Are we saving the planet in spite of ourselves?
So here’s a provocative idea that sounds nuts, but is totally true — we appear to be reaching Peak Stuff, on a planetary scale. Hidden in plain sight, macro downward trends in the amount of stuff owned, used, and consumed are re-writing the reality around just how much material humans are using, even with rising populations. The slump is especially true in western democracies. Simply put, the ways we’re living now mean we don’t need as much physical stuff as we used to, nor the supply lines that provided it.
This change is being driven by the “three D’s” — our lives are being decluttered, densified, and decoupled.
And while these changes are causing disruptions in the economic world, they’re also having powerfully positive effects in the natural world, something that’s getting lost in all the impacts of climate change. Put bluntly, our modern ways of life may not be just killing the planet; in some ways they’re helping it recover.
Adios To All Of This
The first big trend to talk about is decluttering, aka decommodification, aka getting rid of your stuff. You probably caught a whiff of this recently, when millions who read this Japanese book about tidying up their lives by removing unneeded things were soon dumping everything they own in a pile, saving only their most cherished and useful items.
But that’s only a symptom, not the cause. The underlying driver is this: for the first time in history, we have two generations downsizing at once. Both Baby Boomers and Millennials are either getting rid of or not getting stuff in the first place.
for the first time in history, we have two generations downsizing at once.
The why is complex. Obviously, Baby Boomers downsizing makes sense, as the largest generation in US history begins unwinding their lifetime of acquisitions, shaped during a period of unprecedented wealth (to their chagrin, they’re also often times learning their kids don’t value their stuff the way they do.)
For milennials, coming of age in a time of both an uncertain job market as well as the rise of the shared and gig economy, owning a whole bunch of stuff doesn’t make sense. Being able to move from one opportunity/place to another quickly, on the other hand, holds a lot of appeal ( hence the thousands of Pinterest boards devoted to Sprinter van conversions ).
Even for the Van Life faithful, the rise of ride hail services like Uber and Lyft makes the point of owning a vehicle, in urban areas anyway, more hassle than its worth. And with the pending arrival of autonomous electric vehicles running on renewable energy ( read a lot more about that here), it’s no wonder kids today aren’t even getting drivers license, down from 80% in the 1980’s to less than 60% today. Which perhaps explains why the number of households owning cars is going down, for the first time in decades.
All of this downsizing means one thing — a lot less stuff is getting used.
Crowded Cities, Empty Fields
The second big trend has to do with densifying, in which space and return are no longer linear, being driven by two big shifts in where we live and and how we make our food.
First, cities. We are dramatically shifting from rural areas into cities, all over the world. In 1950, about 30% of earth’s population lived in cities. By 2008, it was 50%, and by 2050 it’s expected to be 70%. Which means we no longer need as much space to house and employ the same number of people. This is actually a good thing — cities are far more efficient ways to deliver goods and services, due to network effects, and smart city design can make them even better.
Next, farms. We’re also no longer needing as much space, or resources, to grow our food. Ever increasing efficiencies in farming have densified production unrelated to acreage; we are getting so much more out of the same space, some might reasonably wonder if we have already also reached “peak farmland.”
Your Kingdom In Your Pocket
The third and biggest trend is the one you already know about intuitively- that use is being decoupled from consumption, meaning that while people are still using an ever expanding list of tools ( say, calendars, cameras, and calculators), they’re not purchasing and using those physical devices anymore. Instead, they’re buying a single object that replaces all of them, and dozens more. Put simply, we can now fit in our pocket the huge piles of stuff that used to fill our living rooms and offices.
Put simply, we can now fit in our pocket the huge piles of stuff that used to fill our living rooms and offices.
Less Is Less
To see the three D’s in effect, you need only examine the use of raw materials — just how much physical material is being used worldwide. Jesse Ausubel has been doing exactly that, tracking the actual use of the top 100 commodities over the last several decades. The results are remarkable: of the top 100 commodities in use globally, 89 are either flat, or going down in absolute terms.
of the top 100 commodities in use globally, 89 are either flat, or going down in absolute terms.
First in a Long Now talk, and then in more detail at the Bureau of Economic Geology, Ausubel makes the overwhelming case that the use of stuff has already peaked in the US and other western countries, and will soon in China and India.
the use of stuff has already peaked in the US and other western countries, and will soon in China and India.
Having your whole kingdom in your pocket may not be so good for all the factories that used to make the dozens of things they replaced, nor the people who used to work there. It is, however, unquestionably good for the planet.
Where The Wild Things Are
When all of these trends — decluttering, densifiying, and decoupling — begin to converge, something completely unexpected occurs: Nature is rebounding. Fast.
All over the developed planet, wilderness is returning, as lands once occupied by towns and farms are left to return to their natural state. In the areas of the former Soviet Union, for example, an area the size of Belarus has already been returned to wilderness. Bison ( known as aurochs) have returned to Poland. There are salmon in the Seine and Rhine.
It’s happening here, too — total forested area is increasing in every single one of the lower 48 states. And it’s only beginning; if Ausubel’s trends hold out, an area the size of India will be rewilded within 50 years.
if Ausubel’s trends hold out, an area the size of India will be rewilded within 50 years.
Now, of course there are exceptions; India for example is still growing fast. But China seems to be winding down their crash course in urbanization (yielding a huge debt bubble, great new trains and freeways, and a lot of creepy ghost cities ) and has stopped building new coal plants.
Exceptions aside, the fact remains-these macro trends are tipping the balance, if not back then at least not tipping the scale to doomsday.
Hitting Pause On The Doomsday Calendar
Case in point — you’ve probably heard the theory about how we would need almost two earths to supply all the resources we need? Well starting exactly coincidentally with the release of the iPhone, the “overshoot day” ( aka the day in the year we use up more that earth has as resources ) has flat lined, exactly matching Ausubel’s analysis. For the last decade, for the first time in history since the 1960’s, our overshoot day isn’t getting worse. It’s not getting better, but it’s not getting worse.
for the first time in history since the 1960’s, our overshoot day isn’t getting worse.
To be sure, these trends will have downsides. There are a lot of factories in the US that used to make things that are now empty. Increased urbanization combined with farming efficiency means as rural areas get hollowed out, many small communities will get pushed past the tipping point. Some towns in the Midwest will take the double whammy of self driving trucks bypassing their highway side service economies, driving right past in electric vehicles that also will no longer need the corn-based ethanol grown in the surrounding fields.
But after a relentless torrent of doomsday stories about climate change, it’s nice to learn that, perhaps, there are a few bright glimmers of good news out there in the dark clouds. Maybe less is more, after all.
- This is the second of three pieces I’m writing summarizing some interesting macro trends I’m coming across, while transitioning from my former to my next job. (The first was about the rise of self driving electric cars, you can and should read it The third is about the decline of retail and social interactions.) If you liked this piece, please click the heart button and share on social media. And if you’re looking for someone with a passion for action on clean energy and climate combined with business development, analytic, and communication skills, we should talk — I’m especially interested in the ACES space. Learn more at LinkedIN, or email tomwprice (at ) gmail dot com. and thanks for your interest.