Environmental writer and analyst Chris Goodall discovered something rather intriguing recently – that the amount of stuff Britain uses peaked in around 2001-2003 and has gone into decline. Shortly after the millennium, we started using fewer material resources to run the economy – oil, water, paper, fertiliser, cement – you name it, chances are we’re getting through less of it now than we were ten years ago.
We know this because buried deep in the vast mass of figures churned out by the Office of National Statistics every year are the Material Flow Accounts. I’d never heard of them and heaven knows how they work them out, but these are essentially an attempt to put a single figure to the entire weight of material inputs to the economy. Here’s what they show:
The top line above shows the total amount of resources Britain requires, including all the materials used in other countries to make things that we import. Below that the red line shows all the stuff actually used in the UK, including imported materials, and the yellow line is the stuff that is extracted in the UK. Those materials are divided into three categories: biomass (wood, food, textiles), minerals (metals, clay, sand, stone) and fossil fuels (oil, gas, coal). You can explore the details in Goodall’s paper here.
What we see is a fairly steady increase in the amount of materials used to run the British economy, up until the last decade, where it begins to slowly drop away, and then there’s a sharper decline brought on by the recession.
This is interesting, says Goodall, because the economy more or less doubled in size in the last decade without the need for additional material inputs. He suggests that this shows that ‘decoupling’ is possible: economic growth can be ‘decoupled’ from material resources and physical limits to growth can be transcended. He even goes so far as to say that “the economic growth in the UK over the last generation has not resulted in any increase whatsoever in direct environmental pressure.”
If we’re using less stuff and reducing our impact on the earth, this is good news. The steady state economy, of which I’m an advocate, is all about zero growth in material inputs – not zero growth per se, a common misunderstanding and one that Goodall appears to make here too.
If we’re using less stuff and still growing the economy, then that’s fine by me, but I’m not sure about the extrapolation that the economy can therefore be decoupled from material resources. There are more factors at work than the ‘maturing’ of the economy. For one, the reason that the economy doubled without additional material inputs is that the last decade of growth was mainly speculative. This was growth driven by the City and a runaway property market, and we’re now seeing it for what it is: a debt bubble.
If Britain had experienced the kind of growth that the government is now trying to stimulate, that of industry, exports, and infrastructure, then the chances are that we’d have seen more materials used. From a pro-growth point of view, the de-coupling of the last decade may not have been a good thing, as it represents a more ephemeral form of economic activity.
Second, many of the declines in material use that we’re seeing aren’t voluntary. The reduction in oil use is driven in large part by the oil price. Use of gas, metals, and phosphorus are all in decline, and all of them have seen steep price increases. So maybe the materials consumption stats don’t so much show decoupling as demand destruction. In which case, what we’re seeing here is not evidence that the economy can transcend physical boundaries, but the opposite: growth is already at risk from rising prices, and we’re only making up the shortfall by taking on debt.
Either way, Chris Goodall has dug up some interesting findings, and the ‘peak stuff’ paper is well worth a browse if you’re so inclined.