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The Surprising Story of How We Learned to Prosper Using Fewer Resources―and What Happens Next


15 min read
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A research scientist says that some economies have found a way to do more with less.

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Research scientist Andrew McAfee proposes a convenient truth: Most advanced economies are consuming more while polluting less. Armed with a slew of data, the MIT scholar makes the bold argument that the United States has passed the point of peak metal, fertilizer and fossil fuel consumption. The skeptical reader might wonder whether the data support his conclusion quite so unequivocally, as they omit the impact of the outsourcing of material-intensive and polluting production to developing countries. But if his projections of US trends really reflect an agnostic direction for all economies, they may, in the long run, offer a glimmer of hope.


Advanced economies have started to decouple growth from resource use.

Growing economies inevitably consume more and more resources: Most people would consider that a truism. But the available data no longer support this view. For once, technological progress and capitalism have made most advanced economies more efficient. They have been polluting less, emitting less greenhouse gases and successfully battling species extinction – while populations and GDP continue to grow. People the world over have become more aware of the challenges they are facing, and governments have become more responsive. What seems farfetched at first glance is nonetheless true: Human beings have actually turned the corner and started to “dematerialize” their consumption. They are getting “more from less.”

Human ingenuity has triumphed over the specter of a Malthusian apocalypse.

When Thomas Malthus wrote his famous book on population growth in 1798, he was right about the past: People only prospered when their numbers were low. As soon as populations grew, resources became scarce, and that scarcity brought the number of people ...

About the Author

Andrew McAfee is co-founder and co-director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy. With Erik Brynjolfsson, he wrote The Second Machine Age and Race Against the Machine.

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