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Andrew McAfee Bets on More from Less

by Ahmed Kabil on October 16th, 02019

The Mount Whaleback Iron Ore Mine in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. One of McAfee’s Long Bets predicts that by 02029, we’ll use less iron and steel than we do today. Daily Overview.

Our next Seminar speaker, Andrew McAfee, has offered a group of 14 predictions on Long Bets related to the issues of resource consumption explored in his new book, More From Less. McAfee, co-founder and co-director of MIT’s Initiative on the Digital Economy and a Principal Research Scientist at the MIT Sloan School of Management, studies how digital technologies are changing the world.

In More From Less, McAfee argues that “we have at last learned how to increase human prosperity while treading more lightly on our planet.”

McAfee’s Long Bets all share the same duration (10 years; 02019-02019) and are all predicated on the same central thesis: that economic growth in technology-intensive economies will lead to dematerialization:

During the Industrial Era economies around the world grew rapidly. And as they grew, they used more year after year of the Earth’s resources: metals, minerals, fertilizers, trees, fossil fuels, cropland, and so on.

Then we invented the computer and its kin, and the pattern changed.

Hardware, software, and networks allow companies to use fewer materials as they produce their goods and services. Profit-seeking companies in competitive markets are eager to pursue these opportunities to dematerialize because they bring cost savings, and a penny saved is a penny earned. Dematerialization accumulates over time, and the economy as a whole eventually moves past “peak stuff” with respect to more and more resources.

The counterintuitive result is that capitalist, technology-intensive economies like America’s are now dematerializing across a wide range of resources, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Andrew McAfee, Long Bet 795

McAfee is predicting that by 02029, the United States will consume less energy and produce less CO2 emissions than it did a decade prior. Crop tonnage will be greater, but we’ll use less total cropland, fertilizer, and water for irrigation in agriculture. We’ll use less iron and steel, aluminum, nickel, copper, gold, rare earth elements, chromium, tin and tungsten—all of which will become more affordable to the world’s average person. We’ll also use less timber and paper.

The predictions call to mind the bet that biologist and environmentalist Paul Ehrlich made with economist Julian Simon in 01980. Ehrlich bet Simon $10,000 that the prices of five metals (copper, chromium, nickel, tin, and tungsten) would increase over a decade. The prices declined sharply, and Simon won the bet.

The Simon-Ehrlich wager.

The wager received a lot of publicity over the decade, and the result ultimately shaped societal thinking around limited resources. “Simon was a prolific skeptic of environmentalism,” Kevin Kelly wrote, “yet nothing that he ever wrote had as much impact on the course of culture as his wager with Ehrlich. That single, relatively small bet transformed the environmental movement by casting doubt on the notion of resource scarcity.” (Although, if the bet were repeated in subsequent decades, Ehrlich would have won, given the rise in commodity prices. On a long enough timescale, however, it’s one more blip in a multiple-centuries-long trend towards decreasing prices).

McAfee is now seeking challengers for his bets. “If you think that economic growth is incompatible with taking less from the planet,” he tweeted, “these bets are for you!”

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