Book review: McAfee (2019), More from Less

This is an interesting book which could be a good book if its key message – that technology and capitalism will decouple economic growth from resource use in time to prevent serious ecological disruption – were supported by research. This, unfortunately, is not the case.

Decoupling is not exactly a subject that has never been studied before. There exists a voluminous body of research that has used better methods and covers far more ground, both theoretically and empirically, than this book. The conclusions of this research stream are fairly clear, as a recent, comprehensive and well-worth-the-read overview of decoupling research (Parrique et al. 2019) shows: while some decoupling is beyond doubt happening, there is no sturdy evidence that could permit us to believe that necessary decoupling is going on. If we wish to continue our present course and economic growth patterns, we would need to see decoupling that is 1) absolute, 2) deep enough, 3) fast enough, 4) permanent, and 5) global. This is not what research shows.

This book’s central message is basically demolished by a single open access article in PNAS (Wiedmann et al. 2015). Using far more sophisticated methods, informed by past research on the topic, and covering the value chains and countries far more extensively than this book, the researchers concluded that if the total materials footprint of industrialized countries, USA included, has decoupled at all, the amount of absolute decoupling is insignificant. I cannot find any reference to this rather fundamental piece of research in the book, nor can I find any references to any recent studies that are more critical about decoupling claims. In fact, I can’t find solid evidence, either in references or in the text, that the author is even aware of such research. As such, I do not believe that the book’s thesis could ever be published in a reputable peer reviewed journal: existing research has already covered this ground repeatedly, with better methods, and in a more critical fashion.

In a positive note, the author is very clear that market fundamentalism – letting capitalism run amok – is emphatically NOT an answer to the environmental crises, and that we need a strong state to regulate and control the economy, repair market failures and price the externalities. There is ample evidence that of all socio-economic systems we have tried so far, this approach – sometimes known as the Nordic model – has the best track record of both creating and somewhat equitably distributing wealth. That said, I’ve already noticed that many proponents of this book won’t notice these caveats, and instead claim that McAfee suggests unbridled capitalism as the answer.

However, despite rather serious flaws in the key argument, I have no doubt that the book will become a bestseller. We humans are so desperate to believe that nothing needs to change.

More from Less

McAfee, Andrew (2019). More from Less: The surprising story of how we learned to prosper using fewer resources – and what happens next. New York: Scribner.

REFERENCES CITED

Parrique T., Barth J., Briens F., C. Kerschner, Kraus-Polk A., Kuokkanen A., Spangenberg J.H. (2019). Decoupling debunked: Evidence and arguments against green growth as a sole strategy for sustainability. European Environmental Bureau. https://eeb.org/library/decoupling-debunked/

Wiedmann, T. O., Schandl, H., Lenzen, M., Moran, D., Suh, S., West, J., & Kanemoto, K. (2015). The material footprint of nations. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 112(20), 6271–6276. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1220362110

About J. M. Korhonen

as himself
This entry was posted in Ecomodernism, Economy and the Environment, Scarcities and constraints and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Book review: McAfee (2019), More from Less

  1. Todd D. says:

    If your time permits, Mr. Korhonen, I would be interested in our thoughts on this book “Social Democratic Capitalism” https://www.amazon.com/Social-Democratic-Capitalism-Lane-Kenworthy/dp/0190064110/ref=sr_1_1

    • Hi Todd, and thanks for bringing this book to my attention! Unfortunately I don’t have time to read it right now, but from the blurb text I believe I’d concur with its key message.

      Social democratic countries continuously top nearly every measure for quality of life so far devised, and also score very highly in various economic categories like innovativeness and competitiveness. This is not an accident.

      Every country on Earth can be subdivided to regions that have no more population than any Nordic country has, so this is not really a size issue either.

      Nor do I believe for a moment that there is some mysterious quality in the Nordic mentality (not to even mention some more odious explanations put forward) that permits this to happen. In fact, I believe that these arguments generally get the causality backwards. Today, people in the Nordics are products of this system; it is the relatively equality and perceived fairness of the system that builds up qualities necessary for the system to operate, such as high trust to government, transparency, and a feeling that we are in this boat together.

      For instance, when the first steps towards our current model were taken, Finland had just recovered from one of the bloodiest civil wars in recorded history (relative to population size of course). To say the nation was divided would be a major understatement. But take 20 years of social reforms, and the nation united in the face of external threat from Soviet Union – to a major surprise of Soviet leadership, who assumed Finland was as divided as it was back in 1918, and that the proletariat would therefore welcome the Red Army. Similarly, when the Swedish reforms (which were the guide star to other Nordic countries) were initiated, the nation had been divided to workers and bourgeoisie, and even a revolution was a distinct possibility.

What's your take?

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s