In 1865, W. Stanley Jevons predicted that with coal reserves of 90 billion tons, England would run out within 100 years. Today, the country has between three trillion and 23 trillion ton, enough to last Britain for centuries.
In 1914, the Bureau of Mines fretted that with a total future production limit of 5.7 billion barrels, the U.S. only had about a ten-year supply of oil. Today, a hundred years later, we’re estimated to have 36 billion barrels left in the ground.
In 1968, Paul Ehrlich predicted that because of an inability to produce enough food, hundreds of millions of people would starve in the 1970s. Instead, the population has doubled—from 3.5 to 7 billion—and the number of famine victims from 1970-2015 combined is less than in the 1960s.
Each time experts predicted a decline in natural resources would be detrimental to population growth. And each time history proved the experts wrong.
“We’ve finally figured out how to give ourselves more and more while taking less and less from the planet,” says Andrew McAfee, co-director of the IDE and a Principal Research Scientist at the MIT Sloan School of Management.
McAfee attributes this to dematerialization, “the ability to consume the things we want (e.g., media, communications, computing) while using fewer resources, or fewer molecules—and in some case, none at all.” Once you’re aware of dematerialization, he adds, you start to see it all over the place.
“We’ve finally figured out how to give ourselves more and more while taking less and less from the planet,” says McAfee.
So how do we keep this positive trend going? We have to help the rest of the world get rich. “It’s not prosperity that’s the enemy of the environment,” he notes, “it’s poverty.”