Monthly Discussion



Megatrends in Disarray



Scores of predictions were made in Predictions, which was published in 1992 and utilized time series data often stopping in the late 1980s. With more than ten years' worth more data it is interesting to confront some of those predictions, particularly the ones establishing "mega" trends.

          Examples of such megatrend predictions are the competitive substitutions in primary energies and in transportation infrastructures. The concept of competition has been generalized to cover much more than species competing in nature and products competing in the marketplace. Means of transportation can be seen to compete for passengers, just as primary energy sources compete for consumers. And in all cases survival of the fittest is the underlying mechanism.  

          But let us look closely to what was predicted and how the predictions have came out so far. In Chapter 7 of Predictions, (and again in the Newsletter issue of march 19, 2001) we saw that during the last one hundred-and-fifty years wood, coal, natural gas, and nuclear energy were the main protagonists in supplying the world with energy. More than one energy source is present at any given time, but the leading role successively passes from one to the other. The picture is reproduced below but now updated with data from the last 15 years.


Exhibit 3.  Data, fits, and predictions for the shares of different primary energy sources consumed worldwide. For nuclear, the straight line is not a fit but a trajectory suggested by analogy. The line at the extreme right bottom corner is a futuristic source that may involve thermonuclear fusion. Open circles designate recent data not taken into account while making the predictions.


There is both "good" and "bad" news in Exhibit 3. Oil has closely followed its predicted course, and nuclear's share, while remaining flat, (justifiably so given that it had grown too fast during the 1970s—see discussion in Predictions,), promises to also follow its predicted course, considering that support for it is not waning worldwide, and that Bush plans to revive it in the US.

However the shares of coal and natural gas clearly deviate from the predicted trajectories. Cesare Marchetti, who originally made this analysis, argues that this deviation is due to legislative intervention (that is, an "unnatural" cause) by some governments to keep coal production levels high. Still it is of interest to note that the exaggerate influx of coal depresses the market share of natural gas instead of that of oil. The classical competition model allows for no interaction between phasing-in and phasing-out competitors; everyone competes against the frontrunner, in this case oil. It seems that according to Exhibit 3, natural gas, a young (recent) and promising competitor, is nevertheless vulnerable and susceptible to lose market share easier than oil. We may understand this better by looking at another set of negatrends in transportation infrastructures.

In the generalized substitution model the succession of the different transportation infrastructures outlines a similar mountainous landscape, see Exhibit 4. From the beginning of the 19th century, the share of canals declined along a straight line in favor of railways, whose share reached a peak around 1880, commanding more than 80 percent of all-transport mileage, with the remainder split equally between canals and roads. As the road mileage increased rapidly the share of railways declined, despite continuous growth in the length of railway track. The early twentieth century witnessed a one-to-one substitution between transportation by rail and transportation by road. The growth in relative importance of paved roads reached saturation by the 1960s when its share reached more than 80 percent, and railways split the remainder with airways. Finally, airways "phased in," claiming a significant share by the second half of the twentieth century, forcing paved roads to enter a relative decline. The airway infrastructure here is defined as the total route mileage operated by airways.


Exhibit 4.  The sum of total in mileage among all transport infrastructures is split here among the major types. A declining percentage does not mean that the length of the infrastructure is shrinking but rather that the total length is increasing. Between 1860 and 1900 the amount of railway track increased, but its share of the total decreased because of the dramatic rise in road mileage. Open circles designate data from the last ten years, not taken into account while making the predictions.


          In Exhibit 4 also there is deviation from the predicted trajectories. The railway share deviates little from the predicted trajectory (notice non-linear vertical scale). But airways deviate more; air routes have not grown as much as they should have during the last ten years, which results in the highway share remaining practically flat instead of declining as predicted. Why is that, and can this be linked to the deviations in Exhibit 3?

          There is an intimate relationship between primary energy and transport infrastructure (see again discussion in Predictions,). Each transportation system is linked to a primary energy source: canals to animal feed, railways to coal, and cars to oil. According to this line of thought, the airplane fuel of the future will not be gasoline! Airplanes are using gas as locomotives used wood in the early decades of railroads (at least up to the 1870s), even though coal was growing in importance as a primary energy source. Airplanes should more appropriately use natural gas as fuel. In fact, cars too should be soon running on natural gas, the same way railroads ran on oil on the later part of their life cycle. Ultimately, with the newest primary energy source today being nuclear, we could expect the development of a nuclear-hydrogen system to power part of the airway cycle.*

          Now I believe I have the link between the deviations of Exhibits 3 and 4. Airplanes are late (probably for technical reasons) with their development toward the use of natural gas as fuel. This delay has rendered natural gas vulnerable as an energy source (not enough demand), and made its share suffer from the "unnatural" persistence of coal, whereas it should have been the share of oil that suffered instead.


New Prediction

Deviations from natural trajectories are known to become re-absorbed into the trend, sooner or later. The longer the deviation lasts, the stronger the pressure builds to correct it. Coal production worldwide will eventually decline in a definitive way despite governments' legislations, and natural gas will at some point pick up in a vigorous way. Finally, airplane technology will shift toward the use of a liquefied gas, be it natural gas or pure hydrogen.

* This argument has been made by Cesare Marchetti in "On transport in Europe: The last 50 Years and the Next 20," invited paper, First Forum on Future European Transport, Munich, September 14-16, 1987.