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The deadweight economy

Is there a decoupling of economic growth and use of materials? On the national scale: sometimes. On the global scale: absolutely not. From The Journal of Industrial Ecology:

The international industrial ecology (IE) research community and United Nations (UN) Environment have, for the first time, agreed on an authoritative and comprehensive data set for global material extraction and trade covering 40 years of global economic activity and natural resource use. This new data set is becoming the standard information source for decision making at the UN in the context of the post-2015 development agenda, which acknowledges the strong links between sustainable natural resource management, economic prosperity, and human well-being. Only if economic growth and human development can become substantially decoupled from accelerating material use, waste, and emissions can the tensions inherent in the Sustainable Development Goals be resolved and inclusive human development be achieved. In this paper, we summarize the key findings of the assessment study to make the IE research community aware of this new global research resource. The global results show a massive increase in materials extraction from 22 billion tonnes (Bt) in 1970 to 70 Bt in 2010, and an acceleration in material extraction since 2000. This acceleration has occurred at a time when global population growth has slowed and global economic growth has stalled. The global surge in material extraction has been driven by growing wealth and consumption and accelerating trade. A material footprint perspective shows that demand for materials has grown even in the wealthiest parts of the world. Low-income countries have benefited least from growing global resource availability and have continued to deliver primary materials to high-income countries while experiencing few improvements in their domestic material living standards. Material efficiency, the amount of primary materials required per unit of economic activity, has declined since around 2000 because of a shift of global production from very material-efficient economies to less-efficient ones. This global trend of recoupling economic activity with material use, driven by industrialization and urbanization in the global South, most notably Asia, has negative impacts on a suite of environmental and social issues, including natural resource depletion, climate change, loss of biodiversity, and uneven economic development.
  1. July 16, 2017 at 8:18 pm

    Echoes for me some of the main themes of Richard Smith’s book, “Green Capitalism: The God that Failed.” The broader trends in the global economy have more than cancelled out the minority of green capitalists who were trying to reform their processes and of course, therefore their scope of material use.

  2. July 17, 2017 at 12:54 pm

    I’ve just received this, which seems to be relevant as well as well written:

    “Checking out at the store, the young cashier suggested to the much older lady that she should bring her own grocery bags, because plastic bags are not good for the environment.

    The woman apologized to the young girl and explained, “We didn’t have this ‘green thing’ back in my earlier days.”

    The young clerk responded, “That’s our problem today. Your generation did not care enough to save our environment for future generations.”

    The older lady said that she was right — our generation didn’t have the “green thing” in its day. The older lady went on to explain:

    “Back then, we returned milk bottles, soda bottles and beer bottles to the store. The store sent them back to the plant to be washed and sterilized and refilled, so it could use the same bottles over and over. So they really were recycled. But we didn’t have the “green thing” back in our day.

    “Grocery stores bagged our groceries in brown paper bags that we reused for numerous things. Most memorable besides household garbage bags was the use of brown paper bags as book covers for our school books. This was to ensure that public property (the books provided for our use by the school) was not defaced by our scribblings. Then we were able
    to personalize our books on the brown paper bags. But, too bad we didn’t do the “green thing” back then.

    “We walked up stairs because we didn’t have an escalator in every store and office building. We walked to the grocery store and didn’t climb into a 300-horsepower machine every time we had to go two blocks. But she was right. We didn’t have the “green thing” in our day.

    “Back then we washed the baby’s diapers because we didn’t have the throw away kind. We dried clothes on a line, not in an energy-gobbling machine burning up 220 volts. Wind and solar power really did dry our clothes back in our earlydays. Kids got hand-me-down clothes from their brothers or sisters, not always brand-new clothing. But that young lady is right; we didn’t have the “green thing” back in our day.

    “Back then we had one TV, or radio, in the house — not a TV in every room. And the TV had a small screen the size of a handkerchief (remember them?), not a screen the size of the state of Montana. In the kitchen we blended and stirred by hand because we didn’t have electric machines to do everything for us. When we packaged a fragile item to send in the mail, we used wadded up old newspapers to cushion it, not Styrofoam or plastic bubble wrap. Back then, we didn’t fire up an engine and burn gasoline just to cut the lawn. We used a push mower that ran on human power. We exercised by working so we didn’t need to go to a health club to run on treadmills that operate on electricity. But she’s right; we didn’t have the “green thing” back then.

    “We drank from a fountain when we were thirsty instead of using a cup or a plastic bottle every time we had a drink of water. We refilled writing pens with ink instead of buying a new pen, and we replaced the razor blade in a razor instead of throwing away the whole razor just because the blade got dull. But we didn’t have the “green thing” back then.

    “Back then, people took the streetcar or a bus and kids rode their bikes to school or walked instead of turning their moms into a 24-hour taxi service in the family’s $45,000 SUV or van, which cost what a whole house did before the”green thing.”

    “We had one electrical outlet in a room, not an entire bank of sockets to power a dozen appliances. And we didn’t need a computerized gadget to receive a signal beamed from satellites 23,000 miles out in space in order to find the nearest burger joint.

    “But isn’t it sad the current generation laments how wasteful we old folks were just because we didn’t have the “green thing” back then?”

    ‘Please forward this on to another selfish old person who needs a lesson in conservation from a smart ass young person. We don’t like being old in the first place, so it doesn’t take much to piss us off… Especially from a tattooed, multiple pierced smartass who can’t make change without the cash register telling them how much.’

  3. July 17, 2017 at 6:13 pm

    Thanks for the note, the little essay from the woman of an older generation, Dave. There is a lot of truth to what she wrote, but I’m afraid the good environmental implications were by default: the tools and means of everyday life she was describing – during what decade? – I’m assuming it was the U.S. – it was the 1930’s or 1940’s…before the complete demise of trolley’s and electrified commuter rail…it was a “default” kind of green without the clear consciousness that its state of technology might have been better for the environment (she stayed away from sources of electricity generation, which was heavily coal…)…

    I’ll mention electrified rail transport, of the urban-suburban commuter rail system that was built between the 1890’s and 1920, before the auto age had “taken off.” It was remarkably extensive even in areas which did not have large urban populations like Western Maryland, trolley lines existed between Frostburg and Cumberland…and California, decades away from massive freeways and auto traffic and terrible air pollution, had an extensive electric commuter rail system that went well past the suburbs and into the edge of rural…tracing its demise, yes, its dismantlement at the hands of those pushing combustion engines, bus, trucks and cars…is a painful exercise in political economy…and some shrewd observers of rail transport today have pointed out that the technology of this era, 1890-1920 could be revived at far less cost than the corporate behemoth designed and engineered systems that come from the major rail car infrastructure companies of today…where the costs of small lines (under 20 miles) like the Purple Line outside of Wash. Dc or the Hudson Waterfront line in NJ, across the Hudson from New York City, run into the billions.

    • July 17, 2017 at 10:48 pm

      I have to agree with you, especially on the senseless annihilation to trams and trolley-buses. But this was UK, and well written anyway, and perhaps ten years later than you seem to think. In the 1970s I went to Sweden, where I was impressed by the canned drink machines having a crushing machine next to them which dispensed a cent for every can returned. In my youth UK children always returned pop bottles to ensure themselves a little pocket money.

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