Book review – More from Less: The Surprising Story of How We Learned to Prosper Using Fewer Resources – And What Happens Next

8-minute read

More from Less makes the optimistic case that our impact on the planet is diminishing. We are past “peak stuff” and thanks to continued technological innovation our economy is dematerializing. That is to say, economic growth has become decoupled from resource consumption. Or, as the title puts it succinctly, we are getting more from less.

I was initially sceptical when I learned of this book. My outlook on the state of the world is not nearly as optimistic. So, from the blurb’s counterintuitive claim that “we’ve stumbled into an unexpected balance with nature”, to Steven Pinker’s triumphant endorsement that those who think we’re doomed by overpopulation and resource depletion are wrong – I was ready to go bananas on this book. But I would be a poor reviewer if I let my prejudices get the better of me.

More From Less

More from Less: The Surprising Story of How We Learned to Prosper Using Fewer Resources – And What Happens Next, written by Andrew McAfee, published in Europe by Simon & Schuster in October 2019 (hardback, 352 pages)

More from Less starts with Andrew McAfee (a former Harvard Business School professor who is now a research scientist at the MIT Sloan School of Management) asking the reader to keep an open mind. He was initially sceptical too: surely, as our economies grow, we consume more resources? To understand how we got to believe this, he first provides some history and background. Starting, as one must, with Malthus’s famous Essay on the Principle of Population, McAfee highlights how population growth was kept in check by food supply for the longest time. Until it wasn’t. Malthus did not foresee all the technological advances that came during and after the Industrial Revolution: urbanisation, combustion engines, electricity, indoor plumbing (underappreciated, writes McAfee), plentiful synthetic fertiliser thanks to the Haber-Bosch process, and (thank you Norman Borlaug) the Green Revolution.

McAfee balances this by pointing out the dark side: the Industrial Revolution was achieved on the back of slavery, child labour, colonialism, pollution, and the wholesale extermination of animals. This ultimately led to concerns: Earth Day, Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb, the Club of Rome’s report The Limits to Growth (and its update), the IPAT equation (Impact = Population × Affluence × Technology), Jevons paradox (efficiency gains are often spent elsewhere, not reducing impact after all), Kenneth Boulding’s concept of Spaceship Earth… again, McAfee hits most of the relevant notes here.

For many decades, economical growth and resource consumption increased in lockstep with each other, until we hit what McAfee has earlier called the Second Machine Age, hinting at the power of computers. Since then, resource use has stabilised or decreased while the economy has kept growing, at least in the US. Examples discussed here include metals, agricultural input, wood, building materials such as sand and gravel, and energy consumption.

“For many decades, economical growth and resource consumption increased in lockstep with each other, until we hit what McAfee [calls] the Second Machine Age […]. Since then, resource use has stabilised or decreased while the economy has kept growing,”

McAfee sees four factors driving this dematerialization. First, unsurprisingly, technological progress, which has resulted in increased efficiency and reduced resource consumption when manufacturing goods. Second, capitalism, with competition encouraging companies to invent above technologies and cut costs by using less raw materials. The third, public awareness, refers to people’s willingness to embrace progress (the resistance to GMOs and nuclear power are given as examples of progress stalling when this does not happen). The fourth, responsive governments, means governments that are willing to listen (to their people, to new ideas), capable of governing and enforcing rules, and free from corruption. Democracies excel at this, argues McAfee.

The last part of the book then describes how these four factors have gone global, and what they have achieved. McAfee’s argumentation is again, in one word, balanced. Some achievements are good (increased health and wealth), others are a mixed blessing (urbanisation and fewer but larger companies), and some are worrying (a decline in so-called social capital: the disappearance of jobs has led to a feeling of disconnection in communities, especially in the US). Nor is he blind to the challenges ahead, such as climate change. Everything is not alright. But he thinks the way out is through. We need to step on the proverbial accelerator and spread all four drivers of dematerialization far and wide (though see Geoffrey West’s Scale for an interesting critique of whether this acceleration in technological breakthroughs can be maintained).

More from Less flows well, its chapters following logically on from each other. Despite my initial apprehension, I found much here to agree with. Like McAfee, I wholeheartedly support continued scientific research and technological development (I have written about GMOs and other biotech tools before). Still – and I take note here of his remarks about the power and persistence of negative thinking – I do not share his optimism to the same extent. My objections are threefold.

“Everything is not alright. But [McAfee] thinks the way out is through. We need to step on the proverbial accelerator and spread all four drivers of dematerialization far and wide.”

First, does the decrease in US resource consumption account for production that has moved overseas? McAfee mentions that US Geological Survey data on mineral consumption includes imports and exports, but I am not sure this is the same. A footnote says resources in finished goods are excluded but argues that, at 4% of the economy, they are negligible. I question whether that is a useful comparison in a service-industry-heavy economy such as the US. What percentage of all US goods does this represent? The scope of the data underlying other examples is less clear and McAfee does not clarify this point. A major theme of The Irresponsible Pursuit of Paradise was that developed countries smugly claim to have cleaned up their act when in reality they have shifted the burden of resource extraction to developing countries. As McAfee acknowledges, without sufficiently detailed data you cannot establish if dematerialization is a global or local phenomenon. And, given a globalised economy, we need to exclude the possibility it is an artefact of not doing your bookkeeping on resource extraction properly.

Second, some critical factors go unmentioned. So, the smartphone is held up as a shining (shiny?) example of capitalism giving us one device where there used to be many. But McAfee fails to mention that those very same companies have given us planned obsolescence, devices that cannot be easily repaired, and relentless marketing to push consumers into upgrading to the latest model. That negates much of your efficiency gains. And what of all the new wants and needs that capitalism has created? Another point: McAfee seems little concerned with the non-renewable nature of many resources – known reserves have increased because we are looking harder. “Earth is finite […] but also very, very big […] The image of a thinly supplied Spaceship Earth […] is deeply misleading” (p.120-121). Putting aside for a moment the question of whether this justifies ever-more intrusive extraction techniques such as mountain-top removal and deep-sea mining, there is no mention here of the hard limit imposed by Energy Returned on Energy Invested, a concept discussed in Ugo Bardi’s Extracted. Not all of a resource can be economically exploited. McAfee will likely reply that this holds until innovation overcomes this – we have underestimated its power before. And although Earth Day features here, there is no mention of the concept of humanity’s ecological footprint and Earth Overshoot Day (which has been criticised, but if anything is an underestimate), or the framework of planetary boundaries developed by Johan Rockström and colleagues. It seems unlikely that a former Harvard professor is not aware of these factors.

“Dematerialization is worth pursuing, but I am not convinced it is a panacea – [our impact] is a complex problem for which there is no single silver bullet.”

Third and final point: although McAfee’s argument seems logical, I am concerned it is too little, too late. To understand this, let’s return to the IPAT equation (Impact = Population × Affluence × Technology). McAfee’s book revolves around reducing Technology. Population is still increasing but a plateau is in sight. As mentioned in my review of Empty Planet, I do think current numbers already have an outsized environmental impact, so the questions posed in Should We Control World Population? remain on the table for me. That leaves Affluence, which is increasing rapidly globally. Eileen Crist’s call in Abundant Earth for scaling down and pulling back seems apt here. Given the above, you would need manifold efficiency gains from dematerialization just to keep Impact constant, let alone decrease it. More caution, as expressed by Vaclav Smil in Making the Modern World, seems warranted. Dematerialization is worth pursuing, but I am not convinced it is a panacea – Impact is a complex problem for which there is no silver bullet.

Overall then, More from Less highlights an interesting phenomenon and I found quite a few things in McAfee’s outlook to agree with. However, some curious omissions make me question how much of a saviour dematerialization really is.


Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

You can support this blog using below affiliate links, as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases:

McAfee’s More from Less paperback, hardback, ebook, audiobook or audio CD

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:

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