Undercover Economist

Two cheers for the dematerialising economy

If past trends continue, the world’s gross domestic product will be about twice as big by 2040 as it is today. That’s the sort of growth rate that translates to 30-fold growth over a century, or by a factor of a thousand over two centuries. Is that miraculous, or apocalyptic? In itself, neither. GDP is a synthetic statistic, invented to help us put a measuring rod up against the ordinary business of life. It measures neither the energy and resource consumption that might worry us, nor the things that really lead to human flourishing.

That disconnection from what matters might be a problem if politicians strove to maximise GDP, but they don’t — otherwise they would have hesitated before imposing austerity in the face of a financial crisis, launching trade wars or getting Brexit done. Economic policymaking has flaws, but an obsession with GDP is not one of them.

Nevertheless the exponential expansion of GDP is indirectly important, because GDP growth is correlated with things that do matter, good and bad. Economic growth has long been associated with unsustainable activities such as carbon dioxide emissions and the consumption of metals and minerals.

But GDP growth is also correlated with the good things in life: in the short run, an economy that is creating jobs; in the long run, more important things. GDP per capita is highly correlated with indicators such as the Social Progress Index. The SPI summarises a wide range of indicators from access to food, shelter, health and education to vital freedoms of choice and from discrimination. All the leading countries in the Social Progress database are rich. All the strugglers are desperately poor.

So the prospect of a doubling of world GDP matters, not for its own sake, but for what it implies — an expansion of human flourishing, and the risk of environmental disaster. So here’s the good news: we might be able to enjoy all the good stuff while avoiding the unsustainable environmental impact. The link between economic activity and the use of material resources is not as obvious as one might think. There are several reasons for this.

The first is that for all our seemingly insatiable desires, sometimes enough is enough. If you live in a cold house for lack of money, a pay rise lets you take off the extra cardigan and turn up the radiators. But if you win the lottery, you are not going to celebrate by roasting yourself alive.

The second is that, while free enterprise may care little for the planet, it is always on the lookout for ways to save money. As long as energy, land and materials remain costly, we’ll develop ways to use less. Aluminium beer cans weighed 85 grammes when introduced in the late 1950s. They now weigh less than 13 grammes.

The third reason is a switch to digital products — a fact highlighted back in 1997 by Diane Coyle in her book The Weightless World [pdf]. The trend has only continued since then. My music collection used to require a wall full of shelves. It is now on a network drive the size of a large hardback book. My phone contains the equivalent of a rucksack full of equipment.

Dematerialisation is not automatic, of course. As Vaclav Smil calculates in his new book, Growth, US houses are more than twice as large today as in 1950. The US’s bestselling vehicle in 2018, the Ford F-150, weighs almost four times as much as 1908’s bestseller, the Model T. Let’s not even talk about the number of cars; Mr Smil reckons the global mass of automobiles sold has increased 2,500-fold over the past century.

Still, there is reason for hope. Chris Goodall’s research paper “Peak Stuff” concluded that, in the UK, “both the weight of goods entering the economy and the amounts finally ending up as waste probably began to fall from sometime between 2001 and 2003”. That figure includes the impact of imported goods.

In the US, Jesse Ausubel’s article “The Return of Nature” found falling consumption of commodities such as iron ore, aluminium, copper, steel, and paper and many others. Agricultural land has become so productive that some of it is being allowed to return to nature.

In the EU, carbon dioxide emissions fell 22 per cent between 1990 and 2017, despite the economy growing by 58 per cent. Only some of this fall is explained by the offshoring of production. (For a good summary of all this research, try Andrew McAfee’s book More From Less.)

Can we, then, relax? No. To pick a single obvious problem, global carbon dioxide emissions may be rising more slowly than GDP — but they are rising nevertheless, and they need to fall rapidly. Yet the fact that dematerialisation is occurring is heartening. We all know what the basic policies are that would tilt the playing field in favour of smaller, lighter, lower-emission products and activities. Adopting those policies means we might actually be able to save the planet, preserve human needs, rights and freedoms — and still have plenty of fun into the bargain.


Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 10 January 2020.

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