The New Story of Stuff: Can We Consume Less?

A new study finds that Britons are consuming less than they did a decade ago, with similar patterns being seen across Europe. Could this be the beginning of a trend in developed countries? Might we be reaching “peak stuff”?

Will rich societies start consuming less? Could wealth go green? Might parsimony become the new luxury? Heresy, surely, you would say. But it might just be possible.

Take Britain. A new study finds that the country that invented the industrial revolution two centuries ago reached “peak stuff” between 2001 and 2003. In the past decade, Britain has been consuming less water, building materials, paper, food (especially meat), cars, textiles, fertilizers and much else. Travel is down; so is energy production. The country produces less waste, too.

This analysis is not the product of data juggling by a free-market think tank. The author of the study is Chris Goodall, a fully-paid-up environmental activist and parliamentary candidate for Britain’s Green Party, but also a stat guzzler who once worked for McKinsey & Company. His books include How to Live a Low-Carbon Life.

The stats hold true even when you allow for the ecological footprint from the manufacture of imported goods. And, while the decline in resource use in Britain has accelerated since the economic crisis in 2008, the trend started long before the banking crisis. There was a decline in overall materials use of 4 percent between 2000 and 2007. So it cannot be attributed entirely to recession, and can be expected to survive economic recovery.

Brits still get through about 30 tons of stuff each per year. But the total is now back to the level in 1989. Goodall says economic growth in the UK over the past generation has not resulted in any increase in pollution. “The environment movement’s belief that growth makes all ecological problems worse may need to be re-examined,” he says.

In Europe, household energy consumption in 2009 was below the 2000 level.

What is so impressive is the wide sweep of resources that show very similar trends. Paper and board consumption is down 18 percent from a decade ago. In the same period fertilizer application to British fields has fallen 30 percent. Primary energy production fell 3 percent between the peak year of 2001 and 2007. Energy-guzzling cement manufacturing flat-lined for almost two decades, before crashing by a third since 2007. The calorie intake of Britons from food has been falling since the 1970s, though obesity is on the rise because people exercise less and do not burn off those calories.

Goodall says he believes he has glimpsed “fairly robust changes in long-term trends.” And this is not just about Britain. Similar trends are starting to emerge fitfully across Europe, where household energy consumption in 2009 was 9 percent below the 2000 level. France, Sweden, and The Netherlands were all down 15 percent.

Car purchases have been in long-term decline in the rich world for a couple of decades now, because cars last longer these days. But, more surprisingly, car use has also been declining since around 2004 in Germany, France, Australia, Sweden and Japan, as well as Britain.

Even in the United States, the capital of consumption, there are signs that something similar could be afoot. American truck mileage has been on a plateau for a decade now. The number of cars on American highways is also flat. And per-capita mileage is falling. As a result, gasoline consumption is expected to be at a 10-year low this year, according to the Department of Energy.

That’s only part of the story, of course. Unlike in Europe, Americans both eat more than their parents did AND take less exercise. You can see the results on almost every sidewalk. The only counter-trends are for saturated fats and red meat, which even Americans are laying off.

These big materials consumption numbers don’t include the water needed to run our households and grow our food. Each day, we consume in this way about a hundred times our own body weight in water. But domestic water use too has been on the decline in most advanced nations. In the U.S., it is down about 5 percent from the peak in the 1980s, in large part because of low-flush toilets.

What’s going on? Where has this megatrend come from? Is it real at all?

The study’s author says that the pace of ‘dematerialization’ may be speeding up.

Optimists such as Jesse Ausubel, director of the Program for the Human Environment at The Rockefeller University in New York, see a long-term and unstoppable trend that is the logical outcome of what economists call the environmental Kuznets curve, after its inventor Simon Kuznets. This suggests that as countries industrialize, they pass through an early “cheap and dirty” phase when they waste resources and generate massive pollution, but they pass a tipping point beyond which they begin to invest in using resources more efficiently.

Those advancing countries don’t initially use less. But there is a gradual decline in the amount of materials and energy it takes them to generate every dollar of gross domestic product (GDP). Ausubel calls this process “dematerialization.”

In the past, rising GDP has almost always camouflaged this dematerialization. For instance, since 1973, the U.S. economy has each year gotten an average of 2.8 percent more dollar value from each unit of energy consumed. But energy use has still been rising.

However, Goodall says that the pace of dematerialization may be speeding up. Some countries are now reaching the point where GDP and resource use decouple so much that they see actual reductions in materials and energy use. Ausubel inclines to that view. It’s still in the early days, he says, “but Goodall’s paper is potentially very significant, and jibes with our work and expectations on dematerialization.”

Maybe it is no surprise that the country that invented the industrial revolution got there first.

One theorist sees a new ‘culture of urbanism’ in which the young are less reliant on cars.

Some contest all this angrily. Tim Jackson, author of Prosperity Without Growth, says that while Goodall’s analysis provides an “essential starting point” to address the prospects for green growth, “the idea that the transition to a sustainable economy will emerge spontaneously by giving free reign to the market is patently false.”

According to Jackson, much of the wealth created in countries like Britain in recent years has come from exploiting global commodity markets, and thus was “directly responsible for the [ecological] crisis itself.” Goodall chides Jackson with “getting environmentalism mixed up with anti-capitalism.”

And what if the drivers are not just economic? British environmental author George Monbiot says that a coincidence between declining resource use and rising wealth may be just that — a coincidence. “A good deal of further research is needed before we can conclude that causation as correlation is at work here.”

So what else might be going on? Some see deep-seated cultural trends at work. The decline in car use in the United States is greatest among the young. The proportion of 17-year-old Americans with a driver’s licence has fallen from about three-quarters to a half since 1998. Richard Florida, an urban studies theorist at the University of Toronto, sees a new “culture of urbanism” in which online shopping, telecommuting, social media and walkable urban areas are reducing the reliance of the young on cars.

My own theory is that it could be partly the fallout from an aging society. The old tend to replace their household goods less frequently. And they don’t commute (though they may take more vacations). So it could be no coincidence that “peak car” happened first, in the 1990s, in the oldest society on Earth, Japan.

A pressing question is whether the apparent decoupling of economic growth and resource use is a result of something rather nastier — growing income inequalities. After all, if you give the rich more money they can invest it; if you give the poor more money they will be more likely to spend it. So if, as plenty of data suggests, the growing GDP is mostly going to the rich, then the chances of decoupling are far greater.

Whatever its origins, some are bound to see the decoupling as disproof of environmental nostrums. If it continues to take hold, we can be sure that plenty of cornucopians will claim victory in their battle with gloomy greens. “See,” they will jeer, “growth is both good and green.” But surely the more rational interpretation would be that it is at least as much a victory for the ceaseless campaigning of environmentalists to get us to change our lifestyles and develop resource-efficient technologies.

The one certainty, however, is that it doesn’t mean our planet’s problems are over. The majority of the world is still living on the wrong side of the Kuznets curve. Last year, according to the International Energy Agency, global carbon dioxide emissions rose by 5.8 percent, compared to a growth in global GDP of just 5.1 percent.

And China’s assault on the world’s resources continues apace. It consumes around 40 percent of the world’s cement and steel, some 30 percent of its rubber and coal.

Equally important, a lot of environmental impacts are cumulative. Even if we are destroying less rainforest each year, we are still reducing the amount of rainforest left for future generations.

Similarly, those carbon dioxide emissions accumulate in the atmosphere. We cannot escape our polluting past. China’s emissions of CO2 today may be the world’s largest (and 15 times those of Britain). But if you tagged every molecule of the gas in the atmosphere according to its origin, there would still be more up there from Britain than from China.

I am a Brit. For sure, we still have an outsize legacy of planetary destruction. Even so, as Goodall put it to me, “This country is probably the most ‘virtual’ and ‘dematerialized’ in the world… a possible exemplar.” Next year’s hosts of the Olympic Games may — just may — be leading the field in downsizing our ecological footprint.