For most of our time on this planet, the answer was simple: We couldn’t. As my guest Andrew McAfee points out, for just about all of human history – particularly the Industrial Era – our prosperity has been tightly coupled to our ability to take resources from the earth. We got more from more.
That tradeoff yielded incredible positive contributions in nearly every field: Technology, industry, medicine. But there’s one glaring area – one of those “aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play” areas – where the trade wasn’t so incredibly positive. Of course, that’s the environment.
As global industry rode the combination of human’s infinite ingenuity and Mother Nature’s finite resources – we all reaped the benefits. But we also saw the costs: Exponential global warming. Perhaps it’s not an exact straight line, but the connection is clear to all but a few climate deniers.
Luckily, we know the solutions: Consume less; Recycle; Impose limits; Live more closely to the land.
Or do we? What if, instead, these central truths of environmentalism haven’t been the force behind whatever improvements we’ve made and, more importantly, aren’t the drivers that will solve the existential task at hand: Saving the planet?
Instead, as McAfee argues in his new book, the answer is dematerialization – we’re getting more output while using fewer resources. We’re getting, as his title suggests: “More from Less: The Surprising Story of How We Learned to Prosper Using Fewer Resources – and What Happens Next.”
McAfee argues that the two most important forces responsible for the change are capitalism and technological progress, the exact two forces “that came together to cause the massive increases in resource use of the Industrial Era.” Combined with two other key attributes – public awareness and responsive government – we can and do “tread ever more lightly on our planet.”
Some background: Put simply, Andrew McAfee studies how digital technologies are changing the world. He is Co-Founder and Co-Director of “The MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy” and a Principal Research Scientist at the MIT Sloan School of Management. One of his previous books, with MIT colleague and sometime co-author Erik Brynjolfsson was a New York Times and Wall Street Journal top ten bestseller; his books in total have been translated into more than 15 languages; and he and Brynjolfsson are the only people named to both the Thinkers50 list of the world’s top management thinkers and the Politico 50 group of people transforming American politics.
McAfee knows his prescription to save the planet is controversial. He knows it will frustrate – if not outrage – most of his friends… assuming they’re still willing to call him friend. But as us non-academics say about people like McAfee: He’s done the math. He’s researched the data. And like it or not, he’s ready for the conversation.
Transcript: Andrew McAfee, “More From Less”
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Andrew McAfee: Thank you for having me.
Chris Riback: So before we get into your counterintuitive thesis and fascinating book, I just want to confirm, because as you outlined at the top, you pretty much have the opportunity here to offend just about everyone with this book, environmentalists, anti-capitalists, pro-capitalists. So I guess, I don’t know, we’re just at the beginning of the book being released, so maybe all your friends haven’t gotten to read it yet, but are you doing a lot of dining alone at this point?
Andrew McAfee: Luckily I’ve got good friends who I’m pretty sure are going to stick with me, but I got a note, actually today, from a scholar who I respect a lot, and he said, essentially, “Congrats on the book, you’re going to make new enemies, and you’re kind of leading with your chin here a little bit.”
Chris Riback: Yes.
Andrew McAfee: And I think that’s right.
Chris Riback: Yes. See, I thought where you were going to go with that was, “Look, Riback, it’s not a problem because I already do a lot of dining alone, so.”
Andrew McAfee: That’s also true, but I didn’t want to lead with that.
Chris Riback: Okay. Well, you’ll certainly have a lot of people who will want to dine with you, and will want to discuss and debate the idea, because they’re strong, they’re counterintuitive, and there’s a case behind them, so [crosstalk]
Andrew McAfee: Well, and what I hope is that people want to discuss the ideas and discuss the evidence. I don’t think that ideologues are going to love this book, and by that I mean people who so firmly believe, for example, that modern growth eats up our planet and therefore it must be stopped, or people who are market fundamentalists and believe that markets solve all problems.
To me, those are both ideologies, and people who believe in them might react in a hostile way to the stuff that I’ve written and the evidence that I’ve put out there, but if people have at least somewhat of an open mind or if they’d at least be willing to listen to arguments and see evidence, and explore where that takes them, fantastic. Those are the folk that I’m really hoping to reach.
Chris Riback: Yes. You know, three things come into mind when you say that. First of all, it’s possible that ideologues may like your book because anyone could cherry-pick something that proves their ideological point.
Andrew McAfee: It’s true.
Chris Riback: Two, in terms of hoping that this is for people who are willing to discuss facts and real logic, and those types of arguments even if they disagree, yes, I mean, at this point, isn’t that really the audiences that we need to kind of build up and talk with?
And then three, and I’m hoping we get a chance to talk about this, but if not, for folks, there’s a section at the end where you do give a bit of an argument as to why, maybe, we can call it fake news, but why people are attracted to ideas not based on fact necessarily. And this goes against one of your four horsemen of an enlightened population and the thoughtful population. So yes, the focusing on the facts and the arguments, that’s the audience that you have to go for.
Andrew McAfee: And I think what we’re learning is that you have to package those facts and arguments in a way that’s accessible to people, in a way that’s compelling, in a way that it brings people along instead of alienating them. A slogan that I heard, which I try to live by, is that you’ll never displace a feeling with a fact.
So I’m trying to throw a lot of facts out there in this book, but I’m trying to wrap them into a story, an accurate story that acknowledges, for example, that holy Toledo, we humans beat up on our planet throughout the entire industrial era, and we really did some harm to the world that we all live on and it was necessary for us to course-correct. And this book is about some of the unexpected aspects of that course-correction, but I’m not trying to say that the human condition and the state of nature have always been in harmony and both have always improved together, that’s just not true.
You know, we did kill all the passenger pigeons. We came astonishingly close to killing all of the North American bison and all of the blue whales in the world, and shame on us, but the book is an optimistic book because, in part, it talks about how we came up to that precipice of wiping out all these different species, and with too many exceptions, but with exceptions, we stopped. We pulled back. The bison are coming back. The whales are coming back.
A great phrase that I heard from Stewart Brand a little while back is, “Nature bats last,” and if we can get out of the way in all the ways that matter, don’t put animals into the market system, you just don’t get to trade in blue whale products anymore, sorry, we’re not going to allow that, and get out of their way, nature can rebound in astonishing ways.
But I think the deeper counterintuitive part of the book is that when we think about other exploitations of the planet, just taking more stuff from the earth, more resources, more water, chopping down more trees, clearing more land for crops, using more fertilizer, we did. Like the adjective throughout the industrial era was more and more and more and more, year after year.
And the crazy part, and the reason I decided to write this book, is there’s very convincing evidence that in the rich world, and I’ll talk about America because that’s where the evidence is most clear, that we have actually reversed course. And the book is called More from Less because we’re now getting more prosperity, more economic growth, more population growth, higher GDP per capita, while taking fewer resources from the earth.
Now, we weren’t really expecting that. That’s a big break from the pattern of the industrial era, and I think that that change, that tipping point, that change in the trend, deserves some attention, deserves an explanation, and we need to figure out how to propagate that so that the rest of the world starts getting more from less.
Chris Riback: And so that is where we will get to, and that’s the de-materialization that you outlined and you talk about, but I think to understand that and to really understand your thesis, I think we need to understand the core of the trade-off that, as you say, has defined humanity throughout history until now, and that is that for just about all of human history, our prosperity has been tightly coupled to our ability to take resources from the earth, and up through the good Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus, you know, we all believed that that was how things were going to continue. So take me through the beginning of time to the Industrial Era, if you could, in say 30 seconds or less.
Andrew McAfee: It’s actually easy to do, because the thing to keep in mind is that we could only take a limited amount of stuff from the earth. We were really constrained in our ability to take food from the earth, to take resources from the earth, right up until the Industrial Revolution. And what that meant was that the size of human groups had a pretty hard ceiling on it, and when we exceeded that size, these really cruel mechanisms of privation and starvation, and resource scarcity, ground the population back down.
And I put a chart in the book that shows that pretty clearly, right up until about 1800 in England when, eureka, James Watt’s steam engine, a bunch of other innovations, we were finally able to access… I’ve gone longer than 30 seconds —
Chris Riback: No, no, no.
Andrew McAfee: The second chapter-
Chris Riback: No, no, no, I was teasing, I was teasing.
Andrew McAfee: But then, chapter two of this story starts with the industrial revolution, and chapter two is we use the energy and fossil fuels to be able to take more from the earth, to just massively multiply our ability to take stuff from the earth. And I mean fertilizer, and I mean crop land, and I mean metals and minerals, and all these other things that you build an economy out of.
And you can just watch the trajectories change before and after the industrial revolution. After the industrial revolution, our human prosperity, our population increased like crazy, and the prosperity, the wealth of the average person increased in a way that we’ve never ever seen before. So it was just this sea change in the history of humanity, but it was also a sea change in our relationship with our planet, because we took advantage of this ability to take more from the earth to grow our populations and our prosperity, and we did.
Over and over and over, year after year, country after country, we chopped down the forest, we took the minerals out, we dug mines, we used more fertilizer, we hunted more and more animals, we just have this veracious appetite for more.
Chris Riback: And as you document, we became more. You just talked about population, and frankly, you kind of freaked me out on the… And you also helped us understand the difference between an exponential progression and an arithmetic progression, folks can learn about that, but it feels almost close to, exponentially, the decrease in amount of time by which we increase in the billions of people, so the shrinking of how much time it took us to get to the first billion and then to the second billion, and all the way up, I guess, above six. So that you outlined.
You also outline: We weigh a lot more, as human beings, don’t we?
Andrew McAfee: Yes. One of my favorite statistics that I came across when I was researching the book, I was trying to find a way to communicate how big a change the industrial era was from what came before, and one way to do that is to look at the total mammalian bio-mass of the planet Earth, in other words, weigh up all the mammals on planet Earth. And I don’t know what that exact number is, but 97% of that number is we human beings and the animals that we’ve domesticated. So if you take the sheep and the horses and the pigs and whatnot, and you add them all up, add us to that, we are 97% of all the mammal weight on planet Earth.
Now, throughout most of history, that was not true at all. We humans were outweighed by bison in North America, we were outweighed by elephants in Africa, and two things happened. There became a lot more of us and we domesticated a lot more animals, and we damn near wiped both of those species off the planet. They just are much fewer in number now.
Chris Riback: Yes. So explain to me why, because I’ve read about the industrial era and I’ve seen the movies and I’ve learned about it. Tell me why the industrial era was not just a complete disaster for humankind in terms of how we were treating the earth and all of that, and why was Earth Day potentially not the turning point that everyone thinks it is?
Andrew McAfee: Well, the industrial era was this period of unprecedented human prosperity, but we did beat up on the planet more and more, year after year. We took more from it, we polluted it more, and we went after animals with more and more vigor year after a year.
So you mentioned Earth Day in 1970, which I think is just this really interesting point in our history, and point in our awareness about the planet that we live on and how we should be treating it, because Earth Day, all are all around America, was people rising up and saying, “We have to stop this. We can’t keep doing this.” And as I look back, I think the Earth Day crowd, let me call it that, I think they were two for four, because they were kind of saying four things.
They were saying, first of all, “We have to stop killing all these animals or there won’t be any of them left.” And that was correct, and we put in place an almost complete moratorium on whale hunting, for example, in, I think, 1972. Bravo to Earth Day for that.
The other thing that they said, that I’m so grateful for, was, “Pollution is not a nuisance, pollution is a killer, and we have to stop it.” And of course they were fought tooth and claw by industry at that time, saying, “Look, we’re all going to go broke if you make us a stop the polluting that we’re doing.” During debate about the first big revision of the Clean Air Act, a congressperson quoted a mayor from one of their constituent cities saying, “If you want this town to grow, it has to stink.”
So the environmental movement fought back against that reluctance to reduce pollution. Thank heaven the environmental side of that won, and we’ve put in place pollution measures that had been ridiculously effective. The air in American cities, and cities around the world, is so much cleaner than it was on Earth Day. It’s staggering how much cleaner it is.
So two in the win column for the environmental movement, for the Earth Day crowd. Where I think they were wrong, and maybe those mistakes were understandable at the time, but here we are in 2019 and we have to not keep making these same statements because they’re just not accurate, the first one is that the earth does not have enough resources to satisfy all of us. I think that’s not accurate, and especially since our total resource use is now going down. So the veraciousness of our economy has changed, and not acknowledging that is a problem, I think.
The other thing that they said over and over was population growth is a serious problem; it requires draconian measures like China’s one child policy in order to stop it, and if we don’t, we human beings are going to devour the earth. And then after we’ve done that, we’re all going start off pretty quickly. It turns out that’s actually just not right. I just don’t believe that for a second. I think the evidence about population growth and its impact is a story of abundance, and a story of, even as there are more people, they have higher standards of living, they have greater access to calories, the food supply goes up instead of down.
So I think the Earth Day crowd got that badly, badly wrong, and it’s super counterintuitive. What happens is all of those people are actually also innovators and entrepreneurs and problem-solvers, and yes, they are mouths to feed, wow, do entrepreneurs look at those mouths and say, “I’ve got a way to feed those people.” That’s actually an opportunity.
Chris Riback: So let’s get into the the core of what folks might find controversial about what you have to say. How are we getting more from less, to quote your own question from the book, how did we become post-peak in our use of so many resources?
Andrew McAfee: I think there could be two sources of controversy. The first one is my claim that we are actually getting more from less, and I try to back that up in the book, showing a lot of graphs and evidence that says, in America, year after year now, we’re using less, not per person, not per capita, but we’re using less total timber and paper, and fertilizer, and water, and metals of many different kinds. There are a few materials that were not post-peak in, plastic is probably exhibit A there, but for most of the materials, most of the molecules that you build an economy out of, we’re using less of them to build the American economy year after year.
So that’s one thing. And I can demonstrate in a lot of ways that that’s not because we’re just offshoring it all to China, that’s not what’s going on. So the first thing is this notion that we are a post-peak.
Then the second thing is my explanation about why that happened, because I credit the one-two punch of technological progress and capitalism. And what I hope is, any smart reader, at that point will say, “Wait, oh, wait, hold on a minute, that’s exactly the one-two punch that gave us the industrial era where we denuded the planet more and took more from a year after year. You’re talking out of both sides of your mouth here, McAfee.”
Chris Riback: Yes. Yes.
Andrew McAfee: And the point that I try to make is I think what really changed was we invented the computer and the network and all these digital tools, because what this amazing digital toolbox has given us is, essentially, the ability to swap out bits for atoms, to swap out atoms and put in bits. And because you typically don’t pay for each additional bit, the cost savings from doing that are very, very clear, and we see profit-hungry companies taking up tech progress on that offer, over and over and over.
And I tried to give a few point examples in the book. One of my favorite ones, I had no idea about this, the aluminum can that holds your beer or your soda weighs about 20% what the first generation of aluminum cans did. And what happened there is we have extraordinarily powerful computer and design systems that will let you simulate everything you need to simulate for how well this beer can needs to perform, and, shave off just a tiny little bit of metal or do something a little bit different and save that material. A beverage company that’s locked in a nasty competitive battle will take that offer over and over and over. Whereas I think a monopolist beverage company would say, “I don’t care. I’ll have a heavy can. I can pass the cost on to all of my consumers.”
Chris Riback: But-
Andrew McAfee: So it’s that-
Chris Riback: Yes, go ahead.
Andrew McAfee: So it’s that combination of intense competition, which is an important aspect of capitalism, and really, really powerful digital technologies, that I think has started to allow us to get more from less.
Chris Riback: And then the second part is people and policies. Tell me quickly what that is because then I’ve got the questions against, questions of what you’re saying, including, while we might be consuming less stuff, aren’t we producing more bad stuff like carbon?
Andrew McAfee: Yes.
Chris Riback: But first tell me about people and policies, and then, tell me why we’re not producing more bad stuff.
Andrew McAfee: So I’ve just told this story about how capitalism and technology combined to, now, let us use fewer resources year after year to deliver our prosperity. That’s not the end of the story. If we really want a healthy relationship with our planet, we also need to pollute less year after year, and we need to take better care of our fellow creatures year after year. I’m a huge fan of the one-two punch of capitalism and tech progress, they won’t solve either of those problems, pollution, or taking care of our fellow creatures, on their own.
Every decent Econ 101 textbook has a chapter about externalities, these things that happen that don’t directly impact the buyer or the seller, but they’re still bad, and pollution is the classic bad negative externality. And every economist would say, well, every decent economist I think would say, “We love markets, markets don’t automatically take care of pollution.” That’s where you need the Clean Air Act or the Clean Water Act, all of these things that have said, “Look, you just don’t get to pollute.”
Now maybe we use market mechanisms to help reduce that pollution. Cap and trade has been a huge success in the United States. I really wish we had a carbon dividend, a carbon tax where the money went back to the people, because that would be this wonderful policy that would combine government intervention with market mechanisms, which would be a really powerful combination.
And like we talked about earlier, if you want to save the whales, you need two things. You need a public that wants to save the whales, you need the people to say, “Look, we don’t want you to keep doing this,” and we needed a responsive government that listens to the will of its people and says, “Great, here’s the Marine Mammal Protection Act, we’re not trading in blue whale products anymore in the United States.” Without those two things, I don’t think capitalism and tech progress accomplish the goal of helping us move into a better relationship with our planet on their own.
Chris Riback: But while we’re consuming less stuff, aren’t we producing more bad stuff? I mean, greenhouse gas emissions… Yes.
Andrew McAfee: Our greenhouse gas emissions, again, total US greenhouse gas emissions are now on a downward trend, and that’s because we are making fewer things, and because the fracking revolution has helped swap out natural gas for coal, at least in electricity generation, and coal is a very, very greenhouse gas intensive energy source.
Chris Riback: So-
Andrew McAfee: So one of the things that we’re doing less is putting out fewer greenhouse gases. Now, I want to be super clear-
Chris Riback: Yes, please, because I read that line of yours, “Greenhouse gas emissions have gone down even more quickly than has total energy use,” and I read that-
Andrew McAfee: Yes.
Chris Riback: And I was like, “Wait, what?” And so, you know, quick Google search, one of those bits that replaced metal and other materials, and the NOAA report, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, the group that has come in the headlines for other reasons like hurricanes recently, they reported on May 21st, earlier this year, “Record levels of greenhouse gas pollution continue to increase humanity’s impact on the atmosphere’s heat-trapping capacity during 2018.”
Andrew McAfee: Yes.
Chris Riback: And so, I assume I’m getting something wrong, so-
Andrew McAfee: That’s true globally. Globally, 2018 was the peak year for total human greenhouse gas emissions. The US is decreasing, is on a downward trend, with greenhouse gas emissions. China is not, the low income countries are not, so globally, we’re not post-peak, just like we’re not post-peak with a lot of resources globally. In America, we are.
Now, I want to be clear, I’m not saying that America is decreasing its greenhouse gas emissions quickly enough; it is not. We have to stop cooking the planet, we all have a role to play in doing that, but one of the points I do want to make is once you think about greenhouse gases as pollution, you then realize we know how to decrease pollution. We have decreased all kinds of pollution since Earth Day in the United States. Greenhouse gases are not in a completely separate category. Now, it’s going to be difficult, but it’s not mysterious how we would go about reducing this kind of pollution if we really were serious about it.
Chris Riback: And so we’re talking today, this won’t get published for a couple of weeks I don’t think, but we’re talking today. The UN is having its annual meeting here in New York, and it’s actually Climate Day today. And this morning I heard former secretary of state, John Kerry, who’s kind of big on all this stuff as well, and is pushing different movements on the environment, he of course let The Paris Climate accord, this morning I heard him say that emissions went up last year. They went up here in America, they went up in Europe, they went up and China, the world is not getting the job done. I happened to hear him on “Morning Joe” this morning. Did he get that wrong? Did he misspeak?
Andrew McAfee: I’m not sure if there was a tick upward in US greenhouse gas emissions 2017 to 2018, maybe there was. What I am sure of is that we are substantially below our peak year of greenhouse gas emissions-
Chris Riback: Got it.
Andrew McAfee: Which was probably 2007, and the trend since then is a pretty clear downward trend. Now, I will take a bet that that downward trend will continue, even if there’s a little blip along the way. If you take Statistics 101, you know that there’s a difference between a trend and a blip-
Chris Riback: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yes.
Andrew McAfee: And I’m betting there is a trend that might have blips in it.
Chris Riback: In fact, you’re literally betting in this book, aren’t you?
Andrew McAfee: Yes.
Chris Riback: You’re willing to take on all comers. Tell me about the bet that you’ve set up near the end of your book.
Andrew McAfee: Stewart Brand, who is really one of the guys that I just admire so much, has set up a foundation called The Long Now Foundation. As part of it, he set up a website called The Long Bets website, where you can make, publicly, a bet about something important in the future that, you know, not how many games the Red Sox will win in 2029, I find that important, but it’s not really important for our society or for the planet. You make a societally important prediction, you record it at The Long Now website, and if somebody thinks you’re wrong, they can take the other side. And if you agree on the stakes, you make a public bet and you settle up whenever the bet ends, and we know the answer, we know who was right.
So I’m putting a bunch of bets up on The Long Bets website. One of them is I think America will use less total energy, again, not per capita, total energy in 2029 than it did in 2019, and I’m saying that regardless of how much the economy grows, how much pollution grows, I think we’re going to use less energy in 10 years simply because energy is expensive, and our toolkit for saving energy just gets better and better every year. So if you think I’m being naive or you think I’m being wrong, come take the other side of the bet.
Chris Riback: Take the bet. Put your money where your mouth is.
Andrew McAfee: Take the bet. Alex Tabarrok is a very good economist and he says, “Bets are attacks on bullshit.” So if you think this is bullshit, great, call me out. Let’s go.
Chris Riback: That’s excellent. To close out very quickly, Andy, what’s the biggest challenge? You talk about the four horsemen of optimism. What’s the biggest challenge to the progress that you’ve seen? You note a couple of them, including disconnectedness. I mean, the way you bring in unfairness as opposed to inequality-
Andrew McAfee: Yes.
Chris Riback: And kind of threats to enlightened citizenry. What, in your opinion, is the biggest challenge to the four horsemen of optimism?
Andrew McAfee: I think we have two big challenges. One is we’re cooking the planet and we need to stop. And again, we know the playbook, we have not summoned the political will to actually put a playbook that will work in place yet. I desperately hope that will change. So when I think about the state of nature, our biggest challenge of stopping global warming. When I think about the human condition, I think the biggest challenge that we have is that in the rich world, more and more people in communities are feeling left behind by the progress that’s happening. And that feeling is justified in a lot of ways. In the United States, for example, we have returned an amount of farmland since the early eighties back to nature, equal in size to the State of Washington.
That’s fantastic news for the planet, right? Let forest grow on that land. For the people farming that land in the early 80s, that is not very good news. And we see the same thing when we look at the number of factories in the country. When we look at the number of farms in the country, there are communities that are getting left behind, and pretending otherwise, I think, is a really bad idea. And when I think about these people, they could very accurately believe that they’re not getting the bargain that they signed up for. And then what makes me nervous is that becomes fertile ground for populous demagogues, authoritarians, different kinds of really bad government, really bad leadership, that is saying something alluring to a lot of these people in communities. So disconnection is the term that I use to describe that in the book.
And it does worry me because I don’t see these trends of concentration brought on by capitalism and tech progress, I don’t see them spontaneously reversing themselves.
Chris Riback: And I’m glad you raised that point because some of your optimism around the progress of democracy, I was wondering about that as well, because we’re seeing… There are a number of reports saying that democracy has kind of, unfortunately, been on the decline. And, of course, a lot of the elections; and you note them and obviously we know what’s going on in the U.S. Government and its role towards pulling out of environmental accords and that sort of thing. So you do explain why there may be optimism in terms of democracy, but also some threats there as well.
Andrew McAfee: Yes, absolutely. When you look globally, you start to become a bit more optimistic about democracy. When you look at established democracies, you see these demagogues and populists and authoritarians winning, to my eyes, way too many elections around the world. And figuring out how to halt that is really important homework for us.
Chris Riback: Well, you have written a highly entertaining, certainly a book that’s going to raise a lot of questions with people and spark a lot of discussion and debate, but also highly entertaining because anyone who can follow up footnotes on Paul Samuelson with the footnote on Homer Simpson, that’s entertaining writing.
Andrew McAfee: I was extraordinarily proud of the Homer Simpson footnote. And let’s not give it away because maybe that’ll spark a couple additional book sales to see what the heck we’re talking about. But that is correct. There’s a Samuelson followed by a Simpson footnote.
Chris Riback: Andy, thank you so much for your time.
Andrew McAfee: Thank you for having me. It’s been a blast.