• Open Access

The Physical Economy of the United States of America

Extraction, Trade, and Consumption of Materials from 1870 to 2005

Authors

  • Sylvia Gierlinger,

  • Fridolin Krausmann


Sylvia Gierlinger, Institute of Social Ecology, Alpen Adria Universitaet, Schottenfeldgasse 29, 1070 Wien, 1070 Vienna, Austria. Email:sylvia.gierlinger@aau.at

Summary

The United States is not only the world's largest economy, but it is also one of the world's largest consumers of natural resources. The country, which is inhabited by some 5% of the world's population, uses roughly one-fifth of the global primary energy supply and 15% of all extracted materials. This article explores long-term trends and patterns of material use in the United States. Based on a material flow account (MFA) that is fully consistent with current standards of economy-wide MFAs and covers domestic extraction, imports, and exports of materials for a 135-year period, we investigated the evolution of the U.S. industrial metabolism. This process was characterized by an 18-fold increase in material consumption, a multiplication of material use per capita, and a shift from renewable biomass toward mineral and fossil resources. In spite of considerable improvements in material intensity, no dematerialization has happened so far; in contrast to other high-income countries, material use has not stabilized since the 1970s, but has continued to grow. This article compares patterns and trends of material use in the United States with those in Japan and the United Kingdom and discusses the factors underlying the disproportionately high level of U.S. per capita resource consumption.

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