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Here at Divergent, we are all about decreasing the carbon footprint. However, in this complicated, globalized world it can be difficult to tell if a new product or manufacturing method truly reduces. In Making The Modern World, Vaclav Smil, esteemed academic and data scientist, thoroughly unpacks the distinction between relative, and absolute dematerialization. What truly helps us consume less? What only appears to do so?


By and large, we have made incredible strides in the last two hundred years in regards to material efficiency. As a result, it is possible for us to produce and consume products while using fewer resources per unit. The goods we consume are better, faster, lighter, stronger. They require fewer raw goods to produce, a fact that seemingly gives hope to those concerned with unsustainable consumption. Unfortunately, rising population growth combined with an increased standard of living means that this trend does not translate into diminished resource use. In fact, it often has the opposite effect. People simply buy more of the cheapened product. The dematerialization is relative, not absolute. Less is, in fact, more. Further the complicated nature of the modern manufacturing process (from resource production to globalization) makes it hard to suss out real reduction.

Though the more casual reader may be daunted by the wealth of information, the nuances of the work are well worth the struggle. Uninterested in fear-mongering generalizations, Smil lends credibility to his conclusions. Readers are informed not only of what studies are used, but also of the methods used to gather data as well as of the existence of contradictory information. Numbers abound. He is sometimes ridiculously thorough. Before Smil can even presume to critique modern consumption, he must lay out what resources he will talk about and why, and also chronicle all of human economic history.

As Smil dives into the intricacies of consumerism, it becomes clear just how complicated (and often counterintuitive) the process of production can be. Energy costs, abundance, and life-cycle analysis must be considered. For instance, creating polyester requires more energy than harvesting cotton, but the cloth is easier to manufacture, and deteriorates less quickly; thus, polyester ends up with the advantage. Some materials are easy to produce, but carry hidden, long-term costs. Used extensively post-1990, concrete deteriorates quickly, meaning that we will face an unprecedented burden post-2030, when concrete structures begin to fail. Meanwhile, plastic refuses to break down. Recycling can be hugely effective, particularly for some materials such as aluminum, but is not as widely implemented as it should be. Therefore, before we condemn or laud any one product as contributing (or not) to dematerialization, we must consider all related factors.

Meanwhile, globalization creates some confusing trends that seem at first to suggest less consumption. Sadly, it soon becomes clear that this apparent trend is merely a case of outsourcing. In the developed world, there has been a gradual decoupling of GDP with total material consumption. There has been some serious deindustrialization leading to this decline in energy intensity (aka the cost of converting energy into GDP). However, this fact becomes less impressive when we account for the energy needed to produce the growing mass of imports. While we may look like we are extracting fewer resources, we are simply letting someone else do the dirty work.

Finally, there are four manufacturing principles that do result in a reduction of material and energy cost, at least initially: 1) gradual improvements that do not involve new materials, 2) substitutions of constituent materials with lighter or more durable alternatives; 3) intensified recycling; 4) new devices that perform the desired functions using only a fraction of the mass. Indeed, we have used these principles to reduce the materials required for producing everything from beverage cans to jetliners, preventing truly unimaginable levels of environmental degradation. For example, in 2010, it took 20% of the energy needed in 1900 to make steel. Unfortunately, even following or trying to follow these principles rarely results in a global reduction.

First off, there are many instances where people believe they are reducing, but are merely substituting. For example, while some misguided souls may think they are being good citizens by going paperless, they are in fact using the same amount of resources because computers use more energy. Then there is the aforementioned case of relative materialism. Here, the product has been successfully dematerialized, but this effect is negated as more people flock to buy it. Making something for less typically leads to falling costs and more appealing products, increased availability and spikes in consumption. Additionally, while new products may weigh less, they often require higher energy inputs to make.

Let’s take a closer look at cars. Technological developments lead to an vastly improved power/mass ratio (there was a 93% reduction in the last 90 years) but this improvement was more than negated by increased rate of ownership, higher average power, and larger vehicles. In 1920, there were fewer than 8 cars per 100 people; in 2011, the number of cars ballooned to 80. Moreover, people began demanding bigger, faster cars, which they drove for longer distances, increasing fuel consumption, as well the cost of car depreciation and maintenance, not to mention the need for more road repairs. Today the average per capita mass of American vehicles is more than 30-fold compared to 1920. Additionally, cars are often produced overseas; factories in China assemble our gas guzzlers before shipping our products across the ocean.

So what does this mean for Divergent? After doing a life-cycle analysis, it turns out that a car like the Blade is one of the few examples of a product capable of causing aggregate dematerialization. Not only is it lighter and requires less energy to build (from the production of its raw materials to its subsequent environmental effects) but is also unlikely to cause a boom in consumption. Finally, it can be made locally so that when energy intensity declines, we can be sure that we are not simply outsourcing. Vaklov Smil might be proud—after all he himself points out that 3D printing is the most efficient way of creating a structure.

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