Crossing the Dematerialization Frontier

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Crossing the Dematerialization Frontier

Over 20 years ago, the Trends editors predicted that the ecological footprint of human activity would shrink.  This meant humans were becoming more sustainable, not less, in the way we used the planet.  That is to say: our population and economy would grow, but we’d learn how to reduce what we take from the planet.  The macro-implications were embedded in what we called the Trends No Limits to Growth scenario, and it represented an explicit contrast to The Limits to Growth scenario formulated by the authors of the 1970s bestseller and updated in 2012.  (For more details see 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years by Jorgen Randers.)  While only going through 2052, the No Limits to Growth scenario showed that the last things the world needed to worry about were “overpopulation” or running out of material resources.

In October 2019, MIT scientist, Andrew McAfee, published a landmark book called More from Less, which clearly documents how advanced nations are beginning to use less matter and energy while continuing to grow their economies.  We’re not simply talking about less metal, less water, and less land per unit of GDP or per capita, but less of all these things in total.  In a world of growing affluence and population, this is unprecedented!

We refer to the point in techno-economic development, where rising efficiency overcomes the effects of rising population and GDP per capita, as the “dematerialization frontier.”  And while this concept has been fundamental to our thinking at Trends, for nearly three decades, we’ve only recently started using the term.

You may ask, “If this is such a big deal, why have I not heard more about it?”  The answer is clear when we consider the prevailing worldview in academia and the mass media.

At least since the 1960s, environmentalists have told us that we could not make everyone in the world as rich as Americans without destroying the planet.  In fact, we could not even let Americans be as rich as Americans.  According to them, we had to settle for less; a lot less! 

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