Skip to comments.Modernity Means More Stuff: Reviewing massive material flows that make the modern world possible
Posted on 02/23/2014 12:18:06 AM PST by 2ndDivisionVet
From 1900 to 2000, the U.S. population quadrupled while the economy expanded 26-fold. As a result, U.S. per capita consumption of materials rose from 1.9 tons in 1900 to 5.6 tons in 1950 to 12 tons in 2000. In Making the Modern World, the University of Manitoba natural scientist Vaclav Smil cites data suggesting that global annual output now comprises about 10 billion different products. Nevertheless, the majority of people on the planet have not yet achieved the material abundance enjoyed by Americans, Europeans, and the Japanese. Can humanity find, transform, and deploy enough resources to lift those people into affluence?
Smil thinks that the prospects are uncertain but that human ingenuity could achieve that goal. He points out that modern technology allows us to create ever more value using less and less material. Today, for example, it takes only 20 percent of the energy it took in 1900 to produce a ton of steel. Similarly, it now takes 70 percent less energy to make a ton of aluminum or cement and 80 percent less to synthesize nitrogen fertilizer. Excluding construction materials, Smil calculates that in the U.S. it took about 10 ounces of materials back in 1920 to produce a dollars worth of value. That is now accomplished using only about 2.5 ounces, a 75 percent decline in material intensity.
While the ever more efficient use of energy and materials results in relative dematerializationless stuff yielding more valuethe overall trend has been to extract more and more materials from the earth and the biosphere. There can be no doubt that relative dematerialization has been the key (and not infrequently the dominant) factor promoting often massive expansion of material consumption, Smil writes. Less has thus been an enabling agent of more. For example, the 11 million cellphones in use in 1990 each bulked about 21 ounces for total overall mass of 7,000 tons. By 2011 cellphones averaged about 4 ounces, but the total weight of all 6 billion had increased a 100-fold to 700,000 tons. As increases in efficiency make goods cheaper, people demand more of them.
But Smil rejects Malthusian predictions that the world is about to run out of critical resources. In 2008, the German think tank the Energy Watch Group issued a report declaring that global production of crude oil had reached its peak in 2006 and would now decline at a rate of 3 percent per year, falling by half by 2030. Smil points out that recent increases in petroleum production have refuted such dire forecasts. Similarly, the U.S. Geological Survey reports that known reserves of copper will last 42 years at current rates of production. In fact, the USGS had reported nearly identical figures for copper reserves in 1995 and 1980. In other words, miners find and develop new mineral reserves as needed.
Smil also counters the more recent claims that modern agriculture will soon collapse because the world is about to reach peak production of two fertilizing minerals, phosphorous and potash. In fact, a comprehensive analysis of phosphorous reserves shows that known supplies should last 300 to 400 years; the USGS estimates that potash reserves can provide for humanitys needs for 250 years. In reality, our civilization is in no danger of running out of any major mineral, not imminently (in years), not in the near term (in one or two decades), and not on a scale of average human lifespan (60-80 years), Smil concludes.
Despite this, Smil believes the pursuit of endless growth is, obviously, an unsustainable strategy. At the same time, he points out that too many people still live in conditions of degrading and unacceptable material poverty and that all of those people...need to consume more materials per capita in order to enjoy a decent life. Given these pressing needs, Smil doubts that the current trajectory of dematerialization will speed up enough to allow relative declines in material consumption to translate into aggregate declinesthat is, using less and less material while creating more value in goods and services.
As a plausible scenario of how demand for materials could rise, Smil calculates that if automobile ownership in currently poor countries rises to 200 per 1,000 people (a third of Japans current level of 600 vehicles per 1,000 people) that would double the global fleet to 2.2 billion vehicles. But will demand for trucks and cars follow such a path? Perhaps not. The advent of self-driving vehicles could provide a technological end-run around such projections of a growing vehicle fleet. Instead of sitting idle for most of every day as the vast majority of automobiles do now, cars could be rented on demand. This could actually lead to the shrinkage of the worlds vehicle fleet, as more people forego the costs and hassles of ownership. In addition, such vehicles could be much smaller and packed more tightly on roads, since they can travel safely at higher speeds than human-driven automobiles. Such a switch would imply the construction of far less material heavy transportation infrastructure.
Some trends do, in fact, indicate that humanity is withdrawing from the natural world. Recent research by Jesse Ausubel, the director of the Program for the Human Environment at Rockefeller University, suggests that humanity has reached peak farmland. Crop productivity is rising so much that farmers will increasingly leave more and more land for nature. The 21st century will see release of vast areas of land, hundreds of millions of hectares, more than twice the area of France for nature, Ausubel declared in 2012. In addition, requirements for synthesized nitrogen fertilizer may moderate as crop plants bioengineered to be nitrogen-sparing are deployed. The development of lab-grown meat could well obviate Smils advocacy of a more or less vegetarian diet in order to reduce environmentally damaging material flows. Researchers argue that cultured meat would require up to 99 percent less land, 96 percent less water, 45 percent less energy, and produce up to 96 percent less greenhouse gas emissions.
Oddly, Smil largely disregards the effectiveness of the market price system in guiding how people use materials. If the price of a material rises, consumers will tend to use less, producers will look for more, and technologists will work to create substitutes.
Can a 21st Century modernity be made using less? As yet, nothing has been irretrievably foreclosed, Smil concludes. Making the Modern World is an excellent primer on the process by which a significant portion of humanity has managed to lift itself out our natural state of abject povertyand on the issues that must be confronted in order to achieve the same goal for the rest of the species.
“Nevertheless, the majority of people on the planet have not yet achieved the material abundance enjoyed by Americans, Europeans, and the Japanese. Can humanity find, transform, and deploy enough resources to lift”
We have a whole Solar System of material resources to use, a millions times more abundant than the sum total of materials used by mankind to date. And nobody else up there is working to get it — it’s all ours.
We’ll be mining asteroids, the Moon and Mars in the not-too-distant future.
exactly, command economies do not work
Some countries that were poor because of stupid decisions by past leaders to have Marxist or semi-Marxist economies (China, India) have elevated millions of their poor citizens up from poverty and on their way to wealth by adopting more free-enterprise systems. And like I said before, some country's citizens are too stupid to take advantage of the free market.
I will give you an example of the expansion of known reserves in any mineral or anything else for that matter. In the coal business, coal at one time could be stripped at a profit when the ratio was 1” of coal for 1’ of overburden, when the price of coal doubles or triples due to a shortfall of supply, then 2’ of overburden can be taken for one inch of coal. Same goes for low quality coal, it becomes mineable when the price increase allows for the purchase of higher quality coal to mix or sweeten the low quality coal to a useable level. No real increase in the total amount of coal reserves just the law of supply and demand in action.
Years ago very little coal was considered mineable at heights 24” or less, with the invention of new equipment and techniques, that coal became recoverable at a profit.
Fracking is another tech that when the price reached a certain level it became possible to obtain that oil and gas at a profit.
There are a lot of things you can argue about but the law of supply and demand aint one of them.
I do like the guy’s numbers of average useage of materials and its connection to pulling people out of poverty at a certain point. The world needs more people that think out of the box. Maybe I am slow but I had never looked at it from that angle.
I think you forgot lazy. In some cultures it is customary to take a nap in the hot part of the day, maybe it is a response to the heat or maybe they are just lazy. As my old Grandma said, Poor folks got poor ways.
I never trust anyone who uses the word “biosphere” in a sentence.
There was a recent thread (which I am unable to find) here on FR about a politician who predicted the poor could be raised out of poverty in the next few decades.
This columnist is essentially making the same argument.
Which brings up another point: colonization by Europeans was the best thing that ever happened to many third-world residents. Especially British colonization.
I’m not too worried about us figuring out a way to sustain production of material goods. What I wonder about, however, is what human beings need to be happy. I don’t mean “how much stuff or how many material goods are enough?”. I mean what are the essential elements for people to feel fulfilled and happy? It’s an open question, and I raise it because my personal experience recently has been that there are a lot of unhappy and very stressed out people out there. I know this is a little off topic, and I apologize for that.
There will always be inequality. That fact means that some will always want more but lack the means to achieve or obtain
The current President is the opposite. He has obtained but in the real world, lacks the means.
I understand, but meant something different. What I'm getting at is that there are specific needs that I think we all have as human beings, and I'm not sure we really think enough about what those needs are sometimes. For instance, the need to self-determine, to define yourself as different and unique - in whatever way that might be. I think this is a basic need, and one that socialism/communism suppresses (to say the least). Socialism/communism work essentially on the ‘ant farm’ model. I don't think that works for humanity.
Beyond that, I strongly feel that we all need a sense of purpose. Having the best ‘smart phone’ might be important to you, but it doesn't impart a sense of purpose. Ultimately, I think our spirituality is the definitive source of that sense of purpose, but even below that level there are many things that give us that sense of purpose - like being a parent, helping others, trying to learn more and be capable of contributing more, etc.
I just think that government, and primarily the type of socialism-pushing government that we currently have in the White House and Senate majority, emphasizes the ‘stuff’ that you can get from them, but there is no recognition of the needs of people to self-define, distinguish themselves from others, set their own course, and define their own success. Further, there's little appreciation for how important spirituality is.
Truthfully, socialists are absolutely dependent on both real and imaginary shortages to get and keep power over others.
The reason is that abundance of anything useful or desirable creates an alternative currency that allows for freedom of choice and undermines government power.
So this being said, *always* look with distrust at those who insist shortage exists. A key acid test for such scoundrels if they say it is essential to “raise public awareness”, which means their sole interest is controlling others.
In any event, Bangladesh is a prime example for both shortage and abundance. It has been kept in grinding poverty by two things: socialism and Islam, both of which go to extremes to keep them in poverty and despair.
I can say this with confidence by just citing a single thing. Bangladesh is a river delta, and has some of the most fertile farmland in the world. And yet, their primary crop is the almost worthless crop, jute fiber.
Were they to convert to conventional agriculture, their standard of living would rival that of the Swiss in two or three generations. But neither socialists, nor Islamists, want that.
And in the process, food prices across southern Asia would plummet, significantly improving nutrition, health and overall prosperity, for hundreds of million of people.
As far as “too many people” goes, Hong Kong has a high population density, but comes across much like other cities, as not particularly overcrowded. But if every person on Earth lived in that high a population density, they could all live in Texas. More than 7 billion people, with the rest of the entire Earth empty.
“While the ever more efficient use of energy and materials results in relative dematerializationless stuff yielding more valuethe overall trend has been to extract more and more materials from the earth and the biosphere. There can be no doubt that relative dematerialization has been the key (and not infrequently the dominant) factor promoting often massive expansion of material consumption, Smil writes. Less has thus been an enabling agent of more.”
same way with gas mileage, it does not reduce total consumption, as many people benefiting from better gas milage ofen increase the number of miles they drive BECAUSE they’re getting better gas mileage
same way with electricity - “electricity saving apoliances and devices” do not necessarily lower total electricity consumption, as, to some degree, some people will take the position that because they are saving electricity “here”, they can afford to use some more “there” without raising their electric bill
There is one place were there is a huge ball of plastics floating in the pacific ocean..... that is ? if it’s not nuclear reactive already.