The Dematerialization Of Consumption

Some time early in this century, it seems, the UK may have reached "peak stuff." It is a complex calculation, of course, but it seems that although the world's oldest industrialized economy had grown through most of that period, its consumption of raw materials and fossil fuels had not grown in lockstep as before, but had (save for one markedly cold winter when fuel consumption spiked) consistently declined.

Chris Goodall and a number of other commentators have documented this decoupling extensively: UK government data also shows a reduction in material use from about 12 tons a year per person to around 9 tons from 2000 to 2013. Japan shows a similar pattern.

Some people have contested these findings, of course. (Other people believe they are true, but wish that they weren't widely known.) But there is enough evidence worldwide to show that patterns of consumption and status-seeking do change, and that intangible goods are replacing physical ones in many domains. Not only are there the obvious, comparatively trivial examples where, say, music and film downloads have replaced CDs and DVDs, but car-mileage seems to have peaked, as have car purchases. Astoundingly to anyone who has seen American Graffiti, half of US eighteen-year-olds do not have a driver's license.

But there seem to be multiple forces at work which are all aligned towards a lower emphasis on material consumption. One of them may be simple satiety—it is difficult to see the benefits of not owning a car until one has owned one for a few years; it is only by travelling long-haul a few times that one may discover that your favorite place to spend your free time is a lake sixty miles from home. Now that jet travel is affordable to most people, it is perfectly acceptable (in fact rather an ornament) in wealthy British circles to take your main holiday in Britain.

Hipsterisation of various categories (beer, gin, coffee, etc) is also evidence of a complementary trend—where people seek value and status in increasingly hair-splitting distinctions between basic goods, rather than spending discretionary income on greater quantities of such goods, on or non-essential purchases.

The evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller has even ingeniously attributed this change in behavior to the creation of online social media, which change the whole nature of status signaling—where sharing experiences may have gained signaling power at the expense of possessions.

More and more economic value is becoming entirely divorced from the physical attributes of a thing, and resides in intangibles. London's most expensive street consists of terraces of houses which most wealthy Victorians would have found laughably small; it is the fashionable address which gives them their value, and the fact that living in the center of a city is now deemed more fashionable than living in suburbia.

The great thing about intangible value, I suppose, is that its creation involves very little environmental damage. It may help disabuse people of the belief that the only way to save the planet is for us to impoverish ourselves. What it may mean is that those same human qualities of status-rivalry and novelty-seeking which can be so destructive might be redirected even if they cannot be eliminated.