Recently I was at a friend’s house for dinner and she was cooking fish on the grill outside. She came in the house looking for a flashlight, and when she asked her husband where it was, he said, “Use my phone.” He clicked on the flashlight app and a strong beam of light came out of the camera flash.
In this season of consumerism, I like to focus on the fact that we are living in an age of dematerialization. Computers, the Internet, and smartphones are eliminating the need for countless products.
When I was growing up, my family had a multi-volume encyclopedia taking up lots of room on a shelf. Who needs that, or a dictionary any more? Think of the forests of trees no longer being consumed for reference books.
Many of us have (or had) shelves and racks full of books, CDs, and DVDs. But who needs those anymore with ebooks, iTunes, and streaming video services? Think of the manufacturing plants, distribution centers, trucks, and retail stores that are no longer needed, not to mention space in our homes.
How many of us have shelves full of photo albums gathering dust? Now our cameras don’t have film, and we view our photos on screen. Think of the millions of gallons of developing chemicals, miles of film, all the ink and paper no longer needed—and that’s just for the countless bad snapshots that we tossed out right away.
Linked to dematerialization is a change in attitude towards possessions. When John Lennon wrote the song “Imagine,” the line about no possessions seemed hopelessly idealistic, or a paean to some kind of soft-headed communism.
Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world…
But now it’s coming true.
Recently Thomas Friedman wrote about the new “sharing economy,” and a website called Tradesy where people can buy and sell used high-fashion garments and accessories, including wedding dresses. The website was started by a woman named Tracy DiNunzio who needed a way to get rid of her wedding dress after a short marriage.
The sharing economy is producing both new entrepreneurs and a new concept of ownership. “With improved peer-to-peer commerce platforms that remove the friction and risk from multiparty transactions, consumers are being empowered to value and sell their space, their belongings and their time in ways that weren’t previously possible,” said DiNunzio. “For those at the cutting edge of this trend, durable goods are viewed as temporal objects to enjoy and pass on rather than ‘belongings.’ Personally, I no longer feel like I ‘own’ anything. I enjoy my consumer goods for a day, a week or a year, take good care of them because I assume they’ll go on to have another life with someone else, then share or sell whatever I’m tired of. I get access to goods and services that would typically be beyond my means, without accumulating a ton of stuff.”
This “lightweight living,” she added, “goes hand in hand with a reimagined concept of ownership that’s focused on utility rather than possession, and can ultimately result in consumers enjoying more variety for their dollar.” [my bold]
The founders of Google are imagining a future where no one owns a car, according to an article, “Auto Correct,” in The New Yorker:
Most cars are used only for an hour or two a day, [Sergey Brin] said. The rest of the time they’re parked on the street or in driveways and garages. But if cars could drive themselves, there would be no need for most people to own them. A fleet of vehicles could operate as a personalized public-transportation system, picking people up and dropping them off independently, waiting at parking lots between calls. They’d be cheaper and more efficient than taxis—by some calculations, they’d use half the fuel and a fifth the road space of ordinary cars—and far more flexible than buses or subways. Streets would clear, highways shrink, parking lots turn to parkland.
I like the sound of this; although when you think about the requirements of rush hour it’s hard to see how this would work.
In 1973 Ray Anderson founded Interface, the world’s largest manufacturer of commercial carpet tile. In 1994 he was asked to give his company’s salespeople some talking points about Interface’s approach to the environment. Mr. Anderson had what he called his “conversion experience” when he asked for an analysis of the quantity of raw materials his factories used. The answer: his factories and his suppliers extracted 1.2 billion pounds of material to produce $802 million dollars worth of carpet products in the previous year.
Of those 1.2 billion pounds, 400 million were relatively abundant inorganic materials, and 800 million were petrol-based, coming from oil, coal, or natural gas. Mr. Anderson wrote in his book Mid-Course Correction,
Now here’s the thing that gagged me the most: roughly two-thirds of that 800 million pounds of irreplaceable, non-renewable, exhaustible, precious natural resource was burned up—two-thirds!—to produce the energy to convert the other one-third, along with the 400 million pounds of inorganic material, into products… My company’s technologies and those of every other company I know of anywhere, in their present forms, are plundering the earth.
Mr. Anderson envisioned a new industrial system based on circular processes—leasing, not owning. A product is manufactured and leased to a consumer who uses it until it wears out, at which time the producer replaces it with a new product. The producer doesn’t discard anything, but recycles all the worn materials into new products, which are then placed in a consumer’s home to replace worn-out items. The raw materials for any given product are continuously reused in a loop.
In this new scheme, we don’t buy things any more; we lease their use. Anderson’s company has developed a program they call Evergreen Lease: a customer no longer buys carpet from Interface; they lease “carpet service.” Interface installs, maintains, and regularly replaces worn carpet tiles.
I can imagine this trend continuing to the point where no one owns land anymore—it’s owned by everyone, and leased for responsible use. Traditional cultures around the world saw land this way, as unownable, which is what made it so easy for the Europeans to grab property during the centuries of conquest and colonization.
When I think of the billions of citizens of the planet waiting for their turn at a first-world lifestyle, this trend towards dematerialization and de-emphasis on possession is very good news.