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. Oh pshaw, now I’m going to have to work out what you’ve changed so I can see if it makes any real difference.

    “…world population will stabilise around 2050, and decline slowly thereafter.”

    So, how long before that “decline” ends in zero ? When the “paperless office” is matched by the “humanless planet” ?

  2. Bluegreen, if the human population halved each generation it would take about 1,000 years for it to become extinct. However, while we have been able to observe what happens to countries as they pass through the demographic transition and make predictions based upon those observations for countries that are going through the demographic transition now or have yet to through it, we have as of yet been unable to observe fertility, longevity, or Terminator related morbidity in the 25th century. This makes predictions of what will happen far ahead in the future difficult, and beyond a point, impossible. There are simply too many variables involved. Even something that seems pretty straight forward such as tide times can’t be predicted more than a couple hundred years in advance.

  3. Grr. I wrote a blog post yesterday ( round peak iron and steel and now JQ has added it here. But I link to the data and provide a pretty chart.

    The Wiedmann paper that recently threw cold water on the dematerialisation hypothesis only uses data up to 2008, before what I calll the Great Inflection of the last few years.

  4. John, what you might be looking for in the 32nd paragraph after, “the need for new steelmore [sic] can be met almost entirely by recycling scrap, in electric…” might be “electric arc furnaces.”

    Induction furnances are another potentially fossil fuel free method to recycle scrap, although I think they are generally used for smaller scale smelting than electric arc furnaces.

    And Direct Reduced Iron (DRI) is a coal free method of smelting iron ore, although it does use methane as a reducing agent. Technically that methane does not have to be a fossil fuel and a different reducing agent could be used.

  5. @James Wimberley
    BTW, there is little doubt about peak iron and steel. New iron production (which is, as JQ notes, all that matters for sustainability} was down by 68 million tonnes 2013-2015, a drop of 5.3%. In time, the rising volume of scrap metal (assuming a constant recycling rate) will lower demand for more expensive pig iron even more.

  6. Where to start? This will do:

    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.

    Which parallel earth is this?

    Ahh yes. It the one where:
    – Bernie Sanders is elected president next year with a majority to rival FDR and the US sees the light and rejects the hideous Trump Cruz Clinton etc. while the rest of the billionaire masters of the universe who control the US governance system change their spots into to those of benevolent watermelons while the left actually comes up with a coherent alterantive economics.

    – All the workers become reunionised to obtain just wages and get $20 per hour instead of the current $7 which forces them to work 60+ hours a week without the need for violent revolution. And get richer across the board again at the rate of 5% per annum.

    – Europe sees the stupidity of its austerity policy, forgives Greek debt and stops their slide into penury and nationalises all their banks, and of course embraces the current refugees.

    And 5% per annum growth restarts in Europe along with prosperity.

    – the Japanese come out of their doldrums finally and starts growing at 5% per annum and get reproducing again population growth wide.

    – The UK votes in Jeremy Corbyn and routs UKIP, the Tories and of course 90% of Labor MPs who view him as an old fashioned dinosaur. Scotland goes independent and expands it main income source….oil drilling. The UK again grows at 5% per annum.

    – In Oz the mining industry gets going again to supply the permanent boom because economics has finally been solved and has proven to be a science….and booms at 5% per annum especially the housing market merrygoround. Superannuation system is saved by exponential growth yielding enough for people to live on retirement funds in a healthy state for 30 years.

    Apologies for the bad satire John but the current economic model system and Keynes as I understand it is predicated on either unsustainable material growth for all which high tech will facilitate because there is no constrain on growth, or the more likely current doldrums where the rich get richer and continue to increase their consumption alone ad nauseum likewise with no restraint and the rest of us go backwards or at best stand still working harder to support our lifestyle and that of the rich.

    Truth be told most scientists I know who have looked at the problem believe your dream of no growth and maybe even reduction in material and energy consumption is technically possible, but it is unlikely because of out of control materialism and economic growth which still seem the mindset of politicians, business, the rich and the economics community.

  7. @Newtownian
    The parallel earth in which I live is one where the evidence for a shift away from material consumption is getting stronger by the day. We have seen peaks in paper, iron and steel, coal, and CO2 emissions. Ronald Brak claims aluminium and copper too, though I couldn’t confirm the former. Your answer is merely an a priori prejudice. Why should capitalists not pursue material efficiency if it makes them money? Selling video games to teenagers to be played on tablet computers uses far fewer resources than selling them motorbikes or films to be watched from cars. The new economy of services and information isn’t Utopia or the Culture: it includes online child pornography an subprime derivatives, as well as more music and eating out. But it looks increasingly as if it won’t necessarily wreck the biosphere.

  8. Re JQ on the 15-hour week. Spreading employment around requires a serious attack on the efficiency wages problem, the fact that pays employers to overwork competent employees than to hire unknown new ones. The theorem applies to hours as well as wages. The propensity is buttressed by the post-Calvinist work ethic, and the other fact that elites tend to have jobs they enjoy and project their unusual experience on the rest of us.

  9. I think both optimists and pessimists need to avoid the mistake of cherry-picking evidence to suit their biases. Single issue journalistic forays, like a peak paper analysis as optimism or a peak oil analysis in the “oil is irreplaceable” paradigm as pessimism, do not really advance our understanding of what is happening in a systems wide sense. All that such single issue analyses do is reveal and appeal to peoples’ “priors”; their a priori beliefs.

    The question is this. How do we get past cherry-picking evidence for optimism or pessimism? The answer must be, as indicated above, to examine what is happening in a systems wide sense. This breaks down into two arenas;

    (1) What is happening to biophysical system parameters about which we are or should be concerned. An example is accumulated CO2 in the “free” biosphere (atmosphere and oceans)?

    (2) What is happening in the “econosphere” and “technosphere” that could alter resource limits (e.g. via substitutions) and could alter the waste flows which can damage bioservices?

    Point 1 is what is the actual case now and what is the likely trend in those parameters without significant changes in trends in point 2. The scientific consensus is that parameter levels and trends in Point 1 are at or close to dangerous inflection points. Accumulated CO2 and continued CO2e are one case in point elucidated in IPCC studies and other studies. Being at or close to dangerous inflection points illustrates that positive change in 2 is not enough. What is needed is positive change in 2 that is sufficiently rapid to avoid going through the inflection or tipping points.

    In summary, I argue that it is not enough to point to (and cherry pick) positive developments. What is needed is the development of a systemic program to ensure that these positive developments are rapid enough and pervasive enough to deliver sustainability. Instead, the apologists for capitalism simply counsel more faith in the automatic guiding hand of capitalism and its markets. This is the very system which has delivered the crisis and has so far failed to respond to the crisis rapidly enough or comprehensively enough.

  10. Footnote:

    For those that would argue I am cherry picking, I would point out that I reference systems-wide data not little hopeful or un-hopeful bits. The biophysical system wide data indicates we are at or close to dangerous environmental inflection points or tipping points.

    The economic and political system-wide data is that the capitalist mixed economy failed us in a crucial period. In the period of about 1976 to 2016 (40 years) when it should have been developing large scale solutions to these problems, it devoted most resources to expanding unsustainable consumption and very few resources. proportionally speaking, to solving sustainability issues. In addition, there was a marked transition from government power (and possibilities for democratic dirgisme) to corporate and plutocratic power. These system wide trends all went in the wrong direction.

  11. James, I’m afraid that I didn’t have recent production figures for copper when I first wrote that it appeared to have peaked a while back, but looking now I’ve found figures for the 10 largest producers here:

    They appear to total:

    2015 14.84 million tonnes

    2014 14.74 million tonnes

    2013 14.67 million tonnes

    So for these ten countries at least, copper production has not peaked, or if it has it only did so in 2015. But obviously there hasn’t been much change over the last few years. And over the past five years copper prices have fallen by more than half, which lead me to believe it had probably peaked.

    Copper demand may continue to rise due to demand from new renewable energy and the electrification of transport, but since so little of it is used in buildings these days and it is recycled to such a large extent, I suspect that new copper production either peaked last year or will soon.

  12. @Ronald Brak
    Yes. Arcelor-Mittal would not be giving up a carefully chosen site for a large steelworks if they thought the downturn was just a cyclical dip. From the size, I assume it was going to be a primary iron plant, not an electric arc mill for recycled steel.

  13. @Ronald Brak

    The issue is not whether we are changing, the issue is whether we are changing fast enough. The answer, on all evidence, is that we are not changing fast enough. We have to not just stop net emissions and halt CO2 rise but actually get back to 350 ppm and maybe lower. This means negative emissions of course.

    The UN says we need to get CO2 emissions to zero by 2070 to prevent major climate danger. According to Hansen et al.;

    ” The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC, 2] and others [3] used several
    “reasons for concern” to estimate that global warming of more than 2-3°C may be dangerous.
    The European Union adopted 2°C above pre-industrial global temperature as a goal to limit
    human-made warming [4]. Hansen et al. [5] argued for a limit of 1°C global warming (relative to
    2000, 1.7°C relative to pre-industrial time), aiming to avoid practically irreversible ice sheet and
    species loss. This 1°C limit, with nominal climate sensitivity of ¾°C per W/m2 and plausible
    control of other GHGs [6], implies maximum CO2 ~ 450 ppm.”

    Hansen et al. again;

    ” We use paleoclimate data to show that long-term climate has high sensitivity to climate forcings and that the present global mean CO2, 385 ppm, is already in the dangerous zone.
    Despite rapid current CO2 growth, ~2 ppm/year, we show that it is conceivable to reduce CO2
    this century to less than the current amount, but only via prompt policy changes.”

    The real evidence is that we need to get back to 350 ppm or lower. The real issue is “policy changes” as Hansen says. Waiting for market forces and technology forces to do it automatically is not going to suffice. There seem to be stronger and stronger assumptions by commentators on this blog that the “magical guiding hand” of the free market is already doing all that is required. This is not the case.

  14. @Newtownian

    Your satire is a bit self-defeating. Right now, Bernie Sanders is rated a 10-1 chance to win the Presidency, the New York Times is advocating a $15 minimum wage, and the Oz mining industry is disappearing with no major effect on the economy (you got this one backwards for some reason).

    In other words, outcomes that would have been regarded as utopian even two years ago (I used the term myself) are now within the realm of possibility. Maybe unlikely in the short term, but perfectly possible to imagine.

    In probability terms, the shift in the last two or three years is huge. The Sanders-Corbyn President-PM double is still unlikely, but Corbyn is UK Labour leader and Sanders has a fair shot at the Democratic nomination. You could easily have got 1000-1 against that in 2013, probably more.

  15. @Newtownian

    Truth be told most scientists I know who have looked at the problem believe your dream of no growth and maybe even reduction in material and energy consumption is technically possible, but it is unlikely because of out of control materialism and economic growth which still seem the mindset of politicians, business, the rich and the economics community.

    The useful information contained in that paragraph is that the scientists you speak of consider that it is technically possible.

    In terms of likelihoods, given that human social, cultural and economic trends aren’t really amendable to scientific analysis, the scientists you refer to have no greater insight into what is likely to happen than anyone else. Indeed, if the peak oil/limits to growth community is anything to go by, their scientific focus on physical systems may give them blinkers that inhibit their perspicacity.

  16. @John Quiggin

    The trouble is the “probability shifts”, even when being born, are being stillborn or else they die in infancy. Syriza in Greece is a prime example.

    “One year after the victory and six months after the coup, we shouldn’t fool ourselves: This was a defeat, of the Greek government. But it’s not only Syriza that has failed (for now). The whole left has failed in Greece – and in the rest of Europe, indeed. Europe is no longer what it was. It’s impossible to defend this project of European unification from the left without falling into pure illusions.” – Mario Candeias.

    I know we disagree markedly in this area, but I see politics which cannot rise above psephology and the two party / one system paradigm as entirely missing the point. This system has immunised, organised and intensified its structures against the outcomes of the Keynesian or “Golden” era. It will not again permit the outcomes which accommodationism once achieved. The oligarchic elite now know how to repel those pressures so long asd the people play the game by its rules. At the risk of overusing a word in three forms, this system is systematically opposed and inherently systemically structured against outcomes which social democrats would wish to see. It won’t permit them to happen any more, at least not via the attenuated and corrupted “representative” democracy which is the only democracy we are given or rather fobbed off with. Greece is the recent obvious example. At the current rate of change, representative democracy in Australia will be a mere appendix of corporatocracy within 10 years.

  17. @Ikonoclast
    I’m glad you’ve found something else to be relentlessly pessimistic about now that you don’t believe in peak oil doomsday any more. Where would we be if we didn’t have something to be relentless pessimistic about? 😉

  18. @Tim Macknay

    “their scientific focus on physical systems may give them blinkers that inhibit their perspicacity.”

    Note: I am sure I am about to put my ideas in my usual offensive, combative and “physical fundamentalist” fashion so please be warned. 🙂

    I would be very enlightened if people could tell me what systems are not physical systems; at least without making supernatural assumptions of non-physical substance or process. Let’s start at the known top and work down.

    Universe – Physical system
    Solar System – Physical system
    Earth – Physical system
    Biosphere – Physical system
    Real Economy – Physical system
    Human Body – Physical system
    Human Brain – Physical system

    Human Ideas – outcomes of physical bodies and physical brains interacting with physical environment – ideas are detectable in general (though not in particular) as electro-chemical brain activity. Ideas are detectable in particular as codes in externalised real physical artifacts like books, hard drives, thumb-drives, language scripts, models and any media utilising matter-energy to retain patterns of information. In what way are ideas non-physical? On the contrary, they are detectable only and entirely as physical processes in their own right. The only process special to ideas is that they are a part of physical reality which models other parts of physical reality very economically by using information patterns and scaling effects to stand in for matter-energy quantities, real dimensions and processual relationships… or they model human perceptions and feelings which are also all physical.

    Ideas are mediated by biological real system; humans in our case. They originate in interactions between biological (human) and other real systems. There is no need to postulate a non-physical origin or nature of ideas. It’s interesting to consider that parts of processual physical reality are specific images (as patterns of information) which may be fallacious or true images of its broader and/or more fundamental processual realities.

    I just say the above as an illustration that devaluing those who study the “merely physical” may be to devalue the only people who are studying anything real and who are executing those studies in a defensible, verifiable and repeatable manner. The rest is mere speculation: except I would argue for a process metaphysics which is the only metaphysics consistent with the modern scientific edifice so far as it seems to be reliably constructed (and also for a special kind of “process ethics” but that takes us too far OT).

  19. @Tim Macknay

    “Many human beings say that they enjoy the winter, but what they really enjoy is feeling proof against it.” – Richard Adams, Watership Down.

    To be self-critical, clearly I will only enjoy predicting doom while I feel personally proof against it. But this is probably being a little unfair on myself. I still hope that capitalism will be overthrown and that then we can save the biosphere as a habitable place for humans. It’s just that I believe;

    Continued Capitalism = No Hope.

  20. @Ikonoclast

    I would be very enlightened if people could tell me what systems are not physical systems; at least without making supernatural assumptions of non-physical substance or process. Let’s start at the known top and work down.

    Thanks for describing the blinkers I was talking about in such detail! 🙂

  21. @Tim Macknay

    LOL. Well, please explain some of your non-blinkered ideas to me. As I said, I wait to be enlightened. But you are short on specifics so far.

    You realise perhaps that it is only mainstream Western philosophy (and religion) which has this problem with Essentialism: the idea that known things and concepts have an essential reality behind them, behind the experientially existent, as “Ideas” or “Forms”. Holistic philosophies do not have this problem. IMO, process metaphysics is a much better fit to modern physics (cosmology and quantum physics) than substance metaphysics and the Dualisms or Idealisms which necessarily flow from such Essentialist principles. For this very reason it is the most supportable and defensible of all metaphysics systems. That is my opinion and not only my opinion.

    Process physicalism taken to its full logical conclusion would indicate there is no way we can tell whether all processes are physical or all processes are non-physical and indeed process physicalism would indicate that such opposed terms are arbitrary human inventions and therefore content-less and illusory. But process physicalism would, I think, posit that ALL processes are entirely holistically connected, that they all appear to have consistent relations, probabilistically speaking, and that processes do not exist at all except in relation and interaction with each other. Finally, it would indicate that there are no ideas or forms (and indeed no existence) outside the continually-changing, all-connected, all-existent: which we can call the universal set of processes or universe for short.

  22. @Ikonoclast
    Well, to be fair, in your longer comment above you didn’t actually arrive at the (IMHO) faulty conclusions that the blinkers I’m talking about tend to promote. However, you did set out some of the thinking that forms the basis for those blinkers. The ‘blinkers’ I’m talking about could be described, for the sake of convenience, as ‘naive determinism’, although perhaps it’s a form of the fallacy of composition. It is the assumption that, because (as you point out) human beings are composed, ultimately of physical systems or processes (i.e. quantum, atomic, chemical and biochemical processes) which are highly deterministic, that human beings, individually and collectively, must also be highly deterministic. The problem with that view is that human beings, individually and collectively* are demonstrably not highly deterministic.

    (* I take the view that the phenomena of economics, politics and culture can be regarded as examples of the collective behaviour of human beings.)

    Note: I’m using the word ‘deterministic’ here to refer to the characteristic of being highly predictable. In using the word ‘deterministic’ in this manner, I’m following Hume, who perceived that the concept of ‘causation’ is ultimately nothing more than the observation that one kind of event reliably follows another. Similarly, I think that the concept of ‘determinism’ is ultimately nothing more than the observation that a particular phenomenon is highly predictable, in the sense that a particular set of initial conditions will reliably be followed by a particular outcome.

    Your discussion of essentialism and process philosophy, while interesting, is, I think, entirely peripheral to what I’m talking about.

  23. @Tim Macknay

    There is nothing deterministic about my variant of process philosophy or “process physicalism” as I rather incorrectly called it. But I did not give you nearly enough information to deduce or infer that about my views so your concerns were perfectly valid. I don’t adhere to crude determinism and I don’t adhere (no pun intended) to crude materialism nor to substance metaphysics.

    The term “physicalism” conjures up the wrong associations. I need to give up the term “physicalism” and the correct procedure is not to replace it but simply to leave it behind. Process Metaphysics is a better term, and the accepted term, for this area of philosophy. I’ve been working intensively, albeit in amateur autodidact fashion, for some months now. It’s been quite difficult and even disconcerting as my views have been evolving and transforming (or mutating?) on an almost weekly basis.

    I am not going in circles and I am pleased to say that I have some thoughts which run ahead of my research and are then “confirmed” by things I discover process philosophers and scientists write and say. Of course, philosophical confirmation is nothing like scientific confirmation so I shouldn’t get too excited. At one level, I am only agreeing with people who agree with me. At another level it is encouraging to realise “I have just read a brilliant statement by a philosopher which really clarifies something for me. I never would have understood what he meant, or even had the least clue of what he was driving at, if I hadn’t first had a go at figuring out some of these questions for myself.”

    On the other hand, I run into technical problems which a mere “language philosopher”, and an amateur one at that, has terrible problems with. I have been trying to fully define the concept of “information” in a complex systems setting with English language alone (I am no mathematician) and it feels like trying to invent the Internet with a clay tablet and stylus. Look, I know I am tilting at windmills but sometimes Quixote intuits correctly that he will go crazier, and feel more hopeless, if he abandons his quest rather than if he persists. 😉

    I don’t agree my “discussion of essentialism and process philosophy, while interesting, is, … entirely peripheral to what I’m talking about”. I think it is profoundly bound up with it… but space here does not really permit me to elaborate and I have already taken us way off topic. Mea culpa.

  24. Ikonoclast, you wrote, “There seem to be stronger and stronger assumptions by commentators on this blog that the “magical guiding hand” of the free market is already doing all that is required.”

    I can’t imagine who you are referring to. Generally the commentator(s) who falsely claim to be libertarian deny there is a problem with global warming at all and the nuclear fanboys, whether they realise it or not, require massive government intervention to get their reactors built.

  25. @Ronald Brak
    Seconded. As one of the optimists, let me repeat this. The current relatively favourable situation on renewable electricity, which is competitive with fossil generation, even on the tilted playing field of unpriced externalities, did not come about through the magic of the free market but from determined public policy in a handful of countries. The USA pioneered solar cells for the space race; Japan developed them into a product feasible at industrial scale; Germany paid early deployment subsidies; and China supported domestic suppliers to meet German demand. On wind power, the key early players were Denmark and Germany again, later the USA (especially California). On electric vehicles, it’s mostly down to California. We owe our chance of survival to a few thousand visionaries who managed to get control of policy at critical times.

  26. @James Wimberley
    We should distinguish on dematerialisation. This does reflect IMHO some long-run forces. As people get richer, stuff (cars, dishwashers, etc) tends to have lower marginal utility than services: entertainment, eating out, education, health care. So services take over from manufacturing as the main component of economic growth, and material usage falls. Add to this that the fastest improving technology for fifty or more years has been the processing and transfer of information, which supercharges the shift to services. Like I said, it’s not the Culture: we can still have a dystopia of pervasive surveillance, tainescapable targeted advertising, child pornography and online bigotry. But unless we fail on climate, it won’t be one of LTG collapse.

  27. @Ikonoclast
    I’m not arguing with the main point of your comment. But I think you are off the mark with the clause “Waiting for market forces and technology forces to do it automatically is not going to suffice. There seem to be stronger and stronger assumptions by commentators on this blog that the “magical guiding hand” of the free market is already doing all that is required. ”
    Very few commenters in this article, or in general on this site, are claiming that market/techs force alone will or are fixing our problems. And I don’t think that is what John is suggesting either. It is a much more complex mix of social forces and interactions, as well as market forces and technological developments and strong governments that seem to have brought about changes that a few years ago were unthinkable. This would be driven by all the usual bad guys but also by the good guys.
    That is what I think John is assuming, but it is not the central point of the article. As far as I have read and understood, I think most commenters here would either agree with that idea, or are in line with you that only strong direct acting government can bring about the required change and otherwise we are stuffed.

  28. @MartinK

    What I am saying is this. We can’t keep capitalism and save the environment. It just won’t work. The two are mutually exclusive. Capitalism is predicated on endless growth, over-production, over-consumption, exploitation of humans, destruction of other species and destruction of the environment. Keeping to capitalism equals “Waiting for market forces and technology forces to do it (save the biosphere) automatically”.

  29. Ikonoclast, is Sweden capitalist? Or rather, since your definiton doesn’t match the one I just looked up, is Sweden Capitalist-I? (I for Iknonoclast.) That is, is Sweden “predicated on endless growth, over-production, over-consumption, exploitation of humans, destruction of other species and destruction of the environment”?

  30. @Ronald Brak

    Sweden is capitalist. It is a variant sometimes called a mixed economy on the Nordic Model. The Wikipedia categorisation is correct.

    “In reference to post-war Western and Northern European economic models, as championed by Christian democrats and Social democrats, the mixed economy is defined as a form of capitalism where most industries are privately owned with only a minority of public utilities and essential services under public ownership. In the post-war era, European social democracy became associated with this economic model.”

    Whenever one mentions “capitalism”, otherwise educated people suddenly pretend they don’t know what that word means. And if they are not pretending then it represents a clear victory for capitalist propaganda and its education system.

    So again, Wikipedia is your friend.

    “Capitalism is an economic system based on private ownership of the means of production and their operation for profit. Characteristics central to capitalism include private property, capital accumulation, wage labor, voluntary exchange, a price system, and competitive markets. In a capitalist market economy, decision-making and investment is determined by the owners of the factors of production in financial and capital markets, and prices and the distribution of goods are mainly determined by competition in the market.”

    I would add that much of the so-called “competition” occurs in rigged markets and imperfect markets.

    The existence of varieties does not void the concept-content of categories (like species). The existence of ranges, where at the extremes of a category (like a species or a designated economic system), the category shades into a new category, again does not void the useful content of categories.

    Swedish capitalism, despite its relatively enlightened model, is still part of global capitalism so it does not escape the standard logic of late stage capitalism. That answers your final question.

  31. @Tim Macknay


    “Japan is already one of the developed world’s least welcoming countries for refugees, accepting 11 of a record 5000 asylum seekers in 2014. Now it is looking to clamp down even further. Measures including deporting failed applicants, curbs on repeat applications and pre-screening of new asylum seekers are being considered as part of changes to the immigration system, an official said on Wednesday.

    “We’re not looking to increase or decrease the number of refugees coming to Japan, but to ensure real refugees are assessed quickly,” said Hiroaki Sato, a Ministry of Justice official told Reuters. He could not say when changes would be finalised.” – SMH.

    There is a solution to balance their demographic spread and stabilise the population. Looks like they don’t want to do it though.

  32. @Ikonoclast
    That was weirdly argumentative (my last comment was addressed to the OP, not to you BTW).
    Personally I’m unconvinced that an end to Japan’s population growth needs a “solution”. Since it’s essential for long term sustainability, it’s what we should all be aiming for. I was under the impression that you also thought that. Oh, well.

  33. Trust me, Ikonoclast, I don’t need to play being stupid. The fact is, I can only understand very simple things. To my simple mind, if capitalism is, “…predicated on endless growth, over-production, over-consumption, exploitation of humans, destruction of other species and destruction of the environment.” And Sweden isn’t predicated on the destruction of other species, then Sweden can’t be capitalistic. Or alternatively Sweden is not predicated on the destruction of other species and is capitalistic, in which case capitalism is not predicated on the destruction of other species.

    To my simple way of understanding things, it’s got to be one or the other.

  34. @Tim Macknay

    Not trying to be argumentative. Perhaps I was a little cryptic. I fear a major de-population of the world but I am not arguing for it. If I could have my “druthers”, I would prefer to see stabilisation and a reduction of wasteful consumption. Stabilisation has its own problems of course with too many old people in the population “bell”. Japan has more than stabilised, it has declined … good, sort of. It is now developing a problem with too many old people proportionally… bad. There are refugees in the world… bad. Some could get a home in Japan… good. And this would help Japan re-balance demographically without actually growing… also good.

    But the Japanese will not go for this solution. They have their reasons I guess and I had better not speculate on them.

  35. Ronald Brak,

    Try the syllogism.

    1. Capitalism is predicated on the destruction of the biosphere and the extinction of species.
    2. Sweden is a capitalist country.
    3. Therefore Sweden predicated on the destruction of the biosphere and the extinction of species.

    Of course, this only works if you accept the first two propositions. I do. Probably you do not. That would explain our different conclusions.

  36. Thanks for clearing that up, Ikonoclast. So you do think that Sweden is predicated on the destruction of other species.


    Destruction of other species is not really high on my list of things I associate with Sweden. In fact, it isn’t on it at all, but I am ignorant of a great many things and Swedes destroying other species may have just passed me by.

    So according to you, Ikonoclast, if Sweden had a combination of private and corporate ownership of capital goods, investment made by private decision, and prices, production, and distribution of goods determined to a large extent by market competition, and didn’t destroy other species, it wouldn’t be capitalist.

  37. @Ikonoclast
    I just read the article you linked to. While I didn’t find it convincing (and it seems to me that one would have to already be a committed Marxist or otherwise strongly biased towards the article’s conclusions to find it persuasive), I also read this interview with Noam Chomsky, and was particularly taken with the following statement:
    “We have two choices. We can be pessimistic, give up and help ensure that the worst will happen. Or we can be optimistic, grasp the opportunities that surely exist and maybe help make the world a better place. Not much of a choice.”
    It pretty much reflects my own view.

  38. Ronald,

    Nice troll. 🙂

    Of course I am not saying that. If my silly syllogism is reversible or malleable like that then I have not constructed it correctly.

    Actually, many species extinctions have occurred in Sweden due to human activity before and after the development of the capitalist system, especially due to forest changes, land use changes, tree felling. (Species extinctions have also occurred there due to historical glaciations of course.) But it is safe to say species extinctions have accelerated since modern (capitalist) methods of production were developed. Many of the extinctions are species people don’t think much about (fungi, lichens, mosses, beetles, butterflies, moths).

    People tend to think mainly of furry mammals and maybe birds.


    The Swedish mammal fauna consists of 68 species but contains no real endemics. Two species have gone extinct during the last 100 years or so. Nine species have been introduced, reintroduced or have invaded Sweden during historic time.There are three endangered, nine vulnerable, five rare and five indeterminate species in the Swedish mammal fauna.” – THE

  39. Ikonoclast, if you are saying that Sweden would be capitalist if it had a combination of private and corporate ownership of capital goods, investment made by private decision, and prices, production, and distribution of goods determined to a large extent by market competition, and didn’t destroy other species, then you made a mistake when you wrote, “Capitalism is predicated on endless growth, over-production, over-consumption, exploitation of humans, destruction of other species and destruction of the environment.”

  40. @Ronald Brak

    In defence of my view. There is what a thing “is”. And there is what a thing “is predicated upon”. These are two different categories of attributes in my analysis method. This method of chopping up reality (reductionism) does permit components to be differentiated and identified and their interactions studied.

    But in defence of your view, the judgement may well depend on where one draws the system boundaries. If one takes a completely holistic view, as you are doing, then “essential attributes” and “predicate attributes” merge.

    As Hobbes wrote (IIRC but in my words) we need to both reduce reality to components and then reconstruct it to understand the whole. So holisitically, your view has validity. I would just say that in my formulation it is implicit that capitalism structured as a formal economy and real economy will inevitably lead to unsustainable practices ecologically speaking. The first mandates the second.

  41. Ikonoclast, I am definitely the part of the three or four percent of the population that when told an insect is predicated on having six legs in its and three body segments, will not call something with eight legs and two body segments an insect. Not even if everyone else thinks it’s close enough.

    (Of course, as everyone knows, an insect in its larval stage, such as a caterpillar, can have many legs and many body segments, it is just the adult stage that always follows the six legs and three body segments pattern. Or maybe not everyone knows that. I was once told by a journalist that prawns were insects. “They have ten legs! Ten legs! Count them! It’s right there in their name – Decapod! Were you away sick the day they taught Latin in journalism school?”)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s