• December 7, 2021

Why Degrowth Is the Worst Idea on the Planet

Material footprint models estimate the total weight of all the materials disturbed by humans around the world as they produce the goods they eventually consume. All of the ores mined to make metal, the rock quarried to make gravel, the sand scooped up to make glass and microchips—all of these are estimated by country by year in the material footprint calculation framework.

A nation’s material footprint, then, is always higher than its direct material consumption (DMC). This is straightforward enough. What’s puzzling is that according to “The Material Footprint of Nations,” some rich countries are seeing their footprint go up even as their consumption goes down. The paper shows that many countries are now dematerializing. DMC has been trending downward for some time in the US, UK, and Japan and may recently have peaked for the European Union and OECD as a whole. Yet in all these cases, the material footprint continues to rise.

How can this be? It’s not because the material footprint models do a better job than the USGS of accounting for the metals and other materials in finished goods imports. The technical annex for the global material flows database notes that, as is the case with the USGS tallies, “complex manufactured items are largely excluded.” Instead, the paper notes, “the main reason in most cases was increased indirect use of (dependency on) construction materials.”

This is problematic, because those materials are so poorly tracked. As the appendix states, “Many countries have no data on extraction of non-metallic minerals primarily used for construction … When they are available, they are often unreliable, partial, and underreported.” It’s a poor strategy to use sparse, low-quality data to overturn conclusions based on uniform, high-quality data, yet this is what Hickel is doing when he argues that material footprint calculations show dematerialization is an illusion.

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There’s one other serious problem with this argument. It’s based largely on the estimated “raw material equivalents” of Chinese exports of construction minerals, yet China is not at all a big exporter of these minerals. Instead, China’s main exports are electrical and mechanical machinery, plastics, furniture, apparel, and vehicles. None of these contain a lot of sand, gravel, stone, or clay.

So then how do such huge quantities of these and other construction minerals end up somehow being counted among China’s exports? Because China is building a lot of factories, railroads, highways, and other industrial infrastructure each year. The materials footprint calculation framework estimates how much tonnage of construction minerals all this building requires, then allocates about one third of this tonnage to exports. So by this logic, the smartphones and solar panels the US imported from China in, say, 2018 “contain” some of the stone and gravel used to build up China that year. By that same logic, if my neighbors bring me a cake the same year they renovate their house, then my consumption of lumber, drywall, and copper pipe goes up as soon as I have a slice.

Hickel doesn’t stand on any firmer ground when he moves from conclusions to recommendations. He has often claimed that 50 billion tons is the maximum weight of global resource extraction that Earth can sustainably handle and that we’re already well past this limit. In the face of this alleged crisis, he maintains that “the only fail-safe strategy is to impose legally binding caps on resource use and gradually ratchet it back down to safe levels.” However, the paper he cites to support his views contains a frank admission: “There is still no hard scientific evidence of causal relationship between human-induced resource flows and the possible breakdown of life-supporting functions at continental or global scale from which … targets [like a 50 billion ton limit] could directly be derived.” Before taking the unprecedented step of setting up a central resource planning bureaucracy, it doesn’t seem like too much to ask for hard scientific evidence that it’s actually necessary.

Let’s Keep Climbing

Throughout our history, we humans have been climbing a difficult path toward longer, healthier, more prosperous lives. As we climbed that path, we turned the environment around it brown and gray. Our mania for growth was in many ways bad news for the planet we all live on.

Recently, however, we have figured out how to make our path a green one, how to continue to grow while reducing our impact on Earth. The world’s richest countries are also putting more land and water under conservation, reintroducing native species into ecosystems from which they had been hunted into oblivion, and improving Earth in many other ways.

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