Making the Modern World: Materials and Dematerialization will be out around December. What’s the thrust of that one?
Vaclav Smil: People think that we are getting better because we are dematerializing. Look at your iPhone. A perfect example of dematerialization. Before that you would need, what? An alarm clock. A telephone. A camera. A compass and a map. Now you don’t need any of these things — you just need one cellphone. So instead of having the mass of all these things like before, you dematerialize.
Well, that’s fine. But do you know how many of these cellphones we are throwing away every nine months? One billion. We are only seeing dematerialization in relative terms. Our refrigerators weigh less than they did 20 years ago, they are better insulated, they are better built. Certainly our electronics weigh less than they weighed 20 years ago. (But of course our cars do not weigh less, because most of our cars in North America are SUVs.)
Many things are dematerializing, but they are dematerializing per unit. Yet we are selling many more units, so in total terms, global consumption is vastly increasing. This is like efficient energy consumption. We increase the efficiency of energy consumption, but have three televisions instead of one. Per refrigerator, per television, per car, the consumption is down. But overall, the consumption is up.