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Notes from "More from Less"

These are my notes from "More from Less: How We Learned to Create More Without Using More" by Andrew McAfee. This is a fantastic book I'd highly recommend. Andrew gives us the straight facts about the innovative, social, and economic forces that have made our world better and continue to do so – no political BS.

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, 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 gasses, and seeing population increases in many animals that had almost vanished. America is post-peak in its exploitation of resources.

We got better at combining technological progress with capitalism to satisfy human wants and needs. That conclusion will strike many people as bizarre, and for good reason. After all, it's exactly this combination that caused us to massively increase our resource use and environmental harms starting with the industrial revolution in the late 18th century. The industrial era was a time of startlingly fast improvements and prosperity. But these improvements came at the expense of our planet. We dug out resources, chopped down forests, killed animals, fowled the air and water with pollution, and committed countless other offenses against the Earth.

So what happened? Capitalism continued and spread, 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.

In addition to capitalism and tech progress, two other forces are at play that allowed 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 measures to counteract these harms.

The 4 horsemen of the optimist:

  • capitalism

  • tech progress

  • public awareness

  • responsive government

When all 4 are in place, countries can improve both the human condition and the state of nature.

Steam changed the course of humanity, not by helping to plow farms, but instead by helping to fertilize them.

3 world-altering technologies: the internal combustion engine, electrical power, and indoor plumbing.

Today the Haber-Bosch process for producing fertilizer is so fundamental to human enterprise that it uses about 1% of the world's industrial energy.

At present, we humans weigh more than 350 times as much as all bison and elephants put together. We weigh over 10 times more than all the earth's mammals combined. Humans and the animals we domesticated, cows, horses, sheep, etc, account for more that 97% of the earth's biomass.

The great mistakes we made in the industrial revolution were to force people to become part of the machinery of production, slavery and child labor, to take their land and resources and use them as inputs, colonialism, to use animals as inputs so wantonly that we wiped them out or nearly did, and to pay too little attention to the terrible pollution generated as a side effect of industrial production.

The combustion of coal produces smoke, soot, sulfur dioxide, and plenty of other forms of pollution. During the industrial era, steam-powered factories and mills joined the households that were already burning coal, resulting in bad air and bad health.

Because the factories of that time needed so many belts, leather making was the country's fifth-largest industry by 1850. Bison leather, for being so durable, was preferred for factory infrastructure. So as American manufacturing expanded, so too did the bison hunts.

Jevins' most lasting contribution to the debates around people, technology, and the environment was to argue that more efficient use of natural resources would not lead to lower overall use of them. According to Jevins, this was because we'd use the greater efficiency not to get the same amount of the desired output, steam power, while using less of the resource, coal, but instead to get more and more of the output, thereby using more of the resource in total.

The IPAT model: I = P x A x T

I = society's total negative impact on the environment

P = population size

A = affluence (per capita GDP)

T = technology

Scarcity caused prices to go up. As fertilizers, metals, coal, or other resources become more rare, they also got more expensive. Then the price surge activated human greed and combined it with human ingenuity. This combination of self-interest and innovativeness caused 2 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, the original scarcity would be eased, and resource's price would go back down.

American made cars, for example, generally got lighter after the Arab oil embargo of 1973. But the pattern that Jevins first noticed with coal kept repeating itself. Greater efficiency led not to an overall reduction in the use of a resource, but instead to greater total use. This pattern was observed so consistently that it acquired its own label: The Rebound Effect.

The economy has changed since Earth Day, and has become relatively less oriented around making and building things. Services, ranging from haircuts to insurance policies to concerts now make up a much larger share of the economy than they did in 1970. US personal consumption of services has risen from 30% of GDP in 1970 to 47% in 2017. While it's true that products have been declining in relative terms, in other words as a percentage of GDP, compared to services, our total consumption of products has still been increasing in absolute terms. So has our industrial production - the total amount of things made in America. We haven't stopped producing things. Instead, America's manufacturers have learned to produce things from less metal.

We've decoupled growth, consumption, prosperity, and our economy, from resource use.

In 2015 total American use of steel was down from its high point in 2000. Aluminum consumption was down more than 32% and copper 40% from their peaks.

Fertilizer use is down almost 25% from its 1999 peak, and by 2014 total water used for irrigation had decreased by 22% from its maximum in 1984. Total crop land has also fallen to levels rivaling the lowest points of the previous century.

Total timber use is down by 33% and paper use is down by 50% from their peaks.

American use of plastics is an exception to the overall trend of dematerialization. America continues to use more plastic year over year.

Total American energy use in 2017 was down almost 2% from its 2008 peak, and our economy grew by more than 15% during those years.

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.

Recycling is big business. 47% of aluminum, 33% of copper, 68% of lead, and 49% of iron and steel consumed in the US in 2015 came from scrap metal rather than ore taken from the earth. Almost 65% of paper products come from recycled newspapers, pizza boxes, and so on, rather than from felled trees. Yet recycling is irrelevant for dematerialization. Why? Because recycling is about where factories get their inputs, while dematerialization is about what's happened to total demand for their outputs.

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. Farms of less than 100 acres grow 15% less corn per acre than farms with more than 1000 acres. And bigger farms get better faster. Seconds, rural life is less environmentally friendly than urban or suburban dwelling. City folk live in high density, energy efficient apartments and condos, travel only short distances for work and errands, and frequently use public transportation. Non of these things is true of country living. As economist Edward Glazer summarizes, "if you want to be good to the environment, stay away from it." The best thing we can do for the environment is build more skyscrapers.

The Lacey Act and its successors imposed 3 kinds of limits on taking and consuming animals:

  1. Hunting of some animals was fully banned.

  2. Limits have been imposed on when and where animals can be hunted.

  3. Bans have been imposed on the commercial sale of many animal products. Including the nationwide ban on the sale of hunted meat.

Between 1982 and 2015, over 45 million acres was returned to nature. Over the same time the use of potassium, phosphate, and nitrogen (the 3 main fertilizers) all saw declines in absolute use. Meanwhile the total tonnage of crops produced in the country increased by more than 35%. As impressive as this is, it's dwarfed by the productivity improvements of American dairy cows. In 1950 we got 117 billion lbs of milk from 22 million cows. In 2015 we got 209 billion lbs from just 9 million cows. The average milk cow's productivity thus improved by 330% during that time.

Thanks to fracking, US crude oil production almost doubled between 2007 and 2017. By 2018 America had surpassed Saudi Arabia to become the world's largest producer of oil. American natural gas production, which had been essentially flat since the 1970s, had jumped 43% between 2007 and 2017. As a result of the fracking boom, the US has experienced peak coal rather than peak oil. And the peak in coal is not in annual total supply, but instead in demand. Fracking made natural gas cheap enough that it became preferred over coal for much electricity generation. By 2017 total US coal consumption was down 36% from its 2007 high point.

The first aluminum cans were 85 grams. The weight was gradually reduced to 12.75 grams in 2011.

Again and again we see that competition spurs dematerialization. There are multiple paths to dematerialization. As profit-hungry companies seek to use fewer resources, they can go down 4 main paths:

  1. They can find ways to use less of a given material.

  2. It often becomes possible to substitute one resource for another.

  3. Companies can use fewer molecules overall by making better use of the materials they already own.

  4. Some materials get replaced by nothing at all. Like an iPhone eliminating the need for a calculator, camera, notebook, etc.

Like innovation itself, most 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.

Capitalism is a way to come up with goods and services and get them to people. The key to capitalism is voluntary exchange.

The biggest difference between rich and poor countries might be whether laws are clearly and consistently enforced.

"It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest." - Adam Smith

Self-interest is not a flaw of capitalism, it's a central feature.

Smith got right the fundamental principle we should apply: "The interest of the producer ought to be attended to only so far as it may be necessary for promoting that of the consumer." We also need to attend to the interests not only to that of the consumer or the producer, but also of the people, such as slaves or children, and the animals that are used in production but don't want to be.

In developing countries the great majority of the self-employed would love to have a job with a company, but none are available. So people have to make a living as solo farmers, merchants, or tradespeople.

An externality is a cost or a benefit that arises from a transaction, but does not go to the people directly involved in that transaction.

Markets do a lot of things spectacularly well, but they tend not to take care of externalities.

If pollution has a cost, companies will spend time and effort to lower it, just as they do all kinds of clever things to lower their spending on materials and resources. If pollution is costly instead of free, companies will work hard to depollute just as they work hard to dematerialize.

With most things demand goes down as prices go up, all other things being equal. But with Veblen goods, higher prices cause demand to go up. They are valued in large part because they're expensive.

The scientific evidence of the safety of GMO foods is overwhelming.

As people get wealthier, they demand cleaner air, land, and water. Capitalism alone won't provide these because pollution is an externality - a highly negative one. So a clean environment has to come from the laws and regulations of a responsive government.

As opportunities widen for people, as their incomes rise, for example, and their governments become less restrictive, they tend to support wider opportunities for others.

The evidence presented in Our World In Data and books like Julian Simon's "The Ultimate Resource," Bjorn Lomborg's "The Skeptical Environmentalist," Steven Pinker's "Enlightenment Now," and Hans Rosling's "Factfulness" shows clearly that most of the things we should care about are getting better.

The "tragedy of the commons" is a phenomenon named in a 1968 Science article by the ecologist Garrett Harden. Harden defined a commons as a shared resource, such as a pasture of a body of water. It is available to many but owned by none. Everyone has ample incentive to exploit the commons, by grazing cows in the pasture or taking fish from the water. But because no one owns it, no one has the incentive to protect or sustain it. So the strong tendency is to do the economically rational thing, which is to try to exploit it before it's stripped bare. As they do this, they help strip it bare.

Worldwide, over 20% of greenhouse gas emissions come from industry, 6% from buildings, 14% from transportation, 24% from agriculture, and 25% from electricity and heat production.

For all the things that competitive markets and voluntary exchange do well, they don't deal well with externalities. In fact, they often cause them.

Since 1800 the Earth's concentrations of atmospheric CO2 has increased from 283 ppm to 408 ppm in 2018.

The US has reduced its total CO2 emissions in recent years because of the huge rise of fracking. Burning natural gas releases much less CO2 per unit of energy than does burning coal.

Poverty pollutes, while affluence cleans up for its prior mistakes via public awareness and responsive government.

Capitalism and tech progress don't just lead to less people working in farms and factories, they also lead to less farms and factories in total.

It's not just that economic activity is concentrating geographically, it's also concentrating organizationally. All the work is being done by a smaller and smaller number of entities.

The two tectonic forces of globalization and tech progress are creating more winner take all or winner take most industries characterized by a few superstar companies and the rest zombies.

Inequality is not the same thing as unfairness.

Economic activities bring people together and build social capital. So as economic activity declines, so does social capital.

Objectively wrong and bad ideas can take hold in a social group once enough people believe them.

2 important aspects of technology:

  • Non-rival: If one company uses an idea, it doesn't get used up and is still available for others to use.

  • Partial excludability: Companies can kind of prevent others from using their ideas (patents, keeping secrets). Eventually the ideas spread and patents expire, so others can use them.

Tech progress supplies opportunities to trim costs and improve performance via dematerialization, and capitalism provides the motive to do so.

Economic growth is limited only by the idea-generating capacity of the people within a market. Romer called this capacity "human capital."

I recommend we focus on 7 key areas:

  1. Reducing pollution

  2. Reducing greenhouse gases

  3. Promoting nuclear energy

  4. Preserving species and habitats

  5. Promoting GMOs

  6. Funding basic research

  7. Promoting markets, competition, and work

Profit-seeking companies generate a lot of new ideas and technologies, but they tend to underinvest in areas where commercialization seems too unlikely of too far out. As a result, most economists agree that the government has a role to play in funding early stage and more speculative research, especially in domains where success can yield large benefits for our wellbeing.

The public, not government or business or technology, is the most important force shaping the health of our planet. This places a heavy obligation on us. The obligation not just to act, but to act in accordance with the facts. I believe by far the most important thing we can do for the planet is to inform ourselves and use the best available information to guide our actions and decisions.

Public awareness of nuclear power is broadly out of step with reality. Along with a carbon tax, nuclear energy should be part of the strategy to fight climate change.

In 2017 Google reached 100% renewable energy for all global operations.

One of my favorite examples of the approaches to human capital formation is 42, a technology academy founded by French entrepreneur Xavier Niel. All courses at 42 are free and in person rather than online. The school has no professional teachers or discrete courses. It relies entirely on peer learning and project-based learning. Admission is not based on prospective students' backgrounds or credentials, but instead only on their performance on a set of reasoning tests and an initial short course.

We continue to consume more, but our consumption is now dematerializing. We are entering the second enlightenment. But that's not the end of the story. Capitalism and tech progress won't by themselves deal with the negative externality of pollution and won't isolate vulnerable animals and ecosystems from market forces. To accomplish these critical goals, we need both responsive government and public awareness.

"We've sent robotic probes to every planet in this solar system. Earth is by far the best one." - Jeff Bezos


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