[p2p-research] Earth's carrying capacity and Catton

Paul D. Fernhout pdfernhout at kurtz-fernhout.com
Mon Aug 24 08:36:31 CEST 2009

Michel Bauwens wrote:
> I have the occasional peaks at peak oil and the oil drum sites; the only
> doomsterism I have seen is the realization of peak oil; for the rest they
> are discussing practical solutions for the transition, much in tune with the
> rest of the p2p ethos ... most of them condemn the lifeboat strategy and
> advocate resilient communities, not different from people here like Sam
> Rose, John Robb, etc...
> it is not because you see that this system is doomed, that you are hopeless
> for humanity, even as you realize that the transition might be hard ..
> even if you want to bury in the sand while waiting for miraculous
> technologies that will put millions of humans in the deserts, space and the
> oceans (yeah, that will happen for sure ...), I don't think any thinking
> person will dismiss the possibility of a hard transition out of hand ...
> Renewal is a possiblity, soft landing is a possibility, rapid catastrophic
> decline is a possiblity, slow decline followed by renewal are a possiblity
> etc... These different scenarios have been worked out by post-carbon authors
> ..
> The only one I really count out is technological rapture, as far as I'm
> concerned, I consider it the least likely
> My most optimistic scenario is: 1) drawn out meltdown sequels for another
> 10-15 years  2) possible long wave with substantial input of p2p principles,
> but still within the context of global crisis; 3) replacement by sustainable
> society, in the context of global crisis

Lots of possibilities. But, as you said before, let's look at the details.

To be clear, when I talk about companies printing solar panels, I am talking
about real companies using real printing presses right now.
   "Nanosolar 1GW Solar Power Film Coater"

And you can install them quickly in some situations like flat roofs:
   "Thin Film Solar Flat Roof: 5 kW in 2.5 hours."

I think it is unfair to characterize that as "waiting for miraculous

And passive solar houses have been around for decades. I live in one that is
  a passive solar retrofit, thought not a very good one in some ways. :-)
Solar-thermal has been around for decades. These are miraculous technologies
I guess, but only in the sense of being amazing, not in the sense of
requiring a miracle to suddenly appear.

According to this industry source:
"Solar Electric Energy demand has grown consistently by 20-25% per annum
over the past 20 years. This has been against a backdrop of rapidly
declining costs and prices."

That has been despite expensive costs relative to coal, when costs are now
closer to parity, even with all the subsidies fossil fuels have gotten.

Cell phone growth rate at about 25% rate per year has gone from practically
no users to about 2 billion users over the past couple of decades at that
sort of growth rate.

"Solar electric installations totalled 200MW in 1999, 280MW in 2000 and
340MW by 2001 and 427MW in 2002.  While growing at a rapid pace, solar
electric energy globally still only accounts for around 0.1% of primary
energy demand. However, this means that relatively small increases in market
penetration by solar energy as costs decline, lead to very rapid growth
rates in this industry."

So, I'd suggest it is not unreasonable to suggest that given the nature of
the current energy situation with high and uncertain oil prices, and with
recent price breakthroughs with solar essentially as cheap as coal now or
soon, we might soon see a rapid solar growth rates at 100% per year.

If so, this is what we might see, with compounded growth over the next ten
years from the current rate of solar-electric capacity:
2010   0.1%
2011   0.2%
2012   0.4%
2013   0.8%
2014   1.6%
2015   3.2%
2016   6.4%
2017  12.8%
2018  25.6%
2019  51.2%
2020 100.0%

Now, that is admittedly speculative, even if I feel it likely, and if that
held, we will be 100% solar within the time frame of your first meltdown
wave. And that was my prediction from ten years ago, that in about twenty
years from then, or ten years from now, we would see widespread renewable use:
"[unrev-II] Singularity in twenty to forty years?"
"You may argue the dates -- ten years for some, forty for others. You may
point out Y2K didn't melt things down, that AI researchers predicted AIs
by now, that fusion power was supposed to be here by now, etc. And you
would be right to be skeptical. My point is that these are trends in
many different areas -- any one of which would make this world radically
different. Together, they spell awesome change -- in economics,
politics, lifestyle, relationships, and values. "

Ray Kurzweil making a similar point, though I don't take things are far as
him, since I see a law of diminishing returns for more "intelligence" as
well as intrinsic security issues in many things he proposes:
   "The Law of Accelerating Returns"
When people think of a future period, they intuitively assume that the
current rate of progress will continue for future periods. However, careful
consideration of the pace of technology shows that the rate of progress is
not constant, but it is human nature to adapt to the changing pace, so the
intuitive view is that the pace will continue at the current rate. Even for
those of us who have been around long enough to experience how the pace
increases over time, our unexamined intuition nonetheless provides the
impression that progress changes at the rate that we have experienced
recently. From the mathematician's perspective, a primary reason for this is
that an exponential curve approximates a straight line when viewed for a
brief duration. So even though the rate of progress in the very recent past
(e.g., this past year) is far greater than it was ten years ago (let alone a
hundred or a thousand years ago), our memories are nonetheless dominated by
our very recent experience. It is typical, therefore, that even
sophisticated commentators, when considering the future, extrapolate the
current pace of change over the next 10 years or 100 years to determine
their expectations. This is why I call this way of looking at the future the
"intuitive linear" view. ... But a serious assessment of the history of
technology shows that technological change is exponential. In exponential
growth, we find that a key measurement such as computational power is
multiplied by a constant factor for each unit of time (e.g., doubling every
year) rather than just being added to incrementally. Exponential growth is a
feature of any evolutionary process, of which technology is a primary
example. I emphasize this point because it is the most important failure
that would-be prognosticators make in considering future trends. Most
technology forecasts ignore altogether this "historical exponential view" of
technological progress. That is why people tend to overestimate what can be
achieved in the short term (because we tend to leave out necessary details),
but underestimate what can be achieved in the long term (because the
exponential growth is ignored).

If I stick with the historical rate of 20%, which has been maintained
despite being expensive relative to coal in most places, and despite
resistance and an uneven playing field caused by the fossil fuel's and
nuclear industry's influences on government, then conversion to 100% solar
will take about three times longer (25% compounded three years is about
100%), so, by about 2040. Note of course, we would never go all
solar-electric. Passive solar houses, solar thermal, geothermal, wind power,
tidal power, and so on will also play a role. Because each of these is also
growing in a compounding way, we will likely see some mix of solutions
within twenty years, even at 25% growth rates, and even with out people
doing much anything different than now, and with no "downshifting".
(Although people might downshift anyway for various personal reasons related
to voluntary simplicity.)

Here is what 25% growth rates look like for thirty years, starting at the
current amount of solar-electric capacity:
2010 0.100%
2011 0.125%
2012 0.156%
2013 0.195%
2014 0.244%
2015 0.305%
2016 0.381%
2017 0.477%
2018 0.596%
2019 0.745%
2020 0.931%
2021 1.164%
2022 1.455%
2023 1.819%
2024 2.274%
2025 2.842%
2026 3.553%
2027 4.441%
2028 5.551%
2029 6.939%
2030 8.674%
2031 10.84%
2032 13.55%
2033 16.94%
2034 21.18%
2035 26.47%
2036 33.09%
2037 41.36%
2038 51.70%
2039 64.62%
2040 80.78%

Python code:
>>> x = 0.1
>>> for y in range(31):
...   print 2010 + y, x
...   x *= 1.25

So, solar panels are again supplying all our power by then, even just at
today's growth rate.

What is happening is that the *idea* of using solar panels is like a
biological organism growing into a new niche. The growth rate depends on how
many there are, as everyone sees they really work from friends, neighbors,
and colleagues and then wants them, and also on how the infrastructure ramps
up as investors see this and production costs drop (assuming a market-based
solution). There is this slow cultural learning process interwoven with
economic aspects (including more research for better systems). But it is
happening. At first, solar cells were too expensive for anything but
satellites; then they were too expensive for anything but calculators and
satellites; then they were too expensive for anything but remote homes and
the rest; then they were too expensive for anything but highway signals and
the rest; and so on -- decorative walk lights, solar rechargeable
flashlights, charging batteries while camping or cycling, and so on. Each
part of the niche that was grown into made more growth possible. So, solar
is growing at by one estimate (solarbuzz) 30% per year now, which continues
to increase as a growth rate and may become an even higher growth rate.

All this might even have happened without any "Peak Oil" scare tactics; we
may never know -- but the facts are that fossil fuels are dirty and
polluting, they are inherently insecure (you need to get them somewhere
continuously), and they have damaged the USA's democracy and democracies
around the globe (like in Iraq in the 1950s). So, there is plenty of reason
to want to transition away from them, even if there was an infinite supply.
The stone age did not end because we ran out of stones. The oil age will not
end because we run out of oil. (I forget who said that first.)

Like cell phones, there will be solar panels everywhere in thirty years and
we will just take them for granted. Did anyone notice the "Peak Landline"
crisis? No. :-) Many people just decided it was not worth it to have
landline anymore when they could have cell phones, and rural areas just
jumped straight to cell phone technology instead of string copper cables.
The same thing will happen with solar, and in fact, is happening with solar,
with higher adoption in some growing rural areas.

But I expect this will happen a lot faster than 30%. There may be additional
breakthroughs to make things much cheaper. And the market really has not
caught on to this in a deep way. And as you said, the price of oil going up
and down complicates matters. As I've suggested, this process could be sped
up by a US$200 or more tax per barrel equivalent of fossil fuels, with the
money redistributed as a basic income to everyone, to make up for fossil
fuel pollution and defense related costs.

Now, in case you think those fanciful figures, think about how big the
printing industry around the globe is already. The world is full of people
who know how to run high-speed printing presses, feeding in ink and a
substrate. Printing solar panels is not *that* much harder than printing
newspapers anymore, thanks to Nanosolar and First Solar and others (even
Chronar, a bankrupt pioneer that started around Princeton, NJ from the 1980s
that was one of the first commercializers of continuous roll printing of
solar panels even back then.)

Globally, about 450 million copies of newspapers are sold every day; reference:

Let's assume very conservatively that each entire newspaper on average
involves about the same amount of printing as just one square meter of
printed surface, or about a 100 watt solar panel at 10% efficiency. Clearly
this is conservative, as many papers like the NYTimes are much bigger if you
laid them out sheet by sheet on the floor.

That means the world currently has a printing capacity that, if converted to
printing solar panels instead, would produce about 45 Gigawatts of new solar
panels each day (450 million copies * 100 watts each).

Rounding, we'd need about 100,000 Gigawatts of capacity to supply 100% of
our energy needs globally by solar power. That is six times 15,000 gigawatts
rounded, six times accounts for clouds and nighttime.

So, roughly, the world prints as much newspaper material in about 2,000 days
(about five years) as it would take to go all solar, by that conservative
estimate. I'd suspect most newspapers have more pages, so, it is quite
likely it is just a matter of months worth of production. So, a few months
worth of printing solar panels instead of printing articles about a global
economic crisis should just about save the world and bring us global
abundance. :-) We are probably that close to it.

The main point here is not the exactness of the figures but to show you how
the world already has a similar scale effort within an order of magnitude or
so, involving the same skills people already have, using printing presses,
ink, substrate (paper), and distribution, as it would take for the planet to
go all solar in a few years (or maybe a few months). Right now. Not in some
transhumanist post-singularity future. I'm talking, strictly hypothetically,
even by the end of this year we could be all solar, if we had enough
supplies of the raw material on hand (which we probably don't, but we could
have them soon if we tried).

This is happening not maybe someday; this is happening right now. All those
businesses globally are busy printing stuff (newspapers) and handing it out
to people every day. And with more news going digital, soon all those human
printers might be looking for something else to print. :-) So, let them
print solar panels. Maybe they can even adapt their existing presses, but if
not, there are plenty of idle factories in the USA (Detroit) to make more

Granted, practically, with training and gathering materials and such, it
would take longer than a few months to print enough solar panels instead of
newspapers, but not *that* much longer, given people could learn how to do
it through the internet.

As far as materials, we'd need to print about a trillion square meters of
solar panels, which would require aluminum foil for the backing. Note that
the the US and Europe currently use about 1.3 billion pounds of aluminum
foil each year
and I'm guessing that a pound of aluminum would produce about 100 square
meters of substrate, so we are talking ten years worth of aluminum foil
production more or less. So again, quite doable, as aluminum production is,
according to this article, 31.9 million tons (about 60 billion pounds, so
way more that we need in a year).
Even if I am off by two orders of magnitude on how much aluminum goes into a
solar panel (I might be), clearly we have plenty of aluminum.

There are other materials that go into the inks, but they are is huge supply
in the Earth's crust.
They still have to be mined though. But, all those people who used to work
in the oil and coal mining industry can switch to processing these four
materials for the ink. And the end result will be less pollution than mining
coal. How long can it really take to switch where they mine? Years? Maybe.
But not decades.

So, that is why I am more optimistic, technically.

Sure, better batteries or a smarter grid would help. But we have energy
storage systems now (lead-acid batteries and compressed air and reverse
hydroelectric). I've even been wondering if we could just store compressed
air underwater in bubbles? And we have a grid which we could probably add
10% solar to as-is, and at that point, the psychological change would be
complete, and political change (including more R&D for batteries and grids)
would follow.

Again, we would never go 100% solar -- it would be a mix. But by the time we
were, say, generating 10% of society's power with solar PV, so within twenty
years of even just the current growth rate of 25% or so, much of the gloom
generated by smoggy Peak Oil theorists will have evaporated in the sun,
since this will become obvious to almost everybody by then. :)

But why wait that long? Why not get everyone to see that trend now, and
shake off the gloom, and be optimistic about our future right now? Then the
economy might start to perk up, people might make investments, people might
talk happier to their kids, and so on. Humanity would have more *hope*.

And it is physical hope you can see in every solar panel on every roof or
pole. Even right now.

But the way most gloomsters talk, even the scenario you outline, it seems
like everyone should be stockpiling oil, building bomb shelters, and so on
for the next couple of decades. :-( And given the USA's propensity for
launching wars over oil profits, that might be a very dangerous global
mindset. Which might then become a self-fulfilling prophecy, with a global
wars over oil and related issues that leaves the printing presses rusting
away, the human newspaper printers in hiding or dead, our mining machines
blown up, and so on, and no solar panels for anybody. And with the secret
recipes for the Nanosolar inky solar panel soup lost forever or in
unfriendly hands: :-)
   "Seinfeld: Soup Nazi (Greatest Parts)"
(Granted, that episode also has a lot to say about economic power and
proprietary information, too. :-)

Some of it depends on the risks of positive versus negative emotions:
"The article goes on to present Valiant's beliefs that positive emotions —
awe, love, compassion, gratitude, forgiveness, joy, hope, and trust (or
faith) — are more powerful than negative emotions. Positive emotions make us
healthier. However, they are more future-oriented and make us more
vulnerable and open to risk of heartbreak and rejection. Negative emotions
like fear and sadness, serve as psychological protections that insulate us
from risk."

And some depends on our sense of time:
"The Time Paradox opened my eyes to the different ways that we perceive time
both culturally and personally. The book takes you through history and how
humans' perception have time has changed throughout the ages. The book then
goes into the different orientations we often have with respect to time,
from the past to the present and the future. Through in depth studies with
many subjects, these time orientations have been found to have profound
effects on our lives and how we deal with life. The authors then present a
way to evaluate our own time perceptions and teach us how we can potentially
change it. We can thus use our time perception to our advantage and create
better lives for ourselves and the people around us. "

Anyway, I can see I won't persuade you anytime soon. Thanks for letting me
try though. :-)

--Paul Fernhout

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