Dematerialization: Humanity’s Biggest Surprise

Andrew McAfee argues that the Earth Day environmentalists correctly diagnosed the problem, a worsening environment, but were wrong about the solution, degrowth. In fact, the drive to reduce costs by making better use of resources has led to a dramatic decrease in resource use even as production has increased, a dematerialization. Poverty not prosperity is the enemy of the environment.

I love this talk for many reasons not the least of which is that Andrew has put all his data online.

 

Comments

'has led a dramatic decrease in resource use even as production has increased, a dematerialization.'

So, today's larger size houses use less material? 'In 2015, the average size of new houses built in the US increased to an all-time high of 2,687 square feet (see dark blue line in top chart above), and the median size new house set a new record of 2,467 square feet (see light blue line in top chart). Over the last 42 years, the average new US house has increased in size by more than 1,000 square feet, from an average size of 1,660 square feet in 1973 (earliest year available from the Census Bureau) to 2,687 square feet last year. Likewise, the median-size house has increased in size by almost 1,000 square feet, from 1,525 square feet in 1973 to 2,467 last year. In percentage terms, both the average and median size of new US houses have increased by 62% since 1973.' http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:3XVDXD261CQJ:http://www.aei.org/publication/new-us-homes-today-are-1000-square-feet-larger-than-in-1973-and-living-space-per-person-has-nearly-doubled/%2Bsquare+foot+average+america&gbv=1&hl=de&ct=clnk

Leading to the question has the amount of material within these modern larger average houses (think furniture, appliances, carpeting, etc.) decreased?

Or would the self-storage industry be seen as a sign of how Americans own less stuff than they did in 1973?

Has recycling improved? Sure, but then the percentage of something like ferrous metals or lead or aluminum that is recycled has probably not increased much between 1973 and 2018 (particularly for the ferrous metals - electromagnets are simple and cheap, after all).

I would be shocked if houses did not use less materials today.

First a 62% increase in floor area is not a 62% increase in building materials. Increasing from 1600 to 2500 square ft is only going from 40 to 50 ft in average dimensions. Wall length is then only increasing from 160 to 200; or about 20%. Increasing area is the square of increased wall length, so I would expect around a 27% increase. Roofing complicates this, but that depends on how much more or less use of second (third) stories are being used; rough estimate there is that total surface area goes up by a smaller amount than increased volume.

This gets better because modern homes have fewer interior walls and such walls as they have use much less material (e.g. more drywall on studs, less plaster). We are also far more likely to use more weight efficient building techniques in modern homes. Things indestructible bathroom tiles, heavy wood framing, and the like are all gone.

About 60% of steel was recycled in the 1980s. These days, I believe the figure is around 80%. One can look at that as a 33% increase in recycling or a 50% decrease in virgin steel use prima facie.

The real movement here has nothing to do with building size or material though. By far the single biggest effect has been the increase in the number of homes needed. As the nuclear family has become less common we have been building more homes for more people. The tract homes of the 50s and 60s routinely housed five and six people; today's suburbs rarely hold more than four and often hold just two or even one. Delaying marriage and child rearing has in for more housing consumption per capita and likely dwarfs every other effect on housing.

'I would be shocked if houses did not use less materials today.'

It is an interesting point, certainly in the U.S. - the quality of buildings today is considerably lower in a number of ways (think wood framing replacing masonry), for example.

'This gets better because modern homes have fewer interior walls and such walls as they have use much less material (e.g. more drywall on studs, less plaster).'

As noted, building quality has declined.

'About 60% of steel was recycled in the 1980s. These days, I believe the figure is around 80%.

The figures are quite complex, depending on what is considered 'recycling' - industrial scrap has pretty much always been recycled, for example, as have automobiles, ships, etc. Here is a link to some useful U.S. information that takes a much broader view of 'recycling'' than the sort of curbside pick up most people associate with the term. https://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity/recycle/

The 1996 info compared to the 2015 is interesting - there is no question that recycling has increased in general, but then, so have commodity prices. Of course, it is also interesting to match this with changes in packaging - both glass and aluminum are recycleable, but the amount of aluminum recycled in 1970 was fairly small. As was the share of beverages sold in aluminimum cans then.

Basically, we have always done a large amount of recycling, it is merely that what happens in a manufacturing plant tends to be out of view. This actually ties to an older MR post - https://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2018/03/wednesday-assorted-links-148.html - and the growth of Nucor, which is pretty much a steel company founded on scrap in 1969, and now America's largest domestic steel producer..

However, the point that today's larger houses are filled with more stuff, along with the growth of the self-storage industry, is independent of the preceding considerations.

It is an interesting point, certainly in the U.S. - the quality of buildings today is considerably lower in a number of ways (think wood framing replacing masonry), for example.

First of all, the U.S. has been building both masonry and wood frame houses for hundreds of years. There has been no wholesale shift from masonry to wood in recent decades. But even if there had been -- in what sense are wood frame houses of 'lower quality'? Certainly, if maintained properly, a wood frame house will last indefinitely -- there are quite a number of them listed here:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_the_oldest_buildings_in_the_United_States

What's more, the most likely reason to knock down a house in the U.S. is not that it has 'worn out', but that it has become outmoded. There, the advantage of wood-frame houses is that they are far easier to remodel and update (with lower labor costs) than masonry houses. One could argue that flexibility and adaptability are the keys to durability and, therefore, the most important aspect of quality construction.

'There has been no wholesale shift from masonry to wood in recent decades.'

Call it anecdata from watching how NoVa was built out over decades, but these days, the Tyvek paneled wood framing is a joke. Admittedly, this is about residential construction, though I think that was clear enough.

'in what sense are wood frame houses of 'lower quality''

Matter of opinion, particularly from having lived in houses in NovA built before 1800 (mainly stone), built around 1960 (brick and wood) and after 1990 - wood framed.

'but that it has become outmoded'

Which is a fascinating concept, considering my own experience living in an 'outmoded house.'

"Call it anecdata from watching how NoVa was built out over decades"

One of the things you have to keep in mind when forming your anecdotal impressions is the survivor effect. The really cheaply built housing from earlier eras is already gone.

"Tyvek paneled wood framing is a joke."

Tyvek is a house wrap that comes in rolls, not a type of panel. It goes over the sheathing to provide an air barrier to improve energy efficiency (something on which 'high quality' old houses certainly do not rate highly).

'The really cheaply built housing from earlier eras is already gone. '

NoVa is quite interesting that way - there wasn't much in the way of old housing left after the Civil War, and most of the new housing was built starting in the 50s, by either cutting down the regrown forest or building over played out farm land. And of course, to the extent that there were buildings from the after the Civil War, even reasonable quality ones, they were generally bulldozered as subdivisions were built - their quality (and to an extent, any historical significance) played no role in that process.

'Tyvek is a house wrap that comes in rolls, not a type of panel'

Well, which I remember most vividly from a few years ago on Braddock Road is how a panel/frame already covered with Tyvek on the external side was being lifted into place as the wall for the second floor - without any need for a crane. As there were a couple of other already Tyvek covered panels, it is an open question whether the panel/frames/wall was prepared on site, or had been premade.

'something on which 'high quality' old houses certainly do not rate highly'

Actually, that is a somewhat interesting point. Certainly, windows from 100 years ago do not meet modern German standards - but then, as near as I can tell from the houses I have been in that have been built in the last 20 years or so, neither do modern American windows. However, older houses are often considerably better built to stay cool in the summer. But then, living in a house with minimal air conditioning is probably unimaginable for most people in NoVa at this point.

"it is an open question whether the panel/frames/wall was prepared on site, or had been premade"

Factory-made panels don't necessarily mean low quality. Here, jump to about the 21:30 mark:

http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x2jmnzf

(The fact that the panels are made by a German company should reassure you, particularly, I expect)

Why? I have seen prefab houses being built here with wood framing and Tyvek, and it does not reassure me in the least. However, at least in the case of the German houses, a crane is required to lift the panels.

Admittedly, most German prefab housing still uses concrete panels, and no Tyvek.

Stuff like linoleum used to were out much fast that ceramic tiles and so you need to take account of how long stuff lasts to. Cars are a great example of that, a new Toyota can go 300k mile and last 20 years. Corian coutertops last longer than formic.

Yes, it is a complex subject in a number of ways concerning durability.

On the other hand, take mold. I cannot honestly remembering anybody caring about mold when I was younger (basements being a bit of an exception that no one much cared about), and yet today, it seems to be an obsession and/or real problem

That was a bigger issue 10 yrs ago or more. Mold is from dampness, either poor drainage in older homes or newer homes wrapped too tight for efficiency reasons. New homes are significantly more efficient. That 2600 sq ft house uses less energy than the old 1400 sq footer.

Attention! I want to denounce Philippe Ballesio and Rosalie Lai Ballesio for the scams they are doing through the website "btcmt4", help me to spread the word, so that nobody else is deceived by such people. Many have lost their money, do not let it continue to happen.

The guy in the video clearly gives many examples of less aggregate material being used. So who cares if some houses today use more material, if that is even correct?

Speaking as someone who lives in a house made in 1940, let me tell you that houses use *much* less material now. Our house was built of full-dimensional lumber (ie, a 2x4 is actually 2x4, unlike today). Our walls weren't originally covered in sheetrock, but in 3/4 inch wood shiplap planking (with burlap stretched over it to support wallpaper). The house was originally full of lead pipe. The bathtubs were cast iron. The floors were made of thick oak planking (as opposed to the engineered wood flooring of today, which uses much less actual lumber).

There was no plywood, no strand board, no aluminum, and no plastic pipe. Even the *nails* we use today are much lighter than those of the past.

In pounds per square foot, houses use much less material today, there's no doubt about it.

Didn't the shift from an industrial economy to an information economy necessarily result in the dematerialization of the economy? Didn't the shift of industrial production from developed countries such as the U.S. to developing countries such as China also result in a dematerialization of the economy in the developed countries while increasing the materialization in the developing countries? McAfee credits technology (in particular information technology) with dematerialization, and his data support his case. If environmentalists are promoting degrowth, that's news to me. Economic nationalists in developed countries are promoting degrowth - in the developing countries - but not for environmental reasons. The globe is shrinking, and prosperity (growth) won't be limited to yesterday's developed countries. Degrowth is not the answer, but rising inequality isn't either; indeed, inequality is rising faster within developing countries than within developed countries. Shared prosperity makes winners of everyone, including the benefits of technology.

Fewer people is still generally a "win". If we could have people who are much more "environmentally efficient" *and also* fewer people overall, that would be the best possible scenario.

You don't necessarily want to *shrink*, though, because to a large extent we've already "built out" our societies to support the current population. Rather, if we could just freeze populations where they're at, and continue to lift people out of poverty (and enact changes to mitigate the resource usage of high-income folks, e.g. Americans) then that would be ideal. Problem is, you can't just dictate population growth. (Well, you can try, but only via authoritarianism, and that's not a bargain I'm willing to make.)

Of course I notice a lot of people calling for lower population do not take the first easy step and reduce the population by one. It is simple if you try. And why not? What argument is there not to?

The ideal situation is more and richer people. Environmental damage is done by poverty and ignorance. It doesn't matter how many people live in a densely populated country - if they are rich they do not lose species. Look at Japan. Much richer than in 1945. Not a great deal of species loss. Not since Saipan was bombed flat.

The environment is just a cover for a loathing of other people. It is wrong.

'What argument is there not to?'

Because it is stupid? The rate of growth is at issue, not the current number, after all. And notice the commenter even addressed your point - 'Rather, if we could just freeze populations where they're at.'

Buddyglass was not making an argument about the rate of growth - which is on the decline - but the absolute numbers. So yet again you have decided to do your usual thing and interject without thought or relevance.

Third World populations are growing. So if the desired result is a stable population, then reducing the population of the First World goes some small way towards that end. So it is a first step - a small step admittedly - but it is exactly what he called for. So why not?

Some "Environmentalists" have lobbied against research for cures for malaria because they hate other people so much. They should start at home.

You have the actual quote repeated about 'freezing population' right in front of you.

'So if the desired result is a stable population, then reducing the population of the First World goes some small way towards that end.'

No, simply having fewer children is all that is required. Nobody needs to die to keep the population stable.

Don't forget the Dreamers! Someone has to die to let them stay.

Of course I notice a lot of people calling for lower population do not take the first easy step and reduce the population by one.

So, murder you?

Environmental damage is done by poverty and ignorance.

Or greed, tragedy of the commons style. If you could universally solve for greed and ignorance then, yeah, we could mitigate much of the environmental impact of larger populations.

Only...solving for those things globally is really, really hard. (Read: impossible).

I think the Greenie Earth-Day-compliant thing is to murder your girlfriend and compost her body. But whatever.

Greed has next to nothing to do with environmental damage. Although I agree that the Tragedy of the Commons in a problem. Easily solved by restricting socialism and privatizing everything.

Neo-liberalism seems to be doing an excellent job of ending the world's environmental problems. We need more of it.

> Environmental damage is done by poverty and ignorance.

This statement is nonsense. Superfund sites were not created by the poor. The hazardous chemicals benzene, sulfuric acid and hydrogen cyanide from Koch’s oil refinery that are poisoning the people of Corpus Christi is neither the result of poverty or ignorance. The polluters know exactly what they are doing.

We've replaced a lot of consumption of molecules of metal, glass, etc, with a lot of consumption of the ur-resource: fossil fuel. Sure, we own less stuff, because smartphones do the same thing as x more pounds of old tech, but that smartphone is connected to lots of servers that require massive amounts of electricity, much more than renewables will ever provide. Whales are back because we light oil on fire, not them.

Making stuff more efficient is a stopgap, degrowth will eventually be the only solution.

Yes. De-growth is the only solution - the final solution if you will. [Evil laugh followed by eye roll].

Solution for what? Do you think we're almost done making thing as efficient as they can be? Anti-economic, anti-population, anti-vaccine - it's all the same weir sort of denial.

But fossil fuel is vastly less environmentally harmful than mining. An oil well uses huge amounts amount of water and cement, but once in operation the only thing coming out is hydrocarbons. With an iron mine you are digging up huge volumes of rock with very energy intensive heavy machinery (that itself took large amounts of energy to make). Resource extraction for fossil fuels typically require vastly less inputs than extracting other resources.

The answer to long term energy questions is likely to be nuclear power. Uranium mining is exceeding efficient per unit of energy and thorium is a couple of orders magnitude cheaper still. If we all followed the French nuclear model we could have one or two hundred years of cheap, efficient nuclear power with lower emissions than the lifecycle costs of a lot solar cells.

In the future we could expect thorium to take over and that pushes out around 1000 years at current energy use rates. By the time thorium is depleted, fusion may have finally arrived or we may have substantial resources off planet.

More generally, GDP has been decoupling from energy use for some time. Depending on the measure used this began in the 70s (e.g. GDP per capita US), the 90s (raw GDP Nordics), the 00s (raw GDP UK), or the 2010s (global GDP per capita).

In short moving from wood (the major US fuel source of the early Republic until around the civil war) to coal to oil & natural gas to nuclear power has been ever more efficient and less polluting. Somewhere in the 70s we decided to collectively lose our minds about radiation hazards and we promptly stalled out on energy efficiency. We have enough resources to manage energy use for exceedingly long timeframes and no-growth is vastly more dangerous to environmental health.

"We've replaced a lot of consumption of molecules of metal, glass, etc, with a lot of consumption of the ur-resource: fossil fuel."

You obviously haven't been reading your assigned Julian Simon. ;-)

The world has more fossil fuel than it will ever use. Go to this estimate of methane hydrate in-place gas in place under the waters surrounding the U.S.

https://www.boem.gov/Gas-Hydrates-Resource-Assessment/

Compare the mean values totaling about 50,000 trillion cubic feet with the U.S. annual consumption of about 30 trillion cubic feet.

What about C02? That's definitely still going up. To make a more general point, it's very suspicious that he mentioned one pollutant which is on the decline, given how many pollutants there are. In fact, in the absence of further evidence, I would expect every major pollutant he didn't list to be still increasing, or else he would have listed it to reinforce his point.

Also, even if consumption of good X per year is decreasing, we'll still run out of it if it doesn't go down to zero. (Zero in net, I mean, where we recycle as much as we consume).

Waste is a negative externality--it takes up space and resources to store it. As long as that is not taxed accordingly, we shouldn't expect the market to reach anything close to the right equilibrium.

"Also, even if consumption of good X per year is decreasing, we'll still run out of it if it doesn't go down to zero."

That's why we have the price signal. As a resource becomes scarce, it's price will go up and we will use less of it. We will never run out of anything if the price signal is allowed to work.

If CO2 is a pollutant I’m sure you have a death toll for us.

The planet is greening at a rate of about 1% a year and a study claimed that 70% of that increase is due to more CO2.

Meanwhile, Arctic ice volume is now just 4% less than its multi-decade average and according to the NASA temerpature set, the fall in global temperatures between Feb 2016 and Feb 2016 was the sharpest two year decline in a century.

(Add here the usual facts that IPCC predictions for temperature, sea level, tropospheric warming etc are all wildly wrong).

Cold kills. Moderate warming is good. CO2 isn’t a pollutant by any empirical metric.

You know, you could just link to actual Arctic sea ice reporting - 'Arctic sea ice extent for April 2018 averaged 13.71 million square kilometers (5.29 million square miles). This was 980,000 square kilometers (378,400 square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 average and only 20,000 square kilometers (7,700 square miles) above the record low April extent set in 2016. Given the uncertainty in measurements, NSIDC considers 2016 and 2018 as tying for lowest April sea ice extent on record. As seen throughout the 2017 to 2018 winter, extent remained below average in the Bering Sea and Barents Sea. While retreat was especially pronounced in the Sea of Okhotsk during the month of April, the ice edge was only slightly further north than is typical at this time of year. Sea ice extent in the Bering Sea remains the lowest recorded since at least 1979.' http://nsidc.org/arcticseaicenews/

You might then notice that the 4% figure is wrong for something that is more important than volume - which is albedo, a term one assumes you are aware of. A factor that is of some importance when talking about sea ice, considering this well known physical effect creates a feedback loop.

Futher, in that same report, there is a discussion about volume, actually, which of course is a dynamic measure, as the volume changes with the season - 'A newer study looks at the effects of warm winters for a larger area. NSIDC scientist Julienne Stroeve found that in response to the warm winter of 2016 to 2017, ice growth over the Arctic Ocean was likely reduced by 13 centimeters (5 inches). Generally, one does not expect variations in winter air temperature to have a significant impact on winter ice growth—temperatures still generally remain well below freezing and the rate at which ice grows (thickens) is greater for thin ice than thick ice. Thus, despite an overall increase in winter air temperatures, thermodynamic ice growth over winter has generally increased in tandem with thinning at the end of summer (Figure 5b). However, since 2012, this relationship appears to be changing. Overall winter ice growth in the 2016 to 2017 winter was similar to that in 2003, despite having a mean November ice thickness well below that seen in 2003. A similar analysis is not yet available for the 2017 to 2018 winter, but given the very warm conditions, it is likely that thermodynamic ice growth was reduced compared to average.'

It is always useful to be able to reference empirical data, instead of relying on whatever someone believes to be true.

And there is considerably more young - and thus thin - ice than in the past- read the link, and you too can be informed using actual data. Including how errors are discovered and corrected in the open.

While I applaud dematerialization, it has clearly happened more by the happy accident of Moore's Law than individual or societal intent.

That's important, because we won't dematerialize other areas of our lives (simple tons of possessions by age 35?) without intent.

By the way, I cleaned out and sorted a dead guy's tool boxes this week. Throw out the crap, guys. Leave good tools.

The improvement of semi-conductors is not a 'happy accident', it's the result of decades of hard intellectual work -- work that was done with the usual sort of 'individual intent' (to compete in the marketplace). But no, there was no central committee determining 'societal intent'. Just another one of those many, many 'happy accidents' that were the result of 'human action but not human design'.

Don't be dense. The happy accident is that semiconductor technology profits by becoming smaller in the real world. Moore's Law is all about making more with less.

The reason we don't have symmetrical progress on things like cars and airplanes is that we don't want cars and airplanes 1 Micron across.

You can see similar effects elsewhere. Every manufacturer can profit if it can figure out how to reduce the materials going into its products. If you've ever hauled a 30 year old washing machine out and a new one in you'd have noticed how much less the new one weighs. Or TVs -- the first 43" flat-screen I ever bought was much lighter than the smaller CRT it replaced, but when I later upgraded to a 58" and moved the old one to a spare room, I was amazed how much heavier even the older smaller LCD TV was. (And that's not 'Moore's Law' in action -- the new TV wasn't lighter because of smaller chips).

Or consider beer cans:

"With the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, breweries saw the opportunity to put their new metallic abundance to use, and the first canned beer (Krueger’s Finest Beer and Krueger’s Cream Ale) entered the market on January 24, 1935. These cans weighed nearly 4 ounces; doesn’t sound heavy, but today’s modern, super-thin aluminum cans weigh 14.9 grams. There are 28.35 grams in an ounce. You do the math."

https://literatureandlibation.com/2016/03/21/beer-packaging-what-other-metals-cannot-aluminum-can/

And again, no 'societal intent' involved in any of this.

Sure and if any of those had achieved facors of a billion, I would be talking about them instead.

From one transistor devices to 7.2 billion transistors inthe Intel Broadwell-EP Xeon.

It is astounding that you would argue similarity in this context.

Huh? Our electronics industry got to the point where music, video, photography and books were digitized and therefore 'dematerializable' more than 20 years ago. Improvements since then have been nice to have, but once all these had been digitized, the binary data didn't (and won't) get any lighter. That was a 'phase change' after which future iterations of Moore's law weren't really necessary.

At this point, I have no idea what point you're trying to make, but here is why this is important:

Major transitions in human technology are rare. The transition from human power to animal power, from animal power to machine power, those were big.

The transformation to an Information Society was equally big, and here's the thing, it simply would not have happened if the performance of say a IBM 360 had grown at the same rate as Ford V-8.

Ten or twenty doublings are different in kind from one or two.

Everyone here should be thankful that they lived to see this transition, and they really should not expect the same growth from every other technology in their lives. Something this big may not come again for generations.

"At this point, I have no idea what point you're trying to make"

The point is that digitization isn't the only form of dematerialization. Nor the most important (in terms of resources conserved), nor the one that will have the most impact going forward.

Pfft.

What other technology has had factor of a billion improvements in our lifetimes?

I don't know.... a lot of goods only have value because of their ultimate effect on human mental states. That doesn't necessarily require much energy (or a physical delivery) at all.

How much would perfect VR be worth? How much other activity would it displace?

Oh, and Bitcoin is missing from this page. I believe it is still setting records for dematerialized consumption.

Computers don't run on unicorn flatulence.

I didn't bother watching the video (no interest and no time), but the thesis of more development leads to fewer emissions just seems a bit silly. Take a look at the per capita carbon emissions and how it correlates with per capita GDP: http://notrickszone.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/Emission-vs-GDP.jpg
http://notrickszone.com/2015/10/15/social-benefit-of-carbon-is-ten-to-a-hundred-times-the-estimated-social-cost/

Just because you make more efficient use of materials doesn't mean you consume (or emit) less. One thing that Alex probably didn't want to bring up is that some of the more harmful pollutants (like CFCs) don't decrease in use because of economic efficiency but because of government regulation.

Buckminster Fuller called this "ephemeralization".
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ephemeralization

Dematerialization, to this point, has been a voluntary exercise. Industry seeks efficiency and then innovates product. Yes, there are winners and losers but the consumer ultimately decides. What about industries that resist efficiency? Fossil fuels, electrical grid, banking. If you want to stop cooking the planet there are two options, degrowth or involuntary dematerialization. One is a consumer choice and the other requires government intervention.

"What about industries that resist efficiency?"

Ah yes, all those industries that hate saving money. What about them?

What about industries that resist efficiency? Fossil fuels, electrical grid, banking.
Banking? Don't tell me you still go into the bank branch to "keep the tellers employed." But then, if you did, you'd realize that there are fewer tellers and fewer branches because people are banking online.

A little over dramatic preaching in parts. "We were running out of resources" says the economist who forgets prices. "We were going to choke and starve our planet to death."

* "There were no signs [in 1970] that we were changing our course." Smog was already being reduced in L.A. from 1965 and the green revolution had been going on for decades.

* Since the buffalo was at an American low of 300 in 1900 but 25,000 in 1950, Earth Day in 1970 had nothing to do with "stopping this insanity."

* McAfee puts up graphs of certain resources being consumed less but assumes previous consumption was too much without evidence. The graphs are also not per capita so the "decoupling" began earlier than he claims. The use of water and trees is almost flat on that graph so the per capita decline likely began earlier and steel and iron use have been declining since 1974, independent of Earth Day.

* We don't just buy one tiny phone. It was only two years ago when sales of smartphones exceded the number of laptops and destops sold per year.

* McAfee says he likes the way Bill Gates frames the isssue: "We despertely need an energy miracle in the twenty first century" right after saying "amazing progress with renewables, we have super promising research from batteries to geo-engineering to lab growing meat, and we have the nuclear option." Sounds like what is needed is various innovations just as in the past, not Gates' hoped for miracle.

McAfee says "We have to help the rest of the world get rich" which the U.S. has been doing since 1776 through technical and economic innovations.

* McAffe closes with "The buffalo ARE BACK!" as they and wolves have been for 60 years.

Attention! I want to denounce Philippe Ballesio and Rosalie Lai Ballesio for the scams they are doing through the website "btcmt4", help me to spread the word, so that nobody else is deceived by such people. Many have lost their money, do not let it continue to happen.

Is solid waste decreasing?

The issue with these talks, similar movements, and the environmental/ social activism culture in general is that they believe by modifying the existing system, tweaking or overhauling of current values, and pointing at isolated locations and snapshots of idealism that somehow that this can translate into an overall, pervasively functional plan, and better world – as if they could pick and choose. With the only definition of 'better' as being not this world. There is no plan - just a vague set of steps. There is no goal, just an outward seeking and struggling of those who cannot 'play the game'. The current value system that created the alleged bad is comprehensive and systematic and it is the underpinning of all that is also good. Further, it betrays a level of teenage-like simpleness that will only lead to reduction of good and bad which is a ridiculous way to define the world, even if was reasonable to believe that good and bad were end-points on the same spectrum. There is no good in this world now or before that was not a facade or reductionist of a greater complex good-bad ecosystem. The only agenda I see here is to seek a dismantling of productivity, ingenuity, intensity, and a 'lowering of all boats' to the temporary low-water points of those low-self-esteem individuals who believe it is better to be a larger slice in a smaller pie. There is no increase in empathy, services, community, charity, or responsiveness of most individuals or the loose gathering of such individuals when all has been de-intensified - there is only a feeling of sentimentalism and isolated & temporary value validation - soon to be followed by a further de-intensification, when it is realized that not all bad was sufficiently removed. It is a vicious circle of success-hatred and a craving for the nonsense concept that it is better to be in the void of quickly removed bad than it is to seek the hard path of realized-good - as the total failure of 'Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street' will attest. We need to realize the hard truths: that the most successful enviro-conscious and pro-social actions occurred and will continue to occur during times of great expansions, by individuals deemed hyper-consumerist and technocratic, and with movements that tend to expand development and resource acquisition. The only result of a dismantling of capital and intensity/productivity is the growing dis-satisfaction and reduced availability of choice and goals in those who seek to re-configure a society that would no longer value personal ambition, abstract skill acquisition, and bettering of utilitarian type concerns. We must realize that poverty and suffering are not noble. Unproductive, simple, and ambitionlessness is not life affirming, community-building, or compassion-maintaining. Better Gordon Gecko than Mahatma Gandhi if we want to help the most people with realizing their opportunities. The only enemy of tight social communities, individual empowerment, and increasing natural abundance and complexity (not conservation per se) is scarcity. And all the dismantling in the world will not reduce scarcity.

There are a couple things going on here.

One is the motte and bailey of the TED talk, where he uses the trivially true motte of slight increases in efficiency to claim the unsupportable bailey that technology results in less consumption of resources.
The whole purpose of technology is to allow us to consume more things.

For example, people never burned wood for the sake of burning wood, they burned it to consume heat.
Cast iron stoves were invented to increase our consumption of heat, and oil furnaces were invented to consume yet more heat.
The fact that all this resulted in fewer trees being cut down for heat is irrelevant.

Then there is the unspoken but clearly implied claim by Alex that the drive for prosperity will automatically result in a good outcome, in this case an improved natural environment.
And for this, there is no evidence whatsoever.
There isn't any evidence that technology follows a natural unaided path towards any goal, much less the goal of a healthy sustainable ecosystem.
The evidence for this is the fact that however efficient our consumption pattern, the wealthy nations of the world still consume much more resources than poor ones per capita. We are just fortunate that wealth has the happy side effect of helping people to have fewer children. But even that only slows, but doesn't reverse, the despoilation.

"For example, people never burned wood for the sake of burning wood, they burned it to consume heat.
Cast iron stoves were invented to increase our consumption of heat, and oil furnaces were invented to consume yet more heat.
The fact that all this resulted in fewer trees being cut down for heat is irrelevant."

I don't follow your conclusion at all. The fact that less trees are cut down to produce the same amount or more heat is exactly the point.

Because trees are not the only natural resource.
Leaving the trees standing, and switching to extracting coal or petroleum doesn't lessen the impact on the natural world.

Our overall impact on the ecosystem is the point.

Of course it lessens the impact.

For starters, using wood means that we are locking up huge swathes of land to grow fuel. Even the most land intensive mines (e.g. mountaintop removal) take up vastly less surface area. This in turn allows to either leave the tress to grow (soaking up carbon) or use as farmland (which allows us to leave some less viable farmland fallow).

On top of that wood does not burn particularly hot and for a lot of applications, efficiency is limit by the Carnot cycle. Burning hotter increased efficiency.

On top of this, we also have the fact that incomplete combustion produces a lot of nasty things in wood smoke so going to something like natural gas drastically reduces the pollution which leads to environmental improvement.

Swapping over also allowed us to capture large amounts of harmful wastes and sequester them. Currently there are projects in both Texas and Iceland to trap CO2 as well.

If we went full nuclear we would basically have maybe a hundred major mines in the world, each generating a small fraction of the waste from a major coal operation (of which I believe we currently have thousands).

Smaller footprints do indeed mean that we can consume more with less stress on the environment.

Sure is right.

High-intensity human activities LESSEN environmental impacts by de-coupling human economies from natural ecosystems. Eco-modernists are correct to note this; intensive farming is GOOD for the planet. That's why the richest countries have seen the greatest reforestation and resurgence of natural habitats, and the poorest have seen the greatest degradation.

When we all live in space stations with fusion driving our hydroponics and meat-vats, who cares what the wildlife does on all the land we don't need?

Forest land area 1990 and 2017
------------------------------------------
World 32% 31% -- not devestation
China 17% 22% -- growth
Europe 34% 38% -- growth
U.S. 33% 34%
L. America 51% 46%

Yes, that's my point.
We have shifted from burning wood to burning coal and petroleum.
We no longer make stuff out of wood, but steel and aluminum and plastic.
The overall consumption is just shifted to other things.

That doesn't make your point. Many parts of the world burned coal and petroleum 200 years ago and using coal an oil has not caused environmental devestation. China is very polluted but also about 30 to 40% less polluted than in 2000 as it further developed. Also, to a previous comment, superfund sites are a tiny area of the planet.

The gyres of plastic in the Pacific are however a huge area of the planet and getting bigger rapidly.

Care to tell us what percent of the ocean is covered with plastic? How rapid is rapid? And why does it matter?

I didn't think so.

"The whole purpose of technology is to allow us to consume more things"
Not true, It's to have a better and more interesting life. It's a natural drive to improve things. I don't want more horses and buggies, one car will do. I don't want 10 billion vacuum tubes in my smartphone, a state of the art A10 application processor will do nicely. Being industrious, cooperative and clever enables a better life much more than just raw consumption.

Using more resources without changing anything doesn't scale. We can't have 7 billion people hunting and gathering and cooking on a wood fire.
We can't have them doing agriculture using ~0 AD technology and expect to feed everyone.
Technology is a game changer, It's not exponential growth at an exponential cost.

Relax, Life is good and getting better all the time. There is less disease, longer life, less pollution, less crime, less wars. It should be obvious to you that poor countries have more environmental problems than rich ones. The earth can probably easily support a trillion people if we are clever enough.

Was in response to Chip D.

The earth can probably easily support a trillion people if we are clever enough.

You are insane.

Isaac Asimov opens a short story explaining what a trillion people on earth are doing. 237 billion are eating breakfast, etc., so it's already been done before.

Not insane and not 1 trillion at the current time but extrapolating. Energy for our purpose is essentially limitless. ( We're not even at at Kardashev level 1). Food could be grown super intensively and almost anywhere. Buildings can extend underground and be very comfortable. The sea is largely devoid of people today. Large floating islands could be built instead of just reclaiming land from the sea. High population may not be the way we go as births are declining, but I don't see why the earth could not support a trillion people say 1000 years from now.

Assuming an unlimited number of can openers, sure why not.

" but I don't see why the earth could not support a trillion people say 1000 years from now."

And I intend on being here then to see this happen!

Exactly. Energy (and information) are our ultimate resources.

Everything else is just base matter. There is a LOT of base matter in the earth, a lot more in a solar system. It's long walk to Kardeshev 1, and Kardeshev 2 is clearly possible. Beyond that...who knows?

Talk of resource constraints in the short term of <1,000 years are insane and physically ignorant.

The data sets you link seem to be (all?) US-based. Haven't we simply "exported" manufacturing (and growth) to China and others?

Sure, all those Radio Shack items are now fully contained in an iPhone. Which is manufactured in China, from materials sourced mostly outside the US. So does the iPhone even show up in his data as a growth input? Apple makes a lot of money, which makes the US economy look good. And from the US-only data posted, Apple seems to do this almost from thin air -- de-materialization!

Only... not.

Have we really de-materialized? Or have we shifted materialization elsewhere?

I think you're right to question the worldwide situation versus the U.S. situation. Here's a website that contains some of that information:

http://www.ame.com.au/Website/FeatureArticleDetail.aspx?faId=12

Check out Table 2. U.S. per-capita steel consumption decreased from 1977 to 2017 from 438 to 331 tons. But in that same period, Chinese per-capita consumption *increased* from 25 tons to a whopping 533 tons. Moreover, very little of the Chinese steel is from scrap, whereas a majority of the U.S. steel is from scrap.

"Poverty not prosperity is the enemy of the environment."

Environmentalism is a luxury good. Anyone whose has done any traveling outside of the 1st world countries knows this.

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