From the coauthor of the New York Times bestseller The Second Machine Age comes a compelling argument—masterfully researched and brilliantly articulated—that we have at last learned how to increase human prosperity while treading more lightly on our planet.
More from Less tells the story of an important, unexpected, and heartening change in our relationship with the planet we all live on. Whereas throughout the Industrial Era increases in human population and prosperity came at the expense of the earth, that pattern no longer holds in America and other rich countries. Instead, we’re now able to improve the human condition while also treading more lightly on the world: consuming fewer resources, using less cropland, reducing pollution, bringing back species we’d pushed to the brink of extinction, and so on.
More from Less documents this phenomenon and explains how it came to be. The book makes the provocative and counterintuitive argument that two of the most important forces responsible for the change are capitalism and technological progress. In the past this combination caused us to take more and more from the planet over time. Now, it’s letting us get more from less. So what changed? Essentially, we invented the computer, the network, and a host of other digital tools that let us swap atoms for bits [think, for example, of how many different devices and media have vanished into the smartphone]. Quite literally, these inventions have changed the world. They’ve provided the opportunity to save on resources, while capitalism has provided the motive.
The book is organized around asking and answering six successive questions about the human condition, the state of nature, and relationship between the two.
What’s the history of human prosperity and our relationship with our planet? (Chapters 1-4)
It’s a story with two chapters before the one we’re living in now. In the first chapter we humans were sharply limited in how many resources we could take from the Earth. Because of this limit, there was a hard ceiling on how many people the land could sustain. Populations oscillated up and down beneath this ceiling.
The second chapter began with the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century. The steam engine and other technologies allowed us to make use of the enormous amounts of energy stored in fossil fuels. Previous limits to growth were eliminated as we put this power to use, and around the world human population and prosperity increased like never before.
However, the Industrial Era was hard on our world. We extracted ever-more resources from it, hunted many species to the brink of extinction or beyond, and greatly polluted the air, land, and water. As human population continued to increase these harms continued to accumulate, until many came to believe that our species was a grave threat to our planet. The first Earth Day, held in 1970, gave voice to these concerns.
What’s happening now? (Chapter 5)
Evidence from America shows that even though population and prosperity continued to increase steadily in the years after Earth Day, resource consumption did not. Instead, it started to decline. The country now generally uses less metal, fertilizer, water, paper and timber, and energy year after year, even output grows. This phenomenon is known as dematerialization of the economy, and it’s bringing us into what I call a “second enlightenment” — a literal one.
Air and water pollution have also decreased greatly, and many threatened species have seen their numbers rebound. Even greenhouse gas emissions have declined substantially in recent years. The United States, in short, is now getting more from less; the country is post-peak in resource use and other exploitations of the environment. Similar patterns are seen in other rich countries.
Why did things change? (Chapters 6-9)
America is not post-peak because it outsourced its production and pollution to other countries, or because its people stopped consuming or desiring more. Instead, dematerialization happened because of the combination of two powerful forces: capitalism and technological progress. This is a surprising conclusion because it was exactly these two forces that came together to cause the massive increases in resource use of the Industrial Era.
So what changed? Essentially, technological progress advanced enough to let companies do more with less. Capitalism’s endless quest for profit is also a relentless search for cost reduction, and resources cost money. The computer and other digital technologies have opened up many ways to save money by reducing resource use (think of how many devices and media types have been replaced by the smartphone, and how solar panels let us get energy without consuming any fossil fuels), and companies in competitive environments have eagerly followed all of these paths.
However, capitalism and tech progress don’t solve all of our environmental problems. They don’t deal well with pollution, which is a negative side effect of a lot of economic activity, and they don’t spare endangered animals. So we need another pair of forces: public awareness and responsive government. Once people become aware of the harms of pollution and the tragedy of species loss they demand action, and responsive governments step in to force pollution reductions and place habitats and animals outside the market. Together capitalism, tech progress, public awareness, and responsive government are the four horsemen of the optimist. When they’re all in place, we tread ever more lightly on our planet.
What are the consequences of this change? (Chapters 10-13)
In addition to dematerialization, the four horsemen are causing three other important changes throughout the world. The first is improvement in both the human condition and the state of nature. Poverty is declining rapidly, as are maternal and child mortality rates. At the same time, access to knowledge, education, food, clean water, and sanitation is increasing in every region. Species loss has slowed down, and large amounts of land and water are being set aside as parks.
The second major change is increased concentration. Over time, more and more of our total output is coming from a smaller and smaller number of counties, farms, and factories. The same is true for companies: across many countries and industries, a small number of companies are winning most of the sales and profits. And of course wealth and income are becoming more concentrated. Capitalism and tech progress are combining to let us do more with less; this also means that more of the spoils of capitalism are going to fewer regions, companies, and people.
The third and most troubling change is greater disconnection -- a decrease over time in the number of relationships and bonds among people. This decline in social capital has many causes. One of them is related to concentration: when farms go fallow and factories close, the work relationships they fostered tend to wither. Recent increases deaths of despair in America and political polarization in many countries show that disconnection has serious consequences.
What does the future hold? (Chapter 14)
More of the same. There’s every reason to believe that capitalism and tech progress will cause dematerialization to deepen and broaden. In fact, I’m willing to bet money that America in a decade will be using fewer resources than it is today, no matter how much its population and economy grown over the next ten years. People who think this is too optimistic can take the other side of this bet.
What do we need to do differently? (Chapter 15)
Our two most urgent priorities are to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (which are a form of air pollution) and work to reverse the disconnection and declines in social capital we’re seeing in many communities. Our planet is getting hotter and we humans are getting colder; neither of these is a healthy trend. Governments, companies, philanthropies and other nonprofits, and families and individuals all have roles to play in these areas, and in simultaneously improving both our prosperity and our planet.
This book makes use of a few important concepts from economics including negative externalities, elasticities of demand, markets for pollution, and non-rivalrous and partially excludable goods. But don’t worry if those terms aren’t familiar to you. I explain all these concepts when introducing them, and don’t assume that readers have had any prior economics education. There are no prerequisites for this book beyond curiosity and an open mind.