Home grown: 67 years of US and Canadian house size data

Graph of the average size of new single-family homes, Canada and the US, 1950-2017
Average size of new single-family homes, Canada and the US, 1950-2017

I was an impressionable young boy back in 1971 when my parents were considering building a new home.  I remember discussions about house size.  1,200 square feet was normal back then.  1,600 square feet, the size of the house they eventually built, was considered extravagant—especially in rural Saskatchewan.  And only doctors and lawyers built houses as large as 2,000 square feet.

So much has changed.

New homes in Canada and the US are big and getting bigger.  The average size of a newly constructed single-family detached home is now 2,600 square feet in the US and probably 2,200 in Canada.  The average size of a new house in the US has doubled since 1960.  Though data is sparse for Canada, it appears that the average size of a new house has doubled since the 1970s.

We like our personal space.  A lot.  Indeed, space per person has been growing even faster then house size.  Because as our houses have been growing, our families have been shrinking, and this means that per-capita space has increased dramatically.  The graph below, from shrinkthatfootprint.com, shows that, along with Australia, Canadians and Americans enjoy the greatest per-capita floorspace in the world.  The average Canadian or American each has double the residential space of the average UK, Spanish, or Italian resident.

Those of us fortunate enough to have houses are living in the biggest houses in the world and the biggest in history.  And our houses continue to get bigger.  This is bad for the environment, and our finances.

Big houses require more energy and materials to construct.  Big houses hold more furniture and stuff—they are integral parts of high-consumption lifestyles.  Big houses contribute to lower population densities and, thus, more sprawl and driving.  And, all things being equal, big houses require more energy to heat and cool.  In Canada and the US we are compounding our errors: making our houses bigger, and making them energy-inefficient.  A 2,600 square foot home with leading edge ‘passiv haus’ construction and net-zero energy requirements is one thing, but a house that size that runs its furnace half the year and its air conditioner the other half is something else.  And multiply that kind of house times millions and we create a ‘built in’ greenhouse gas emissions problem.

Then there are the issues of cost and debt.  We continually hear that houses are unaffordable.  Not surprising if we’re making them twice as large.  What if, over the past decade, we would have made our new houses half as big, but made twice as many?  Might that have reduced prices?

And how are large houses connected to large debt-loads?  Canadian debt now stands at a record $1.8 trillion.  Much of that is mortgage debt.  Even at low interest rates of 3.5 percent, the interest on that debt is $7,000 per year for a hypothetical family of four.  And that’s just the average.  Many families are paying a multiple of that amount, just in interest.  Then on top of that there are principle payments.  It’s not hard to see why so many families struggle to save for retirement or pay off debt.

Our ever-larger houses are filling the air with emissions; emptying our pockets of saving; filling up with consumer-economy clutter; and creating car-mandatory unwalkable, unbikable, unlovely neighborhoods.

The solutions are several fold.  First, new houses must stop getting bigger.  And they must start getting smaller.  There is no reason that Canadian and US residential spaces must be twice as large, per person, as European homes.  Second, building standards must get a lot better, fast.  Greenhouse gas emissions must fall by 50 to 80 percent by mid-century.  It is critical that the houses we build in 2020 are designed with energy efficient walls, solar-heat harvesting glass, and engineered summer shading such that they require 50 to 80 percent less energy to heat and cool.  Third, we need to take advantage of smaller, more rational houses to build more compact, walkable, bikable, enjoyable neighborhoods.  Preventing sprawl starts at home.

Finally, we need to consider questions of equity, justice, and compassion.  What is our ethical position if we are, on the one hand, doubling the size of our houses and tripling our per-capita living space and, on the other hand, claiming that we “can’t afford” housing for the homeless.  Income inequality is not just a matter of abstract dollars.  This inequality is manifest when some of us have rooms in our homes we seldom visit while others sleep outside in the cold.

We often hear about the “triple bottom line”: making our societies ecologically, economically, and socially sustainable.  Building oversized homes moves us away from sustainability, on all three fronts.

Graph sources:
US Department of Commerce/US Census Bureau, “2016 Characteristics of New Housing”
US Department of Commerce/US Census Bureau, “Characteristics of New Housing: Construction Reports”
US Department of Commerce/US Census Bureau, “Construction Reports: Characteristics of New One-Family Homes: 1969”
US Department of Labour, Bureau of Labour Statistics, “New Housing and its Materials:1940-56”
Preet Bannerjee, “Our Love Affair with Home Ownership Might Be Doomed,” Globe and Mail, January 18, 2012 (updated February 20, 2018) 

Earth’s dominant bird: a look at 100 years of chicken production

Graph of Chicken production, 1950-2050
Chicken meat production, global, actual and projected, 1950 to 2050

There are approximately 23 billion chickens on the planet right now.   But because the life of a meat chicken is short—less than 50 days—annual production far exceeds the number of chickens alive at any one time.  In 2016, worldwide, chicken production topped 66 billion birds.  Humans are slaughtering, processing, and consuming about 2,100 chickens per second.

We’re producing a lot of chicken meat: about 110 million tonnes per year.  And we’re producing more and more.  In 1966, global production was 10 million tonnes.  In just twelve years, by 1978, we’d managed to double production.  Fourteen years after that, 1992, we managed to double it again, to 40 million tonnes.  We doubled it again to 80 million tonnes by 2008.  And we’re on track for another doubling—a projected 160 million tonnes per year before 2040.  By mid-century, production should exceed 200 million tonnes—20 times the levels in the mid-’60s.  This week’s graph shows the steady increase in production.  Data sources are listed below.

The capacity of our petro-industrial civilization to double and redouble output is astonishing.  And there appears to be no acknowledged limit.  Most would predict that as population and income levels rise in the second half of the century—as another one or two billion people join the “global middle class”—that consumption of chicken and other meats will double again between 2050 and 2100.  Before this century ends, consumption of meat (chicken, pork, beef, lamb, farmed fish, and other meats) may approach a trillion kilograms per year.

Currently in Canada the average chicken farm produces about 325,000 birds annually.  Because these are averages, we can assume that the output of the largest operations is several times this figure.  In the US, chicken production is dominated by contracting.  Large transnationals such as Tyson Foods contract with individual growers to feed birds.  It is not unusual for a contract grower to have 6 to 12 barns on his or her farm and raise more than a million broiler chickens per year.

We’re probably making too many McNuggets.  We’re probably catching too many fish.  We’re probably feeding too many pigs.  And it is probably not a good idea to double the number of domesticated livestock on the planet—double it to 60 billion animals.  It’s probably time to rethink our food system.  

Graph sources:
FAOSTAT database
OECD-FAO, Agricultural Outlook 2017-2026
Brian Revell: One Man’s Meat … 2050?
Lester Brown: Full Planet, Empty Plates
FAO: World Agriculture Towards 2030/2050, the 2012 revision

Global plastics production, 1917 to 2050

Graph of global plastic production, 1917 to 2017
Global plastic production, megatonnes, 1917 to 2017

This week’s graph shows global annual plastics production over the past 100 years.  No surprise, we see exponential growth—a hallmark of our petro-industrial consumer civilization.  Long-term graphs of nearly anything (nitrogen fertilizer production, energy use, automobile productiongreenhouse gas emissions, air travel, etc.) display this same exponential take-off.

Plastics present a good news / bad news story.  First, we should acknowledge that the production capacities we’ve developed are amazing!  Worldwide, our factories now produce approximately 400 million tonnes of plastic per year.  That’s more than a billion kilograms per day!  Around the world we’ve built thousands of machines that can, collectively, produce plastic soft-drink and water bottles at a rate of nearly 20,000 per second.  Our economic engines are so powerful that we’ve managed to double global plastic production tonnage in less than two decades.

But of course that’s also the bad news: we’ve doubled plastic production tonnage in less than two decades.  And the world’s corporations and governments would have us go on doubling and redoubling plastics production.  The graph below shows the projected four-fold increase in production tonnage by 2050.

Graph of global plastics production to 2050
Projected global plastics production to 2050

Source: UN GRID-Arendal

Plastics are a product of human ingenuity and innovation—one of civilization’s great solutions.  They’re lightweight, durable, airtight, decay resistant, inexpensive, and moldable into a huge range of products.  But projected 2050 levels of production are clearly too much of a good thing.  Our growth-addicted economic system has a knack for turning every solution into a problem—every strength into a weakness.

At current and projected production levels, plastics are a big problem.  Briefly:

1.  Plastics are forever—well, almost.  Except for the tonnage we’ve incinerated, nearly all the plastic ever produced still exists somewhere in the biosphere, although much of it is now invisible to humans, reduced to tiny particles in ocean and land ecosystems.  Plastic is great because it lasts so long and resists decay.  Plastic is a big problem for those same reasons.

2. Only 18 percent of plastic is recycled.  This is the rate for plastics overall, including plastics in cars and buildings.  For plastic packaging (water bottles, chip bags, supermarket packaging, etc.) the recycling rate is just 14 percent.  But much of that plastic inflow is excluded during the sorting and recycling process, such that only 5 percent of plastic packaging material is  actually returned to use through recycling.   And one third of plastic packaging escapes garbage collection systems entirely and is lost directly into the environment: onto roadsides or into streams, lakes, and oceans.

3. Oceans are now receptacles for at least 8 billion kilograms of plastic annually—equivalent to a garbage truck full of plastic unloading into the ocean every minute.  The growth rates projected above will mean that by 2050 the oceans will be receiving the equivalent of one truckload of plastic every 15 second, night and day.  And unless we severely curtail plastic production and dumping, by 2050 the mass of plastic in our oceans will exceed the mass of fish.  Once in the ocean, plastics persist for centuries, in the form of smaller and smaller particles.  This massive contamination comes on top of other human impacts: overfishing, acidification, and ocean temperature increases.

4. Plastic is a fossil fuel product.  Plastic is made from oil and natural gas feedstocks—molecules extracted from the oil and gas become the plastic.  And oil, gas, and other energy sources are used to power the plastic-making processes.  By one estimate, 4 percent of global oil production is consumed as raw materials for plastic and an additional 4 percent provides energy to run plastics factories.

5. Plastics contain additives than harm humans and other species: fire retardants, stabilizers, antibiotics, plasticizers, pigments, bisphenol A, phthalates, etc.  Many such additives mimic hormones or disrupt hormone systems.  The 150 billion kilograms of plastics currently in the oceans includes 23 billion kgs of additives, all of which will eventually be released into those ocean ecosystems.

It’s important to think about plastics, not just because doing so shows us that we’re doing something wrong, but because the tragic story of plastics shows us why and how our production and energy systems go wrong.  The story of plastics reveals the role of exponential growth in turning solutions into problems.  Thinking about the product-flow of plastics (oil well … factory … store … home … landfill/ocean) shows us why it is so critical to adopt closed-loop recycling and highly effective product-stewardship systems.  And the entire plastics debacle illustrates the hidden costs of consumerism, the collateral damage of disposable products, and the failure of “the markets” to protect the planet.

In a recent paper that takes a big-picture, long-term look at plastics, scientists advise that “without a well-designed … management strategy for end-of-life plastics, humans are conducting a singular uncontrolled experiment on a global scale, in which billions of metric tons of material will accumulate across all major terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems on the planet.”

Graph sources:
• 1950 to 2015 data from Geyer, Jambeck, and Law, “Production, Use, and Fate of All Plastics Ever Made,” Science Advances 3, no. 7 (July 2017).
• 2016 and 2017 data points are extrapolated at a 4.3 percent growth rate derived from the average growth rate during the previous 20 years.
• Pre-1950 production tonnage is assumed to be negligible, based on various sources and the very low production rates in 1950.

Everything must double: Economic growth to mid-century

Graph of GDP of the world's largest economies, 2016 vs 2050
Size of the world’s 17 largest economies, 2016, and projections for 2050

In February 2017, global accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) released a report on economic growth entitled The Long View: How will the Global Economic Order Change by 2050?  The graph above is based on data from that report.  (link here)  It shows the gross domestic product (GDP) of the largest economies in the world in 2016, and projections for 2050.  The values in the graph are stated in constant (i.e., inflation adjusted) 2016 dollars.

PwC projects that China’s economy in 2050 will be larger than the combined size of the five largest economies today—a list that includes China itself, but also the US, India, Japan, and Germany.

Moreover, the expanded 2050 economies of China and India together ($102.5 trillion in GDP) will be almost as large as today’s global economy ($107 trillion).

We must not, however, simply focus on economic growth “over there.”  The US economy will nearly double in size by 2050, and Americans will continue to enjoy per-capita GDP and consumption levels that are among the highest in the world.  The size of the Canadian economy is similarly projected to nearly double.   The same is true for several EU countries, Australia, and many other “rich” nations.

Everything must double

PwC’s report tells us that between now and 2050, the size of the global economy will more than double.  Other reports concur (See the OECD data here).  And this doubling of the size of the global economy is just one metric—just one aspect of the exponential growth around us.  Indeed, between now and the middle decades of this century, nearly everything is projected to double.  This table lists just a few examples.

Table of projected year of doubling for various energy, consumption, transport, and other metrics
Projected year of doubling for selected energy, consumption, and transport metrics

At least one thing, however, is supposed to fall to half

While we seem committed to doubling everything, the nations of the world have also made a commitment to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by half by the middle decades of this century.  In the lead-up to the 2015 Paris climate talks, Canada, the US, and many other nations committed to cut GHG emissions by 30 percent by 2030.  Nearly every climate scientist who has looked at carbon budgets agrees that we must cut emissions even faster.  To hold temperature increases below 2 degrees Celsius relative to pre-industrial levels, emissions must fall by half by about the 2040s, and to near-zero shortly after.

Is it rational to believe that we can double the number of cars, airline flights, air conditioners, and steak dinners and cut global GHG emissions by half?

To save the planet from climate chaos and to spare our civilization from ruin, we must—at least in the already-rich neighborhoods—end the doubling and redoubling of economic activity and consumption.  Economic growth of the magnitude projected by PwC, the OECD, and nearly every national government will make it impossible to cut emissions, curb temperature increases, and preserve advanced economies and stable societies.  As citizens of democracies, it is our responsibility to make informed, responsible choices.  We must choose policies that curb growth.

Graph source: PriceWaterhouseCoopers

Happy motoring: Global automobile production 1900 to 2016

Graph of global automobile production numbers, various nations, historic, 1900 to 2016
Global automobile production (cars, trucks, and buses), 1900-2016

This week’s graph shows global automobile production over the past 116 years—since the industry’s inception.  The numbers include car, trucks, and buses.  The graph speaks for itself.  Nonetheless, a few observations may clarify our situation.

1.  Global automobile production is at a record high, increasing rapidly, and almost certain to rise far higher.

2. Annual production has nearly doubled since 1997—the year the world’s governments signed the Kyoto climate change agreement.

3. China is now the world’s largest automobile producer.  In terms of units made, Chinese production is double that of the United States.  This graph tells us something about the ascendancy of China.

4.  Most of the growth in the auto manufacturing sector is in Asia, especially Thailand, India, and China.  In 2000, those three nations together manufactured 3 million cars.  Last year their output totaled 34 million.  After 67 years of production, Australia is about to shut down its last automobile plant.  Most of its cars will be imported from Thailand, and perhaps a growing number  from China.

5. Auto production in “high-wage countries” is declining.  As noted, the Australian industry has been shuttered.  US production is down 5 percent since 2000, and Canadian production is down 20 percent.  Over that same period, production fell in France, Italy, and Japan, though not in Germany.  Since 2000, auto production increases in Mexico (+1.7 million) are roughly equal to decreases in Canada and the US (-1.2 million).

6. There are some surprises in the data:  Turkey, Slovakia, and Iran all make the  top-20 in terms of production numbers.

Graph sources: Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association of the United States, World Motor Vehicle Data, 1981 Edition; Ward’s Communications, Ward’s World Motor Vehicle Data 2002; United States Department of Transportation, Bureau of Transportation Statistics, National Transportation Statistics, Table 1-23

Electric cars are coming…  Fast!

Graph of the number of electric vehicles worldwide and selected nations
Increase in the stock of electric vehicles: global and selected nations

When- and wherever it occurs, exponential growth is transformative.  After a long period of stagnation or slow increase, some important quantity begins doubling and redoubling.  The exponential growth in cloth, coal, and iron production transformed the world during the Industrial Revolution.  The exponential growth in the power and production volumes of transistors (see previous blog post)—a phenomenon codified as “Moore’s Law”—made possible the information revolution, the internet, and smartphones.  Electric cars and their battery systems have now entered a phase of exponential growth.

There are two categories of electric vehicles (EVs).  The first is plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs).  These cars have batteries and can be driven a limited distance (usually tens of kilometres) using electrical power only, after which a conventional piston engine engages to charge the batteries or assist in propulsion.  Well-known PHEVs include the Chevrolet Volt and the Toyota Prius Plug-in.

The second category is the battery electric vehicle (BEV).  Compared to PHEVs, BEVs have larger batteries, longer all-electric range (150 to 400 kms), and no internal combustion engines.  Well-known BEVs include the Nissan Leaf, Chevrolet Bolt, and several models from Tesla.  The term electric vehicle (EV) encompasses both PHEVs and BEVs.

The graph above is reproduced from a very recent report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) entitled Global EV Outlook 2017.  It shows that the total number of electric vehicles in the world is increasing exponentially—doubling and redoubling every year or two.  In 2012, there we nearly a quarter-million EVs on streets and roads worldwide.  A year or two later, there were half-a-million.  By 2015 the number had surpassed one million.  And it is now well over two million.  Annual production of EVs is similarly increasing exponentially.  This kind of exponential growth promises to transform the global vehicle fleet.

But if it was just vehicle numbers and production volumes that were increasing exponentially this trend would not be very interesting or, in the end, very powerful.  More important, quantitative measures of EV technology and capacity are doubling and redoubling.  This second graph, below, taken from the same IEA report, shows the dramatic decrease in the cost of a unit of battery storage (the downward trending line) and the dramatic increase in the energy storage density of EV batteries (upward trending line).  If we compare 2016 to 2009, we find that today an EV battery of a given capacity costs one-third as much and is potentially one-quarter the size.  Stated another way, for about the same money, and packaged into about the same space, a current battery can drive an electric car three or four times as far.

Graph of electric vehicle battery cost and power density 2009 to 2016

Looking to the future, GM, Tesla, and the US Department of Energy all project that battery costs will decrease by half in the coming five years.  Though these energy density increases and cost decreases will undoubtedly plateau in coming decades, improvements underway now are rapidly moving EVs from the periphery to the mainstream.  EVs may soon eclipse internal-combustion-engine cars in all measures: emissions, purchase affordability, operating costs, performance, comfort, and even sales.

Source for graphs: International Energy Agency, Global EV Outlook 2017: Two Million and Counting

Our civilizational predicament: Doubling economic activity and energy use while cutting emissions by half

Graph of Global economic activity, energy use, and greenhouse gas emissions, 1CE to 2015CE.
Global economic activity, energy use, and carbon dioxide emissions, 1CE to 2015CE.

My friends sometimes suggest that I’m too pessimistic.  I’m not.  Rather, I’d suggest that everyone else is too optimistic.  Or, more precisely, I live in a society where people are discouraged from thinking rigorously about our predicament.  The graph above sets out our civilizational predicament, and it hints at the massive scale of the transformation that climate change requires us to accomplish in the coming decade or two.

The main point of the graph above is this: Long-term data shows that the size and speed of our global mega-civilization is precisely correlated with energy use, and energy use is precisely correlated with greenhouse gas emissions.  We have multiplied the size of our global economy and our living standards by using more energy, and this increased energy use has led us to emit more carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

The graph plots three key civilizational metrics: economic activity, energy use, and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.  The graph covers the past 2015 years, the period from 1 CE (aka 1 AD) to 2015 CE.  The blue line depicts the size of the global economy.  The units are trillions of US dollars, adjusted for inflation.  The green diamond-shaped markers show global energy use, with all energy converted to a common measure: barrels of oil equivalent.  And the red circles show global CO2 emissions, in terms of tonnes of carbon.

Though it is seldom stated explicitly, most government and business leaders and most citizens are proceeding under the assumption that the economic growth line in the graph can continue to spike upward.  This will require the energy line to also climb skyward.  But our leaders are suggesting that the emissions line can be wrenched downward.  When people are “optimistic” about climate change, they are optimistic about doing something that has never been done before: maintaining the upward arc of the economic and energy trendlines, but somehow unhooking the emissions trendline and bending it downward, toward zero.  I worry that this will be very hard.  Most important, it will be impossibly hard unless we are realistic about what we are trying to do, and about the challenges and disruptions ahead.

We must not despair, but neither should we permit ourselves unfounded optimism.  There is a line from a great movie—the Cohen Brother’s “Miller’s Crossing”—in which the lead character, a gangster played by Gabriel Byrne, says “I’d worry a lot less if I thought you were worrying enough.”

Graph sources: GDP: Angus Maddison, The World Economy, Volume 1: A Millennial Perspective (Paris: Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2001)

GHGs: Boden, T.A., Marland, G., and Andres R.J., “Global, Regional, and National Fossil-Fuel CO2 Emissions,” Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center (CDIAC), Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy, Oak Ridge, Tenn., U.S.A.

Energy consumption: Vaclav Smil, Energy in Nature and Society: General Energetics of Complex Systems (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008); British Petroleum, BP Statistical Review of World Energy: June 2016 (London: British Petroleum, 2016); pre-1500 energy levels estimated by the author based on data in Smil.

Unimaginable output: Global production of transistors

Approximate global production of transistors, per capita, selected years, 1955 to 2015
Approximate global production of transistors, per capita, selected years, 1955 to 2015

Global production of transistors has surpassed 20 trillion per second—hundreds of quintillions per year.  Transistors are the primary building blocks of modern electronic devices: computers, smartphones, TVs, radios, and other devices.  Transistors use semiconductor materials to amplify (think transistor radios) or switch (think digital computers) electronic signals and electrical power.  Transistors can be individual components, but are found in far greater numbers embedded in integrated circuits—in computer “chips.”

The graph above shows global production of transistors per year per person.  Per capita values are used here to make the size of the numbers more manageable.  In 1955, production was one transistor per 1,000 people—essentially zero.  Radios and TVs in the mid-’50s used vacuum tubes rather than transistors and integrated circuits.

Just ten years later, in 1965, production had increased 1,000-fold, to one transistor per person per year.  Transistor radios were gaining popularity in the 1960s.  Each radio contained several transistors—often 5 to 10.

While production in 1965 was one transistor per person per year, by 1975 it was nearly 1,500 per person.  Individual transistor components had been replaced by semiconductor computer chips, each containing thousands or millions of individual transistors.

The 1980s saw the proliferation of computers and home electronics.  By 1985 global production of transistors had surpassed 40 thousand per person per year.  By 2000 it was 65 million.  Today it is 56 billion per person.

The world now produces more transistors in one second that it did in one year in 1980.

The global population could not afford to purchase, on average, 56 billion transistors per person per year if prices had remained at 1965 or 1985 levels.  In the latter-1950s, a transistor radio with 5 transistors cost nearly $500 in today’s dollars.   Now, for not much more money, you can buy an iPhone that contains hundreds of billions of transistors.

A pound of rice sells for approximately one dollar and contains about 25,000 grains.  For that same dollar you can buy—as part of a memory stick or a phone—not 25,000 transistors, but billions.  A transistor today is thousands of times cheaper than a grain of rice.

Much of the news about the world is negative: famine, genocide, fisheries collapse, climate change, extinctions, resource depletion.  But we also need to acknowledge that our global hyper-civilization is truly wondrous.  We have built human systems of nearly incomprehensible power and productivity.  This is both their great strength and their great peril.  Nonetheless, if we are to safeguard some version of this civilization into the future we must appreciate and value it, despite its profound flaws.  We must take the time to understand it.  And we must work together to reform it.

Graph sources: VLSI Research.   Note that values are approximate and were derived, not directly from data, but from an existing graph.  Thus, while overall trends and conclusions are robust, individual values for specific years are approximate.

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.

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.