Forest products provide another clear example of dematerialization in the United States. Total annual domestic consumption of paper and board peaked in 1999 and wood in 2002. Both totals have since declined by more than 20 percent. Could these be mirages caused by relocations that are not properly captured? This is highly unlikely, as the country is now transferring more than it relocates. The United States was net exporter of forest products since 2009 and is now the world’s largest exporter of these materials.
Is the US economy also dematerializing its use of metals? Probably, but it’s hard to say for sure. USGS calculations show dematerialization of steel, aluminum, copper and other important metals. But these figures do not include metals contained in imports of finished goods like cars and computers. America is a net importer of manufactured goods, so we may be using more metal year after year, but much of this consumption is “hidden” from official statistics due to heavy and complex imports. . However, my estimates indicate that this is extremely unlikely and that the country is in fact reducing its overall consumption of metals.
Build a weak argument
The exponent of degrowth, Jason Hickel, responds to this broad evidence of dematerialization by once again making the worn-out argument that there are no real environmental gains; there is only globalization of misdeeds. Hickel has argued Many times that once offshoring is properly taken into account, dematerialization disappears. How can that be, when the counts take into account imports and exports of raw materials like NKP, wood and paper? Because, he argues, they fail to take into account the true “material footprint” of production in the world.
At this point, the degrowth argument deviates from reality. I mean literally. As “The material imprint of nations(The main article cited by Hickel) asserts that material footprint measurements “do not record the actual physical movement of materials within and between countries.” Instead, they are derived from a ‘computational framework [that] … List the link between the start of a production chain (where raw materials are extracted from the natural environment) and its end. “
Material footprint models estimate the total weight of all materials disturbed by humans in the world as they produce the goods they ultimately consume. All ores mined to make metal, rock mined to make gravel, sand collected to make glass and microchips, all are estimated by country by year as part of the material footprint calculation.
A nation’s material footprint is therefore always greater than its direct material consumption (DMC). It’s pretty straightforward. What is puzzling is that according to “The Material Footprint of Nations”, some rich countries see their footprint increase even as their consumption decreases. The document shows that many countries are in the process of going paperless. The DMC has been trending downward for some time in the US, UK and Japan and may have recently peaked for the EU and the OECD as a whole. Yet in all of these cases, the material footprint continues to increase.
How can this be? Just because the physical footprint models do a better job than the USGS at accounting for metals and other materials in finished product imports. the technical annex for the Global Material Flows database, as in the USGS calculations, “complex manufactured items are largely excluded.” Instead, the paper notes, “the main reason in most cases was the increased indirect use (of reliance on) building materials.”
This is problematic, because these materials are so poorly tracked. As the appendix indicates, “many countries do not have data on the extraction of non-metallic minerals mainly used for construction … When available, they are often unreliable, partial and underreported.” It’s a bad strategy to use sparse, low-quality data to disprove conclusions based on consistent, high-quality data, but that’s what Hickel does when he argues that hardware footprint calculations show that dematerialization is an illusion.