Efficient chickens, less stuff, more optimism: The real way to address climate change

What is dematerialisation, and why does it matter?

by Paul Simpson
Last Updated: 24 Feb 2020

What is dematerialisation? 

It’s a term coined by MIT Sloan scientist Andrew McAfee to describe the fact that humanity is learning to do more using less.

McAfee agrees that “human-made global warming is real and bad” and requires urgent action, but argues that we don’t need to make radical changes, just do more of the good stuff we are already doing. 

Climate change, he argues, can be addressed through technological progress, capitalism, public awareness and optimism.

Surely technology is encouraging us to consume more? 

Yes and no. For many people, one pocket-sized smartphone has replaced the alarm clock, torch, DVD and CD. McAfee was inspired by Jesse Ausubel’s essay The Return of Nature: How Technology Liberates The Environment, published in the Breakthrough Journal in 2015.

Ausubel found that, in America, petroleum consumption per head peaked decades ago, plastic use per capita has been in decline since 1990 and farmers have more than quadrupled the amount of corn they produce from a unit of land since 1930. And then there are the efficient chickens.

Efficient chickens? 

Ausubel calculates that chickens are five times as environmentally efficient as cattle – and 50 per cent more efficient than pigs – so chicken’s growing share of the meat market is good for the planet.

This sounds suspiciously like the kind of "meretricious cherry picking" Malcolm Gladwell is criticised for... 

Not really, Ausubel and his colleagues studied the use of 100 commodities in the US between 1900 and 2010. They found that 36 had peaked in terms of absolute use, 53 have peaked relative to the size of the economy and only 11 were still growing in terms of absolute use and relative to the economy. One of the 11 was the chicken.

Does that mean the World Economic Forum, which has recently published a gloomy report about food and land, is wrong? 

In a way, yes, according to McAfee. In his view, the forecasts do not allow for what Abraham Lincoln called the “fuel of self-interest to the fire of genius”.

We changed our behaviour in the past – and can do so in the future, especially if technology can help us use fewer atoms by using more bits.

This piece was first published in the December 2019 print edition of Management Today.

Image credit: Leon Neal / Staff via Getty

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