Hope springs eternal, especially the having your cake and eating it too variety. One example is the idea of increasing environmental protection without sacrificing economic growth. Can it be done? Hardcore environmentalists tend to say no, economic activity is the main way humans hurt the environment. Producing, consuming and transportation all have environmental costs and so they clearly have to be cut back. Humans will have to learn to make do with much less. Others point out that there is no necessary relationship between economic transactions and environmental effects. The amount of material and energy required to serve an economic function – make a widget, grow tomatoes, run a restaurant – isn’t set. Increasing efficiency allows us to make more and do more with less. Dematerialization has been accelerating in advanced economies for some time. For instance, over the past 40 years the amount of physical material required to meet the needs of Americans has been falling although the population keeps increasing (Bailey 2001). And many countries have seen a decoupling of CO2 emissions and economic growth. For instance, over the period of 1990-2013, Sweden’s GDP grew 58% while CO2 emissions have decreased 23%.

However, what may be true for advanced economies may be less so for developing countries. The road to development requires high economic growth, which necessarily requires significant increases in material and energy use. Since most people live in developing countries, some argue that reductions in material and energy usage in developed countries would be overwhelmed by increases in the rest of the world.

This was exactly the point in a recent study on development (Steinberger et al, 2013), where the authors conclude there is no empirical evidence for decarbonization or dematerialization in developing countries as they achieve higher economic growth rates or incomes. The authors suggest we shift away from “industry development as usual” and embrace green pathways to economic growth or even de-prioritize economic growth in favor of other sources of human well-being. They see the challenge for economic policy being to curb consumption while preserving and enhancing living standards. Unfortunately, they provide no concrete suggestions on how to actually accomplish this. So that will be my project for the next several posts.


Bailey, Ronald (September 5, 2001). "Dematerializing the Economy". reason.com. Retrieved December 5, 2015.

Andersson Magdalena and Lövin, Isabella (May22,2015) Sweden: Decoupling GDP growth from CO2 emissions is possible. The World Bank. Retrieved December 5, 2015.

Steinberger, Julia K. Krausmann, Fridolin, Getzner, Michael, Schandl, Heinz and West, Jim Development and Dematerialization: An International Study PLoS One. 2013; 8(10): e70385.Published online 2013 Oct 21. doi:  10.1371/journal.pone.0070385 PMCID: PMC3804739