Deconsumption Versus Dematerialization

How to protect the environment by doing more with less


"How much do you agree or disagree with the following statement: We'd all be better off if we consumed less." That's a survey item reported in a new study by University of Oregon researcher Ezra Markowitz and Tom Bowerman of the Eugene, Oregon-based environmental polling and policy shop, PolicyInteractive. Their study, "How Much Is Enough? Examining the Public's Beliefs About Consumption," is in the current issue of the journal Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy.

In five polls of Oregonians and one national survey, they find 74 to 80 percent of respondents "support reducing consumption and believe doing so would improve societal and individual well-being." Markowitz and Bowerman interpret their poll results as challenging "conventional wisdom about our collective and never-ending need for consumption of material goods." Armed with these poll results they hope to persuade policy makers that Americans are ready to "deconsume" for the sake of the environment, cutting back purchases of material goods, and especially reducing their emissions of greenhouse gases.

Digging deeper in one poll, Markowitz and Bowerman found that 84 percent agreed that cutting consumption would "be better for the earth," 67 percent agreed that we would then have more time to spend with family and friends, and 84 percent believed lowering consumption would lead to greater self-reliance. But talk is cheap, especially when answering pollsters' questions. So the researchers sensibly probed further with a poll [registration required] that asked respondents to choose among several different public policy proposals aimed at cutting consumption. It's worth going through their results.

The Oregonians polled, it turns out, are not all that eager to tax their own consumption. Majorities were against a luxury tax on houses bigger than 2,500 square feet or costing more than $300,000 (62 percent opposed); a tax on houses bigger than 5,000 square feet and costing $500,000 (50 percent opposed); a 10 cent per gallon gasoline tax (63 percent opposed); a program to tax energy when its price is low and invest the funds in conservation (64 percent opposed); charging a one cent fee for each kilowatt hour consumed once a household consumes $100 of energy in a month (71 percent opposed); a luxury fee on second homes (56 percent opposed); a $1,000 new vehicle tax on cars that get fewer than 25 miles per gallon (62 percent opposed); and a one cent per mile carbon tax on airplane travel (58 percent opposed).

These results mirror similar findings in a June 2010 national poll [PDF] by the Institute for Energy Research which found that 70 percent of respondents opposed any new energy taxes aimed at reducing dependence on foreign oil or reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The same poll found that 61 percent opposed any increase in gasoline taxes. In another politically liberal state, Massachusetts, a January 2010 poll asked about residents' support for the Cape Wind energy project. The pollsters found that "while 42 percent of respondents are less likely to support the Cape Wind project if their bill increased by $50 per year, this percentage increases to 67 percent at the $100 increase per year threshold and to 78 percent at the $150 increase per year threshold."

Markowitz and Bowerman found that Oregonians were, however, happy to cut the consumption of the rich, favoring a 5 percent luxury tax on private yachts, airplanes, and motor homes (61 percent for). In addition, 76 percent are for utility rates structured so that the per unit charge goes up with increased energy consumption; 75 percent approve of making energy efficiency standards on new buildings stricter, and 57 percent favor boosting automobile fuel efficiency standards.

Taking into account the fact that their poll respondents don't seem much interested in policies aimed at encouraging deconsumption, Markowitz and Bowerman mildly observe that other policy avenues besides taxing consumption might be more fruitfully pursued. They suggest publicity campaigns. "If consuming less of nonessential goods and services is beneficial or necessary for long-term survival of our species, then it seems it would be prudent to publicize the widely held 'consume less' disposition," they write. They hope that if people knew that their neighbors favored deconsumption, a cultural shift in attitudes would lead to lower consumption.

Markowitz and Bowerman define deconsumption simply in terms of making do with less. In other words, deconsumption means becoming materially poorer. They view increased material poverty as necessary to protect the natural world from a rapacious humanity. But if using less somehow protects the environment, wouldn't using less to produce more do so as well?

Jesse Ausubel, director of the Program for the Human Environment at Rockefeller University and Paul Waggoner at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, show that the world economy is increasingly using less to produce more. They call this process "dematerialization." By dematerialization, they mean declining consumption of energy or goods per unit of GDP. In a 2008 article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Ausubel and Waggoner, using data from 1980 to 2005, show that the world is on a dematerialization binge, wringing ever more value from less material. It turns out that dematerialization achieves many of the same environmental goals as deconsumption.

Ausubel and Waggoner demonstrate that the global economy dematerialized (got more outputs from fewer inputs) steadily in the production of crops, use of fertilizer and wood, and carbon dioxide emissions. For example, while global per capita income rose by 40 percent between 1980 and 2005, farmers around the world raised crop yields 57 percent. Had farming productivity remained stuck at the 1980 level, farmers would have had to plow down an additional 1 billion hectares (about half the land area of the U.S. and six times current U.S. cropland) to produce the amount of food grown in 2005. Instead cropland expanded by less than 100 million hectares and farmers so boosted their productivity that they could produce the same amount of crops on only 60 percent of the amount of land they used in 1980. 

The world economy emitted more carbon dioxide in 2005 than it did in 1980, but nearly 30 percent less than it would have had emissions grown at the same rate as the world economy grew. Using European Carbon Exchange prices per ton of carbon dioxide, Ausubel and Waggoner calculate that this dematerialized carbon would be worth nearly $400 billion dollars per year.

How far might dematerialization go? In earlier work, Ausubel and Waggoner calculated that if the average productivity of the world's farmers were raised to the current level of productivity of a corn farmer in Iowa, a world of 10 billion people could be fed an American diet on about half the farmland being used now. This means that an area the size of Amazonia could revert to nature. Similarly, energy production could dematerialize as well. Ausubel and Waggoner show that between 1980 and 2005 a French consumer enjoyed 50 percent more affluence but used only 20 percent more energy. In addition, switching electricity production from coal to nuclear power dematerialized each French consumer's annual carbon emissions by a ton.

Not all trends are toward dematerialization. For example, between 1980 and 2005, China used a lot more cement per capita as its citizens increasingly could afford and then demanded better housing. But this is a one-time building boom that will subside as Chinese housing stock and infrastructure reaches modern standards.

Oddly, many ideological environmentalists favor highly material-intensive ways to produce food and fuel. For example, organic agriculture uses more crop land than conventional farming, and current versions of solar and wind power production occupy a lot of land and take more material to build than do conventional power plants.

Ausubel and Waggoner conclude, "If consumers dematerialize their intensity of use of goods and technicians produce the goods with a lower intensity of impact, people can grow in numbers and affluence without a proportionally greater environmental impact." As long as market-driven technological progress is allowed to proceed, taxing and hectoring people into increased material poverty is not necessary to protect the natural world. And as polls show, people won't put up with it anyway.

Reason's Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey is author of Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution (Prometheus Books).