The environmentalist mantra "live simply so that others may simply live" has been around for at least a couple decades.
But it hasn't had a discernable impact on the American consumer, whose personal consumption spending has risen about 5% since the late 1980s, to 70-72% of our entire gross domestic product. (That's the highest in the industrialized world; in Europe it's more like 50-60%.)
And the worst recession since the 1980s may not be stopping us. To judge from this morning's newscasts, thousands lined up in front stores around the country late last night, so that as soon as the clock ticked over from Thanksgiving Day to Black Friday, they would be first through the open doors to grab bargain-priced products out from under the fingers of their fellow shoppers
In other words: I am American. Watch me spend.
This trend strongly suggests that taking only a morality-based approach to curbing material lust won't shrink the average American's personal avarice. So what about changing how we make things as well?
A revolution in manufacturing, called digital fabrication or "fabbing," holds the promise to dramatically shrink the amount of material and energy that go into creating and distributing our gizmos, gadgets, and other objects of desire, without curbing their quality or availability.
"You can't set aside fabbing" when looking at the next wave of change in how we make things for daily use, says my friend and fellow former Worldchanger, futurist Jamais Cascio. "The compelling trend in manufacturing, looking out over the course of the next decade, really does include an increasing availability of local manufacturing, that is, the localist movement taken to the industrial extreme."
A fabber is effectively a small, self-contained factory that can take a two-dimentional plan -- a computer file containing the design of a toy, for instance -- and "print" it as a solid, three-dimensional object. As the machine reads the plan, the fabber's small nozzle moves back and forth, just like the nozzle of an inkjet computer printer. Instead of spraying ink onto a piece of paper, it deposits tiny drops of a quick-hardening plastic, layer by layer, until the entire object is built.
The plastic material used by fabbers to print objects can have diverse qualities -- there are even polymers that conduct electricity. And these polymers can be part of the solution. "If you design these polymers [and] printers the right way," says Jamais, "you can end up in a world where when you're done with something, you essentially drop it in the recycling bucket, and it gets broken down into the constituent polymers that you can then use for the next thing you want to print out. It's the ultimate cradle-to-cradle model."
Jamais believes that this is not just possible, but likely, and within the next two decades.
In terms of both size and cost, the technological trajectory of fabbers is closely mirroring that of personal computers. The hulking digital fabricators of a few years ago have given way to desktop-sized units, and while a ready-built fabber can go for $15,000, the mechanically-inclined can build one using open-source plans for around $2,300.
That's solid prosumer territory -- the product niche between the professional and the casual user. And sure enough, right now the "maker" community of hardcore do-it-yourself technology enthusiasts is the group doing some of the most innovative work with fabbers and fabbing
"This is one of those of areas that is a sleeper, a sleeper trend that has the potentital to be really transformative when it hits," he tells me. "The challenge is getting the software to point where you don't have to be expert in both Linux and in design to get it to work."