Are We Approaching Peak Stuff?

Almost imperceptibly, we are stepping off the consumption treadmill


By Fred Pearce

Twenty years ago, Beijing was a city of bicycles. They queued by the thousands at traffic lights on roads where cars were rare, next to grocer stalls piled high with winter cabbages.

Today, it is the bicycles that are rare in Beijing. Five million cars swirl around eight ring roads that encircle the metropolis, which chokes in smog for much of the year. Quaint old “hutong” pedestrian neighborhoods have been replaced in the city’s suburbs by high-rise apartments and shopping malls. With money building in their bank accounts, residents now can afford meat instead of cabbages.

And so goes the rest of this Asian giant. The industrialization of China has driven a quarter-billion people from dirt-poor rural villages into modern megacities, whose breakneck construction and galloping consumption by a burgeoning middle class are transforming the planet as a whole. Trends here—and in other fast-growing nations such as India—have economists debating when, or even whether, the flow of materials around the planet will peak and start to decline, as it must for there to be any hope of humanity reaching a sustainable equilibrium with the environment.

On the one hand, the numbers from China are discouraging. The country now has more cars on its roads than America does. Two-thirds of all the skyscrapers erected in the world in 2016 went up here. China consumed roughly 50 percent more cement just between 2011 and 2013 than the United States did during the entire twentieth century. The nation now uses 60 percent of the world’s cement, 50 percent of its iron ore and coal, and 40 percent of its lead, zinc, and aluminum.

This extraordinary appetite for the materials of the Earth reflects, in part, the rest of the world’s enjoyment of stuff made in China. The workshop of the world produces three-quarters of our air conditioners, two-thirds of our cellphones and photocopiers, and one-third of our cars and TVs. But domestic demand is growing as well, with economic output soaring at annual compound rates of 6.5 percent or more and a blossoming retail market that is expected to displace America’s as the biggest in the world this year.

Which version of modernity is set to triumph on our increasingly crowded planet? Is it the orgy of construction and consumption ripping up China or the dematerializing society glimpsed in the UK?

On the other hand, the example of the United Kingdom inspires more optimism. Two centuries ago, the UK topped the world in manufacturing; it mined 80 percent of the world’s coal and most of its iron. British wealth and population have only grown since then. Yet Britain’s consumption of materials peaked in 2001, according to government statistics, and is today a third less than it was 20 years ago. Not coincidentally, the UK now pollutes less, too, with greenhouse-gas emissions down 38 percent since 1990.

The UK story gives some economists hope that, once a country has completed construction of its major infrastructure and attained a high standard of living, its citizens can become increasingly efficient in their use of materials. Britons are still getting richer, but they are spending more of their income on yoga classes, fitness trainers, and nice restaurants—and more of their working and leisure hours online, consuming only electricity.

*2000 = 100 Source: Office of National Statistics: Material flows account for the UK

So the question for the twenty-first century, and perhaps for the future of humanity, is: Which version of modernity is set to triumph on our increasingly crowded planet? Is it the orgy of construction, consumption, and manufacturing now ripping up China—trashing the water and air, destabilizing the climate, and degrading the ecosystems on which our global civilization ultimately relies? Or is it the dematerializing society now glimpsed in Britain and some other parts of the industrialized world, where innovations in technologies such as 3-D printing, robotics, and hydroponics allow standards of living to continue rising while consumption of material goods falls? Could technology give developing nations a shortcut past the environmentally ruinous road to riches taken by their predecessors?

Ehrlich’s Simple Formula for a Complex Future

Every nation pursues economic growth as a primary goal, and that seems unlikely to change. For centuries, environmental pessimists have warned that this pursuit, amplified by population growth, must inevitably end in grief. From Robert Malthus in the late eighteenth century, to William Vogt in the 1940s, to Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb, demographic doomsayers have prophesied famines, plagues, resource wars, and ecological devastation as the price humanity will ultimately pay for its overpopulation and overconsumption.

On the other side of the debate, optimists have countered with appeals to human nature and progress in science and technology. Philosopher William Goodwin argued that moral improvement would “eclipse the desire for sex” and head off demographic disaster. Scientists such as Norman Borlaug, begetter of the agricultural “green revolution,” have drawn hope from high-yielding crops and innovations that cut pollution and boost efficiency. Economists such as Julian Simon have touted the power of free markets to solve shortages.

So far, the optimists can point to significant wins. Steven Pinker documents in his recent book Enlightenment Now how famines, undernourishment, and childhood stunting have all fallen dramatically in recent decades, with just 13 percent of people in the developing world undernourished today, compared to half in 1947. Deaths from infectious, maternal, and nutritional diseases have plummeted by nearly a third since 1990. And Simon famously won the ten-year bet he made with Ehrlich about whether key commodities would become scarce. Yet the jury is still out on this argument because population, incomes, and consumption all continue to grow—and consequences such as climate change, air pollution, and overfishing continue to worsen.

Arguably more important than any of Ehrlich’s alarmist predictions was his framing, in The Population Bomb and in a 1971 article in Science, of the pressure our species exerts on the planet—which remains correct. Humanity’s impact on the biosphere, he observed, is governed by a simple formula that multiplies three crucial factors: the number of people, times the stuff consumed by each person, times the environmental impact of each unit of stuff.

Of these three, population growth has turned out to be the least worrying, because the population bomb is being defused. Fertility rates are now below 2.5 children per woman on average, roughly half of what they were in the 1970s, when Ehrlich told Johnny Carson on the “Tonight Show” that billions were going to die from starvation in the 1980s. Fertility has actually been falling faster than expected in many of the world’s most populous regions. So even though our number may rise from 7.3 billion today to 10 billion or so, a peak seems likely before century’s end.

If I Were a Rich Man . . .

With population growth slowing, experts have focused more attention on the second factor in Ehrlich’s equation: consumption per capita. That trend is easiest to study in rich countries that have detailed and reliable economic data, such as the US and the UK. And in those advanced economies, analysts—including some who have a record of environmental concern—have found reasons for optimism.

Jesse Ausubel of Rockefeller University in New York City, for example, helped get climate change on the global agenda in the 1970s and masterminded the Census of Marine Life. Yet he has argued since 2008 that modern societies are “dematerializing” as increasingly wealthy consumers spend less of their income on staples. In a 2015 report titled “Nature Rebounds,” he asserted that “Slowing population growth, moderate economic growth, changes in consumer taste and behavior, and technical progress … are combining to create a new reality in resource use.”

Yes, industrialization has so far necessitated a cheap-and-dirty phase when production is inefficient, resources are wasted, and pollution is rampant. But countries gradually decouple production from pollution and reach a tipping point, he concluded, beyond which “our economy no longer advances in tandem with exploitation of land, forests, water and minerals.”

Around 1990, many commodities went into absolute decline, falling out of use even as GDP marched rapidly upward

Shopping cart drawings ©Taizo Yamamoto

To support his projections, Ausubel has marshaled evidence that the US economy began decoupling resource use from incomes and GDP half a century ago. After about 1970, he says, the use of steel and then copper began to grow more slowly than GDP—followed by similarly lagging consumption of most other basic commodities, from paper and plastic to aluminum and chemical fertilizers. Water use in America peaked in 1980 and has fallen since, as farmers have become more frugal with irrigation and households have converted to low-flow toilets, showers, and washing machines. Around 1990, Ausubel reports, many commodities went into absolute decline, falling out of use even as GDP marched rapidly upward.

National statistics suggest that other parts of the rich world are dematerializing as well. Europeans consumed 18 percent less “stuff” in 2015 than they did in 2008, according to the European Commission. The British government’s Office of National Statistics calculates that the personal materials footprint of the average Brit—in food, textiles, construction materials, metals, fossil fuels, and so on—fell from 15 metric tons in 2001 to 10 tons in 2013. The decline appears to have resulted not from economic recession, but rather from a 59 percent jump in the economic productivity of each ton of stuff.

Surveying those trends, Chris Goodall, a British green activist and author in residence at the Imperial College Business School, London, speculated that the UK reached “peak stuff” around 2003 and that other developed countries may soon follow it over the hump. The idea resonates with the popular notion that the digital revolution is transforming lifestyles, slashing our need for physical objects and even for energy, as described by marketing guru Russell Belk of York University in Toronto, Canada. Whereas prior generations defined themselves through their possessions, Belk argued in a famous essay on the “extended self,” we define ourselves today through our experiences, both real and virtual. The new car in the drive, for example, matters less than the vacation you take with it. Wealthy westerners are less likely now to spend money on an exercise bike for the basement than on a personal trainer at the gym.

Technological transformations are reducing resource use in other ways as well. A single smartphone replaces a compass, a newspaper, and an alarm clock, Ausubel notes—not to mention a radio, a camera, a magnifying glass, and a CD player. One optical fiber can do the work of a thousand copper phone wires. One cloud-computing data center can replace the server rooms of 10,000 different companies.

Not So Fast

Intuitive though these arguments may seem, they have met with a skeptical response from other economists. Most countries have yet to reach peak stuff, and some experts see scant evidence that they will in the foreseeable future. The world’s use of materials since 1950 has, after all, quadrupled.

Goodall points out that within that same period, the global economy grew more than sevenfold. Every ton of stuff, in other words, now yields almost twice as much GDP. That suggests that decoupling is well under way, he says.

Even so, the claim that rich nations are reducing their materials consumption could be illusory, says Anne Owen of the Sustainability Research Institute at Leeds University in England. The footprints of imported goods are often assumed to be the same as those of domestic products; however, if those imports come from countries, such as China, that use less-efficient manufacturing systems, official data may lowball the consumption numbers. British statistics, for example, “assume that UK imports have the same [materials] profile as the European average,” Owen notes. In reality, she says, “production practices vary worldwide.”

Although official statistics on materials consumption in the UK show a 30 percent drop over 20 years, the footprint of imports during that time rose in the UK by about 20 percent. Increasing global demand for Chinese-made goods could be one reason why, even though China’s population is close to peaking, the country’s use of materials is still growing fast and seems far
from a plateau.

Another reason could be that technological progress and efficiency gains sometimes lead, counterintuitively, to more consumption rather than less. Vaclav Smil, a historian of energy and economics at the University of Manitoba, offers numerous examples in his 2014 book Making the Modern World: Materials and Dematerialization. A typical aluminum can, he observes, now contains 37 percent less metal than 30 years ago. But because canned food and beverage sales have shot up, the total amount of aluminum used to make cans increased by 35 percent within the same period.

Smil points to a similar pattern in cars: though fuel efficiency has more than doubled within the past 30 years, soaring demand for not only more cars but also bigger vehicles, in particular trucks and SUVs, has raised the average passenger vehicle mass by 70 percent, swamping the efficiency gains. Macroeconomists refer to the conundrum as the Jevons paradox, after a nineteenth-century English economist who described how more efficient steam engines and iron smelters led to a surge in coal use.

Smil has surveyed the macroeconomic data for signs of a plateau in consumption. But unlike Ausubel, Goodall, and other analysts, he found “no recent evidence of any widespread and substantial dematerialization—be it in absolute or relative (per capita) terms—even among the world’s richest economies.

Peak stuff in countries like China and India is probably still two or three decades away.

Though scholarly debate over decoupling of resource use from GDP in rich nations rages on, there is no question that consumption in the developing world has been rising quickly. Global steel production in 2016 was 92 percent higher than in 2000. Cement use soared 160 percent in that period. Such trends are unlikely to end while most of the world’s households still await their first fridge, washing machine, and car, says Julian Allwood, a resource analyst at Cambridge University. He expects global materials consumption to double between 2010 and 2050.

“As long as the E.U. and North America [are] the example for China, India, and Africa, then you can have another century of massive material growth,” Smil concurs. “Hundreds of millions of people are still at the very beginning of that global consumption rise.”

“Peak stuff in countries like China and India is probably still two or three decades away,” Ausubel allows. But he professes faith that “it will happen.”

Sooner is preferable to later, obviously. Some of the optimists hang their hope for salvation on the third element in Ehrlich’s equation. Advances in clean production technology that dramatically cut the environmental impact of each bit of stuff produced, they say, can change everything. Our best shot at reaching a sustainable plateau in stuff is to find ways for people in low- and middle-income regions to leapfrog over the cheap-and-dirty phase of industrialization—or at least to accelerate their way through it—to reach the consumption summit quickly.

Is There a Shortcut to Sustainability?

One key to bypassing the dirty phase that all now-rich nations passed through on their way to affluence is to recognize how wasteful and unpleasant it is. Huge centralized factories may offer economies of scale. But they require costly transportation infrastructure, factory towns, and low-cost energy—much of which gets spent moving materials and products around. And they concentrate pollution to levels that are toxic to people and other species.

A succession of revolutions in digital computing, telecommunications, and automated manufacturing has opened the door to far more decentralized, efficient, and less harmful approaches. As Nathanael Johnson describes in This is Roquette Science, hydroponic farms and “food computers” could dramatically cut the use of water, land, and pesticides in food production while minimizing food lost to shipping and spoilage. Additive manufacturing, which “prints” final products as big and complex as rocket engines layer by layer, can trim wasted materials by up to 80 percent. New technologies also promise to reshape the production of textiles and clothing.

And for other products, such as cement, we may not need to reduce their use if we can reinvent them to be more environmentally benign. As Akshat Rathi describes in The Race to Reinvent Cement, material scientists think it may be possible to transform cement from one of the biggest sources of greenhouse-gas emissions into a carbon sink. To make fast progress on these fronts, governments and investors will need to back pioneers pursuing ambitious, untested ideas with money and a greater tolerance for risk and failure. Done right, emerging economies could actually lead the way toward a future where life continues to get better—for people and for the planet.

Fred Pearce is a freelance author and journalist based in the UK. He is the author of numerous books, including The Land Grabbers, The Climate Files: The Battle for the Truth about Global Warming, Peoplequake, and The New Wild: Why Invasive Species Will Be Nature’s Salvation.

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