More From Less | Andrew McAfee

Summary of: More From Less: How we Finally Stopped Using Up The World – And What Happens Next
By: Andrew McAfee

Introduction

In ‘More from Less,’ Andrew McAfee challenges the widely held belief that growing economies inherently consume more resources. Through insightful analysis and research, he reveals how technological progress and capitalism have allowed advanced economies to become more efficient, reduce pollution and waste, and fuel the ongoing drive toward dematerialization. The book explores the four driving forces behind this transformation: slimming down resource use, substituting one resource for another, optimizing existing resources, and innovating to achieve more with less. As you dive into this summary, discover how humans have successfully managed to break away from Malthusian tradition and begin to experience ‘more from less.’

Dematerializing Consumption

As economies grow, the assumption is that more resources will be consumed, but new data proves otherwise. Technological advances and capitalism have increased efficiency in advanced economies, resulting in lower pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and successful species preservation. People are becoming more aware of the challenges we face, and governments are becoming more responsive. Contrary to popular belief, humans are dematerializing consumption, proving that we can get more from less.

The Paradox of Human Growth

Despite Malthus’s predictions of a doomsday scenario, the global population continues to grow, resulting in a new phase where humans are the dominant force on earth. However, human progress has come at a cost, and environmentalists have urged us to consume less, recycle more, impose limits on growth, and return to nature.

In 1798, when Thomas Malthus wrote about population growth, he noted that people only prospered when their numbers were low. As populations grew, resources became scarce, and this scarcity reduced the number of people. Humans were overpowered by nature, contrary to the popular belief at the time that humans could conquer nature. For most of human history, humans lived in Malthus’s world, which dictated the balance of nature and human life.

However, Malthus was wrong about the future. After 200,000 years, the global population reached its first billion at the onset of the Industrial Era. Subsequent billions have taken shorter periods, and all humans and domesticated animals make up 97% of the current mammals living on earth. Humans moved from being subjugated by nature to being the dominant force on earth. This shift happened due to the Industrial Era, which, despite its drawbacks, improved human living standards.

Malthus predicted that exploding populations would lead to starvation, exhaustion of resources and pollution that would make the earth uninhabitable. Environmentalists suggested off-setting this scenario by consuming less, recycling more, controlling industrial and population growth, and returning to nature. This approach could lead to a sustainable mode of existence. However, these measures failed to slow population growth, and human standards of living continued to rise. Even as natural resources grew scarce, humans developed viable alternatives. The predicted apocalypse failed to materialize.

The Surprising Decline in US Resource Consumption

Between 2000 and 2015, the US economy grew steadily while total consumption of metals decreased by 15% and energy use dropped roughly 2% from its peak in 2008. Despite producing and consuming more goods in absolute terms, Americans have successfully decoupled consumption and prosperity from resource use, achieving a great reversal of Industrial Age habits. Of the 72 materials used in the economy, 90% of spending was on resources other than metals. Plentiful resources, limited pollutants, and minimal hunting of wild animals further highlight the broad and often deep absolute dematerialization being experienced in the American economy.

The Four Strategies of Dematerialization

Technological progress and free markets have enabled businesses to use four strategies for dematerialization: slim, swap, optimize, and evaporate. Slim involves using less of a particular resource such as how American dairy cows have become productivity since 1950. Swap entails replacing one resource for another; for instance, the US’s switch to fracking oil and gas greatly reduced coal consumption. Optimize means using existing resources better, with commercial airlines increasing the percentage of occupied seats per flight. Finally, evaporate involves replacing resources altogether. For example, smartphones have subsumed several bulky gadgets such as calculators and cameras. Companies prefer to save money and competition and innovation are the keys to dematerialization. Computer-aided technology accelerates progress towards this goal.

The Power of Capitalism

Capitalism, with its profit motive, is a powerful tool for creating prosperity. However, it becomes detrimental when cronyism and corporatism stifle competition. Independent governments, laws, and courts must protect society’s less influential members. While markets manage most things well, they struggle with negative externalities like pollution. To combat this, cap-and-trade systems have been successful in trading pollution reduction abilities between companies. A global tax on carbon emissions is also needed but must be responsive to people’s needs and effectively enforced. The United States, responsible for less than 1% of plastic trash in rivers despite a quarter of the world’s economy, highlights the importance of strict enforcement. Capitalism requires a properly tended garden to prosper and maintain a balance between profit and societal needs.

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