Small but mighty: how the smartphone represents a modern material society © Getty Images

Small but mighty: how the smartphone represents a modern material society

Electronics are getting smaller, which should mean they use fewer resources. The trouble is that we want so many of them that the Earth is struggling to cope.

The growth of household gadgets and consumer tech has touched all our lives. The information that was once held only in the bound pages of an encyclopedia is now just a few clicks away. The equipment lugged around by amateur photographers is replaced by the tiny (or not so tiny) iPhones in each of our pockets.

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While physical size has shrunk, capacity has expanded. But the miniaturisation of the products we buy en masse has not led to the miniaturisation of their environmental cost.

The following edited extract from Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities by Vaclav Smil (£32, The MIT Press) explores the true price of the materialistic society we all adhere to.


After millennia of slow and unsteady progress, two centuries of our unprecedented growth have brought changes that were truly unimaginable at the outset of this process.

Growth has brought a number of obvious benefits, from making life easier (including the ownership of machines and gadgets that make running a household incomparably less onerous that a century ago) to however ephemeral feelings of satisfaction and enjoyment by displaying often almost instantly disposable pieces of manufactured junk.

Compared to these, losses of individual comforts and intangible benefits are of a minor importance. Although many individuals value them very highly. For myself, they might include walking on a quiet forest path, looking at a starry sky bisected by the Milky Way, standing alone in front of Las Meninas.

Las Meninas by Diego Velàzquez
One of life’s immaterial pleasures: looking at Las Meninas by Diego Velàzquez

Any meaningful cost-benefit analysis of these personal gains and burdens inherent in mass consumption is impossible. The two effects have no common metric. But, though challenging, appraising the collective gains and losses raises indisputable concerns, above all because of our obligation to maintain a habitable biosphere.

Techno-optimists cite the recent dematerialisation trend, where ‘less is more’, as a key shift promised to make a new world possible.

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But while this dematerialisation by miniaturisation – think of consumer electronics – has helped to maintain some high growth rates, absolute material numbers are a different matter. Mass consumption is also always increased consumption of mass, be that consumption of energy or raw materials.

Size does matter

Arguments about the impressive miniaturisation of modern electronics are based on faulty assumptions. Smartphones may be small and light but their energy and material footprints are surprisingly large.

In absolute terms, a car with a mass 10,000 times that of a smartphone embodies considerably more energy, but global aggregates tell a very different story.

In 2015, worldwide sales reached 1.9 billion mobile phones, 60 million laptops, and 230 million tablets. Their total mass was about 550,000 tonnes, and with conservative assumptions of average embodied energies of 0.25 gigajoules (109 joules) per phone, 4.5 gigajoules per laptop, and 1 gigajoule for a tablet, making these devices required about 1 exajoule (1018 joules) of primary energy.

A passenger car, made of steel, aluminium, and plastics, needs nearly 100 gigajoules to produce, which means that the 72 million vehicles sold in 2015 embodied about 7 exajoules of energy in about 100 million tonnes of machines.

The mass of newly sold cars was thus 180 times that of all portable electronics – but their production required only seven times as much energy.

In 2015, car production took seven times more energy than electronics © Getty Images
In 2015, car production took seven times more energy than electronics © Getty Images

Portable electronic devices have short life spans, averaging just two years, and their production thus embodies globally about 0.5 exajoules per year of use.

Passenger cars last a decade and their worldwide production embodies about 0.7 exajoules per year of use – only 40 per cent more than making all portable electronic devices!

This makes for a stunning conclusion: even if my approximate aggregate calculations were to err by 50 per cent in opposite directions (i.e., cars embodying more and electronics requiring less energy than I assume), the global totals would be still of the same order of magnitude and, most likely, they would not differ by more than a factor of two.

Of course, operating energy costs are vastly different, but in aggregate, tiny phones leave a not-so-tiny energy – and environmental – footprint.

The environmental cost of growth

There is no need to be a catastrophist in order to see what I call the great obverse: all that we have lost as a result of growth in mass consumption, the extent to which we have already imperilled the life on Earth, and the potential for further damage. The overall environmental cost of growth is still going up, as it spans an enormous range of impacts.

There is no need to resort to exaggerated claims about species loss to realise that the decline of global biodiversity has been proceeding at rates that, on geological time scales, may already amount to the Earth’s sixth mass extinction wave.

I have calculated that during the 20th Century the mass of wild mammals was halved (and the mass of elephants was reduced by 90 per cent), while the mass of domesticated animals more than tripled and the global mass of humanity more than quadrupled.

Losses of high-quality arable land in alluvial regions and destruction of natural coastlands – both done in order to accommodate growing cities, factories, and transportation links – do not make urgent headlines, but their extent clearly imperils our capacity to feed ourselves.

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China now has less arable land per capita than Bangladesh and yet its population is too large to be ever fed by imports. There is not enough grain on the global market to satisfy China’s annual need for rice, wheat, and corn even if China were the only importer.

There are no simple, single-value thresholds that would indicate crossing the lines from worrisome but acceptable levels of deterioration of the biosphere to the realm of catastrophic outcomes.

But our understanding of the dynamic links between the state of the biosphere and the fortunes of our civilisation makes it clear that all of the trends that have been moving in undesirable directions will have to be, sooner rather than later, curtailed if not reversed.

Good life within planetary boundaries is possible even if the global population continues to grow – but not without fundamentally restructured provisioning systems, a shift that would entail substantial challenge to current economic strategies.

Those who believe in imminent singularity make an even more improbable claim: they predict acceleration of perpetual growth based on electronics.

A small minority of economists, and many historians, environmentalists, and students of complex systems disagree. They recognise the obvious: the impossibility of infinite growth on a finite planet.

But the steps we have taken so far have been insignificant and largely ineffective compared to the ubiquity and the scale of the required temporary remedies and eventual long-lasting solutions.

Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities by Vaclav Smil (£32.00, The MIT Press) is out now.

Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities by Vaclav Smil is out now (£32.00, The MIT Press)

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