles with a severe gender imbalance and a rapidly aging population, most contemporary analysts have cast the One Child Policy as an unmitigated disaster for the country (to say nothing of the tragedy and violence endured by Chinese individuals). Yet when the policy was officially retired in 2015, Ehrlich tweeted, "China to End One-Child Policy, Allowing Families Two Children… GIBBERING INSANITY—THE GROWTH-FOREVER GANG."
McAfee, on the other hand, actually looks at the data. Fortunately for our civilization, the numbers are actually looking pretty good. One exception to this is Branko Milanovic's famous "Elephant Chart."
This chart is so famous that somehow I had never even heard of it. It shows that while the global poor and the super-elite have generally seen a large improvement in their incomes, those in the 80-90th percentiles (the middle class in the US and Western Europe) have been stagnating. If you see me in real life at any point in the next few years, I'll probably still be ranting about this graph.
Anyways, I loved this book. It surprised me with data, presented a clear theory of change, and was accessibly written - what more can a non-fiction reader ask for? (OK, it didn't have the Shakespearean majesty of Caro's "The Power Broker," but honestly, who does these days?) McAfee is sort of an odd duck ideologically - how many other public intellectuals are pro-GMO, pro-carbon-tax, pro-nuclear, and pro-vaccine? I pay attention to what he says. He was very early on this current wave of thinking about automation, publishing "Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy" back in 2011. "More from Less" cements his status as a must-read popular author on the modern economy. I'm looking forward to his next book.
Also, if you know him in real life... could you connect me?
If you're more of a podcast person, McAfee has a great guest appearance on the EconTalk podcast - https://www.econtalk.org/andrew-mcafee-on-more-from-less/
My highlights below
We are as gods and might as well get good at it. —Stewart Brand, Whole Earth Catalog, 1968
INTRODUCTION - README
In America — a large, rich country that accounts for about 25 percent of the global economy — we’re now generally using less of most resources year after year, even as our economy and population continue to grow.
In large parts of the world we’ve already turned the corner and are now improving both the human condition and the state of nature.
We invented the computer, the Internet, and a suite of other digital technologies that let us dematerialize our consumption: over time they allowed us to consume more and more while taking less and less from the planet. This happened because digital technologies offered the cost savings that come from substituting bits for atoms, and the intense cost pressures of capitalism caused companies to accept this offer over and over. Think, for example, how many devices have been replaced by your smartphone.
I call tech progress, capitalism, public awareness, and responsive government the “four horsemen of the optimist.”
Jesse Ausubel’s amazing essay “The Return of Nature: How Technology Liberates the Environment,” published in 2015 in the Breakthrough Journal.
CHAPTER 1 - All the Malthusian Millennia
Data sources for all of this book’s graphs are given in the endnotes, and the data themselves are available at morefromlessbook.com/data
The average Briton, for example, was worse off throughout the 1700s than in 1200.
Ten thousand years ago, about 5 million people were on the planet.
If all the world’s people were spread out evenly around the planet’s inhabitable land in 1800, everyone would have had almost sixteen acres — an area about as large as nine World Cup soccer fields — to himself or herself. We would not have been able to hear each other, even by shouting.
Part of the reason population grew so slowly throughout all this time was that we didn’t live long. According to demographer James Riley, “Global life expectancy at birth was about 28.5 years in 1800,” and no region of the world at that time had a life expectancy as high as thirty-five years. [NOTE FROM MAX - I suspect this is due to infant mortality rather than short lifespans]
CHAPTER 2 - Power over the Earth: The Industrial Era
Steam changed the course of humanity not by helping to plow farms, but instead by helping to fertilize them.
Among economic historians who study the effects of the Industrial Revolution a debate exists about exactly when the average English worker’s real wages started to increase. Some, such as Clark, conclude from their research that this happened right at the start of the nineteenth century. Others believe that it happened decades later, only after workers’ bargaining power over their employers increased. These decades have been called the Engels Pause, after Friedrich Engels, a German philosopher (and son of a Manchester textile-mill owner) who believed that English laborers were suffering greatly under Industrial Era capitalism.
Available evidence suggests that cities in many ways became more healthy, not less, as the Industrial Era advanced. This is because while cities lend themselves to the spread of many diseases, they also lend themselves to epidemiology — the study of disease — and to effective interventions.
After this illness reached London in 1832 from its home in the Ganges River delta two major outbreaks killed more than fifteen thousand people. “King Cholera” caused great fear in part because its roots were unknown.
An evidence-based answer comes from historian Ian Morris, who has constructed a numeric index that quantifies the level of social development in a civilization. Morris’s index is calculated from four traits: per-person energy capture, information technology, war-making capacity, and organization.
These huge gains were achieved in large part by adding three more world-altering technologies to the mix: the internal combustion engine, electrical power, and indoor plumbing.
At first, factories electrified by simply replacing their single big steam engine with a single big electric motor. The new power source, just like the old one, was connected to all the machines in the plant by an elaborate and failure-prone (and often unsafe) system of shafts, pulleys, and belts. The belts were often made of leather, and factories needed so many of them that in 1850 leather manufacturing was America’s fifth-largest industry.
Health researchers David Cutler and Grant Miller estimate that the availability of clean water explains fully half of the total decline in the overall US mortality rate between 1900 and 1936, and 75 percent of the decline in infant mortality. Historian Harvey Green calls the technologies of widespread clean water “likely the most important public health intervention of the twentieth century.”
Electricity and indoor plumbing eliminated this constant toil. In the 1930s a Tennessee farmer summarized the immense value of the technologies of the second century of the Industrial Era: “The greatest thing on earth is to have the love of God in your heart, and the next greatest thing is to have electricity in your house.”
Today, the Haber-Bosch process for producing fertilizer is so fundamental to human enterprise that, according to the energy analyst and author Ramez Naam, it uses about 1 percent of the world’s industrial energy.
Vaclav Smil, a prodigious scholar of humanity’s relationship with our planet, estimates that “the prevailing diets of 45 percent of the world’s population” depend on the Haber-Bosch process.
we and our tamed animals now represent 97 percent of the earth’s mammalian biomass.
The battles over the Corn Laws led the politician James Wilson, who was in favor of free trade, to found The Economist.
CHAPTER 3 - Industrial Errors
As Pinker writes in his book Enlightenment Now, “The Enlightenment is sometimes called the Humanitarian Revolution, because it led to the abolition of barbaric practices [such as slavery] that had been commonplace across civilizations for millennia.”
Hitler and Mussolini tried to justify their plans by pointing out that the natural resources of the earth weren’t fairly distributed. As have-nots they were eager to get their fair share from those nations which had more than they should have had.”
By 2018 the United Nations recognized only sixteen remaining “non-self-governing territories”: a disputed African region called Western Sahara and fifteen island groups.
Economists Brian Beach and W. Walker Hanlon used the amount of industrial activity throughout the country as a proxy for the amount of coal burned and found that a 1 percent increase in the amount of coal used was associated with the death of one additional infant per one hundred births. As they write, “Industrial coal use explains roughly one-third of the urban mortality penalty observed during [the] period [1851–60].”
Recall that since the factories of that time needed so many belts, leather making was the country’s fifth-largest industry by 1850. Bison leather, being so durable, was preferred for all this factory infrastructure.
In 1900, as many as a quarter of a million blue whales may have lived in the Southern Ocean. By 1989, about five hundred remained.
Jevons’s most lasting contribution to the debates around people, technology, and the environment was to argue that more efficient use of natural resources would not lead to lower overall use of them. According to Jevons, this was because we’d use the greater efficiency not to get the same amount of the desired output (steam power) while using less of the resource (coal), but instead to get more and more of the output, thereby using more of the resource in total.
In a famous passage, he wrote, “Human wants and desires are countless in number and very various in kind.… The uncivilized man indeed has not many more than the brute animal; but every step in his progress upwards increases the variety of his needs together with the variety in his methods of satisfying them. He desires not merely larger quantities of the things he has been accustomed to consume, but better qualities of those things; he desires a greater choice of things, and things that will satisfy new wants growing up in him.”
CHAPTER 4 - Earth Day and Its Debates
The biologist Paul Ehrlich became the most popular exponent of this view. In his bestselling 1968 book, The Population Bomb, Ehrlich laid out a scenario that made Malthus look like a sunny optimist. Early editions of the book began, “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.”
It is hard to convey to people who came of age after Earth Day just how broad and deep the concerns were at the time, and how the tone of the mainstream conversation about our planet was somewhere between alarmist and apocalyptic. Modern discussions around climate change sometimes have the same flavor, but very different timescales. Today, we are concerned about what climate change could do by the end of the twenty-first century. Around Earth Day, it seemed as if we might not survive the twentieth.
In 1971 Ehrlich and the physicist John Holdren proposed in Science the equation I = P x F, where I represented a society’s total negative impact on the environment, P stood for population size, and F was a per-person factor.
Though criticized as “mathematical propaganda,” it endured as a model for estimating environmental impact and a guide to what, if anything, could be done.
Economist Kenneth Boulding boosted the recycling movement in 1966 with the vivid image of “Spaceship Earth,” a vessel of finite resources on a long journey through the cosmos.
As the economist Julian Simon put it in his 1981 book, The Ultimate Resource, “Are we now ‘entering an age of scarcity’? You can see anything you like in a crystal ball. But almost without exception, the best data… suggest precisely the opposite.”
Population and economic growth bring with them challenges, but Simon argued that people are actually quite good at meeting challenges. We learn about the world via science, invent new tools and technologies, create institutions such as democracy and the rule of law, and do many other things that let us solve problems and create a better future.
In his 1968 book, Utopia or Oblivion, the architect and inventor R. Buckminster Fuller wrote, “I made many calculations, and it seemed increasingly clear that it was feasible for us to do so much with so little that we might be able to take care of everybody. In 1927 I called this whole process ‘Ephemeralization,’ ” by which he meant satisfying human desires for consumption while using fewer resources from the physical world — fewer molecules, in short.
Fuller wrote, “Ephemeralization… is the number one economic surprise of world man.” The word was eventually replaced by its synonym dematerialization in discussions of innovation, technological progress, and resource use.
Julian Simon and Paul Ehrlich made one of the most famous bets in history.
Other times wouldn’t have been so favorable to Simon. As Kedrosky wrote, “If you started the bet any year during the 1980s Simon won eight of the ten decadal start years. During the 1990s things changed, however, with Simon the decadal winner in four start years and Ehrlich winning six.… And if we extend the bet into the current decade… then Ehrlich won every start-year bet in the 2000s.”
Foxfire is a term for bioluminescence caused by fungi that live in decaying wood.
CHAPTER 5 - The Dematerialization Surprise
The magnitude of the dematerialization is large. In 2015 (the most recent year for which USGS data are available) total American use of steel was down more than 15 percent from its high point in 2000. Aluminum consumption was down more than 32 percent and copper 40 percent from their peaks.
Fertilizer use is down almost 25 percent from its 1999 peak, and by 2014 total water used for irrigation had decreased by more than 22 percent from its maximum in 1984. Total cropland has also fallen, to levels rivaling the lowest points of the previous century.
Total timber use is down by a third, and paper by almost half, since their 1990 high points.
American consumption of plastics, which is not tracked by the USGS, is an exception to the overall trend of dematerialization.
I was surprised to learn that total American energy use in 2017 was down almost 2 percent from its 2008 peak, especially since our economy grew by more than 15 percent between those two years.
The six resources America is still using more of year after year are diatomite (fossilized algae skeletons) and industrial garnet (both of which are used as abrasives and filters), gemstones, salt, silver, and vanadium (a metal alloyed with steel to make everything from cutting tools to nuclear reactors).
CHAPTER 6 - CRIB Notes
Instead, America’s manufacturers have learned to produce more things from less metal.
Recycling is big business: 47 percent, 33 percent, 68 percent, and 49 percent of all the tonnage of aluminum, copper, lead, and iron and steel (respectively) consumed in the United States in 2015 came from scrap metal rather than ore taken from the earth. Similarly, almost 65 percent of paper products came from recycled newspapers, pizza boxes, and so on rather than from felled trees.
We should be thankful for this because homesteading is not great for the environment, for two reasons. First, small-scale farming is less efficient in its use of resources than massive, industrialized, mechanized agriculture. To get the same harvest, homesteaders use more land, water, and fertilizer than do “factory farmers.” Farms of less than one hundred acres, for example, grow 15 percent less corn per acre than farms with more than a thousand acres.
Second, rural life is less environmentally friendly than urban or suburban dwelling. City folk live in high-density, energy-efficient apartments and condos, travel only short distances for work and errands, and frequently use public transportation. None of these things is true of country living. As economist Edward Glaeser summarizes, “If you want to be good to the environment, stay away from it. Move to high-rise apartments surrounded by plenty of concrete.… Living in the country is not the right way to care for the Earth. The best thing that we can do for the planet is build more skyscrapers.”
It’s almost certainly the case that the English turned to coal for home heating in the middle of the sixteenth century because they’d cut down such a huge percentage of their trees that the price of wood skyrocketed.
In 1979 the government of the People’s Republic of China announced its new family planning policy, which soon became known as the one-child policy. It was enacted despite the steady decline in the country’s birth rate throughout the 1970s. But after reading Limits to Growth, A Blueprint for Survival, and other books limning the looming dangers of unchecked population expansion, the missile scientist Song Jian came to believe that even faster birth rate reductions were required. He became the architect of the new policy, the main effect of which was to limit ethnic Han Chinese families to a single child.
In their 2013 essay “How Will History Judge China’s One-Child Policy?” the demographers Wang Feng, Yong Cai, and Baochang Gu compared the policy unfavorably to two of their country’s great twentieth-century convulsions: the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward. They wrote, “While those grave mistakes both cost tens of millions of lives, the harms done were relatively short-lived and were corrected quickly afterward. The one-child policy, in contrast, will surpass them in impact by its role in creating a society with a seriously undermined family and kin structure, and a whole generation of future elderly and their children whose well-being will be seriously jeopardized.”
Third, bans have been imposed on the commercial trade in many animal products. The most sweeping of these is probably the nationwide ban on the sale of hunted meat. You may see venison or bison meat at a butcher’s counter or on a menu in America, but it always comes from a ranch, not a hunt.
Yet this example of large-scale and largely unnecessary state-imposed coercion, entailing countless forced abortions, sterilizations, and other brutalities against women, retains some supporters, at least in the West. When China announced the formal end of the one-child policy in late 2015, Paul Ehrlich responded with a tweet: “China to End One-Child Policy, Allowing Families Two Children… GIBBERING INSANITY—THE GROWTH-FOREVER GANG.”
CHAPTER 7 - What Causes Dematerialization? Markets and Marvels
Capitalism and technological progress are the first pair of forces driving dematerialization.
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 ten 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 twenty-five years before.
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 percent.
Nokia, meanwhile, sold its mobile phone business to Microsoft in 2013 for $7.2 billion to get “more combined muscle to truly break through with consumers,” as the Finnish company’s CEO Stephen Elop said at the time of the deal. It didn’t work. Microsoft sold what remained of Nokia’s mobile phone business and brand to a subsidiary of the Taiwanese electronics manufacturer Foxconn for $350 million in May of 2016.
Thanks to fracking, US crude oil production almost doubled between 2007 and 2017, when it approached the benchmark of 10 million barrels per day. By September of 2018 America had surpassed Saudi Arabia to become the world’s largest producer of oil.
As a result of the fracking boom the United States has experienced peak coal rather than peak oil. And the peak in coal is not in total annual supply, but instead in demand. Fracking made natural gas cheap enough that it became preferred over coal for much electricity generation. By 2017 total US coal consumption was down 36 percent from its 2007 high point.
As a 2017 Bloomberg headline put it, “Remember Peak Oil? Demand May Top Out Before Supply Does.”
At present over 5 million messages about railcar status and location are generated and sent throughout the American railway system every day, and the country’s more than 450 railroads have nearly real-time visibility over all their rolling stock.
China didn’t attain its near monopoly because it possessed anything close to 90 percent of global reserves of REE. In fact, rare earths aren’t rare at all (one, cerium, is about as common in the earth’s crust as copper). However, they’re difficult to extract from ore. Obtaining them requires a great deal of acid and generates tons of salt and crushed rock as by-products. Most other countries didn’t want to bear the environmental burden of this heavy processing and so left the market to China.
Overall, the companies using REE found many inexpensive and convenient alternatives. By the end of 2017 the same bundle of rare earths that had been trading above $42,000 in 2011 was available for about $1,000.
We do want more all the time, but not more resources.
When fracking made natural gas much cheaper, total demand for coal in the United States went down even though its price decreased.
Materials cost money that companies locked in competition would rather not spend.
There are multiple paths to dematerialization.
A kilogram of uranium-235 fuel contains approximately 2–3 million times as much energy as the same mass of coal or oil. According to one estimate, the total amount of energy that humans consume each year could be supplied by just seven thousand tons of uranium fuel.
For example, the world’s commercial airlines have improved their load factors — essentially the percentage of seats occupied on flights — from 56 percent in 1971 to more than 81 percent in 2018.
The iPhone and its descendants are among the world champions of dematerialization.
I call these four paths to dematerialization slim, swap, optimize, and evaporate.
Innovation is hard to foresee.
The year of peak paper consumption in the United States, however, was 1990. As our devices have become more capable and interconnected, always on and always with us, we’ve sharply turned away from paper. Humanity as a whole probably hit peak paper in 2013.
One of my favorite definitions of technology comes from the philosopher Emmanuel Mesthene, who called it “the organization of knowledge for the achievement of practical purposes.”
My other preferred definition of technology comes from the great science fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin, who wrote, “Technology is the active human interface with the material world. Its technology is how a society copes with physical reality: how people get and keep and cook food, how they clothe themselves, what their power sources are (animal? human? water? wind? electricity? other?), what they build with and what they build, their medicine—and so on and on. Perhaps very ethereal people aren’t interested in these mundane, bodily matters, but I’m fascinated by them.”
I’m going to join this long sad parade by arguing in favor of capitalism.
Some important “market failures” need to be corrected by government action.
How could these predictions about resource availability, which were taken seriously when they were released, have been so wrong? Because the Limits to Growth team pretty clearly underestimated both dematerialization and the endless search for new reserves.
Abraham Lincoln, the only US president to hold a patent, had a deep insight about capitalism. He wrote that the patent system “added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius in the discovery and production of new and useful things.” “The fire of genius” is a wonderful label for technological progress. “The fuel of interest” is equally good as a summary of capitalism.
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.
Lincoln’s patent was for a flotation system that lifted riverboats stuck on sandbars.
CHAPTER 8 - Adam Smith Said That: A Few Words about Capitalism
The profit motive is an extremely powerful incentive for people and companies to create goods and services others will want to buy.
As Smith observed, “Nobody but a beggar chooses to depend chiefly upon the benevolence of his fellow-citizens.”
Yet another of Smith’s most famous observations, taken from a lecture he gave more than twenty years before The Wealth of Nations appeared, is that “little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism, but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice.”
Hayek realized that fluctuating prices for such things as aluminum and wheat are signals about scarcity and abundance. These signals cause people who buy and sell to take action (to slim, swap, optimize, evaporate, and so on). So free-floating prices in capitalist economies do an important double duty: they provide both information and incentives. Prices fixed by a socialist government do neither of those things.
A former director of the state-run oil company explained, “In Venezuela, there is no war, nor strike. What’s left of the oil industry is crumbling on its own” because of incompetence and corruption. Other industries didn’t fare much better. The IMF estimated that the country’s GDP dropped 35 percent between 2013 and 2017. According to economist Ricardo Hausmann, this is the largest economic collapse ever seen in the history of not only Latin America but also Western Europe and North America.
UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher famously observed in 1976, “The trouble with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money.”
CHAPTER 9 - What Else Is Needed? People and Policies
If companies can buy and sell the right to pollute, things will get even better. This is the conclusion of a line of thinking kicked off by the legendary and Nobel Prize–winning economist Ronald Coase in his 1960 paper “The Problem of Social Cost.”
A cap-and-trade system or any other pollution-control effort won’t work if the government is weak, corrupt, or otherwise unable to enforce its laws. It’s not too cynical to say that polluters won’t stop simply because they’re asked to or because a law has been passed. They need to be confident that there will be penalties, and that the cost of these penalties will be greater than the cost of being clean and green. So governments need to have high-quality monitoring and enforcement capabilities.
A study published in 2017 by researchers Christian Schmidt, Tobias Krauth, and Stephan Wagner found that 88–95 percent of all plastic garbage that flowed into the world’s oceans from rivers came from just ten of them, of which eight were in Asia and two in Africa.
The United States, for example, which accounts for approximately 25 percent of the world’s overall economy, contributes less than 1 percent of total global river-sourced plastic ocean trash. China, meanwhile, is responsible for about 15 percent of the world’s economy, yet contributes 28 percent of total oceanic plastic trash from rivers.
But we shouldn’t get complacent about the power of capitalism and tech progress to prevent the complete dematerialization of species, for two reasons. The first is biology. By the time high prices or other factors lead us to stop killing animals, there may simply not be enough left to allow their population to rebound.
The other reason high prices might not rescue animals is that we humans sometimes like high prices. With most products, demand goes down when prices go up, all other things being equal. But with “Veblen goods,” something very different happens: higher prices cause demand to go up.
The scientific consensus about the safety of GMO foods is overwhelming.
Yet thirty-eight countries don’t allow their farmers to grow GMO crops, according to the Genetic Literacy Project website. These include most EU countries (except for Spain and Portugal), Russia, and much of Africa. This collective refusal represents a great triumph of ideology over evidence, and also over the environment.
In my view the best answer to this question comes from the work of the economist Daron Acemoglu and political scientist James Robinson, summarized in their book Why Nations Fail. They argue that the differences between rich countries and poor ones, between those that maintain growth over long periods and those that can only accomplish it fitfully (if at all), stem from differences in their institutions.
The author and self-described “rational optimist” Matt Ridley makes a stark comparison: “A car today emits less pollution traveling at full speed than a parked car did from leaks in 1970.”
The USSR minister of fisheries during the time of the whale hunts was Aleksandr Ishokov, who was named a Hero of Socialistic Work for his ability to execute plans. As Berzin wrote in his memoir, “On one occasion a scientist was trying to protect the whale resources from destructive whaling and he reminded the Minister about his descendants. Ishokov returned an abominable, criminal, and chilling response that should be carved upon the gravestone of the Soviet economic system: ‘These descendants will not be the ones to fire me from my job.’ ”
CHAPTER 10 - The Global Gallop of the Four Horsemen
In 2016, more people in the world had a phone than a flush toilet or piped water.
I believe that technological progress today is faster than ever before in our history.
The new approach was called “reform and opening up.” It was also referred to as “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” but a better label for it might be “Chinese authoritarianism with some capitalist characteristics.”
Soon after, Gorbachev signed a document giving up his presidency and returning self-government, after more than six decades, to the fifteen republics that had made up the USSR. During the ceremony the Russian-made felt pen Gorbachev tried to use didn’t work, so he borrowed a fountain pen from CNN president Tom Johnson.
When introducing these reforms, Singh paraphrased Victor Hugo by stating, “No power on earth can stop an idea whose time has come.”
Between 1978 and 1991, then, more than 2.1 billion people — about 40 percent of the world’s 1990 population — began living within substantially more capitalist economic systems. This is certainly the largest and fastest shift toward economic freedom that the world has ever seen.
Although autocracies still governed more than 23 percent of the global population in 2015, there are fewer and fewer of them over time. And as Roser says, “It is worth pointing out that four out of five people in the world that live in an autocracy live in China.”
As Pinker writes, “Young Muslims in the Middle East, the world’s most conservative culture, have values today that are comparable to those of young people in Western Europe, the world’s most liberal culture, in the early 1960s.”
As recently as 1980, almost 44 percent of all people at least fifteen years old were illiterate. By 2014, the figure had dropped to less than 15 percent.
CHAPTER 11 - Getting So Much Better
Max Roser’s Our World in Data is one of my favorite websites, for two reasons. The first is that it contains a lot of valuable information. The second is that it tells an invaluable story — an optimistic and hopeful one. The evidence presented in Our World in Data and in books like Julian Simon’s The Ultimate Resource, Bjørn Lomborg’s Skeptical Environmentalist, Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, and Hans Rosling’s Factfulness shows clearly that most of the things we should care about are getting better.
One other important factor, I think, was identified by the British philosopher John Stuart Mill in an 1828 speech: “I have observed that not the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage.” In many elite circles and publications negativity seems to be a sign of seriousness and rigor, while optimism and positivity seem naive and under-informed.
However, Brand points out that documented extinctions are relatively rare (with about 530 recorded within the past five hundred years) and appear to have slowed down in recent decades; for example, no marine creatures have been recorded as extinct in the past fifty years.
Second, we’re fighting to preserve some of the most threatened species living on islands (where a disproportionate number of extinctions take place) by removing imported predators. To date, at least eight hundred islands have been protected in this way.
Parks and other protected areas made up only 4 percent of global land area in 1985, but by 2015, this figure had almost quadrupled, to 15.4 percent. At the end of 2017, 5.3 percent of the earth’s oceans were similarly protected.
The most important way that we’re absenting ourselves from the land at present is by no longer farming it. As we saw in chapter 7, for example, 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 any and all tree felling that is taking place, and overall reforestation has become the norm.
Even with continued deforestation in developing countries and other challenges, a critical milestone has been reached: across the planet as a whole we have, as an international research team concluded in 2015, experienced a “recent reversal in loss of global terrestrial biomass.” For the first time since the start of the Industrial Era, our planet is getting greener, not browner.
CHAPTER 12 - Powers of Concentration
We’re not on our way to becoming a city-dwelling species — we’re already largely there.
Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton won a majority of the vote in fewer than five hundred counties. These counties, however, together generated 64 percent of the country’s economy. The more than twenty-five hundred counties won by Trump were responsible for only a bit more than a third of the American economy.
Van Reenen writes, “Many of the patterns are consistent with a… view where many industries have become ‘winner take most/all’ due to globalization and new technologies rather than a generalized weakening of competition due to relaxed antitrust rules or rising regulation.”
Most Americans, however, don’t own stock in Amazon. Or in any other company. Economist Edward Wolff found that, in 2016, 50.7 percent of US households owned no stocks at all, either directly or in retirement accounts. So all stock market wealth is concentrated in less than half of America’s households.
As Nobel Prize winner Angus Deaton put it in 2017, “Inequality is not the same thing as unfairness; and, to my mind, it is the latter that has incited so much political turmoil in the rich world today. Some of the processes that generate inequality are widely seen as fair. But others are deeply and obviously unfair, and have become a legitimate source of anger and disaffection.”
CHAPTER 13 - Stressed Be the Tie That Binds: Disconnection
Instead, he replied: “The lack of a fundamental friendliness. It seems like an awful lot of people in America and around the world feel spiritually and personally alienated.… I think that, when you look at veterans coming out of the wars, they’re more and more just slapped in the face by that isolation, and they’re used to something better. They think it’s PTSD — which it can be — but it’s really about alienation. If you lose any sense of being part of something bigger, then why should you care about your fellow man?” - General Mattis
Just about all the mortality increase was attributable to the least educated white middle-aged Americans, and to three causes of death: suicide, drug overdose, and chronic liver disease such as cirrhosis (which is often caused by alcoholism).
The US suicide rate rose by 14 percent between 2009 and 2016, when it reached a level not previously seen since the end of World War II. Overdose deaths have climbed even more quickly. They almost doubled between 2008 and 2017, when more than 72,000 people lost their lives to an overdose. This is far more than the 58,220 American military deaths recorded throughout the Vietnam War.
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.
As Johann Hari, a writer and researcher on the global “war on drugs” puts it, “The opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety, it’s connection.”
As we saw in chapter 10, most countries are becoming significantly more pluralistic — they’re seeing more ethnic diversity and immigration, gender equality, support for gay marriage and other nontraditional lifestyles, and related changes that enhance diversity. A fascinating stream of recent research finds that a large percentage of people in all countries studied have an innate intolerance for this greater diversity. Instead, they want things to be the same everywhere. They value uniformity of beliefs, values, practices, and so on (as long, of course, as this uniformity reflects their own beliefs, values, and practices). The political scientist Karen Stenner labels people with this personality type “authoritarians” because they typically want a strong central authority to enforce obedience and conformity. Recent election results across countries as dissimilar as the United States, Poland, Turkey, Hungary, the Philippines, and Brazil indicate a global growing desire for authoritarian leaders.
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.
Sullivan makes a point that might help explain why European countries haven’t seen fatal overdoses rise anywhere near as much as the United States has. As he writes, “Unlike in Europe, where cities and towns existed long before industrialization, much of America’s heartland has no remaining preindustrial history, given the destruction of Native American societies. The gutting of that industrial backbone — especially as globalization intensified in a country where market forces are least restrained — has been not just an economic fact but a cultural, even spiritual devastation.”
The famous Elephant Graph, drawn by economists Branko Milanovic and Christoph Lakner, helps us understand why this segment of society might be feeling so much alienation and resentment. Milanovic and Lakner had the great idea to essentially line up all the people in the world from poorest to richest, then see how much their incomes changed between 1988 and 2008. The resulting graph looked to many like a drawing of an elephant with its trunk in the air.
In 1867 the German statesman Otto von Bismarck famously observed, “Politics is the art of the possible.” A century and a half later, as the Industrial Era rapidly gives way to the Second Machine Age, disconnection, authoritarianism, and polarization seem to be reducing the possibilities for effective government.
Another reason is that we humans outsource a lot of knowledge to other people, often without even realizing that we’re doing so. As Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach explain in their book, The Knowledge Illusion, many people believe that they have a good idea how a flush toilet works, but few can actually explain the mechanisms by which that device carries away waste and refills with water. This “illusion of explanatory depth” is widespread, covering everything from how a can opener operates to how a cap-and-trade system for reducing pollution is put into practice.
Globally, approximately 90 percent of children are vaccinated against pertussis, a highly infectious coughing disease that’s especially dangerous to infants. In some Los Angeles preschools, however, more than half of students are exempt from this vaccination because of paperwork filed by their parents. These schools’ communities, which are usually affluent and well educated, appear to have immunization rates similar to those of Chad and South Sudan.
The anti-vaccination movement is not confined to America. Europe had more than eighty thousand measles cases in 2018, a fifteenfold increase over 2016. These cases led to seventy-two deaths.
CHAPTER 14 - Looking Ahead: The World Cleanses Itself This Way
Romer’s largest contribution to economics was to show that it’s best not to think of new technologies as something that companies buy and bring in from the outside, but instead as something they create themselves (the title of his most famous paper, published in 1990, is “Endogenous Technological Change”). These technologies are like designs or recipes; as Romer put it, they’re “the instructions that we follow for combining raw materials.”
Romer’s brilliance was to highlight the importance of two key attributes of the technological ideas companies come up with as they pursue profits. The first is that they’re nonrival, meaning that they can be used by more than one person or company at a time, and that they don’t get used up.
The second important aspect of corporate technologies is that they’re partially excludable.
Romer called this capacity “human capital” and said at the end of his 1990 paper, “The most interesting positive implication of the model is that an economy with a larger total stock of human capital will experience faster growth.”
Digital tools are technologies for creating technologies, the most prolific and versatile ones we’ve ever come up with. They’re machines for coming up with ideas.
the Instructables website contains detailed instructions for making equipment ranging from air-particle counters to machine tools,
Because 3-D printing generates virtually no waste and doesn’t require massive molds, it accelerates dematerialization.
Here are the even-money bets I’m offering: Compared to 2019, in 2029 the United States will consume in total:
- Fewer metals
- Fewer “industrial materials” (diamonds, mica, etc.)
- Less timber
- Less paper
- Less fertilizer
- Less water for agriculture
- Less energy
Compared to 2019, in 2029 the US will:
- Use less cropland
- Have lower greenhouse gas emissions
CHAPTER 15 - Interventions: How to Be Good
Economist William Nordhaus uses the image of a “climate casino” to convey the uncertainty about the future trajectory of climate change.
In January of 2019, an all-star collection of American economists (featuring Nobel Prize winners, Fed chairs, treasury secretaries, and others) signed an open letter advocating that the United States adopt a revenue-neutral carbon tax.
Germany has embarked on an ambitious Energiewende — literally, a national “energy transition” — away from fossil fuels and toward renewables. However, the results to date have been unimpressive: electricity prices for consumers have doubled since 2000, and carbon emissions have been flat or increasing in recent years (after decreasing substantially for more than a decade after 1990).
As the environmental policy analyst and self-described “ecomodernist” Michael Shellenberger highlights, however, the evidence is strong that nuclear is actually the safest source of reliable energy. A study published in the Lancet in 2007 found that over the previous fifteen years death rates from pollution were generally hundreds of times lower for nuclear power than for coal, gas, or oil, and that accident rates were also comparatively low for nuclear.
The two horsemen of capitalism and tech progress are taking us into a more concentrated world, not a more evenly distributed one.
The software company Salesforce is buying enough carbon offsets to make up for all the CO2 produced by its data centers around the world.
Other large technology companies, including Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft, have similar plans.
Because transportation currently relies so heavily on burning fossil fuels, it’s a major contributor to global warming. But many companies are making efforts to improve the situation. United Airlines has committed to cutting its greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2050. Shipping giant A.P. Møller-Maersk has gone further, pledging carbon neutrality across its fleet by the middle of the century.
Since greenhouse gases are global pollutants, carbon offsets benefit the whole planet. Nonprofits such as Cool Effects and Carbonfund.org certify that the carbon-reducing projects receiving their money are actually causing reductions that wouldn’t happen otherwise, a property called additionality (even though the trees in my backyard absorb carbon, Cool Effects won’t pay me for them because I’m not bringing about any additional reductions beyond what nature is already accomplishing).
Ducks Unlimited, for example, has since its establishment in 1937 conserved 14 million acres in North America, an area as big as West Virginia.
Trout Unlimited, Salmon Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, and many other groups are similarly dedicated to preserving the species they go after for sport and food.
Another of my favorite examples of new approaches to human capital formation is 42, a technology academy founded by the French entrepreneur Xavier Niel.
Families and people who are aware of the evidence, and who want to do right by their fellow humans and the planet we all live on, will do a few things. One of the most important is that they’ll influence their governments by voting and persuading others to vote, contacting elected officials, speaking in public, coming together at rallies and in peaceful protests, and using all the other tools of engaged citizens.
(Recommendations for what we can do)
- Reducing pollution.
- Reducing greenhouse gases.
- Promoting nuclear energy.
- Preserving species and habitats.
- Promoting genetically modified organisms.
- Funding basic research.
- Promoting markets, competition, and work.
In the future we’ll see more companies launch efforts to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, households will have more ways to determine which of these efforts are most sincere and effective. This will allow them to reward decarbonizers by buying their goods and services.
As Linus Blomqvist of the ecomodernist think tank Breakthrough Institute puts it, “A diet including chicken and pork, but no dairy or beef, has lower greenhouse gas emissions than a vegetarian diet that includes milk and cheese, and almost gets within spitting distance of a vegan diet.”
For the greenhouse-gas-generating activities that households can’t avoid (or choose not to), they can buy carbon offsets against them.
CONCLUSION - Our Next Planet
As our creators and children look at this turning point, they will see that it was good.
Compared to forests, grasslands keep the earth cooler in two ways: they reflect more sunlight back into space, and they insulate the ground less, leading to longer and deeper winter freezes.
At the Breakthrough Institute Ted Nordhaus