Environment

Can technology deliver sustainability?

Can technology deliver sustain...
Due to improved efficiency over the years, transistors now require much less silicon to make, and yet our global silicon consumption continues to increase
Due to improved efficiency over the years, transistors now require much less silicon to make, and yet our global silicon consumption continues to increase
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Due to improved efficiency over the years, transistors now require much less silicon to make, and yet our global silicon consumption continues to increase
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Due to improved efficiency over the years, transistors now require much less silicon to make, and yet our global silicon consumption continues to increase

Over time, technological progress results in products that use less energy, are more compact and use up fewer raw materials. Does this add up to enough resource savings to make life on Earth more sustainable? A new study from MIT has examined modern technology through the lens of a 150-year-old economic theory of efficiency and resource consumption – and in almost all cases, the benefits of reducing required resources is cancelled out by the increase in consumer demand for them.

The idea that consumer demand will always outpace gains in efficiency is far from new. It dates back to 1865, when improvements to steam engines reduced the amount of coal they required, and conventional wisdom held that overall coal consumption should, logically, go down. But to the contrary, economist William Stanley Jevons suggested that the resulting increase in consumer demand would instead drive overall coal consumption up. He didn't believe that the progress of technology alone could be counted on for society to "dematerialize," or reduce the amount of resources consumed. The effect became known as Jevons' Paradox.

Dematerialization is an important ecological consideration, and the MIT team wanted to test how well some of today's products were tracking. Transistors, for example, have improved to a dizzying degree over the past few decades, thanks to steady improvements to the silicon-based semiconductors at their core. But rather than decrease worldwide use of silicon, having smaller and more efficient transistors instead increased the amount of devices that could be created, like smartphones and tablets, and silicon consumption exploded, up 345 percent since the 1970s.

"Despite how fast technology is racing, there's actually more silicon used today, because we now just put more stuff on, like movies, and photos, and things we couldn't even think of 20 years ago," says Christopher Magee, one of the study's authors. "So we're still using a little more material all the time."

To study the effects of Jevons' Paradox, the team developed a model to weigh up the opposing forces of dematerialization and consumer demand, and by applying it to a series of products, services, materials and components, determine whether resource consumption was increasing or decreasing for each of those goods.

The team's equation takes into account variables like population and economic growth over time, how regularly a given product will advance technologically, and how much consumer demand for a product varies in relation to its price. They fed data from 57 different resources into their model, including chemicals like ammonia, formaldehyde, styrene and polyester fiber, and technologies like transistors, hard drives, laser diodes, crude oil, aluminum and devices to capture energy from solar and wind sources.

Although almost all of those materials had been subject to technological advances made over the years, the researchers couldn't find one instance of true dematerialization. Wool came close, with its use dropping significantly in recent years, but the researchers argue that it isn't a result of improved efficiency of wool products, but the substitution of other materials, like nylon and polyester.

Other materials declined in use for other reasons: things like asbestos and thallium are no longer used widely, but that's more a result of discovered health issues and subsequent government intervention, rather than any advances in technology. The researchers conclude that, as Jevons suggested, technology alone isn't enough to put us on the path to a sustainable future.

"What it's going to take is much more difficult than just letting technological change do it," says Magee. "Social and cultural change, people talking to each other, cooperating, might do it. That's not the way we're going right now, but that doesn't mean we can't do it."

The research is published in the journal Technological Forecasting and Social Change.

Source: MIT

10 comments
Robert Walther
Technology better work, otherwise the only solution is for billions to die horribly.
Daishi
"and in almost all cases, the benefits of reducing required resources is cancelled out by the increase in consumer demand for them." You know we could look at this and come to exactly the same conclusion about automation putting people out of jobs when for all of human history efficiency gains have been met with an equal or greater increase in demand. At one point in the not so distant history nearly all people were farmers and now only a few people are but when was the last time someone told you if you can't be a farmer all that's left is unemployment? I feel like the findings here are in stark opposition to the people who are convinced we will need universal basic income because pretty soon efficiency gains will have us all in search of jobs.
Winterbiker
Here is a link to further reading on the subject. Pretty sobering for anyone who believes that technology will save us. http://www.davidowen.net/david_owen/the-conundrum.html
habakak
Daishi....fully agree. People are way too pessimistic. People don't learn from Malthus's mistake. The key is abundant, cheap and renewable energy with the ability to recycle everything we produce. It won't happen today or in 100 years even. But as time goes on we are producing more energy and finally we are producing more clean and renewable energy. And as energy get cheaper and people become more environmentally conscious (the vast majority of people in the world are not - a few hundred million in developed countries are and maybe another few hundred million in the developing world - the rest of the world might as well still live in caves when it comes to the environment) it will become more economically viable and socially unacceptable to not recycle. It won't happen overnight, but possibly in 100 or 200 years we can get much closer to that goal. Electrification of the economy (powered by renewable energy) already goes a long way to clean up our mess. Renewable energy has very little marginal cost (and the capital costs is still decreasing and will so for the foreseeable future) which makes energy cheaper. Energy is key to everything. Making our energy production clean and consistently cheaper opens up any possibility. Energy today might seem expensive. But in comparison to how much energy we have at our disposal relative to the income at our disposal, energy now cost a fraction of a percent of what it cost 100 years ago and thousands times cheaper than 200 years ago.
habakak
Winterbiker....I looked into the below. So many problems with how this guys spins things. For instance the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. We are not spilling the oil we consume. Yes, it releases GHG, but it's vastly different from a spill. So he spins it. Also. He refers to the minuscule contribution of solar and wind right now. It took half a century for steam engines and coal power to viably affect the economy and our lifestyles. Same with oil and the ICE. We are just starting the renewable energy transition. It will require another 40 to 45 years to clean up our energy systems. Don't look at where solar and wind is now. Look at 40 or 50 years from now. So he spins it. He knows better, but spinning a yarn is what sells books. He is informed enough to know what I'm saying, but he knows most people think short term and don't see the future. The premise of consuming less is laughable. Life is still brutish for a lot of people and we will continue to consume more for a long time to come. However with renewable energy we can recycle more and if we get to a high level of recycle ability, we can consume 100 times of what we consume today. Or 1000 times. Everything we do is still terribly inefficient. Drip irrigation for instance can save 99% of the water we use today to grow crops. Eventually meant will be produced in labs (think about the inefficiencies of raising a 500 pound cow to only eat 100 pounds of it), grow crops that can photosynthesize 10 times more sunlight, live in buildings that generate all it's own renewable energy, have fully renewable powered transportation systems (by land, air or sea for ALL transportation), recycling of 90% of what we use, etc. We have unlimited water on the planet. Fresh water is barely 3% of the total water on the planet. With abundant renewable energy we can desalinate the unlimited amount of water in the oceans. There are unlimited amounts of everything in the universe - we will eventually inhabit other planets through terra-forming. As long as you receive some energy from a star that is not too close or too far. The only problem is we do not have the technology to put it to use. Look at how far we've come in the last 200 years (before the Industrial revolution we were limited to muscle power and a bit of water and wind power). David Owen is short-sighted and alarmist.
BilB
Reducing resource consumption is an essential component of our future survival. Some technologies, while increasing resource consumption in their own field, dramatically reduce consumption in others. The most notable of these is the smart phone and the smart tablet. How? The creation of social media has provided a means to absorb huge amounts of peoples time and in the so doing has altered people's, younger people's, consumption demand simply by giving those participants something non resource consumptive to do. So rather than being out using fuel, buying physical entertainments, or shopping in general, they are consuming their time communicating, reading, viewing, commenting, game playing, writing, creating, producing, etc, all electronically in a very low energy and low resource consumption manner. Another technology that is beginning to impact on resource consumption is 3D printing, and it is achieving this in several ways. One is that the material required to make things has been reduced to the absolute minimum, and they are built near the point of consumption. The other is that overproduction can in the future be reduced ie production becomes more demand pull rather than supply push. And a third is that 3D printing has the ability to extend the life of other consumer items such as cars where spare parts shortages can be solved with data based production as required thereby encouraging refurbishment and reducing the pressure to scrap larger items. This will become more important as electric vehicles with considerably longer useful lives than ICE powered vehicles become the norm. Businesses focused on refitting and recycling vehicles will flourish, I predict. I think the conlusion drawn by the MIT team is I believe perhaps true at present, but not true for the future. The renewable technologies that will allow us to minimise our environmental footprint while maintaining a modern technological life style are only now being developed.
JoeSTERN
For at least 200 years we have repeatedly been warned that we are running out of resources and that machines are taking our jobs away. There are now many more of us and we are finding, and in some cases creating, resources faster than we can use them and there are enough jobs to keep most of us working, including many job categories that did not even exist a generation ago. 200 years from now I expect the situation will be similar.
DragiRaos
OK, so, for example, technological advances in semiconductor and mass storage gets offset by us storing countless movies, personal video clips, photographs and documents there. But, surely, that caused diminished use of photochemical film and paper and chemicals used to develop them, for example. We should look at the big picture, not individual segments in isolation.
LarryStevens
Solar and wind consume a lot of resources to manufacture. Once we get fusion energy, that basically ends. Cheap clean energy will change so many things. Everything will go electric and we'll stop beating up the planet to get stuff to burn. Electric robocars are going to get vastly less material consuming. Car ownership will plummet and some variety of uber will provide local transportation. Those vehicles will largely be much simpler and lighter because they won't need all the safety stuff we now require to protect us from each other. Phones not only occupy people's attention, they also eliminate many physical objects, such as flashlights, cameras, watches, levels, metronomes, adding machines and many others. Food production is incredibly wasteful. That is starting to change. Our consumption may double as the poor get enough resources to eat well. But peak calorie is in sight. But hydroponics and manufactured meat can vastly reduce the inputs. Population is expected to peak, although improved health care may offset that. What will keep going up? Travel, living space and health care. The latter is now the largest industry in the rich world. We can move to electric planes, but we don't have a way to dramatically reduce the material in a house. As we continue to unpack biology, we will find less costly ways to stay healthy and fix problems. Does it all net out? It at least seems possible.
amazed W1
The situation may be painful but it's nice to have an "official" body that we can quote when stating the blindingly obvious, that in the end game Malthus's and Jevons theories are correct, and not just in food and water. UN to take note and major on population growth which must be between zero and noticeably negative to save us from everything from starvation to brutal no quarter given wars, via extinction of other species, plants and animals, of course.