Book Summary: “More From Less” by Andrew McAfee


Title: More From Less: The Surprising Story of How We Learned to Prosper Using Fewer Resources – and What Happens Next
Author Andrew McAfee
Scope: 4 stars
Readability: 4 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

If you enjoy this summary, please support the author by buying the book.

Topic of Book

McAfee makes the case that capitalism and technological progress lessen negative impacts on the environment.

To learn more about progress, read my book “From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

Key Take-aways

  • The typical Green argument that economic growth always hurts the environment is incorrect and dangerously so.
  • Apocalyptic predictions from previous generations of running out of resources have been very inaccurate.
  • As wealthy nations grow, they use fewer resources year after year, even as their economy and population continue to grow.
  • During the Industrial Revolution, the internal combustion engine, electrical power and indoor plumbing increase living standards for the first time.
  • Digital technology, in particular, dematerializes economic growth.
  • In the United States, usage of the aluminum, nickel, copper, steel, gold, fertilizer, water, crop acreage, stone, cement, sand, timber and paper are all declining.
  • All of above are increasing in India, China and other developing countries, but there is every reason to believe that use will peak within a few decades.
  • This process is by driven capitalism, technological progress, responsive government and public awareness.
  • Industry has a strong profit motive to slim, swap, optimize and evaporate use of natural resources.

Important Quotes from Book

We have finally learned how to tread more lightly on our planet. It’s about time.

For just about all of human history our prosperity has been tightly coupled to our ability to take resources from the earth. So as we became more numerous and prosperous, we inevitably took more: more minerals, more fossil fuels, more land for crops, more trees, more water, and so on.

But not anymore. In recent years we’ve seen a different pattern emerge: the pattern of more from less. In America—a large, rich country that accounts for about 25 percent of the global economy—we’re now generally using less of most resources year after year, even as our economy and population continue to grow. What’s more, we’re also polluting the air and water less, emitting fewer greenhouse gases, and seeing population increases in many animals that had almost vanished. America, in short, is post-peak in its exploitation of the earth. The situation is similar in many other rich countries, and even developing countries such as China are now taking better care of the planet in important ways.”

“This book is about how we turned the corner and started getting more from less, and what happens from here forward.

I want to make one thing clear at the start: my argument is not that things are good enough now, or that there’s nothing to be concerned about. Those claims would be absurd. ”

“This book shows that we’ve started getting more from less and tells how we reached this critical milestone. The strangest aspect of the story is that we didn’t make many radical course changes to eliminate the trade-off between human prosperity and planetary health. Instead, we just got a lot better at doing the things we’d already been doing.

In particular, we got better at combining technological progress with capitalism to satisfy human wants and needs.”

“As I’ll show, capitalism continued and spread (just look around you), but tech progress changed. We invented the computer, the Internet, and a suite of other digital technologies that let us dematerialize our consumption: over time they allowed us to consume more and more while taking less and less from the planet. This happened because digital technologies offered the cost savings that come from substituting bits for atoms, and the intense cost pressures of capitalism caused companies to accept this offer over and over. Think, for example, how many devices have been replaced by your smartphone.

In addition to capitalism and tech progress, two other forces have also been essential for allowing us to get more from less. These are public awareness of the harms we’re doing our planet (such as pollution and species loss) and responsive governments, which act on the desires of their people and put in place sound measures to counteract these harms. Both public awareness and responsive government were greatly accelerated by Earth Day and the environmental movement in the United States and around the world.

I call tech progress, capitalism, public awareness, and responsive government the “four horsemen of the optimist.”I When all four are in place, countries can improve both the human condition and the state of nature. When the four horsemen don’t all ride together, people and the environment suffer.

“The good news is that all four are at present advancing around the world. So we don’t need to make radical changes; instead, we need to do more of the good things that we’re already doing. Let me switch, metaphorically, from horses to cars: we don’t need to yank the steering wheel of our economies and societies in a different direction; we just need to step on the accelerator.”

“I’ve found that the book’s fundamental concept—that capitalism and tech progress are now allowing us to tread more lightly on the earth instead of stripping it bare—is hard for many people to accept.”

“Between the time we Homo sapiens left our African cradle over one hundred thousand years ago and the dawn of the Industrial Era in the late eighteenth century, we lived in a Malthusian world. We covered the planet, yet didn’t conquer it.”

“For all of human history to that point, the only power sources we could draw on were muscles (ours and those of the animals we domesticated), wind, and falling water. The Watt steam engine and its descendants added to that list a set of machines that drew on fossil fuels such as coal and profoundly changed our relationship with our planet.”

“So how big, overall, were the changes brought by the Industrial Revolution? An evidence-based answer comes from historian Ian Morris, who has constructed a numeric index that quantifies the level of social development in a civilization. Morris’s index is calculated from four traits: per-person energy capture, information technology, war-making capacity, and organization.

It shows a startling change. As Morris puts it, “In 1776, Western social development had clawed its way up just forty-five points since Ice Age hunter-gatherers had prowled the tundra in search of a meal; within the next hundred years it soared another hundred points. The transformation beggared belief. It turned the world inside out.”

“Yet the transformations of the next hundred years were even bigger. In the West, after climbing 120 points in the century preceding 1900 to reach a level of 170 points, Morris’s social development index then climbed another 736 points by 2000”

“These huge gains were achieved in large part by adding three more world-altering technologies to the mix: the internal combustion engine, electrical power, and indoor plumbing. The first two expanded on what steam gave us: the ability to generate and effectively wield massive amounts of power. The third expanded on London’s triumph over cholera and let us live longer and healthier lives, especially in the densely populated cities that became ever more common around the world.”

“The breakthroughs of the Industrial Era—technological, scientific, institutional, and intellectual—created a virtuous cycle of increasing human population and prosperity. ”

“Not all of the Industrial Era’s transformations were for the better. Everyone who has spent time studying the period has probably compiled at least an informal list of its missteps, crimes, and moral failures. Prominent on many of these lists are slavery, child labor, colonialism, pollution, and the devastation of several species of animal.”

“When we look at this era’s great mistakes this way, an interesting pattern emerges. As industrialized countries advanced and became more prosperous, they first started treating humans better. They stopped enslaving people or making children work and eventually gave up claims to foreigners’ lands. Better treatment of animals was slower to come and in some cases arrived too late to save a species. And better treatment of our planet came last of all. We kept heedlessly plundering and polluting it for almost two centuries after the Industrial Revolution started.”

“It is hard to convey to people who came of age after Earth Day just how broad and deep the concerns were at the time, and how the tone of the mainstream conversation about our planet was somewhere between alarmist and apocalyptic. Modern discussions around climate change sometimes have the same flavor, but very different timescales. Today, we are concerned about what climate change could do by the end of the twenty-first century. Around Earth Day, it seemed as if we might not survive the twentieth.”

“Famines. Deadly pollution. Resource exhaustion. Population and societal collapse. The obvious enormity of these problems led to a consensus within the nascent environmental movement about the need for action. And also about what these actions should be. As I read the dominant proposals and recommendations appearing around the time of the first Earth Day, the acronym CRIB occurred to me: the solutions to our planetary problems, we were told, were to Consume less, to Recycle, to Impose limits, and to go Back to the land.”

“Even as the mainstream conversation about the environment grew more panicked and urgent, a group of voices started making the case that things—at least some of them—might not be so dire. These comparative optimists, many of whom were economists, made two sets of observations based on evidence, and one broad statement of faith.

Their first evidence-based claim was that many of the bad things confidently predicted by the environmental movement—chronic food shortages and famines; irreversible ecosystem collapses; mass species die-offs; crippling shortages of natural resources; and so on—kept on not happening. Instead, some of the things that were supposed to get much worse kept getting better.”

“the optimists said, we’ll find a way to deal with the challenges that come with the growth of populations and economies. Many of the voices prominent around Earth Day thought that humanity was growing and innovating its way into a terrible predicament. In sharp contrast, the optimists thought that we would grow and innovate our way out of one.”

“As fertilizers, metals, coal, or other resources become more rare, they also get more expensive.

Simon saw, though, that this was not the end of the story. What happened next was that the price surge activated human greed and combined it with human ingenuity. This combination of self-interest and innovativeness caused two things: a wide-ranging search for more of the resource, and an equally ardent search for substitutes. As one or both of these quests succeeded, Simon reasoned, the original scarcity would be eased, and the resource’s price would go back down.”

“The title of his 2015 essay “The Return of Nature: How Technology Liberates the Environment” suggested his answer. Ausubel found substantial evidence not only that Americans were consuming fewer resources per capita (in other words, per person) but also that they were consuming less in total of some of the most important building blocks of an economy: things such as steel, copper, fertilizer, timber, and paper. Total annual US consumption of all of these had been increasing rapidly in the years prior to Earth Day. But since then, consumption had reached a peak, then declined.

Paul Waggoner, and I undertook a detailed study of the use of 100 commodities in the United States from 1900 to 2010.… Of the 100 commodities, we found that 36 have peaked in absolute use… Another 53 commodities have peaked relative to the size of the economy, though not yet absolutely. Most of them now seem poised to fall.”

“All of these metals are “post-peak” in America, meaning that the country hit its maximum consumption of each of them some years ago and has seen generally declining use since then. The magnitude of the dematerialization is large. In 2015 (the most recent year for which USGS data are available) total American use of steel was down more than 15 percent from its high point in 2000. Aluminum consumption was down more than 32 percent and copper 40 percent from their peaks.”

“output (crop tonnage) used to be tightly linked to inputs (water and fertilizer). But then that relationship changed, and we’re now getting more from less. Fertilizer use is down almost 25 percent from its 1999 peak, and by 2014 total water used for irrigation had decreased by more than 22 percent from its maximum in 1984. Total cropland has also fallen, to levels rivaling the lowest points of the previous century.”

“energy use went up in lockstep with economic growth in America for more than a century and a half, from 1800 to 1970. Then growth in energy use slowed down, and then it turned negative—even as the economy kept growing. Over the last decade, we’ve gotten more economic output from less energy.

Greenhouse gas emissions have gone down even more quickly than has total energy use. This is largely because we have in recent years been using less coal and more natural gas to generate electricity (a switch we’ll examine in chapter 7), and natural gas produces 50–60 percent less carbon per kilowatt hour than coal does.

The conclusion from this set of graphs is clear: a great reversal of our Industrial Age habits is taking place. The American economy is now experiencing broad and often

“Developing countries, especially fast-growing ones such as India and China, are probably not yet dematerializing. But I predict that they will start getting more from less of at least some resources in the not-too-distant future. ”

“I’ll present my explanation of the causes of dematerialization. First, though, I want to give a short explanation of what the causes are not. In particular, I want to show that the CRIB strategies born around Earth Day and promoted since then for reducing our planetary footprint—consume less, recycle, impose limits, and go back to the land—have not been important contributors to the dematerialization we’ve seen.”

“The C part of the CRIB strategy—a plea for us to consume less for the planet’s sake—has largely fallen on deaf ears. To see this, let’s look at change in the real GDP of the United States. It grew by an average of 3.2 percent per year between the end of World War II and Earth Day. From 1971 to 2017, it grew by an annual average of 2.8 percent.”

“Yet recycling is irrelevant for dematerialization. Why? Because recycling is about where resource-producing factories get their inputs, while dematerialization is about what’s happened to total demand for their outputs.”

“Going back to the land might have been widely discussed, but it was comparatively rarely practiced.

We should be thankful for this because homesteading is not great for the environment, for two reasons. First, small-scale farming is less efficient in its use of resources than massive, industrialized, mechanized agriculture. To get the same harvest, homesteaders use more land, water, and fertilizer than do “factory farmers.”

“Of the four elements of the CRIB strategy, the drive to impose limits has by far the most checkered history. It yielded both the most harmful strategies, and the most helpful ones.”

“If CRIB strategies aren’t responsible for the large-scale dematerialization of the American economy that has taken place since Earth Day, then what is? How have we got more from less? I believe that four main forces are responsible, and that it’s helpful to think of them as two pairs. In this chapter we’ll look at the first pair, then take up the second in chapter 9.

Capitalism and technological progress are the first pair of forces driving dematerialization.”

“The material productivity of agriculture in the United States has improved dramatically in recent decades, as we saw in chapter 5. Between 1982 and 2015 over 45 million acres—an amount of cropland equal in size to the state of Washington—was returned to nature. Over the same time potassium, phosphate, and nitrogen (the three main fertilizers) all saw declines in absolute use. Meanwhile, the total tonnage of crops produced in the country increased by more than 35 percent.

As impressive as this is, it’s dwarfed by the productivity improvements of American dairy cows. In 1950 we got 117 billion pounds of milk from 22 million cows. In 2015 we got 209 billion pounds from just 9 million animals. ”

“We do want more all the time, but not more resources. Alfred Marshall was right, but William Jevons was wrong. Our wants and desires keep growing, evidently without end, and therefore so do our economies. But our use of the earth’s resources does not. We do want more beverage options, but we don’t want to keep using more aluminum in drink cans. We want to communicate and compute and listen to music, but we don’t want an arsenal of gadgets; we’re happy with a single smartphone. As our population increases, we want more food, but we don’t have any desire to consume more fertilizer or use more land for crops.”

“Materials cost money that companies locked in competition would rather not spend. The root of Jevons’s mistake is simple and boring: resources cost money. He realized this, of course. What he didn’t sufficiently realize was how strong the incentive is for a company in a contested market to reduce its spending on resources (or anything else) and so eke out a bit more profit. After all, a penny saved is a penny earned.”

“There are multiple paths to dematerialization. As profit-hungry companies seek to use fewer resources, they can go down four main paths. First, they can simply find ways to use less of a given material. This is what happened as beverage companies and the companies that supply them with cans teamed up to use less aluminum.”

“Second, it often becomes possible to substitute one resource for another. Total US coal consumption started to decrease after 2007 because fracking made natural gas more attractive to electricity generators. ”

“Third, companies can use fewer molecules overall by making better use of the materials they already own.”

“Finally, some materials get replaced by nothing at all. When a telephone, camcorder, and tape recorder are separate devices, three total microphones are needed. When they all collapse into a smartphone, only one microphone is necessary. That smartphone also uses no audiotapes, videotapes, compact discs, or camera film.”

“I call these four paths to dematerialization slim, swap, optimize, and evaporate. They’re not mutually exclusive. Companies can and do pursue all four at the same time, and all four are going on all the time in ways both obvious and subtle.”

“Computers and their kin help us with all four paths to dematerialization. Hardware, software, and networks let us slim, swap, optimize, and evaporate. I contend that they’re the best tools we’ve ever invented for letting us tread more lightly on our planet.”

“Like knowledge itself, technologies accumulate… Like innovation itself, technologies are combinatorial; most of them are combinations or recombinations of existing things. This implies that the number of potentially powerful new technologies increases over time because the number of available building blocks does.

These facts help me understand why we didn’t start to dematerialize sooner. It could simply be that we didn’t have the right technologies, or enough building blocks, to allow large-scale dematerialization. ”

“The counterintuitive conclusion from this line of reasoning is that resource scarcity isn’t something we need to worry about. ”

“I call technological progress, capitalism, responsive government, and public awareness the “four horsemen of the optimist.” When all four are present, we tread more lightly on our planet. We progressively dematerialize our consumption, reduce pollution, and take better care of our fellow creatures.”

“No society is doing this perfectly, but many are doing it, and doing it better.”

“I want to make the case that all four horsemen have been advancing quickly over the past few decades—that tech progress has been quite rapid by historical standards, and that capitalism, responsive government, and public awareness have also been spreading quickly around the world.”

“So tech progress, capitalism, responsive government, and public awareness have all advanced strongly in recent decades. As they have, they’ve helped us humans tread more lightly on our planet by dematerializing our consumption and reducing pollution and species loss. What else have these four horsemen done?

First, they’ve contributed to widespread improvement in both the human condition and the state of nature. Second, they’ve contributed to concentration of economic activity: more and more output coming from a smaller and smaller number of counties, farms, and factories, and more and more gains going to fewer and fewer companies and people. Third, they’ve helped create increasing disconnection among people and declines in social capital. As we’ll see, the improvement is great news, concentration is a mixed blessing, and disconnection is a frightening trend.”

“We should document the improvements because they tell us something critically important: what we’re doing is working and therefore we should keep doing it instead of contemplating huge course changes.”

“I think we’re going to take better care of our planet from now on. I’m confident that the Second Machine Age will mark the time in our history when we started to progressively and permanently tread more lightly on the earth, taking less from it and generally caring for it better, even as we humans continue to become more numerous and prosperous.”

To learn more about progress, read my book “From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

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