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More From Less The Surprising Story of How We Learned to Prosper Using Fewer Resources – And What Happens Next

Coming Soon
By: Andrew McAfee(Author)
337 pages, b/w illustrations
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
NHBS
More from Less highlights the remarkable phenomenon of dematerialization, arguing it will allow us to live comfortable lives without it costing the planet. But is it really the panacea promised here?
More From Less
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  • More From Less ISBN: 9781471180330 Hardback Oct 2019 Usually dispatched within 6 days
    £19.99
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  • More From Less ISBN: 9781471180361 Paperback Aug 2020 Available for pre-order
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About this book

Bestselling author and co-director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy Andrew McAfee says there's a new reason for optimism: we're past the point of 'peak stuff' – from here on out, it'll take fewer resources to make things, and cost less to lead a comfortable life.

This turn of events invalidates the predictions of overpopulation alarmists and those who argue we need to drastically reduce our conception of how much is enough. What has made this turnabout possible? One thing primarily: the collaboration between technology and capitalism.

Capitalism's quest for higher profits is a quest for lower costs; materials and resources are expensive, and technological progress allows companies to use fewer of them even as they grow their markets. Modern smartphones take the place of cameras, GPS units, landline telephones, answering machines, tape recorders and alarm clocks. Precision agriculture lets farmers harvest larger crops while using less water and fertiliser. Passenger cars get lighter, which makes them cheaper to produce and more fuel-efficient. This means that, even though there'll be more people in the future, and they'll be wealthier and consume more, they'll do so while using fewer natural resources. For the first time ever, and for all time to come, humans will live more prosperous lives while treading more lightly on the Earth.

The future is not all bright, cautions McAfee. He warns of issues that still haven't been fully solved. (For example, our oceans are still vulnerable to overfishing; global warming is still running largely unchecked; and even as 'dematerialisation' – the reduced need for raw materials – improves our global situation, power and resources are getting more concentrated. That creates an even larger division between the haves and the have nots.)

More From Less is a revelatory, paradigm-shifting account of how we've stumbled into an unexpected balance with nature, and the possibility that our most abundant centuries are ahead of us.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Interesting, but with some curious omissions
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 27 Apr 2020 Written for Paperback


    More from Less makes the optimistic case that our impact on the planet is diminishing. We are past "peak stuff" and thanks to continued technological innovation our economy is dematerializing. That is to say, economic growth has become decoupled from resource consumption: we are getting more from less.

    I was initially sceptical when I learned of this book. From the blurb's counterintuitive claim that "we've stumbled into an unexpected balance with nature" to Pinker's triumphant endorsement – I was ready to go bananas on this book. But I should not let my prejudices get the better of me.

    More from Less starts with McAfee asking the reader to keep an open mind. He was initially sceptical too: surely, as our economies grow, we consume more resources? To understand how we got to believe this, he first provides some history and background. Starting with Malthus, he highlights how population growth was kept in check by food supply for the longest time. Until it wasn't. Malthus did not foresee all the technological advances that came during and after the Industrial Revolution.

    McAfee balances this by pointing out the dark side: this was achieved on the back of slavery, child labour, colonialism, pollution, and the extermination of animals. This ultimately led to concerns: Earth Day, Ehrlich's The Population Bomb, the Club of Rome's report The Limits to Growth, the IPAT equation (Impact = Population × Affluence × Technology), Jevons paradox (efficiency gains are often spent elsewhere, not reducing impact after all), Spaceship Earth... again, McAfee hits most of the relevant notes here.

    For many decades, economical growth and resource consumption increased in lockstep with each other until the 1970s, when resource use stabilised or decreased while the economy kept growing, at least in the US. Examples discussed here include metals, agricultural input, wood, building materials such as sand and gravel, and energy consumption.

    McAfee sees four factors driving this dematerialization. First, unsurprisingly, technological progress, which has resulted in increased efficiency and reduced resource consumption when manufacturing goods. Second, capitalism, with competition encouraging companies to invent above technologies and cut costs by using less raw materials. The third, public awareness, refers to people's willingness to embrace progress. The fourth, responsive governments, means governments that are willing to listen (to their people, to new ideas), capable of governing and enforcing rules, and free from corruption. Democracies excel at this, argues McAfee.

    The last part of the book then describes how these four factors have gone global, and what they have achieved. McAfee's argumentation is again, in one word, balanced. Some achievements are good, others are a mixed blessing, and some are worrying. Nor is he blind to the challenges ahead, such as climate change. Everything is not alright. But he thinks the way out is through. We need to step on the proverbial accelerator and spread all four drivers of dematerialization far and wide (though see West's Scale for an interesting critique).

    More from Less flows well, its chapters following logically on from each other. Despite my initial apprehension, I found much here to agree with. Like McAfee, I support continued scientific research and technological development. Still, I do not share his optimism to the same extent and my objections are threefold.

    First, does that decreased resource consumption account for overseas production? McAfee mentions that US Geological Survey data on mineral consumption includes imports and exports, but I am not sure this is the same. A footnote says resources in finished goods are excluded but argues that, at 4% of the economy, they are negligible. I question whether that is a useful comparison in a service-industry-heavy economy such as the US. What percentage of all US goods does this represent? The scope of the data underlying other examples is less clear and McAfee does not clarify this point. A major theme of The Irresponsible Pursuit of Paradise was that developed countries smugly claim to have cleaned up their act when in reality they have shifted the burden of resource extraction to developing countries. As McAfee acknowledges, without sufficiently detailed data you cannot establish if dematerialization is a global or local phenomenon. And, given a globalised economy, we need to exclude the possibility it is an artefact of not doing your bookkeeping on resource extraction properly.

    Second, some critical factors go unmentioned. The smartphone is held up as a shining (shiny?) example of capitalism giving us one device where there used to be many. But McAfee fails to mention that those very same companies have given us planned obsolescence, devices that cannot be easily repaired, and relentless marketing to push consumers into upgrading to the latest model. That negates much of your efficiency gains. Another point: McAfee seems little concerned with the non-renewable nature of many resources – known reserves have increased because we are looking harder. There is no mention here of the hard limit imposed by Energy Returned on Energy Invested: not all of a resource can be economically exploited. McAfee will likely reply that this holds until innovation overcomes this – we have underestimated its power before. And although Earth Day features here, humanity's ecological footprint, Earth Overshoot Day, and Rockström's planetary boundaries framework do not. It seems unlikely that a former Harvard professor is not aware of these factors.

    Third and final point: although McAfee's argument seems logical, I worry it is too little, too late. Let's return to the IPAT equation. McAfee's talks of reducing Technology. Population is still increasing but a plateau is in sight. As mentioned in my review of Empty Planet, I do think current numbers already have an outsized environmental impact, so the questions posed in Should We Control World Population? remain valid for me. That leaves Affluence, which is increasing rapidly globally. Crist's call in Abundant Earth for scaling down and pulling back seems apt here. Given the above, you would need manifold efficiency gains from dematerialization just to keep Impact constant, let alone decrease it. More caution seems warranted (see Smil's Making the Modern World). Dematerialization is worth pursuing, but I'm not convinced it is a panacea – Impact is a complex problem for which there is no silver bullet.

    Overall then, this book highlights an interesting phenomenon and I found quite a few things in McAfee's outlook to agree with. However, some curious omissions make me question how much of a saviour dematerialization really is.
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Biography

Andrew McAfee is a principal research scientist at MIT Sloan School of Management and the cofounder and codirector of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, where he studies how digital technologies are changing business, the economy, and society. He has discussed his work at such venues as TED, the Aspen Ideas Festival, and the World Economic Forum. His prior books include the New York Times bestseller The Second Machine Age and Machine, Platform, Crowd. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Coming Soon
By: Andrew McAfee(Author)
337 pages, b/w illustrations
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
NHBS
More from Less highlights the remarkable phenomenon of dematerialization, arguing it will allow us to live comfortable lives without it costing the planet. But is it really the panacea promised here?
Media reviews

"Everyone knows we're doomed by runaway overpopulation, pollution, or resource depletion, whichever comes first. Not only is this view paralysing and fatalistic, but, as Andrew McAfee shows in this exhilarating book, it's wrong. One of the great underappreciated developments of recent decades is that technology, prosperity good governance, and environmental consciousness are allowing people to have more of the good things in life with less despoliation of the planet. More from Less is fascinating, enjoyable to read and tremendously empowering."
– Steven Pinker, author of Enlightenment Now

"For many years now, Andrew McAfee has been arguing that the fourth industrial revolution would transform our economies and the quality of our lives. In his new book More from Less he applies his positive approach to the case of our planet, arguing that we have reached a critical tipping point where technology is allowing us to actually reduce our ecological footprint – a truly counterintuitive finding! Is McAfee downplaying the sheer scale of the economic transformation required to meet climate change commitments under the Paris Agreement? No, and he acknowledges the monumental efforts required, but argues that the tools, the scale, the governance and the policies are available to turn the course of development for the better instead of for worse. His optimism is a breath of fresh air substantiated by real research and empirical findings. [This book is] well worth reading even if your first impression, like mine, is: it can't be true!"
– Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the IMF

"In More from Less Andrew McAfee lays out a compelling blueprint showing how we can support human life using fewer natural resources, improve the state of the world, and replenish the planet for centuries to come."
– Marc Benioff, Chairman and joint CEO of Salesforce, author of Trailblazer

"I've always believed that technological progress and entrepreneurship make our lives better. Here, Andrew McAfee shows how these powerful forces are helping us make our planet better too, instead of degrading it. For anyone who wants to help create a future that is both sustainable and abundant, this book is essential reading."
– Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn

"This book is the best kind of surprise. It tells us something about our relationship with our planet that is both unexpected and hopeful. The evidence Andy presents is convincing: we have at last learned how to tread more lightly on the Earth. More from Less shows how we accomplished this, and tells us how to keep it going."
– Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google

"Andrew McAfee's new book addresses an urgent need in our world today: defining a framework for addressing big global challenges. His proposals are based on a thorough analysis of the state of the world, combined with a refreshing can-do attitude."
– Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum

"In More from Less Andrew McAfee conclusively demonstrates how environmentalism requires more technology and capitalism, not less. Our modern technologies actually dematerialise our consumption, giving us higher human welfare with lower material inputs. This is an urgently needed and clear-eyed view of how to have our technological cake and eat it too."
– Marc Andreessen, co-founder of Netscape

"In More from Less, Andrew McAfee tells the riveting story of how humanity is turning the corner with respect to what had been massive, steady increases in consumption of raw materials. By subverting our common perceptions of capitalism and technology as enemies of progress and environmental preservation, McAfee offers all of us a clear-eyed source of optimism and hope. Critically, he also makes the case for what comes next – offering up vital lessons that have the potential to make the world both more prosperous and more just."
– Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation

"Yet another magnificent contribution from Andrew McAfee. Along with his prior works, More from Less will help us navigate society's future in profound ways."
– Clayton M. Christensen, Kim B. Clark Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School

"The shortest path to improving the world is to notice objectively what is already working, and do more of it. As for the things that are still going wrong, figure out the minimalist way to turn them around, and do that. McAfee's More from Less is packed with practical news and advice that will disconcert ideologues of every stripe."
– Stewart Brand, Author of The Whole Earth Catalog

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