Living in a dematerial world

The other day, amidst my regular schedule of procrastination, I stumbled upon an article that talked about something called dematerialisation and the unique effect it’s having on the world’s resources. If you’re unsure, dematerialisation refers to the process of converting material resources into electrical or digital equivalents. This is being undertaken by many companies and businesses; making the move from paper records and shares certificates to digital ones. Many aspects of our lives have already switched formats; our dictionaries, alarm clocks and contact lists are probably all digital now.

Likewise, the particular article claims that the resources 19th and 20th century economies were reliant on becoming obsolete nowadays. Paper is one example, not only are we now storing more and more records digitally, we are also sending mails and reading books digitally. This has led to an overall decrease in the need for and hence production of paper and similar resources in the U.S., according to The Breakthrough Institute. Similarly the sharing economy has also been contributing to the increased optimization of resources and decrease in superfluous resources. Many sharing apps and websites have allowed those who have cars, couches, rooms and other spare items to lend them to those who don’t. This is the kind of economic and social change that proponents of globalisation and digitisation have been heralding since the creation of the internet. Despite an increase in the number of mouths to feed and bodies to clothe, the demand for certain resources hasn’t followed thanks to an increase in the efficiency of the usage of those resources.

The concept of dematerialisation is often touted as an alternative to the problem presented by Thomas Robert Malthus. Malthusian theory or philosophy identifies that a society with a finite supply of food and an exponentially growing population will eventually destroy itself. Malthus had conceptualized various equilibrating restraints that would prevent such catastrophes, namely celibacy and delaying marriage. Dematerialisation offers an alternative to this outcome by saying humanity could possibly increase resource usage efficiency to a state of ephemeralization. Buckminster Fuller coined this heady term as doing “more and more with less and less until eventually you can do everything with nothing”. We are currently seeing a trend towards this, as transport, computers and entertainment devices all seem to be getting more powerful and taking up less physical space.

Obviously there are problems with dematerialisation, its scope and its translatability. Unfortunately most of the development and study of dematerialisation is happening in the U.S. To some extent, there is an expectation on other countries to match the U.S. in rates of both production and dematerialisation. There’s enough diversity even amongst developed countries to show we will not all develop at the same rate and with the same outcome. One of the major shared economies in the U.S. is the car sharing community that has been responsible for a supposed decrease in the need for individual cars. As we all know, however, car-sharing services like Uber have not taken off quite as smoothly here and in other countries. If small things like this can change the effectiveness of dematerialisation in developed countries what about other countries, where infrastructure and technology are not as well developed? It’s an even bigger challenge to bring developing countries to the same level of technological production as the U.S. and others. Do countries that are worried about internal wars have the luxury to concentrate on dematerialisation and its associated costs, whose benefits may only be enjoyed in the long term? Jesse Ausubel states that historically, the world has never been at the same level of wealth or consumption as it’s number one consumer; consider Imperial Rome or 19th century England.

This has been for a number of historical, geographical and political reasons. This rule still applies today and should be considered when talking about bringing different individuals and groups up to the same level as other countries.

An important side effect of the globalisation process, one that is not always emphasised, is its potential to further increase the divide between poor and wealthy individuals and nations. Those who are able to access high-speed internet and mobile tech are now able to lead the charge in dematerialisation innovation, while those who are not are left to straggle behind with the expensive, non-renewable resources of yester-year.

As the U.S. is shutting down coal plants and pushing to find new-renewable sources of energy; other countries like China and Japan continue to open new ones. Japan for example has had to completely shift its economical focus from nuclear energy to coal and other resources after the events of Fukushima in 2011. What is evident is that different countries are all at different stages in development. It is even more important that we acknowledge these different stages as not necessary all part of one timeline leading to a common goal. In this case an increase in resource efficiency through the same means of dematerialisation as western, industrial nations.

We really do need to something about the resources we use; we need to find (or engineer) the cheapest, cleanest and renewable resources. These advances that are helping us use less of certain resources are a great step forward. What remains to be seen is how different countries around the world adapt these ideas to their own situations; so that everyone can reap the benefits.

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