A Blueprint for a Prosperous, Sustainable Future

A Blueprint for a Prosperous, Sustainable Future1

“Live long and prosper.” – Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy)

Does a prosperous global society need access to energy supplies that grow faster than the population? In other words, does energy use per capita need to grow for productivity and wealth to increase? Conventional wisdom says yes, but a new book tackles this question and reaches the surprising and optimistic conclusion that we can live better while consuming less energy and fewer material resources.

To appreciate the importance of this issue, start by considering the following puzzles. Why has your record collection been replaced by a weightless assemblage of bits and bytes? Why do you use a third as much gasoline as your grandfather, even though you drive many more miles? Why is the long-term trend of real (inflation-adjusted) commodity prices down?

Because of dematerialization, argues MIT professor Andrew McAfee in his new book, More from Less.2 Every organism on Earth tries to economize, that is, to get more output from fewer inputs. But until recently mankind bucked the trend, consuming more and more and never getting to the “less” part.

That is partly an illusion, though.

We’ve been getting more from less for as long as we’ve been in existence – that is what economic growth is! But, due to increases in population growth, we have used an increased volume and weight of resources, until recently. We’ve begun to tip, however, into actually using fewer resources, without suffering any loss in utility. This trend will continue and intensify, and that’s what McAfee’s book is about.

The idea of dematerialization is not new. In his book Nine Chains to the Moon, the visionary architect and inventor R. Buckminster Fuller described “ephemeralization” almost a century ago.3 (The Greek-derived word “ephemeralization” sounds fancier than Latin “dematerialization,” but they’re the same thing.) Fuller wrote,

Do more and more with less and less until eventually you can do everything with nothing.

That’s hyperbole, typical of Fuller’s overwrought prose. You cannot make something out of nothing. But, as McAfee ably demonstrates, making more out of less is what much of the human enterprise is about, and is how we progress from poverty to prosperity.