Peak paper (updated)

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, with some links.

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.

The case of Peak Steel is even more interesting. Steel lasts a long time can be recycled almost endlessly. On the other hand, but the need for steel demand is finite. In developed countries the stock of steel reached about eight tonnes per person decades ago, and has remained stable or declined slowly since then. With the stock of steel on a gently sloping plateau, the need for new steelmore can be met almost entirely by recycling scrap, in electric … rather than by burning coal to smelt iron ore in blast furnaces. So China has recapitulated the century-long development process of the West in the space of a couple of decades, rapidly becoming the world’s largest steel producer. The stock of steel has gone from near-zero to about 8 tonnes per person. While this stock will continue to grow for decades to come, the period of rapid growth is coming to an end. In terms of new production from blast furnaces, Peak Steel is imminent, too, if it has not already arrived.

All of these resources are, of course, used by people, and the number of people in the world is a crucial determinant. The rate of population growth has slowed substantially in the 21st century so far. Nevertheless, the central projections of the UN project continued growth for the rest of this century and beyond.

There are, however, good reasons for doubting these projections expecting an earlier stabilization of the world’s population. UN demographers are, for a variety of reasons, strongly attached to modelling approaches in which fertility rates for the world as a whole never fall below two surviving children per woman, the rate needed to replace a stable population over time. These approaches require projections in which developed countries, where fertility has been well below this replacement level for decades, experience an upsurge in fertility, and where the decline in fertility in the developing world is halted at or above replacement levels.

It seems more likely, on the whole, that the social trends that have reduced fertility in developed countries will be sustained in those countries and will extend more broadly throughout the world. If this happens, world population will stabilise around 2050, and decline slowly thereafter.
Peak Paper and the information revolution that produced it signal the end of the industrial economy that emerged in the 19th century and dominated the 20th. Peaks in resource use of all kinds can be expected to follow.

Contrary to what Peak Oil alarmists claim, these developments do not 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.

In the process, we have the chance to realise some of the most appealing aspects of the ‘degrowth’ idea proposed by the Club of Rome in the 1970s. The information economy allows a break withus to abandon the 20th century social model in which adults spend most of their days in an organized workplace. Instead, much of the value in the information economy is generated by informal interactions through various forms of social media. Combining this trend with steadily increasing productivity makes it possible to envisage a massive reduction in formal working hours, perhaps to the 15 hours a week envisaged by Keynes nearly a century ago.

On the other hand, the world of Peak Paper is not one the kibbutz archipelago of localism and self-sufficiency envisioned by the Club of Rome. Rather it is one in which people interact in many and complex ways, largely unconstrained by location. Its full implications will be hard to discern, however, until we break with the mental categories of the 20th century, and develop new ways of thinking about the information society.

55 thoughts on “Peak paper (updated)

  1. I think you have a very interesting mind Ikonoclast. You are very clearly attached to your belief/assumption/world view that capitalism inevitably means ecological unsustainability. And naturally you interpret the data/evidence that comes in, in the light of this assumption. But at the same time you have changed some of your views about the timing of where the world is heading with regard to say climate change, and you now even countenance the possibility that we may avoid climate change catastrophe, even if we don’t abandon the capitalistic system. So your conclusions are now somewhat different to your base starting assumptions.
    A very interesting and flexible mind indeed.

  2. @John Goss

    LOL, thanks, but opinions would vary. Some would say my thinking mind is 90% annoying derp i.e. a priori suppositions. I often state my views categorically to get arguments going (“arguments” hopefully in the academic sense). I do still think there is only a very low chance that capitalism can be a sustainable system. When I think something is a very low chance I tend to talk and argue like it’s no chance. So overall, I still think it’s a very bad bet to stick with capitalism now.

  3. @Ronald Brak
    According to my 6yo daughter’s book on insects, caterpillars only have six legs. The rear parts of their bodies have protuberances that resemble legs, but in fact are not. But I suppose it depends on how one defines ‘legs’.

  4. @Tim Macknay
    Caterpillars have 6 true legs and can have many prolegs. Whether prolegs are legs or not I don’t know, I just know they’re not true legs. Also caterpillars have three body segments, head, thorax, and abdomen, but this generally isn’t obvious to casual observation. To someone casually observing a caterpillar in their garden, they typically appear to have may legs and many body segments.

    Maggots have no legs, but then maggot is not a technical term and just seems to mean, “insect larvae without legs”.

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