Sheer numbers defeat all efficiency gains, says MIT

January 26, 2017 // By Julien Happich
Lack of efficiency in the use of natural resources is not the only culprit for many of the Earth's environmental issues; a new study from MIT hints that the unbalance mostly comes from the sheer number of products being produced, not necessarily the poor efficiency put into producing them.

All things being finite on Earth (including populations), there no such a thing as a "sustainable growth", although this is probably the most widespread oxymoron found in optimistic companies' annual reports.

The researchers asked themselves if humans would be able, through technological advances, to refrain from taking more resources from the Earth than the planet can safely produce.

MIT scientists found that technological advances alone will not bring about dematerialization and, ultimately, a sustainable world. Worse, they concluded that no matter how much more efficient and compact a product is made, consumers will only demand more of that product and in the long run increase the total amount of materials used in making that product.

Taking one of the world’s fastest-improving technologies as an example, silicon-based semiconductors, anyone can see that although the technological improvements in the efficiency of semiconductors have greatly reduced the amount of material needed to make a single transistor, but at the same time consumers’ demand for silicon has outpaced the rate of its technological change.

The world’s consumption of silicon has grown by 345 percent over the last four decades, with today’s smartphones, tablets, and computers packing far more transistors than computers built in the 1970s.

“Despite how fast technology is racing, there’s actually more silicon used today, because we now just put more stuff on, like movies, and photos, and things we couldn’t even think of 20 years ago,” says Christopher Magee, a professor of the practice of engineering systems in MIT’s Institute for Data, Systems, and Society. “So we’re still using a little more material all the time.”

The researchers found similar trends in 56 other materials, goods, and services, from basic resources such as aluminium and formaldehyde to hardware and energy technologies such as hard disk drives, transistors, wind energy, and photovoltaics. In all cases, they found no evidence of dematerialization, or an overall reduction in their use, despite technological improvements to their performance.

“There is a techno-optimist’s position that says technological change will fix the environment,” Magee observes. “This says, probably not.”