Peak paper

I’ve recently published a piece in Aeon, looking at the peak in global paper use, which occurred a couple of years ago, and arguing that this is an indication of a less resource-intensive future. Over the fold, a longer draft – I’ll add hyperlinks back in if I get a free moment.

Since the dawn of history (literally, of written records), civilisation has depended critically on paper. As living standards have risen, so has the volume of paper produced, printed and read. The more knowledge we have and the wider its distribution, the more paper is needed.

At least, that was true until the end of the 20th century. With the rise of the Internet, the correlation between paper and information broke down. Increasingly, information is created and manipulated in electronic form, with paper serving mainly as an official record of the process.

In 2013, the world reached Peak Paper. World production and consumption of paper reached its maximum, flattened out, and is now falling. In fact, the peak in the traditional use of paper, for writing and printing, took place a few years earlier, but was offset for a while by continued growth in other uses, such as packaging and tissues.

China, by virtue of its size, rapid growth and middle-income status is the bellwether here; as China goes, so goes the world. Unsurprisingly in this light, China’s own peak year for paper use also occurred in 2013. Poorer countries, where universal literacy is only just arriving, are still increasing their use of paper, but even in these countries the peak is not far away.

The arrival of Peak Paper is of interest for a number of reasons.

* First, it is, in large measure, the realisation of a prediction that was over-hyped in 20th century, and then derided in the early 2000s, namely, that of the Paperless Office.

* Second, Peak Paper illustrates the meaninglessness of traditional concepts of economic growth in an information economy.  

* Third, the information economy that has produced Peak Paper implies a whole range, or mountainous terrain, of Peaks and Plateaus in natural resources of all kinds. Unlike the resource exhaustion scenario traditionally associated with the idea of Peak Oil, these peaks will be reached because improved living standards no longer require the ever-growing throughput of resources that characterized the 20th century industrial economy.

Let’s look first at the Paperless Office. The development of minicomputers and word processors in the 1970s led some farsighted thinkers to realise that computers would eventually have the same impact on office work, based on text, as they had already had on numerical tasks like payroll calculation. The phrase ‘the paperless office’ came to prominence in 1975, in a Businessweek article entitled The Office of the Future.

Initially, however, the rise of computers had the opposite effect. Computerisation generated vastly more information, which could be revised and reformatted in many different ways. But nearly everyone wanted to receive their information on paper, as what used to be called ‘hard copy’. The paperless Office of the Future appeared as a utopian vision, never to be realised.

The key point in the reaction was the publication of ‘The Myth of the Paperless Office’ by Abigail Sellen and Richard Harper, which crystallised the perception that the paperless office had failed. One wit suggested that ‘the paperless toilet will arrive before the paperless office.’

As it turned out, however, Sellen and Harper’s book appeared just as the paperless office was becoming a reality. As computer screens became more readable, and people learned to work with email and PDF documents, practices like printing out documents for offline reading declined. By now, we have reached the point where, far from being preferred, paper documents are subject to scanning and optical character recognition to get them into a digital form where they can be filed, searched and emailed.

The shift towards on-screen reading has affected other printed paper outlets, most notably newspapers and magazines. Surprisingly few newspapers have actually ceased publication, but nearly all have downsized, or even eliminated, their print versions.

Peak Paper is of interest to anyone concerned with the future of the world’s forests, but its significance goes well beyond that. Understanding Peak Paper tells us a great deal about the way the information economy of the 21st century differs from the 20th century industrial economy. Although the industrial economy is a thing of the past for most of us as far as work and daily life is concerned (In the entire United States, less than 2 million people are employed in large factories, and even adding China into the picture does not change things much), the conceptual categories of the 20th century still dominate our thinking.

Central to this thinking is the industrial model of economic growth, developed and formalised in the 20th century, and centred on the concept of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The industrial model is one in which growth constitutes ‘more of everything’. More precisely, a growing stock of capital means that, using the same amount of labour, more and more resources can be processed into more and more final goods. This model leads naturally to the conclusion, central to the ‘Limits to Growth’ debate of the 1970s, that economic growth must eventually run up against constraints on the availability of natural resources, notably including trees to make paper.

A related, and critical, assumption, implicit in both the standard projections of ever-growing GDP? and in critiques like Limits to Growth, is that all sectors of the economy expand at a roughly equal rate. If this ‘fixed proportions’ assumption does not hold, the index number theory used to construct GDP numbers ceases to work, and the concept of a ‘rate of growth’ is no longer meaningful.

Peak Paper points up the meaningless of measures of economic growth in an information economy. Consider first the ‘fixed proportions’ assumption that resource inputs, economic outputs and the value of those outputs grow, broadly speaking in parallel. Until the end of the 20th century, these assumptions worked reasonably well for paper, books and newspapers, and the information they transmitted. The volume of information grew somewhat more rapidly than the economy as a whole, but not so rapidly as to undermine the notion of an aggregate rate of economic growth.

Throughout this period, the volume of printed books, newspapers and so on grew steadily, to around a million new books every year (Wikipedia). In total, Google estimates that 130 million different books have been published throughout history. The demand for paper for printing grew in line with that for books.

In the 21st century, these relationships have broken down. On the one hand, as we have already seen, the production of consumption and paper has slowed and declined. On the other hand, there has been an explosion in the production and distribution of information of all kinds. In 2010, Eric Schmidt of Google estimated that ‘Every 2 Days We Create As Much Information As We Did Up To 2003’. This claim has been the subject of some dispute, and is inevitably subject to definitional disputes. However, it is about the right order of magnitude if we compare the volume of digital information being created daily with the volume of information committed to paper throughout history

In any case, the estimate was out of date as soon it was made. The study on which Schmidt drew estimated an annual growth rate of 50 per cent in the volume of information being generated. Five years later, the volume is around seven times as large.

These estimates are consistent with personal experience. My first hard disk drive, 25 years ago, held 20 megabytes of data. My various storage systems now total about a terabyte, 50 000 times as much. That’s consistent with a growth rate of 50 per cent. Many readers will be able to confirm this for themselves by looking at their own data usage history and recalling that local storage has been replicated by ‘The Cloud” over the same period.

Finally, let’s consider the relationship between Peak Paper and the better known idea of Peak Oil. Information is now the primary engine of economic development and improved living standards, but we are still dealing with the legacy of the 19th and 20th centuries, when energy held centre stage. In particular, there is an urgent need to reduce, and ultimately eliminate, our use of carbon-based fuels in transport, industry and electricity generation.

There is a widespread belief that this goal can only be achieved with drastic reductions in living standards. Even in the absence of the imperative to decarbonise, advocates of the ‘Peak Oil’ hypothesis argue that an inevitable decline in the availability of oil will produce a sharp decline in living standards. This argument is another manifestation of the ‘fixed proportions’ assumption.

The analogy with Peak Paper shows why these beliefs are false. As with the historical relationship between paper and information, the demand for energy, and for fossil fuels to generate it, grew hand in hand with production of goods and services over most of the 19th and 20th centuries. And, as with paper, the industrial-era relationship between economic development and fossil fuels is no longer relevant.

The most notable example, all the more striking because it is central to so much misguided thinking, is that of oil. The world reached Peak Oil, in terms of consumption per person, in 1979. In the developed countries, the decline in oil consumption per person has outpaced population growth with the result that total consumption is declining. The average person in a developed country now uses less oil than their parents did 40 years ago.

This remarkable change hasn’t attracted much notice, for several reasons. First, much of the reduction in energy use has taken the virtually invisible form of improvements in energy efficiency. Both industrial processes and household appliances use far less energy than they did in the past. The only occasion on which this process has attracted any real attention has been with the ideological campaign by US Republicans to block the shift to more efficient lightbulbs, a policy that was legislated under the Bush Administration but implemented under Obama.

Second, until fairly recently, the main substitutes for oil have been other fossil fuels such as coal and gas. Oil-fired electricity generation was replaced by coal in the 1970s and 1980s, and then by gas. Oil for purposes such as home heating was replaced by a combination of gas and (fossil-fuel generated) electricity. It is only in the last ten years that renewable energy sources, most notably wind and solar photovoltaics, have begun to play a substantial role, but this trend is now well established.

Peak Coal has already arrived in the developed world. Coal consumption has fallen substantially in the United States and Europe, and is set to fall even further. Until recently, the decline in fossil fuel use in the developed world has been more than offset by rapid growth in developing countries, particularly in China and India.

But China has turned away from coal recently, largely because of the huge health costs associated with emissions of particulates and mercury. Beginning with Beijing, China has begun closing down all the coal-fired power stations located near major cities. Although construction of new coal-fired power stations has continued, it is no longer enough to offset the closure of older, dirtier plants. As a result of this trend, and a slowdown in the steel industry, China reached Peak Coal in 2013, at the same time as it reached Peak Paper.

India also is shifting the emphasis of its energy strategy to place more weight on renewables. The citizens of heavily polluted cities like Delhi are becoming increasingly unwilling to put up with the lethal effects of coal burning.

Peak Paper, Peak Oil and Peak Coal signal the end of the industrial economy that emerged in the 19th century and dominated the 20th. They do not, however, imply a reduction in living standards or an end to the process of economic development in countries that are currently poor. Rather, the information economy in which we are now living allows us to break the link between improving living standards and unsustainable growth in the extraction and consumption of material resources.

37 thoughts on “Peak paper

  1. John, you are right that consumption pattens are more slippery than simple exponential or linear increase models suggest. But a conceptual argument of the kind above is still no substitute for a serious input output model/table recognizing even the latter are subject to the Garbage in Garbage out problem.

    Emphatically I dont suggest your thesis is garbage but rather it is still an hypothesis that needs serious testing and accounting which I cant see you have yet provided or plan to.

    To illustrate the problem using your peak paper analogy.
    – The issue here is arguably not so much resources involving paper use as resources involving waste and information technology. Certainly there is no comparison between the amount of energy to store and access day to day my 8000 Endnote references on a thumb drive v. the 500 or so hard copies of journal articles I am currently purging and seldom access. However how much embodied energy is there in my laptop as against the several tens of kgs of photocopies which would be the alternative noting laptops die every 3-4 years or so. The laptop may be smaller to look at but how much energy went into it?

    – Here is an example of the sums being done fairly recently DENG, L., BABBITT, C. W. & WILLIAMS, E. D. 2011. Economic-balance hybrid LCA extended with uncertainty analysis: case study of a laptop computer. Journal of Cleaner Production, 19, 1198-1206.

    Their estimate is 3600 MJ embodied for a typical 2001 laptop about the amount of heat you would get from burning 150 kg of coal! And this is before you start accounting for the cost of setting up and maintaining the communications network without which the paperless office is not possible.

    Or there is the energy cost of future developments especially Rosie the household robot. Or widespread 3D printers?!

    The potential problem identified by ecological economists here is termed blowback. Sure new technology can introduce huge efficiencies which conceptually are positive sustainability wise. But then we go and spend the savings on more consumption/stuff. The process is jerky and so like with climate change by selecting your timescale you can show things are getting worse or better.

    I reiterate I dont know fully whether you are wrong or right, I fully acknowledge I am (legitimately I think) playing Devils’ Advocate and you pose an interesting hypothesis for which you present some data.

    But sorry, arguments alone in this game are insufficient so I am still unconvinced whether the paperless office is good or bad.

    ps. Another illustration of blowback which I love is that of University administration. Despite us all having 1980 supercomputer equivalents on our desktops, the old system I remember seems to have worked better than its modern paperless office equivalent….. for interesting reasons like empowerment of management control freaks.

    [pps Other problem I’m seeing are excessive extrapolation (from paper to fossil fuel), timescale (pretty selective and short term) and magnitude scale for changing patterns (arithmetic rather than logarithmic), selective statistics (Western reduction in oil use is partly because manufacturing has been shifted to China etc). But lets leave those for another time.]

  2. Less paper means less waste from paper manufacture which is good. How are we going overall on waste issues I wonder? Two kinds of peaks count with waste;

    1. Peak emissions.
    2. Peak accumulation.

    CO2e is a good example. We are probably at peak CO2e now give or take a few years. However, accumulation continues in the atmosphere and oceans. It is the accumulation of waste that leads to long-term problems in most cases. Any thoughts of an article sometime on the peak waste issue?

  3. @Newtownian

    I haven’t checked the source, but 150kg of coal makes about 150 kWh of electricity which sounds plausible for lifetime use for a laptop. Manufacturing energy can’t be much for a device that weighs less than a kilo.

    In any case, the correct comparison for a stack of paper files isn’t a laptop with the power of a 1990 supercomputer, it’s something like a Nook, weighing 200g and using 10W of power.

  4. There is another factor as well: when it comes to use of office computers, and now even home use, computer monitors and docks are readily available, fairly cheap, allowing a set up with multiple monitors. The moment I had dual monitors, I felt far less need for paper. The reason is simple: concentration isn’t as disrupted if you have multiple monitors. I once used paper for manuals and help info, so I could consult it while using a single monitor for editing work, etc. I found that having to switch between windows on a single monitor was really bad for concentration, whereas flicking gaze from one monitor across to another is, for some weird reason, almost zero distraction by comparison. Once I had that second monitor for using as a place to open an online help manual, I gave up on hardcopy manuals.

    I still purchase (probably too many) paper-printed books, but even there I am willing to make more use of the tablet form and e-books. The paper book has its uses, but the disadvantages are considerable too (eg weight, and storage in confined living environments of the modern city).

    Being able to write pen on paper is still an incredibly useful skill, just that it may well be an e-pen on e-paper now.

  5. A quibble: should you be using the term ‘peak oil’ to mean something so different from what is usually meant?

    Will reductions in demand for paper reduce the amount of forest, as plantation timber is replaced by other agriculture?

    Does ’embodied energy’ include the energy use of labour inputs? If I use on average 4kW of power, and I take 5 hours to read a book, should I add 20kWhrs to its embodied energy?

  6. This morning the local church had a sign “no more books”. Paper – you cannot give it away.

  7. An additional data point in support of JQ’s theory. World production of blast furnace iron fell in 2014 by 2%, 23 million tonnes. (Source: World Steel Association, The much smaller production of direct reduced iron fell by 1% (-0.6 mt). This is the new iron produced from ore, excluding the increasing quantity of recycled steel. In a long-term steady state, new iron falls to the level needed to replace the small percentage of steel that can’t be recycled (cans in landfills, etc).

    2013 is beginning to look like a major tipping point: peak paper, peak pig iron, peak coal, peak emissions. Peak Stuff overall is not quite here yet, but it looks as if it’s on the way. The date will go down with other truly historic ones like the inventions of movable-type printing in 1439 and the first programmable computer in 1944-46 (Colossus and ENIAC).

    I discuss an important and more sceptical new paper by Thomas Wiedmann et al here ( Taking account of offshoring, he estimates that material consumption grew 60% as fast as GDP in recent decades and does not find evidence of an acceleration in decoupling. But there is room for hope once you dig into the data on construction in China. Another issue is that we really do not have to worry about sand and rock in construction, only cement.

  8. The wit was right: paperless toilets DID precede peak paper. They were invented in Japan in 1980 according to wikipedia.

  9. @Tom Davies
    Why worry about embodied energy in the first place? If it’s renewable, in practically unlimited supply, energy use per se is not a constraint. The carbon footprint is, and possibly the use of scarce metals.

  10. Instead of single issues we should be concerned about complex system behaviours and interactions. Climate is one complex system being investigated (by IPCC and others). In addition there is Global Footprint Analysis being developed by Global Footprint Network and Planetary Boundaries being investigated by Stockholm Resilience. Thermoeconomics or biophysical economics is attempting to elucidate the links between the economic system and the biological and biosphere systems. Finally, political economy, fully deployed, examines the interactions between ideology and the production and allocation decisions of a society.

    Without a complex systems understanding of what is going on, frankly we are not going to understand anything. The IPCC analysis indicates we are at or close to a planetary boundary for climate change. Planetary Boundaries analysis by Stockholm Resilience suggests we have passed the planetary (safety) boundary for climate and for two other parameters namely biodiversity loss and the biogeochemical nitrogen cycle. Global Footprint Analysis suggests our footprint is now 1.6 earths, indicating we are heavily drawing down on “natural capital” and thus not at all living within our “natural interest” income.

    In turn, the performance of our economic system, late stage global capitalism, has not demonstrated that it is sufficiently “aware” enough or responsive enough to meet the challenges posed by these emerging environmental crises. Indeed, the capitalist system is systematically and systemically opposed to the empirically necessary measures to save our biosphere as a suitable place for human habitation and civilization. Given that capitalism has so far failed to respond adequately to the full dimensions of the environmental crises it has created, the most likely outcome is that it will continue to fail to do so.

  11. @Tom Davies

    A few quibble of my own, constructiv I hope.

    Does ‘embodied energy’ include the energy use of labour inputs? If I use on average 4kW of power, and I take 5 hours to read a book, should I add 20kWhrs to its embodied energy?

    This has been covered a little bit on this blog, though perhaps not enough. No you don’t count it since you are going to consume that energy anyway. Similarly the 4kw each worker doesn’t count need to be counted if they would consume it in other jobs or sitting around otherwise.
    The real answer to this is that either look at direct energy costs only (reasonably direct so yes tree harvesting fuel, transport, paper manufacture should be included for book manufacture). Or if you want to look at indirect energy costs, leave it to someone who can do the appropriate analysis and maths, it is complex. You get things like feedback loops and need to cover a while lot of other activities. Not an expert myself, but I would think you want a good reason to believe indirect energy consumption is significant before going down that route.
    If you do something like assume the entire cost of the book is energy cost that will cover all indirect energy usage anyway, otherwise one of the intermediate manufactures must have access to cheap energy or someone is making a loss.

  12. A point I only just noticed is that reading paper requires external illumination, usually from an electric light. A backlit smartphone or tablet is massively more efficient (<5 – 10 watts vs 40+ for the traditional reading lamp). So, it's a win all round for the digital version.

  13. @John Quiggin
    Well, anyone with a modicum of sense would replace the bulb in their traditional reading lamp with an LED and achieve the same efficiency gain. But I don’t really disagree with the point. 🙂

  14. @Ikonoclast

    “Instead of single issues we should be concerned about complex system behaviours and interactions.”

    Hmm, you obviously haven’t heard about “Can of Worms” theory, Ikono: when dealing with complex matters that you don’t understand and which will take a lot of time and effort to unravel, and when you most definitely want to avoid ‘paralysis by analysis’, then use the CoW technique, viz: Open the can, pick out the biggest worm, fix it, rinse, repeat.

    In short, how much more analysis is actually needed ?

    “Given that capitalism has so far failed to respond adequately to the full dimensions of the environmental crises …”

    Right, so let’s not wait any longer for it to do so. Even the Koch brothers haven’t got that much longer to live. Bring on the worm killer !

  15. Ikonoclast at 17. You talk about the need for a systems approach, which I agree with, but then you are systematically biased in the systems approach work you cite, in that you only cite the pessimistic analyses. Steve Hatfield-Dodds’ systems analysis which was published in Nature indicated there are a number of options we can choose for the future for Australia which enable us to have well-being and economic growth as well as reducing fossil fuel consumption and slowing and even reversing material throughput growth.

    By the way John, are you ever going to do a review of the Hatfield-Dodds work?

  16. @Mike Huben

    “… paperless toilets … were invented in Japan in 1980 according to Wikipedia”

    That’s interesting, because the French invented the bidet – the foundation of paperless toilets – back in the late 17th century, also according to Wikipedia. And I have no idea what he Chinese did (they being the inventors, more or less, of actual ‘paper’ sometime in the Han dynasty).

    But you see, Les Grenouilles didn’t have toilet rolls or even daily newspapers back in the late 1600s, so they had to do something, I guess.

  17. What this misses is that an economy does not just have a size, it also has a structure. And the structure can only shift so fast, and its possibilities are limited by past history, deep structure, resource availability and more. The energy flowing through the industrial structure supported a range of mid-size economic niches (in the media, journalists, editors, proof-readers, machinists, type-setters and so on). Not only is there less energy flowing through, say, digital media, but it’s moving too fast for mid-range actors to capture it. There are many fewer niches, and the flow is more easily captured by the top.

    In any event, the ability to chatter to each other more and more does not do anything about the nitrogen cycle, topsoil loss or other ecological issues. We can live with less chatter – less food is a different proposition.

  18. @John Goss

    Fair enough. I will have a look at it thanks.

    I will just add about IPCC assessments, that there is a fair amount of empirical evidence coming through now that they have been biased to the optimistic and conservative side of assessment. So, it is not entirely true to state that I only cite pessimistic analyses.

  19. @Peter T

    Just a little quote from Wikipedia (under the topic Food Waste):

    “The 2011 SIK study estimated the total of global food loss and waste to around one third of the edible parts of food produced for human consumption, amounting to about 1.3 billion tons per year.”

    Seems to me we could do very well with a lot less food if we’d stop wasting so much of it.

  20. @GrueBleen

    So we could. My point is that the many of the global surplus-food producing areas (US mid-west, Ukraine, Australia) are essentially top-soil mining using large machinery and massive amounts of fertiliser. If this comes unstuck for climatic or ecological or economic or political reasons then the effects will ripple through the system in all sorts of ways, and be quite out of proportion to their contribution to GDP.

  21. @Peter T

    structure can only shift so fast, and its possibilities are limited by past history, deep structure, resource availability and more.

    Yes. That’s why the Paperless Office didn’t happen until long after it was technically feasible. But the converse is that the structure can and does move in the end.

    As regards food, that’s been covered quite a few times here, notably in previous Aeon articles.

  22. @John Quiggin
    One observation with respect to your 2011 piece on food production – one of the ‘bad news’ factors it identified was the likelihood that energy prices would rise. That seems like much less of an issue now than it did in 2011 – both because of the unexpected decline in the oil price and because the plunge in renewable energy costs suggests that future energy costs are not likely to be as high as we used to think.

  23. In addition to the peak iron that James mentioned, in 2013 we also appeared to pass peak aluminium, peak copper, and not doubt peak several other resources. Just to be clear, this is peak extraction of these metals from mines and not peak total use of these metals. Because metals are generally highly recyclable we can continue to use an increasing amount of iron, aluminium, copper, and so on while mining less.

  24. @Peter T

    And particularly if you include the vast rice-growing areas of Asia (rice accounts for about 20% of all calorific intake by humanity, so Wikipedia says).

    However, I guess it would take a major catastrophic series of events to seriously inhibit many/most of the world’s food growing areas all at the same time. Well, it would until the average surface temperature goes up by 5 degrees or so, but that won’t be for a while yet.

  25. Material and energy resource shortages are probably less likely to be the limiting factor or damaging issue. Over a series of discussions and arguments on this blog, J.Q. convinced me that waste was likely the real limiting problem we would face along with (if I recall correctly) ecosystem and bioservices disruptions. The Planetary Boundaries Project is the only one I know of trying to deal systematically with this issue as a whole. Climate is only one bioservice we depend on (vital as it is) yet it is the only one being seriously investigated by an Inter-governmental Panel, at least as far as I know. I mean is there an Inter-governmental Panel on Loss of Biodiversity (Mass extinction) for example?

    We need to attack the problem of waste but this seems goes against the need for this system to prime and “perpetuate” itself with obsolescence, waste, junk consumerism and overproduction.

    In answer to my question above there does appear to be:

    All of this is a bit like studying a building collapse to prevent the collapse of that very building.

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