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Wed, Apr

Can you dematerialise?

We’re not talking sci-fi here, but a considered way of reducing our environmental footprint to take us into a brighter ecological future. Walter Hale explores the theory challenging the mindset that there is nothing any of us can do to avert an environmental apocalypse. 

Making more bits from fewer atoms. That is how Andre McAfee, a scientist at MIT Sloan University, believes we can combat climate change. Although the environmental alarm is regularly sounded by such august bodies as the World Economic Forum and the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, McAfee argues that we can still avert catastrophe by using technology, raising public awareness, acting with optimism and turning to efficient chickens.

How exactly, you are probably wondering, are chickens efficient? Five years ago, environmental scientist Jesse H. Ausubel calculated that if farm animals were vehicles, chickens got about 60 miles per gallon, pigs 40 miles and cattle 12 miles. If Ausubel is right, every time a shopper decides to buy a chicken breast rather than a beef burger it is a small victory for planet Earth. 

We live in an age when anyone can prove anything with statistics yet Ausubel’s point, echoed by McAfee, is that we can change our behaviour - indeed, in many aspects of our life, we already have - and that the more doom-laden forecasts, which some campaigners refer to as “enviroporn” do not factor in that possibility. 

Nor do the doomsday scenarios make allowance for technological progress. For millions of people, one reasonably compact smartphone has replaced the alarm clock, torch, DVDs and CDs (and, for that matter, CD and DVD players). A shift to a circular economy - ‘take, make and repurpose’ as opposed to ‘take, make and dispose’ - in such sectors as aluminium, cement, plastics and steel could, one credible estimate suggests, could halve Europe’s emissions by 2050.

The Ausubel/McAfee theory, known as ‘dematerialisation’, has been criticised by some who argue that more dramatic action will be required to save the planet and others who fear that the narrative will lull us into a false sense of security. To be clear, Ausubel and McAfee are absolutely not saying that we can become complacent about climate change. They are just challenging the mindset, which can be unintentionally reinforced by the media coverage of successive extreme weather events such as the wildfires in Australia, that there is nothing any of us can do to avert an environmental apocalypse. 

McAfee certainly has a point when he argues that we tend to overlook the good stuff we are already doing. The ‘good stuff’ includes the fact that America’s petroleum consumption per capita peaked decades ago, that farmers have more than quadrupled the corn they produce per acre of food since 1930 and that plastic use per capita peaked in 1990. As the scandalous level of plastic pollution in our oceans proves, we are still paying for our past sins and will be paying for them for decades to come. Yet at the same time, between 1900 and 2010, a study of 100 commodities by Ausubel and his colleagues found that 36 had peaked in terms of absolute use, 53 had peaked relative to the size of the economy and only 11 were still growing both in terms of absolute use and relative to the economy. Luckily for us - and our environment - one of those 11 was chicken.

The central, and encouraging point here, Ausubel suggests, is that we have shown that we can decouple human productivity from resource use. Remember the forecast that, at some point in the near but unspecified future, the world would run out of oil? In 1914, the US Mining Bureau predicted that oil would run out by 1924. Governments and thinkers have since forecast that this would happen in 1952, 1963, 1990 and 2010. 

What is actually happening is that we are not running out of oil per se but we are running out of easily accessible oil that is cheap to extract. The industry is turning to more unconventional - for which read more expensive - methods, which will inevitably raise the price of oil, but also provide an incentive for us to buy hybrid vehicles, electric vehicles, bicycles or not own a vehicle at all and rely on a mobility service such as Uber. As the Saudi oil minister Sheikh Ahmed Zaha Yamani famously put it: “The stone age came to an end, but not for lack of stones, and the oil age will end, but not for lack of oil.” Given that 17 of the 20 companies recently identified by ‘The Guardian’ as being responsible for one-third of all carbon emissions are in the oil and gas industry, the end of the oil age cannot come soon enough.

Sceptics point out that America - which has been much less protective of the environment during Donald Trump’s presidency - does not represent the whole world. Most of the world’s most polluted cities, for example, are in China and India. Ausubel agrees but says that the US has traditionally acted as a harbinger of trends to come and that as China and India develop they will follow a similar path when it comes to resource use. Indeed, enlightened self-interest has already persuaded the Chinese government to act - notably by reducing the country’s reliance on coal in a drive to cut air pollution. A recent study by the University of Gothenburg concluded that the connection between pollution and economic growth in China has been weakening since 1995. Even so - and this is where some critics question the ‘dematerialisation’ theory - the economic superpower now emits as much CO2 as the US and Europe combined.

And yet, as Ausubel said in a 2015 lecture: “American use of almost everything except information seems to be peaking, not because our resources are exhausted but because consumers changed their consumption and producers changed production.” 

You can see this effect starting to gather momentum in the wide-format sector, with an increasing number of print service providers looking to change their production methods to reduce their use of PVC vinyl (by, for example, printing on tension fabric systems), embrace water-based inks, buy electric vehicles, consume less energy and recycle more of their waste. 

Image Reports’ 2019 Widthwise survey found that just under one in three large-format PSPs in the UK/Ireland are investing to measure - and/or reduce - their carbon footprint. Some providers are being encouraged to act by clients who are anxious to measure the environmental impact of their purchasing decisions but many are changing their ways out of the sincere conviction that this is simply the right thing to do. 

Wide-format print will not become a carbon neutral industry overnight - although a few companies are showing the way, suppliers and clients could do more to help - but if it does more of the good stuff it is already doing, the sector will play its part in the ‘dematerialisation’ of the global economy.

There were so many extreme weather events in 2019 - from super-typhoons in Japan to deadly fires in Australia and devastating floods in northern England, Venice and East Africa - that it is easy to assume that climate change is irreversible and conclude that, therefore, anything we do as individuals, either privately or in business, will make no difference. But McAfee doesn’t believe the war on climate change is lost. If we add what Abraham Lincoln called “the fuel of self-interest to the fire of genius”, it is not too late, he argues, to avert an apocalyptic global catastrophe. Let’s hope he’s right for all our sakes.

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