04 November 2009

Joseph Tainter is an anthropologist and author of the seminal book, The Collapse of Complex Societies. (BitTorrent)


Joseph Tainter: Diminishing returns to complexity are probably inevitable, but collapse doesn’t necessarily follow. Collapses are actually not that common. There are several ways to cope with diminishing returns to complexity. One is to find energy subsidies to pay for the process. That is what we have done with fossil fuels. And it is a big part of why a future crisis in fossil fuels is the most important thing we should be worrying about.

The critical point is when we reach peak oil. This is the point where 50% of recoverable reserves have been extracted. At this point, production might be kept level for a few years with heroic efforts, but soon production will start to decline. And every year after that there will be less oil available than the year before. One of the challenges with peak oil is that you know you’ve passed it only in hindsight. So there is naturally controversy about how close it is. Some analysts think we have passed it already, but the effect is masked by the economic downturn. How badly peak oil affects us depends on how quickly we bring alternative energy production systems into place. If we delay too long, the party will be over. This is a real danger. Developing new energy sources is the most important thing we can do.

...Technological-innovation-as-savior is part of our cosmology. It is a fundamental part of our beliefs, so frequently we don’t think about it rationally. Relying on technological innovation to find some solution is what I call a faith-based approach to the future. There are two things about technological innovation that concern me. The first is that, like other endeavors, research grows complex and costly and can reach diminishing returns. This is covered in the Collapse book so I won’t elaborate here. The second problem is what is known as the Jevons Paradox. William Stanley Jevons, a 19th century British economist, pointed out that in the long run technological innovations aimed as at using less of a resource actually lead to even more of the resource being used. His example was coal, but the principle applies across the board. As technological innovation leads to economy in using a resource, people respond to the lower cost by using even more. I conclude from this that technological innovations can offer only short-term advantages. They quickly become outdated, then the next round of innovations may be harder to achieve.

...I am less optimistic now that I once was. Certainly we need new energy sources or the future will be very unpleasant. But new energy creates its own problems, which in time we will have to address. We can foresee this with nuclear energy and its waste. Even so-called "green" energy sources will be environmentally damaging. All of our adaptations are short term. They solve immediate problems but set the stage for future problems. Eric Sevareid once said "The chief source of problems is solutions." He was right, but that does not mean that we forego solutions. I like to use an athletic metaphor to think about sustainability. It is possible to lose—to become unsustainable and collapse. But the converse does not hold. There is no point at which we have "won"—become sustainable forever. Success consists of staying in the game.