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Have We Reached Peak Stuff?

In England, new statistics show that its citizens have been using less and less of nearly every material good—even before the recession started. Are we starting to see a world where growth and consumption aren’t always inexorably linked?

The trajectory of modern civilization is essentially an exponential curve. Population, energy use, wealth, and a dozen other major indicators all follow a hockey stick of growth. After centuries of slow, mostly even growth, the curve appears to have gone vertical during the 20th century, doubling at an accelerating rate.

Yet could we finally start consuming less, not more, during this century? The British already seem to have achieved that milestone. Since 2001, material consumption, in categories from calories to aluminum, has steadily fallen. The statistics, reported by Chris Goodall, a former McKinsey & Company consultant and parliamentary candidate for Britain’s Green Party, are impressive, according to Yale Environment 360:

Overall materials use down 4% between 2000 and 2007. Paper and cardboard consumption down 18%. Primary energy production fell 3% between 2001 and 2007 (peaking in 2001). And the food calorie intake of Britons has been falling since the 1970s (along with exercise).

Even the total volume of stuff each Brit uses per year, about 30 tons, is down to 1989 levels, from its 2001 peak. Some similar patterns are showing up across Europe.

It may be that some countries are reaching a point where national wealth (GDP) and resource use decouple, so actual reductions in materials and energy use can be achieved. But the fact that millions of people in the British Isles—admittedly one of the richest, most developed countries in the world—are buying fewer cars and plastic junk does not mean the rest of the world is on a utopian trajectory to sustainability. Quite the opposite: global statistics point to consumption patterns that will demand several planets worth of resources to support the lifestyles of the 9 billion people or so who are heading our way by 2050. 

But England’s example does suggest that "economic growth is not necessarily incompatible with addressing these challenges," says Goodall in a recent article in The Guardian. It may even be the opposite: the more advanced, efficient, and even faster growing our economy becomes, the less materials we use. This decoupling of material consumption and economic growth—counter to some arguments by those pushing for environmental sustainability that say that we must find a way to use as much stuff, just more sustainably—is a holy grail for economists who see ecological and human capital as important as the financial gain.    

Yet this is extremely controversial, and not fully supported by the data. Tim Jackson, author of Prosperity Without Growth, says that Goodall’s study is an "essential starting point" but "the idea that the transition to a sustainable economy will emerge spontaneously by giving free reign to the market is patently false."

Consumption trends in China, India, and most places in the developing world—low by per capita standards, but rising remarkably fast—mean that any drop in developed world demand will more than likely be swamped by the rising tide of living standards elsewhere.

Now it’s up to researchers to better understand what’s really happening in places where consumption is falling (and living standards are not), and see what that will mean for all of us.