In 2009 2.5 billion journeys were taken in aircraft.

Evened out across the global population, every third person on earth took a flight. In reality it is the wealthiest proportion of the 1 billion people in western economies who took most of the journeys.

The projection is that by 2014 there will be 3.3 billion journeys taken.

This represents a 32% increase in 5 years.

Mobility is an inevitable consequence of affluence. As more and more people have disposable income, many will want to use some of those funds to travel. As economies grow, more business is done and so travel to buy, sell and negotiate also increases.

In the mid 1960’s the first Boeing 737s carried 100 passengers up to 2775 km. This was quite a revolution at the time.

The latest Boeing 737-800s carry twice the number of people over 5,500 km and use 23% less fuel.

Suppose it were possible to replace all the aircraft flying in 2009 with the latest fuel efficient models. It would be possible to absorb almost all of the 5 year increase in passenger volume to 2014 through fuel efficiencies that these more efficient vehicles bring.

Future aircraft construction materials that are lighter and still strong enough will see even greater fuel efficiencies. Aircraft built in the next decade or two might only use a third of the fuel guzzled by the earliest models.

Replace all the 737-800s with aircraft of composite material designs and 13 years of growth in passenger numbers could be accommodated without increasing fuel use above that used in 2009.

But even if all these replacements were possible by the mid-2020s, less than a generation from now, fuel use in air travel would begin to increase over 2009 levels.

In half the time since those first Boeing 737 aircraft began flying all the fuel efficiencies would have been used up by the increased volume of traffic.

Clearly instant replacement with the best technology is impossible.

Some of those fuel hungry early models are still in the air on the more remote routes operated by obscure airlines. And it is these cheaper fare options that will be responsible for much of the growth in passenger numbers. The fuel efficiencies will arrive incrementally.

In the absence of some remarkable technology that can replace jet engines running on aviation fuel, greenhouse gas emissions from or air travel will grow along with the airline industry.


There is talk of a jet-rocket vehicle that would travel in the stratosphere, have no emissions because it flies above the atmosphere on hydrogen fuel and could reduce the travel time from Sydney to London to a few hours. Commercial flights might happen by 2040.

By then there will be close to 10 billion journeys per year.

Washing machines

The number of people with the economic ability to purchase a dishwasher will double to more than 2 billion in the next 30-40 years.

Far more will rise above what Swedish statistician Professor Hans Rosling calls the ‘washing line’; an income of US$40 per day, the threshold necessary to own and run a washing machine.

On the one hand this is a worry.

Energy is needed to manufacture and power all these devices as is a water supply to allow them to function. Policy efforts on climate change notwithstanding, the cheapest power still comes from fossil fuels. It is why China is building coal-fired power stations even as they diversify into alternative fuels because they will need the energy to run all the new white goods.

On the other hand, sales of consumer goods will drive economic growth.

This is good news for those who require GDP growth, the enshrined dogma of political success. Nothing will prevent families from buying a washing machine they can afford it, nor indeed, airplane tickets, dishwashers and cars as their wealth allows.

Couple this inevitable growth in buying power with ever more people and the growth paradigm has never looked better.

Hans Rosling has a very clever way of explaining the population and economic growth combination  using Ikea boxes



What Rosling explains so simply is that it is the economic transition that is integral to the population one.

Without economic growth it is harder to see population growth slowing and eventually contracting.

Children must consistently outlive their parents for this to happen and that means needs must be met and standards of living must rise.

It seems that we have not fully embraced this reality.

No amount of environmental concern, moral imperative to preserve resources or even fear of environmental collapse is likely to trump the imperative to improve things for our families.

For this is an expression of self-preservation that is hard wired.

Rosling calls himself a ‘possibilist’ because even though the transition will happen, it can be done with a workable number at its conclusion and damage limitation along the way.


There are 67 million sheep in Australia. This is a lot of sheep, roughly 3 for every Australian resident. Ten years ago there were enough for 6 per person, a small flock per household.

Together with cattle, the current herd grazes across 430 million hectares or 56 percent of the continent.

If averages were a useful thing to quote, then each sheep might have 6 ha each, many times the area of the average suburban housing lot. It would seem that we are happy enough to let livestock roam.

Time will come when we will rethink this decision.

Street lights on a desert highway

You would think that lights are unnecessary along remote desert highways. Vehicles have headlights after all, and in the desert there is not much wildlife on the road.

If being able to see the camel on the road at night prevents even one death, or even an accident, it might justify the expense. But there are surely higher priorities for spending that would save lives.

Not so for the company installing the lights. They say yes please.  And hey, we can even provide solar power systems to tackle the carbon issue. No problem Minister and think of the export earnings.

Unnecessary development is often a problem because it is hard to argue that there is such a thing as unnecessary commerce.

Economic activity must happen, deals struck, money exchanged, and made available through purchases, wages and profits to fuel more activity. It is a relentless system that works so long as we keep making and selling things.

The Australian government has just released new modeling on the impact of a $20 per tCO2e carbon price on economic growth to 2050. Minimal effect it says. This is good news for spruikers of action on climate change. But what about economic growth of around 3% per annum for the next 40 years.

If that growth is generated by building street lights where we don’t need them and selling vast volumes of white goods, cars and miscellaneous consumer items that we probably don’t need, any carbon price will have the effect of a drop in the proverbial ocean on protecting the environment.

Remember that action on climate change is on the agenda because we are concerned about how a warming world will support us all.

The real trick will be to find things that will fuel economic activity with development that we actually need.

Historical science

I have just finished Jared Diamond’s 1997 book Guns, germs and steel. The subtitle, A short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years, sums up a fascinating tale of not just our past but of the human condition. It is an extraordinary account of both the quirks of human history and the astonishing speed of our emergence to colonize and appropriate the planet.

You cannot go wrong with Diamond’s books. They are accessible, fluid and delivered, as one reviewer put it, with “a combination of expertise, charm and compassion.” The Third Chimpanzee and Collapse are popular science classics.

Although Diamond is a scientist, more precisely an evolutionary biologist, Guns, germs and steel is about history. A courageous attempt to describe and explain why in amongst all the movements of people some groups won, expanding territory and growing in number, while other groups lost, either by being overrun or exterminated.

Diamond’s science take seems to be fuelled by a sense of compassion. He flatly rejects racist explanations for success in favour of a more cause and effect analysis. The conclusions that technology (guns), the biological consequences of living in sedentary groups close to livestock (germs) and growing sufficient food to stay put long enough to work metal (steel) is convincing as it trots through 400 pages to a simple punch line.

But this is not to spoil the plot. It is the epilogue on history as a science that was the most intriguing.

Diamond leaves the detail of human occupation of every corner of the planet and makes a plea for science as knowledge. Science as a means to understanding that is more than the narrow view of controlled experimentation that is the essence of the scientific method.

His plea for historical science, an approach to history that is scientific in its logic. Only not of experimentation, for that is not possible, but for a sifting of the evidence that will allow for predictions and align cause.

This is curious because the book provides historical observation and interpretation that always suffers for want of attribution. It is odd that in an epilogue is a plea that draws attention to the core weakness in the argument. Observation is evidence but only in rare circumstances does it point to cause.

Cause must be surmised and then believed rather than proven in the way we can prove an experimental result.

Perhaps history is history, a catalogue of events and an interpretation of their meaning. And perhaps science is science only when attribution (a hypothesis) can be tested.

None of this makes Guns, germs and steel a lesser book, for the evidence and conclusions Diamond draws need to be read and heeded by us all.

Spongy attribution may explain why such books have only limited influence.