Even from very early on, industrialists were prompted to improve the technological efficiency of their processes for economic reasons. For example, between 1791 and 1830, the volume of coal consumed to produce one tonne of iron was reduced by over 50 per cent, from just over 8 tonnes to just over 3.5 tonnes.1 The examples cited in Chapter 5 indicate the considerable potential for profitable efficiency improvements which still exist today. The pursuit of profit provides some if not all of the motivation for these improvements.
Quite generally, it has been argued that profit-driven industrial development is accompanied by a natural tendency towards dematerialisation. This idea was first proposed by Malenbaum who
introduced the concept of intensity of use to measure the quantity of a particular material consumed per unit of GNP. He discovered that bell-shaped curves (Figure 29) govern the historical relationship between material intensity and per capita GNP for a range of different mineral resources in a broad cross-section of different countries.
The theory which emerged from this analysis—let us call it the theory of natural dematerialisation—has two main thrusts.2 First (Figure 29a), it claims that material intensities peak during economic development and then begin to decline as GNP continues to grow. Second (Figure 29b), it argues that the peaks are lower, the later in time each country develops. This is believed to be because later developers are able to use technological innovations introduced by earlier developers to reduce their material intensities more rapidly than was possible for the earlier developers.
The theory of natural dematerialisation seems to be supported by some evidence of declining material intensities in the developed economies. But we need to treat the view that dematerialisation will happen of its own accord with caution for a number of reasons.
For a start, evidence of declining material intensities is restricted to certain specific materials. It is not immediately clear that we can extend the implication to the whole spectrum of material consumption, particularly as one of the driving trends of industrialisation has been a broadening of the material base, and increased complexity in the underlying chemistry. Iron and steel and concrete might exhibit reduced material intensities. But what about exotic metals, plastics, ceramics and petroleum-derived chemicals? Complex patterns of substitution make it difficult to generalise about overall material intensity from particular examples.
Next, we must take into account the tendency for industrialised nations to export their manufacturing activities to less developed nations and import finished products. This tendency will reduce the apparent consumption of raw materials in the developed nations. But it will do so only at the expense of increased raw material consumption— and increased environmental burdens—in the industrialising nations. It may be true that newer and cleaner technologies are available now which were not available in the earlier days of industrialisation. But we also need to remember that the conditions under which developing countries must industrialise today are vastly different and generally more hostile than those under which development took place for the Western nations. At any rate, irrespective of any decline in material intensities in the developed economies, the actual data do not yet warrant optimism about declining material intensities in the developing and newly industrialising world.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we need to question the relationship between material intensity and material throughput. The view that dematerialisation is happening automatically really only refers to the decline in material intensities per unit of GNP. Total material throughputs for the economy as a whole can only be determined after multiplying these intensities by the total economic activity (defined by GNP). Even if the amount of material consumed per dollar of GNP declines in certain places, the overall consumption of material may still rise if economic output is increasing.
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