A doubling problem: 21st century exponential growth of the global economy

Graph of stylized exponential growth in the global economy
A notional graph modelling exponential growth in the global economy

When I was in grade-school, an uncle taught me something about limits, and about doubling.  He asked me: How many times can you fold a piece of paper in half?  Before I could reply, he told me that the answer was eight.  I thought this seemed too low.  So, as a child eager to demonstrate adults’ errors, I located a sheet of writing paper and began folding.  I managed seven folds—not even achieving the predicted eight.  I thought that the problem was the small size of the paper.  So, I located a newspaper, removed one sheet, and began folding.  I folded it eight times but could not make it to nine.

Why this limit?  Most people assume that the problem is the size of the sheet of paper: as we fold it, the paper gets smaller and, thus, the next fold becomes harder.  This is true, but the real problem is that the number of sheets to be folded increases exponentially.  Fold the paper once and it is two sheets thick.  A second fold brings the thickness to four sheets.  A third fold: eight.  A fourth, fifth, and sixth fold: sixteen sheets, thirty-two, then sixty-four.  The seventh fold doubles the thickness again to 128 sheets, and an eighth to 256.  When I was a child folding that sheet of newspaper, in attempting that ninth fold I was straining to bend 256 sheets.

Now, if I started with a very large piece  of paper perhaps I could prove my late uncle wrong and achieve that ninth fold.  It’s hard to predict precisely where limits lie.  Imagine a football-field-sized piece of paper and ten linebackers assigned the task of folding.  Those players could certainly make nine folds.  Perhaps they might even achieve ten, bending 512 sheets to increase the thickness to 1,024.  Maybe they could strain to make eleven folds, bending those 1,024 sheets to achieve a thickness of 2,048.  But eventually the doubling and redoubling would reach a point where it was impossible to double again.  Exponential growth creates a doubling problem.

Our petro-industrial-consumer mega-civilization has a doubling problem.  During the 20th century we doubled the size of the global economy four times.  Four doublings is a sixteenfold increase: 2, 4, 8, 16.  Despite this multiplication, today, every banker, CEO, investor, Minister of Finance, shareholder, bondholder, and would-be retiree (i.e., nearly all of us) wants to keep economic growth going.  And we want growth to continue at “normal” rates—rates that lead to a doubling in the size of the economy about every 25 years.  Thus, in effect, what we want in the 21st century is another four doublings—another sixteenfold increase.  The graph above shows the sixteenfold increase that occurred during the 20th century and shows what a sixteenfold increase during the 21st century would look like.

The first doubling of the 21st century is already underway.  We’re rapidly moving toward a global economy in 2025 that is twice the size of the one that existed in 2000.  But the economy in 2000 was already placing a heavy boot upon the biosphere.  By that year, North America’s East Coast cod fishery had already collapsed, greenhouse gas emissions were already driving up temperatures, and the Amazon was shrinking.  Despite this, we seem to believe that a 2025 economy twice as large as that year-2000 economy is “sustainable.”  Even worse, in 2025, we won’t be “sustaining” that two-times-2000 economy, we’ll be working to double it again.

Clearly, at some point, this has to stop.  Even those who think that the Earth can support and withstand a human economy twice the size that existed in 2000 must begin to have doubts about an economy four or eight times as large.  There can be no dispute that economic growth must end.  Though we may disagree as to when.

Perceptive readers will have noted a shortcoming in my paper-folding analogy: That system runs into hard limits; at some point, attempts to double the number of sheets simply fail, and that failure is immediately apparent.  Our civilizational-biospheric system is different.  Limits to Earth’s capacities to provision the human economy and absorb its wastes certainly exist, but they are not hard limits.  Given the immense power of our economy and technologies, we can breach Earth’s limits, at least for a time.  On many fronts we already have.  It will only be in hindsight—as ecosystems collapse and species disappear and the biosphere and climate become destabilized, damaged, and hostile—that we will know for sure that we’ve crossed a terrible line.  Only then will we know for sure that at some point in our past our doubling proceeded too far.  So, unlike paper folding, determining the limits of economic growth requires human wisdom and self-restraint.

China (re)rising: 1,000+ years of data on who dominates the global economy

Graph of China's share of the global economy, and selected other nations, 1000 AD to present
China’s share of the global economy, along with other nations, 1000AD to present

China’s share of the global economy has increased rapidly—from about 5 percent in the early 1980s to more than 26 percent today.  India’s economy has similarly expanded, from 3 percent of the global economy in the early ’80s to more than 8 percent today.  Meanwhile, the percentage shares of the US, UK, Germany, Japan, and other nations are falling fast.  The graph above shows the relative share of global GDP represented by selected nations.  The time-frame is 1000 AD to 2016.

Manufacturing data* similarly shows India and China’s long-term dominance. In 1800, fully half the manufacturing output of the world came from India and China.  In that year, the UK contributed 4.3 percent of manufacturing output and the US just 0.8 percent.  The UK and US came to dominate global manufacturing by the late-1800s, but their rise is recent and, as the graph above suggests, their dominance may be shortlived.

Many people have been surprised by the “rise of China” and that of India.  No one should be.  The global economy is merely returning to its long-term normal—resetting after an anomalous period when European and New World nations were economically ascendant.  Indeed, England and Europe have been economic backwaters for 97 percent of the time since civilizations first arose 5,000 years ago. Our educational system fails to teach us that China and India are the default global superpowers.

To give just two final examples of the long-term dominance of Asia, China  smelted hundreds of thousands of tons of iron in the 11th century using coal rather than wood, a feat not matched in Europe until 600 years later.** A list of the ten largest cities in the world in the year 1500 includes four in China (Beijing, Nanjing, Hangzhou, and Guangzhou) and two in India (Gaur and Vijayanagara), but just one in Europe, (Paris). The three cities rounding off the top-ten list were Tabriz, Cairo, and Istanbul.*** Clearly, the economic and civilizational centre of gravity was in the East. It appears to be shifting back there.

* Paul Bairoch, “International Industrial Levels from 1750 to 1980”
** Hartwell, various pubs
*** Hohenberg, Oxford Encyclopaedia of Economic History

Graph sources: 1000AD-2008, Angus Maddison, 2009-2016 Conference Board

Fraught freight: trade agreements, globalization, and rising global freight transport

Graph of global freight transport, trillions of tonne-kilometres
Global freight transport, all modes, trillions of tonne-kilometres, selected years, 1985 to 2050

Global freight transport now exceeds 122 trillion tonne-kilometres* per year. That enormous tonnage/distance has more than tripled since the beginning of the “free trade” era, in the 1980s.  And the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) projects that global freight transport tonnage will triple again in the coming generation—rising to 330 trillion tonne-kilometres per year by 2050 (see OECD).  To put these trillions into perspective, freight movement will soon surpass 100,000 tonne-kilometres per capita per year for those of us living high-consumption lifestyles, here and around the world.

*Note: a tonne-kilometre is equivalent to moving one tonne one kilometre.  If you move 10 tonnes 10 kilometres, that is 100 tonne-kilometres.

A major part of this increase in transport tonnage is related to trade agreements and globalization.  As we’ve restructured the global economy we have off-shored our factories.  Our washing machines, toasters, rubber boots, TVs, and many of our cars now come from half-way around the world.  Our foods and fertilizers are increasingly shipped across continents or oceans.  And we ship food, resources, and other goods around the world.  Economic growth means we’re consuming more and more; globalization means we’re consuming resources and products from further away.  These two trends, together, help explain the tenfold increase in global freight transport depicted in the graph.

Moving this colossal tonnage requires ships, trains, trucks, and airplanes—all of which burn fossil fuels and emit greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.  Emissions from the freight transport sector make up about 10 percent of all man-made CO2 emissions (see OECD). The OECD predicts that if current trends and policies hold, emissions will nearly double by 2050, to 5.7 billion tonnes of CO2 per year (see OECD).  This near-doubling of freight transport emissions between now and 2050 will occur at the same time that we are attempting to cut overall GHG emissions by half.  It is time to ask the obvious questions: Is our ongoing drive toward globalization (i.e., de-localization and transport maximization) compatible with our emission-reduction commitments and a livable climate?  Indeed, as our leaders aggressively sign and implement still more “free trade” agreements (TPP, CETA, etc.) we should consider that  perhaps doubling down on globalization vetoes emissions reduction, vetoes a stable climate, vetoes local food, and vetoes local jobs.

To leave a comment, click on the graph or this post’s title and then scroll down.

Graph sources: 2015, 2030, and 2050 data from the OECD/ITF page 56. Data for 2000 and 1985 are from various sources: air freight data is from the World Bank. Rail freight data is from the World Bank. Maritime freight data is from the United Nations, Review of Maritime Transport. Road freight data for 2000 is from the OECD. Road freight data for 1985 is an informed estimate.




Cheap oil? Long-term US and Canadian crude oil prices

Graph of US and Canadian crude oil prices, historic, 1860 to 2016
US and Canadian crude oil prices, historical, 1860-2016

Many corporate spokespeople, government officials, economists, and journalists are repeating a very odd line: “oil prices are low.” Others talk of “cheap oil,” “plunging prices,” and a “crash.” Here’s one example, a 2016 headline from Maclean’s: “Life at $20 a barrel: What the oil crash means for Canada.”

I will argue that talk of “low oil prices” ignores history, misconstrues energy’s role in making civilizations, and confuses our efforts to build resilient, sustainable, climate-stabilizing economies. The graph above and the table below put recent oil prices into their long-term context. The graph covers the 156-year period from the first large-scale production of petroleum oil to the present: 1860 to 2016. It shows US average crude oil prices and Canadian prices for light sweet crude and heavy tarsands crude. For comparability, all figures are in US dollars and adjusted for inflation.

This table helps us interpret the data in the graph by showing average prices for each decade.

Canada and US crude oil prices, decade-averages, US dollars, adjusted for inflation
Canada and US crude oil prices, decade-averages, inflation-adjusted US dollars

Here’s what the graph and table can tell us about current “low oil prices.”

1. The graph shows that the very high 2003-2014 prices are an anomaly.

2. The $80 average price in the 2010s is the highest since the 1870s.

3. Even with recent declines, oil prices remain above the levels that held during the century from 1875 to 1975.

4. While prices have averaged $80 in the 2010s, the average price in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s was below $30. The greatest period of economic growth in global history, the postwar US boom, was accomplished with very cheap oil. As the cost of oil goes up, the cost of civilization goes up. If energy prices rise too high, we may no longer be able to afford to continue to build or even maintain our sprawling mega-civilization.

5. Many say that Canadian prices are particularly low relative to US or world prices. That isn’t the case. It’s not that Canadian oil is priced lower than US oil; rather, Canadian heavy (tar sands) oil is priced lower than US and Canadian light oil. The values in the table show this. The graph also shows this in the close correlation of US average oil prices with Canadian light oil prices. The right-wing think-tank The Fraser Institute explains that heavy oil from the tarsands and similar sources is priced lower because such oil “is more costly to transport by pipeline …. Further, the heavier the crude oil …, the lower its value to a refiner as it will either require more processing or yield a higher percentage of lower-valued by-products such as heavy fuel oil. Complex crudes containing more sulphur also generally cost more to refine than low-sulphur crudes. For these reasons, oil refiners are willing to pay more for light, low-sulphur crude oil.”

6. Western Canadians are particularly sensitive to “low oil prices” because our economy is dependent upon some of the highest-cost oil production systems in the world: the tar sands. We are the high-cost producers.

As the International Energy Agency (IEA) said recently, “Attempting to understand how the oil market will look during the next five years is today a task of enormous complexity.” I certainly cannot predict oil prices. And I’m not advocating lower prices. Just the opposite. As someone deeply concerned by climate change, I hope that oil prices rise and stay high, and that governments impose taxes on carbon emissions to push the cost of burning fossil fuels higher still. Nonetheless, we need to dispassionately interpret the data if we are to have any hope of directing our future and our economy. We need to be able to discern when energy prices are low and when they are not.

To leave a comment, click on the graph or the title and then scroll down.

Graph Sources: Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), Statistical Handbookfor Canada’s Upstream Petroleum Industry (October, 2016); and US Energy Information Administration (EIA), U.S. Crude Oil First Purchase Price