‘In this episode of the Making Sense podcast, Sam Harris speaks with Andrew McAfee about the history of human progress and the modern uncoupling of our prosperity from resource consumption. They discuss the pitfalls and hidden virtues of capitalism, technological progress, environmental policy, the future of the developing world, and other topics.’ (Starts at 06:00)
Most undergraduate students will have heard the story of technological progress and human advancements through capitalist dynamics.
This long talk between two white men reproduces these classical liberal narratives and adds an environmental aspect to it, which is the newest discovery in McAfee's book "More from less". According to McAfee, we can see a "decoupling" of human wealth from material consumption which opens up the possibility for a future that does not rely on intensive material consumption and extractive technologies.
In the so-called "Second Machine-Age" societies continue to grow but with less material impact. Thanks to the digital economy and tech-progress we can get "more from less". E.g. today's aluminium cans have only 1/5 of the weight and material of the original one, thanks to profit-driven firms that want to save money. "A penny saved is a penny earned". Another example would be the savings that have been achieved through the pooling of many functions into one device (Smartphone).
McAfee wants to give back optimism towards the survival of the human species and the dynamics of our capitalist society. Sadly, he does so by leaving out important arguments that are general knowledge in a more critical discussion of capitalist dynamics. It is well known that more efficient technologies do not result in less consumption and that boomerang effects can undermine less material consumption. One can doubt that his numbers on US material consumptions are correct since he does not mention the fact that much of the material consumption has been outsourced to other countries in order to produce products for western markets. One wants to give him a copy of Tim Jackson's "Prosperity without Growth" in order to give perspective to his biased world-view.
Another perspective that is not addressed is a post-colonial one, in which our progress depends on a high degree of exploitation of resources and workers in the global south. Power structures and dynamics of a world system based on profit are left out and seem to play no role. For him, history is just a linear movement of progressive change that results from the innovation-based market system.
The talk is exemplary for an over-optimistic, almost naive, liberal world view and can be used to show the pitfalls of such thinking. It is easy to dismantle arguments like this and give counter-examples.