Electric car numbers, and projections to 2030

Graph of global electric vehicle numbers, 2013-17, and national data
Number of electric cars on the road, 2013 to 2017, and national data

In just two years, 2013 to 2015, the number of electric cars worldwide more than doubled.  And in the following two years, 2015 to 2017, the number more than doubled again, to just over 3 million.  This exponential growth means that electric vehicles (EVs)* will soon make up a large portion of the global car fleet.

This week’s graph is reprinted from Global EV Outlook 2018, the latest in a series of annual reports compiled by the International Energy Agency (IEA).

The graphs below show IEA projections of the number of EVs in the world by 2030 under two scenarios.  The first, the “New Policies Scenario,” takes into account existing and announced national policies.  Under this scenario, the number of EVs on the road is projected to reach 125 million by 2030.

The second scenario is called “EV30@30.”  This scenario is based on the assumption that governments will announce and implement new policies that will increase global EV penetration to 30 percent of new car sales by 2030—a 30 percent sales share.  This 30 percent share is roughly what is needed to begin to meet emission-reduction commitments made in the lead-up to the 2015 Paris climate talks.  Under this scenario, the number of EVs on the road could reach 228 million by 2030.

In either case, whether there are 125 million EV’s on the road in twelve years or 228 million, the result will be an impressive one, given that there were fewer than a million just four years ago.

Electric cars are not a panacea, but they do represent an important transition technology; electrifying much of the global car fleet can buy us the time we need to build zero-emission train and transit systems.  Thus, it is very important that we move very rapidly to maximize the number of EVs built and sold.  But the IEA is clear: EV adoption will depend on ambitious, effective government action.  The 228 million EVs projected under the EV30@30 Scenario will only exist if governments implement a suite of aggressive new policies.  The IEA states that:

“The uptake of electric vehicles is still largely driven by the policy environment.  The ten leading countries in electric vehicle adoption all have a range of policies in place to promote the uptake of electric cars.  Effective policy measures have proved instrumental in making electric vehicles more appealing to customers…, reducing risks for investors, and encouraging manufacturers to scale up production ….  Key examples of instruments employed by local and national governments to support EV deployment include public procurement programmes…, financial incentives to facilitate the acquisition of EVs and cut their usage cost (e.g. by offering free parking), and a variety of regulatory measures at different administrative levels, such as fuel-economy standards and restrictions on the circulation of vehicles based on tailpipe emissions performance.”

In 2018, about 95 million passenger cars and commercial vehicles were sold worldwide.  About 1 million were electric—about 1 percent.  The goal is to get to 30 percent in 12 years.  Attaining that goal, and thereby averting some of the worst effects of climate change, will require Herculean efforts by policymakers, regulators, international bodies, and automakers.

* There are two main types of EVs.  The first is plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs).  These cars have batteries, can be plugged in, 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.  Examples of PHEVs include the Chevrolet Volt and Toyota Prius Prime.  The second type is the battery electric vehicle (BEV).  BEVs have larger batteries, longer all-electric range (150 to 400 kms), and no internal combustion engines.  Examples of BEVs include the Chevrolet Bolt, Nissan Leaf, and several models from Tesla.  The term “electric vehicle” (EV) encompasses both PHEVs and BEVs.

 

 

If you’re for pipelines, what are you against?

Graph of Canadian greenhouse gas emissions, by sector, 2005 to 2039
Canadian greenhouse gas emissions, by sector, 2005 to 2030

As Alberta Premier Notley and BC Premier Horgan square off over the Kinder Morgan / Trans Mountain pipeline, as Alberta and then Saskatchewan move toward elections in which energy and pipelines may be important issues, and as Ottawa pushes forward with its climate plan, it’s worth taking a look at the pipeline debate.  Here are some facts that clarify this issue:

1.  Canada has committed to reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 30 percent (to 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030).

2.  Oil production from the tar sands is projected to increase by almost 70 percent by 2030 (From 2.5 million barrels per day in 2015 to 4.2 million in 2030).

3.  Pipelines are needed in order to enable increased production, according to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) and many others.

4.  Planned expansion in the tar sands will significantly increase emissions from oil and gas production.  (see graph above and this government report)

5.  Because there’s an absolute limit on our 2030 emissions (515 million tonnes), if the oil and gas sector is to emit more, other sectors must emit less.  To put that another way, since we’re committed to a 30 percent reduction, if the tar sands sector reduces emissions by less than 30 percent—indeed if that sector instead increases emissions—other sectors must make cuts deeper than 30 percent.

The graph below uses the same data as the graph above—data from a recent report from the government of Canada.  This graph shows how planned increases in emissions from the Alberta tar sands will force very large reductions elsewhere in the Canadian economy.

Graph of emissions from the Canadian oil & gas sector vs. the rest of the economy, 2015 & 2030
Emissions from the Canadian oil & gas sector vs. the rest of the economy, 2015 & 2030

Let’s look at the logic one more time: new pipelines are needed to facilitate tarsands expansion; tarsands expansion will increase emissions; and an increase in emissions from the tarsands (rather than a 30 percent decrease) will force other sectors to cut emissions by much more than 30 percent.

But what sector or region or province will pick up the slack?  Has Alberta, for instance, checked with Ontario?  If Alberta (and Saskatchewan) cut emissions by less than 30 percent, or if they increase emissions, is Ontario prepared to make cuts larger than 30 percent?  Is Manitoba or Quebec?  If the oil and gas sector cuts by less, is the manufacturing sector prepared to cut by more?

To escape this dilemma, many will want to point to the large emission reductions possible from the electricity sector.  Sure, with very aggressive polices to move to near-zero-emission electrical generation (policies we’ve yet to see) we can dramatically cut emissions from that sector.  But on the other hand, cutting emission from agriculture will be very difficult.  So potential deep cuts from the electricity sector will be partly offset by more modest cuts, or increases, from agriculture, for example.

The graph at the top shows that even as we make deep cuts to emissions from electricity—a projected 60 percent reduction—increases in emissions from the oil and gas sector (i.e. the tar sands) will negate 100 percent of the progress in the electricity sector.  The end result is, according to these projections from the government of Canada, that we miss our 2030 target.  To restate: according to the government’s most recent projections we will fail to meet our Paris commitment, and the primary reason will be rising emissions resulting from tarsands expansion.  This is the big-picture context for the pipeline debate.

We’re entering a new era, one of limits, one of hard choices, one that politicians and voters have not yet learned to navigate.   We are exiting the cornucopian era, the age of petro-industrial exuberance when we could have everything; do it all; have our cake, eat it, and plan on having two cakes in the near future.  In this new era of biophysical limits on fossil fuel combustion and emissions, on water use, on forest cutting, etc. if we want to do one thing, we may be forced to forego something else.  Thus, it is reasonable to ask: If pipeline proponents would have us expand the tar sands, what would they have us contract?

Graph sources: Canada’s 7th National Communication and 3rd Biennial Report, December 2017

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.

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

Deindustrialization: Or, what are half-a-billion Canadians and Americans going to do for a living?

Graph of United States Gross Domestic Product, by sector, 1947 to 2016, highlighting deindustrialization
United States Gross Domestic Product, by sector, 1947 to 2016

Canada and the US continue to undergo rapid deindustrialization.  Our economies are increasingly service-based, and that should worry us.

The graph above looks complicated, but the key idea is contained in two trends.  And both are negative.  First, note the declining contribution manufacturing is making to United States (US) Gross Domestic Product (GDP).  The red, dotted line shows manufacturing’s percentage contribution.

Manufacturing now makes up just 12 percent of US GDP, and less than 10 percent in Canada.  The decline of manufacturing is even more evident when we look at employment rather than GDP.  According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, goods-producing industries (manufacturing, mining, construction, agriculture, etc.) now employ roughly 15 percent of America’s working population.  Nearly 85 percent are employed in the service sector.  The situation is similar in Canada.  According to Statistics Canada data , approximately 77 percent of Canadian workers are employed in the service sector, and this percentage continues to rise.  Both nations continue to deindustrialize.

Second, note the rise in the importance of three service sectors: 1. Finance, insurance, real estate, and rentals (the broad blue line); 2. Professional and business services (green line); and 3. Education and healthcare (red line). A US economy built upon General Motors, General Electric, and U.S. Steel has given way to one built upon JPMorgan Chase, Walmart, and UnitedHealth Group.

Note, especially, the blue line: finance and real estate.  With the 2008 financial crisis still fresh in our minds, and its effects still resonating through global economies, it should worry North Americans that banking and real estate have replaced manufacturing as the one of the largest economic sectors.

Manufacturing is declining, our energy sectors may have to contract as we deal with climate change, most North American fisheries have been depleted and agriculture seems to need fewer farmers and workers each year, low-wage nations continue to claim Canadian and American jobs, and we’re told that the robots are coming.  By mid-century there will be more than 450 million people living in Canada and the US.  Every politician in every party and every engaged citizen should be asking the same question: what are nearly half-a-billion North Americans going to do for a living?

We are not doomed to decline, but decline will be our lot unless we actively engage in a collective democratic effort to build a new, sustainable economy for North America.

Graph source: US Dept. of Commerce, Bureau of Economic Analysis

 

Back on track: North America needs high-speed passenger rail

A graph of passenger rail utilization, selected nations, average kilometres per capita
Passenger train use, kilometers per person per year (average), selected countries, 2014 or 2015 data

Not every problem has a clear solution.  Here’s one that does.  The problem is the exponential growth in air travel and attendant greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.  The solution is high-speed passenger rail.

Compared to airplanes, high-speed trains can move people faster, more comfortably and conveniently, more cheaply, and with a fraction of the GHG emissions.  And Canada is uniquely placed to benefit from a passenger-rail renaissance; one of the world’s largest passenger-rail manufacturers, Bombardier, is a Canadian company.

Air travel is increasing exponentially.  As I detailed in a previous blog post, air travelers now rack up about 7 trillion passenger-kilometres per year.  And that figure is projected to double by 2030.  If we are to retain a tolerable climate, most of the planes will soon need to be grounded, excepting perhaps those used for trans-oceanic flights.

While airplanes may remain our best option for crossing oceans, within continents higher-speed rail (130–200 km/h) and high-speed rail (200+ km/h) can move people faster and more comfortably.  Such trains can transport passengers from city-centre to city-centre, eliminating the long drive to the airport.  Trains do not require time-consuming, invasive airport security screenings.  These factors, combined with high speeds, mean that for many trips, the total travel time is lower for trains than for planes.  And because trains have much more leg-room and often include observation cars, restaurants, and lounges, they are much more comfortable and enjoyable.

Many people will know the Eurostar high-speed line that connects Paris and other European cities to London via the Channel Tunnel.  Top speed for that train is 320 km/h.  A trip from downtown London to Downtown Paris—nearly 500 kms—takes 2 hours and 20 minutes, about the time it takes the average North American to drive to the airport, check in, check baggage, clear security, and get to his or her airplane seat.

China recently inaugurated its Shanghai Maglev line, with a maximum speed of 430km/h and average speed of 250 km/h.  Japan’s famous “bullet trains” went into service more than 50 years ago.  They now travel on a network of 2,764 kms of track and reach speeds of 320 km/h.

North America has one high-speed line, the Acela Express that links Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington. The maximum speed is 240 km/h, through average speeds are lower.  Travel time from New York to Washington is 2 hours and 45 minutes, including time spent at intermediate stops: an average speed of 132 km/h.  The Acela Express trains were built by a consortium 75 percent owned by Canada’s Bombardier.

This brings us to the truly good news: Canada is home to a world-leading passenger rail manufacturer, Bombardier.  You will find the company’s rolling stock in the subways of New York, London, and more than a dozen other cities.  Its intercity trains run throughout Europe, Asia, and North America.  And its high-speed trains are currently moving passengers in China, Europe, and the US.  Until a recent merger of two Chinese companies, Canada’s Bombardier was the largest passenger train manufacturer in the world.  Canada has a huge opportunity to create jobs and economic activity while leading the world in low-emission, cutting-edge rail technology.  As climate change forces Canada to scale back fossil-fuel production and maybe even auto manufacturing, Canada will need new economic engines.  Passenger-rail manufacturing can be an economic engine of the future.

Not all the news is good, however.  Many will have recent heard news reports about Bombardier.  Over the past few years, Federal and provincial governments have provided cash injections to the company totaling more than a billion dollars, largely to cover costs on its C-Series passenger-jet program.  Bombardier is in trouble.  Indeed, it may have made one of the biggest business blunders in recent decades: financially imperiling a world-leading train maker to make a huge gamble on planes just as climate change forces us to ground the planes and build a trillion-dollar passenger rail system.  Bombardier has recently announced that it may merge its train division with the German company Siemens.

Bombardier has been foolish.  Canadian citizens and their governments have been equally foolish: handing over billions of taxpayer dollars and not receiving a single passenger train in return.  But we can be smart.  That means building a North American network of fast trains.  Bombardier can prosper by being one of the main suppliers for that network.  High-speed passenger rail can be a win-win-win: jobs for Canadians and Americans; fast, comfortable travel; and a high-tech, low-emission transportation system on this continent like the ones being built in Europe and Asia.

The graph at the top of this article shows average per-person passenger-train utilization.  The data is from the most recent year available: 2014 or ’15.  Passenger rail utilization rates in Canada and the US (an average of less than 40 kms per person per year) are among the lowest in the world.  In China, average use is more than 800 kms per person per year and rising very rapidly.  In many European nations, it is more than 1,000 kms per year per person—25 to 30 times the Canadian and US rates.  There is huge growth potential for the passenger rail sector in North America.

Graph sources: OECD.

 

Fractal collapse: How the dominant societies and economies may fail.

Six images showing the stages of formation of a Sierpinski triangle
The stages of formation of a Sierpinski triangle illustrating fractal collapse

Fractal collapse is an important, useful idea.  It helps us understand that a society, economy, political system, or civilization may not “fall,” but rather become pock-marked and weakened—shot through with micro-collapses.

The United States may be in an advanced state of collapse.  There are many indicators that this is the case.  The national debt, nearly $20 trillion, about a quarter-million dollars per family of four (see my “US national debt per family”), seems unrepayable.  America’s former industrial heartland is now mostly rustbelt, and parts of Detroit look like sets for “Walking Dead” or “The Road.”  Climate change is bearing down from one side and resource depletion from another.  Its democratic system—rotted by dark money, voter suppression, gerrymandering, the distortions of the Electoral College, and messianic populist politics—has delivered gridlock, ideologues, cartoon-level analyses of complex issues, and, now, Trump.  Many of the manufacturing jobs that have not moved to Asia may soon be taken by robots.  Inequality and incarceration-rates are at record highs.  One could extend this list to fill pages.

Despite the preceding, I’m not predicting that America (or Greece or Australia or England) will “fall”—pitch into rapid and irreversible economic contraction and social disintegration.  Instead, fractal collapse is more likely.  In fractal collapse, parts of a system fail, at various scales, but the system, in diminished form, carries on.  We’re seeing this in America.  We see the collapse of a household here (perhaps a result of the opioid crisis), and a neighbourhood, there; a city declines rapidly (think Detroit or Scranton) and a county declares bankruptcy.  Collapse occurs in various places and at various scales but the aggregate entity moves forward.  And such collapses are not predictable—they do not just happen to poor people or in the “poor” places.  Suddenly and unexpectedly, the investment banks collapse, then General Motors becomes insolvent.  The Senate and House of Representatives cease to function properly.  Collapse is not a single event.  As we are seeing it play out now—amid the hyper-energized and dominant “industrial” economies—collapse is multiple, iterative, and repeated across scales: it is fractal.

And collapse is not monolithic or pervasive.  Indeed, some parts of the system expand and prosper.  The US is manufacturing billionaires at a record pace, the stock market continues to climb, output of everything from corn to natural gas is up, and Google and Apple are world-leading corporations.  A hallmark of collapse is that societies become dis-integrated, allowing some parts to fall as other parts rise.

The image above is a Sierpinski triangle or “gasket.”  It helps visualize this idea of fractal collapse.  Step by step, the original triangle shape develops more holes and loses area, but it does not disappear.  its outlines remain apparent.

To make a Sierpinski gasket, we start with an equilateral triangle.  Then we identify the mid-points of each side and use these as the vertices of a new triangle, which we remove from the original.  (See the top-middle triangle, above.)  This leaves us with three equilateral triangles.  We repeat this process over and over; we iterate.  From each remaining triangle we remove the middle, leaving three smaller triangles.  The Sierpinski gasket and its repeated holing can serve as a visual metaphor for the fractal collapse that may now be hollowing out many of the world’s nations.

The future is not binary, not rise or fall.  Increasingly, nations may become less homogeneous.  Some parts may expand and prosper while other parts may wither or fail.  The overall trendline may not be upward, however, but rather downward.  Our future may not be a train wreck, but rather a slow dilapidation.  Not with a bang but a wimper.  We can change this outcome.  But currently very few are trying.

The intellectual history of the idea of fractal collapse is not wholly clear.  The concept came out of the physical sciences and has been popularized as a description of social and economic collapse by author and analyst John Michael Greer.

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.