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"More from Less" response to criticism thread, part 1:
@Jasonhickel recently posted a thread refuting the claims I make in my book “More from Less.” So, time to respond.
The main reason to respond here is to discuss the research Hickel and others rely on to state, repeatedly, that we humans are taking too much from the earth year after year.
In his 1st tweet, Hickel does a great job of stating my central claim: “McAfee argues that we can have indefinite GDP growth while *reducing* our ecological impact.” This is correct, and “can” is the right verb. I don’t say that we WILL, only that we CAN
This, though, is the end of Hickel’s willingness or ability to accurately represent my work. He shows a single graph from the book - of US metals use over time - and says that “McAfee's claims about dematerialization hinge on this graph.”
No. My claims rest on a much wider base of evidence, collected from a variety of sources: USGS, USDA, EIA, etc. Here are graphs from the book:
And here are a couple excerpts from “More from Less” (and a couple notes).
My claims hinge on the totality of evidence about US resource consumption, not on a single graph as Hickel says.
It’s tough to know how to respond to such a thin attack. It might be best not to respond at all; “don’t feed the trolls” is excellent advice. But it’s tough to see your work get misrepresented and remain silent.
Also, this criticism gives me a chance to explain why I didn’t include some apparently relevant research in “More from Less.”
The heart of Hickel’s critique is that I ignore a body of research on global material consumption and dematerialization. And this is true. I do not discuss this work in “More from Less.” Why? Four main reasons.
First, it looks at a fundamentally different question: not “How many tons of [resource x] did the US use in [year]?” but instead “How many total tons of material flowing around the world are associated with the US economy in [year]?”
Why do I like the former question better than the latter? Because I think it tells us more. If the US starts to use less copper, for example, the number of tons of copper ore needed to support US consumption will almost surely go down, as will associated harms.
Consumption of final materials (e.g. metals instead of ores), in short, is a leading indicator of our planetary footprint. We learn a lot from tracking this consumption, and so should track it as directly as possible.
The second reason I ignore the “material footprint” (MF) work is that it doesn’t actually track the flows of materials around the world. Instead, it models them. Here’s the relevant text from the 2015 PNAS article Hickel cites:
The MF work is an opaque mix of measurements and assumptions layered on top of them, described by its authors as a “calculation framework.” How accurate are these calculations? I don't know. The paper doesn't show calibrations.
But there are reasons to doubt the accuracy of the MF calculations. It’s hard for me to see how the mat’l footprint of the US could be going UP when its consumption of most resources is going DOWN (again, according to the USGS, USDA, EIA, etc).
When there’s a pretty deep disconnect between a model and a diverse set of real-world tallies, I pay more attention to the tallies. Others apparently don’t.
The third reason I ignore the MF work is that it often lumps all materials together to calculate the total resource tonnage associated with a country. In other words, a ton of sand is the same as a ton of copper ore or wheat or trees or cattle.
This is an odd choice, to say the least. The environmental impact -- energy use, pollution, habitat disruption, etc. - of producing different materials varies a HUGE amount, but this variation is largely lost in the published MF work, where a ton is a ton is a ton.
I can’t see a good justification for doing this. Average impact by ton varies widely, yet over and over again, we only see total tons highlighted (just look at the graphs Hickel includes in his thread).
One of the graphs Hickel includes in his thread contains a red line at the “sustainable level” of total consumption. This notion of global maximum tonnage is my final — and most important — reason for not including the MF work in “More from Less.”
Hickel frequently cites 50 billion tonnes of resources as the global sustainable maximum, based on a “sophisticated computer model” published in 2015. And we’ve already blown past this limit!
We’re at more than 80 billion tonnes now, so this is a planetary emergency, right? Well, no. As discussed, that big number doesn’t directly tell us ANYTHING about pollution, atmospheric CO2, deforestation, species loss, or other important things.
We can measure and monitor such harms directly, and we do (the invaluable Our World in Data is a great repository of these measures). There’s no need to use tonnage as a proxy for them.
But still, 80 billion tonnes is a LOT, isn’t it? Especially on a finite planet?
Nope. On a planetary scale, it’s a trivial amount.
The upper continental crust of the Earth weighs about 7*10^21 kg. 80 billion tonnes is 8*10^13 kg. So we’re consuming ~0.000001% of the planet under our feet annually. That’s… not scary at all. (gotta finish this in a new thread)
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