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. 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.

  2. @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.

  3. @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.

  4. @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.

  5. @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.

  6. @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.

  7. 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.

  8. @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.

  9. 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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