April 03, 2020

Credit: Getty Images / IAISI

*This piece was originally published on November 1st, 2019*

It often feels like trash is piling up all around us, and that our consumption habits have put us on the road to environmental disaster. Just take a look at recycling bins stacked high with packaging boxes and takeout containers.

But research shows that we’re actually using fewer resources than we were 25 years ago, a process called “dematerialization.” That’s according to Andrew McAfee, the co-director of the Initiative on the Digital Economy at the MIT Sloan School of Management and the author of “More From Less: The Surprising Story of How We Finally Learned to Prosper Using Fewer Resources - and What Happens Next.” He explains why we’re using less, and whether we can expect that trend to extend into the future. 

Three Takeaways:

  • Using fewer resources but getting more economic growth seems counterintuitive. But, according to McAfee, new technological developments have reduced our thirst for raw materials. One example: we now use one device to make calls, send messages, navigate around town, wake us up in the morning, and more. Once, each of those functions were executed by separate products. 
  • Environmental activists, who started to get the public’s attention around the first Earth Day in 1970, got some things wrong, according to McAfee. Although the movement was instrumental in raising awareness about pollution and declining biodiversity, McAfee says, it focused too much on recycling, which is a concern when you consider that as little as 9% of plastics are recycled.
  • Although we may be reducing our resource use in some ways, McAfee says we still can’t ignore the effect we’re having on the environment. While it’s common for companies to cut down on materials to increase their profit margins, there’s no market incentive for them to take other environmentally-friendly measures such as decreasing pollution — even though only 100 companies account for 70% of greenhouse gas emissions. McAfee argues that placing restrictions on carbon emissions will push companies to innovate new, more eco-friendly alternatives.

More Reading:

  • Want to know why recycling plastics might just not be worth it? Check out this Insider article about it here.
  • McAfee explains in-depth what Americans are cutting back on, what we’ve been using more of, and who else is or isn’t dematerializing across the world in this article.
  • According to the EPA, transportation is one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. But, when gas prices decrease, Americans tend to buy cars that have lower fuel efficiency. Find out more here.

dematerialization, Andrew McAfee, environment, Green

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