During the Industrial Era economies around the world grew rapidly. And as they grew, they used more year after year of the Earth’s resources: metals, minerals, fertilizers, trees, fossil fuels, cropland, and so on. Then we invented the computer and its kin, and the pattern changed. Hardware, software, and networks allow companies to use fewer materials as they produce their goods and services. Profit-seeking companies in competitive markets are eager to pursue these opportunities to dematerialize because they bring cost savings, and a penny saved is a penny earned. Dematerialization accumulates over time, and the economy as a whole eventually moves past “peak stuff” with respect to more and more resources. The counterintuitive result is that capitalist, technology-intensive economies like America’s are now dematerializing across a wide range of resources, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Energy costs money just as materials do, so we’ll soon move past peak energy use in the United States. Total US carbon emissions will decrease in the future for two reasons: lower overall energy use, and the broad switch now underway from high-carbon coal to lower-carbon energy sources such as natural gas, solar, and wind.
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