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In person and on Twitter, several people have argued that the dematerialization of the US economy -- the recent pattern of increasing GDP while decreasing resource use -- is a mirage. amazon.com/More-Less-Surp…
Their argument is that we’re NOT using fewer resources over time in America; instead, we’re now importing more of them year after year from China (and other countries).
This seems like a plausible argument. Imports of goods from China have increased a LOT this century (since the permanent normalization of US-China trade)... researchgate.net/publication/27…
… and the USGS tallies of resource consumption over time that I use in my book “More from Less” don’t try to count resources embedded in imported finished goods. (these tallies DO count imports and exports of raw materials).
So how likely is it that the US is NOT really dematerializing, but instead shifting its resource burden to China et al?

It’s quite unlikely.
To see this let’s start with US agriculture, an industry where we have an apples-to-apples (heh) view of the weight of all outputs (i.e. crop tonnage) and of major inputs (fertilizer, water, and land) w/ no import/export considerations.
As this graph shows, US agriculture has clearly been dematerializing. Even as crop tonnage goes up over time, fertilizer use has flatlined and water and cropland have both been trending down (data available at morefromlessbook.com/data).
Now, paper and timber. US timber consumption plateaued well before we started importing lots of furniture from China, and we still don’t import many paper products. The sharp drop in paper use since 2007 is due to smartphones, not sino-trade.
But how about metals? Isn’t it true that US mfg is shrinking as we import more and more from China (and hence the metals in all that imported gear disappear from the stats and give the false impression of US dematerialization)?
No. US manufacturing is NOT shrinking; that is a myth. Here are two indexes of US production over time (the mfg index is more specific; the production one goes back further in time). Growth clearly continues.
To repeat, US mfg is NOT shrinking. Here’s a table from @Deloitte comparing US mfg real value added in 2007 and 2018. Even after excluding (mat’ls-light) computer and electronic gear, durable mfg increased by almost 7%... www2.deloitte.com/us/en/insights…
So we still make things in the US, and make things that require metal. But less and less metal over time. Here’s the mfg trend along with the usage trends for the five top metals. Mfg. is up since 2000; metals use is down.
It’s possible that there’s been a huge shift in the kinds of mfg done in the US since 2000, and that we now let China make resource-intensive products while we make… something else? But how plausible is such a broad shift? Is there clear evidence for it?
In fact, there’s pretty clear evidence that US mfg HASN’T seen big shifts over time in the mix of products it produces. Joseph Shapiro and Reed Walker asked “Why is Pollution from U.S. Manufacturing Declining?...”
… their answer? “emissions reductions are primarily driven by within-product changes in emissions intensity rather than changes in output or in the composition of products produced.” In other words, US mfg output hasn’t gone down and product mix hasn’t changed much…
… Instead, we’ve learned how to make the same products while polluting a LOT less. And, I would add, using fewer resources.
One final important clue comes from looking at energy use. US real GDP is almost 20% bigger than it was in 2007, yet total energy use has increased by only 0.3%. Just as is the case with resources, we have finally figured out how to get more GDP from less energy.
So, to summarize: US agriculture is now getting more (crop tonnage) from less (fertilizer, water, and cropland); offshoring / globalization plays NO role in this decoupling. Paper consumption, including exports and imports, is post-peak in the US…
… Durables mfg is a large and growing US industry that makes a consistent mix of products over time. But US air pollution and metals consumption are trending downward. And we’ve almost totally decoupled growth in energy use from GDP growth.
Yes, globalization is a big, important global story. But so is the dematerialization of the US economy, which is pretty clearly not driven by globalization. /thread. #MorefromLess
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