Are we doomed to drown in stuff, or run out of the raw materials to make it? After the midwinter potlatch I was ready for some good fire and brimstone on this well-worn theme. George Monbiot is usually a reliable Savonarola, but I found his latest Christmas diatribe against growth and consumerism disappointing.
Every Friday is a Black Friday, every Christmas a more garish festival of destruction. Among the snow saunas, portable watermelon coolers and smart phones for dogs with which we are urged to fill our lives, my #extremecivilisation prize now goes to the PancakeBot: a 3-D batter printer that allows you to eat the Mona Lisa or the Taj Mahal or your dog’s bottom every morning. In practice, it will clog up your kitchen for a week until you decide you don’t have room for it. For junk like this we’re trashing the living planet, and our own prospects of survival. Everything must go.
Personally, I’d have gone with the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, now twice the size of France. [Update: you can of course follow her on Facebook.] The trouble with anecdotes, however stomach-churning, is that they don’t tell you anything about the trend. Are Monbiot’s ghastly examples typical, or the reflection of the fact that most middle-class people in rich countries already have all the material possessions they need and most of what they want? In that environment, finding affordable presents the recipients will actually like is getting harder and harder, before we finally stop the pointless exercise.
For the trend, we need models and numbers. I’ve already written about solid research by Thomas Wiedmann et al that Monbiot pointed me to, showing that:
1. The material intensity of world GDP has been going down.
2. It is still coupled to GDP, and there is no complete dematerialisation of growth.
So far so so-so. Wiedmann’s data stop in 2009, and he hasn’t updated yet. To fill the gap, Monbiot pointed to a new paper by Australian economist James Ward et al, purporting to show that decoupling of economic growth from material inputs is an illusion. IMHO this is question-begging hothouse orchid-growing; a wearisome takedown below the jump.
To get an idea of what’s been happening recently, I had a go myself with rustic methods. I constructed indices of world consumption for five significant materials (steel, aluminium, copper, cement, paper and board), normalised to 2005, before the financial crisis. Global CO2 emissions from fossil fuels track their production. I couldn’t find world data for construction sand and gravel, so I threw in data for the USA: it’s interesting because these are very cheap and widely available, so consumption cannot be significantly affected anywhere by price or supply constraints. Here’s the result. A pretty chart; spreadsheet with working and data sources here. [Update 5 April: following a suggestion by commenter Nick at John Quiggin’s blog, I’ve added gross shipping tonnage to the charts and spreadsheet.]
This clearly suggests that the partial decoupling established by Wiedmann has got stronger recently. The inflection seems to have happened around 2013.
This is pretty crude, but it tells a clear story. Raw materials only lagged GDP by a little up to five years ago. Since then – and without any global recession – they are running at about half of GDP growth, and only a little faster than population. There is just one outlier in my basket, aluminium, which is still replacing steel as lighter and more durable. We have not yet quite reached Peak Stuff. But the strong dematerialising forces that created the moderation are still at work. It is a reasonable hope that we will pass the peak in the coming decade.
Timeline of my posts on this topic, changing my mind twice (new information, you see, and no help from the stars of the economics profession):
Long comment on the James Ward paper below the jump.