How do we cope with the problem of expanding needs while having limited resources? One suggestion that has been made is the concept of “dematerialisation”, or making resource usage more efficient and steering economies away from goods production to services production.
Here in South Africa, “dematerialisation” is explicitly mentioned in the current policies of the new Congress of the People (COPE).
But not everyone agrees that “dematerialisation” has the potential to reduce our demands on natural capital to the degree that some may hope. Philip Lawn, an economist at Flinders University of South Australia, argues that there are physical limits to how much waste can be reduced and efficiency increased. As for the benefits of substituting goods for services in an economy, it seems worth noting that even as Western economies have become more service-oriented, they have often not actually reduced physical production (I stand to be corrected here); that has simply been “outsourced” to other economies, most notably and recently to China.
What’s more, the production of services also has physical impacts, impacts which are growing as the resource and energy demands of the ICT sector increase. Cf. the controversy over Google’s energy use.
Labour standards and sustainability
This outsourcing of physical production to China, argues Harold Meyerson of the Washington Post, has depended on the willingness of both countries to mistreat their labour forces, creating excessively interdependent economies both vulnerable to unemployment in times of economic stress — like the present.
But suppose that China and the United States did have powerful unions. In China, such unions might have pushed for higher wages, social insurance and more domestic consumption. Here, such unions would have preserved more of a manufacturing sector and boosted wages in the service and retail sectors, so that American consumers could have relied more on income than on credit to make their purchases. The two nations would have had more sustainable economic strategies. And the world economy might not now be plunging into what, so far, appears to be a bottomless pit
Dematerialisation is considered to be similar to “ephemerilisation”, a concept promoted by Buckminster Fuller. His idea was that technology makes it possible to constantly reduce the cost and increase the efficiency of production. His ideas have been criticised by those who argue that managing increasingly hi-tech processes bring their own new costs: stresses on human and information systems.