(Dis)Orders of Magnitude

by | Mar 9, 2008

Human beings are good at numbers, but only within a small range. Most of us can imagine how big “One Hundred” is, and even have pretty good sense of “One Thousand.” But if asked to imagine the number “One Million” (a thousand thousands), or worse yet, “One Billion” (a thousand millions), our minds have a hard time understanding the scale of these large numbers.

With the earth’s population approaching 7 billion, whenever we think about sustainability we have to learn to work at these scales. In addition to the number of people, the part that is both exciting and scary is the number who are improving their economic lot. According to Moises Naim, editor and chief of Foreign Policy, “While the total population of the planet will increase by about 1 billion people in the next 12 years, the ranks of the middle class will swell by as many as 1.8 billion.”

So lets look at the next 1 billion humans to join the middle class. We’ll start by giving them each a 60-watt incandescent light bulb. Each bulb doesn’t weigh much (roughly 0.7 ounces with the packaging), but a billion of them weighs around 20,000 metric tons, or about the same as 15,000 Priuses.

Now lets turn them on. If they’re all on at the same time, it’d be 60 thousand megawatts (MW). Luckily, our new middle-classers will only use their bulbs four hours/day, so we’re down to 10,000 MW at any moment. Yikes! Looks like we’ll still need 20 or so new 500 MW coal power plants!

Clearly we need to be more sustainable, so let’s try solar power for our light bulbs. If we use current, commercial solar technology, we’ll need roughly 50 square kilometers to handle our new light bulbs, or over 1/3 of the land area of either San Francisco or Boston. Or let’s try wind power…we’ll still need 1/10 of all of the wind power produced in the world in 2007.

So we’re having trouble delivering a single light bulb sustainably, and clearly that won’t be enough for our future additions to the middle class. They’ll want stoves, refrigerators, TVs, computers, cell phones, radios and cars. They’ll want street lights and stop lights, low cost air travel, hotels and restaurants.

These are the scales when we have a billion of anything. Thousands or millions of tons of material. Thousands or millions or megwatts. So these are the scales of problems we need innovation to address.

We need the innovation of the compact fluorescent bulb, which lowers the number of new power plants required from 20 to 4 or 5. But we also need innovation in solar and wind power which makes it cheaper and easier to not build those plants at all. And we need innovation in usage and behavior, which allows people to get the light they need but to have it on fewer hours a day. Only when we innovate in ways which can scale to billions can we hope to advance the well being of the bulk of the world’s citizens.

The number of people on the earth is so big its hard to fathom, but we absolutely need to be able to work at these large scales. There’s 7 billion good reasons to get this right.

Data :

Weight of incandescent light bulbs

0.7 ounces * 1B = 700M

700M / 16 oz/lb / 2,200 lbs/metric ton = approx. 19,886 metric tons

Prius = 2,890 lbs = 1.3Mtons

Dave Douglas is Vice President of Eco Responsibility at Sun Microsystems

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