At various places in this book, I have dwelt on the underlying profit motive of the industrial economy. Clearly, the pursuit of profit has been a crucial factor in the development of that economy (see Chapter 2). It is also a continuing motivation for improvements in process efficiencies in industry. The examples in Chapter 5 indicate that improved environmental protection and the pursuit of profit are not necessarily natural enemies. But Chapter 6 has revealed that there are certain commercial situations in which profit and dematerialisation are in direct opposition. In fact, this is generally the case whenever the product is the pollutant. Since all material products are potential pollutants at some stage during their life, this has led us (Chapter 7) to a revision of the basis of profitability in the industrial economy.
Under the new service economy profitability is no longer based on material products. Rather it is contingent on the provision of services. Although these services inevitably require material inputs and outputs, the incentive to increase material throughput is transformed—via the commercial innovations of the service economy—into a continuing drive for material efficiency.
These considerations reveal that the relationship between the profit motive and the material basis of the economy is intricate and multi-faceted. Nor have we exhausted the complexities of the situation. In particular, there are three important questions which still need to be addressed. In the first place, can we rely on the profit motive itself to transform the economy for us in the way described in the previous chapter? Actually, it is relatively straightforward to answer this question negatively. But having done so, we then need to ask what else we should be doing to accomplish the necessary changes. And having answered that question we are still left with one critical issue.
The profit motive is the basic driving force behind economic growth. As the economy expands, activity levels increase. The increase in activity levels means an increase in material throughput, unless we can improve material efficiency fast enough. In environmental terms we could say that the profit motive has turned out to be a distinctly double-edged sword. On the one hand, it provides the motivation for improved material efficiency. On the other hand, profit on investment has provided the impetus for increased economic output.
In the light of these remarks, the most important question to be addressed in this chapter is whether dematerialisation can outpace—and continue to outpace—economic growth. If this could happen then there is absolutely no irresolvable conflict between the profit motive and the strategy of dematerialisation. If it cannot happen, then we may well be forced to face the possibility that there are environmental limits to economic growth. The implications of this position for conventional notions of development are even more profound than the prospect of revising the basis of profitability. But before we deal with this more complex issue, let us return to the question of whether the industrial economy will naturally evolve towards dematerialisation, under the impetus of the profit motive.
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