2011/03/14 16:00 Joe Tainter, "Resources and Societies: Past and Futures", Resilience 2011, Arizona State University

Resilience 2011 --  Resilience, Innovation and Sustainability:  Navigating the Complexities of Global Change -- Second International Science and Policy Conference -- March 11-16, 2011

This digest was created in real-time during the meeting, based on the speaker's presentation(s) and comments from the audience. The content should not be viewed as an official transcript of the meeting, but only as an interpretation by a single individual. Lapses, grammatical errors, and typing mistakes may not have been corrected. Questions about content should be directed to the originator. The digest has been made available for purposes of scholarship, by David Ing.

Fossil fuels

Fish discovering water, New York Times 1920

We've grown up with fossil fuels is like asking a fish if its nose is wet

Human societies have increased in complexity

Cultural complexity is embedded in self image:  civilization, through progress

  • Industrial societies, and ancestorness
  • Progressivist view, cultural society through inventiveness, predominant in free market societies
  • Not prereq


  • Agriculture?
  • Progressive assumptions:  surplus energy

18th and 19th Century:  Malthus, Jevins

  • Boulding generated 3 theorem:  the dismal theorem, the utterly dismal theory and the mildly dismal theory
  • Any technical improvement can only relieve misery temporarily

Humans rarely have surplus energy

  • So can't be driver of cultural resolution

Energy costs:  increased differentiation in structure and differentiation

  • Resources, effort, money
  • Complexity appeal in art and architecture, but prefer that someone else pays for it
  • In era of fossil fuels, means people work harder

Evolution of cultural complexity go against aversion of cost

  • Why do human go with complexity?

Complexity solves problems

  • Since problems grow, complexity growth

Cultural complexity is social

  • Societies invest in complexity
  • Hunting gathering gives way to active farming, now so it takes more energy that it produces

Have been occasions when humans have adopted technology, and increased wealth and complexity

  • Cases are rare: agricultural revolution and industrial revolution
  • Came from problem solving

Complexity as problem solving will emerge before there is more energy available

  • Complexity increases energy requirements
  • In technology, institutions, lives: energy-complexity spiral

Implications for sustainability

Case study:  Western Roman empire

  • Last 200 years was a retreat
  • Invasions from Germanics from the north, and Persians from the east
  • Diocletian and Constantine increased size of government, army, taxes
  • Roman empire survived 3rd century crisis by consuming capital

Diminishing returns means that institutions have to find more resources, or get resources from other sectors

Common misconceptions about sustainability

  • a. Requires lower consumption
  • b. Sustainability will result if we do so
  • Follows from progressivist view that complexity follows, and is voluntary
  • Complexity arises through problem solving; and societies can't usually reduce its consumption voluntarily over time

Long term conservation not effective, what are the alternatives?

1. Voluntary reduce resource consumption?

  • Have to be lucky in not seeing more problems, or not solving them

2. Employ the price mechanism to control consumption

  • As problems arise, resource consumption increases as the societal level

3. Ration resources

  • In democracies, only in short term (in WWII)

4. Reduce population

  • Still requires problem solving

5. Hope for technological solutions

  • Faith-based approach
  • Flaw by Jevons: as technological improvements increase cost of using resources, use will increase

As innovation is harder to achieve, innovation will have diminishing returns

  • Research with Jose Lobos, at ASU
  • Productivity in innovation over an inventor's life declines by 20%
  • Same in solar and wind technologies

Future won't lack for problems

  • 1. Baby boom retirements
  • 2. Cost of healthcare
  • 3. Decaying infrastructure
  • 4. Climate change
  • 5. Developing new source of energy
  • 6. Military costs
  • 7. ...


  • We will learn this century whether non-fossil energies can provide sufficient energy to solve societal problems
  • We won't stop using fossil fuel until we are forced to


Creating market for ecosystem services can create sustainability and wealth?  Institutional arrangements

  • Complexity is not inherently good or bad, it's about affordability
  • May have avenues for complexity
  • Nothing lasts forever
  • We're always plucking low-hanging fruit, but then we reach diminishing returns

Energy ROI?

  • Fits into our future, with peak oil
  • In 1940, EROI is 100:1, U.S. is 15:1, Persian Gulf is 25:1
  • Converging problems will increase costs, at the same time as fossil fuel costs
  • in WWII had surplus, about 1/3 of production, today we don't have the energy reserve

Debt-based capitalism?

  • A limited strategy, can't go on forever
  • Toying with what happens to societies as they give up reserve problem solving capacity
  • Now, credit crunch means no reserves
  • With Japan earthquake, will borrow money, but will then reduce ability to borrow later


  • Greater potential for innovation in the third world, where they do it more simply and cheaply
  • If were an investor in the long term (a generation), would invest in India and China

Jon Norberg and John Anderies, Formalizing Social Capital in Resource Economics

Different type of complexity

  • Not many interacting components
  • Jevons say local patterns at higher level
  • Involves multiple time scales

What is social capital?

  • Social bonds and norms (Pretty 2003)
  • Goodwill as a valuable rsource (Adler and Kwon 2002)
  • Badwill?

How has it been formalized?

  • Social networks
  • Trust/distrust in game theory
  • Will try to link social capital dyanmics with an ecological model

Will stay with the basic fishery model

  • Profit is a function of effort, related to price and costs
  • On cost, include cost of fishing, plut opportunity costs
  • Efficiency may be affected by social bonds
  • Agents do not forecast their own effects

Graph:  effort versus $catch/cost

[stepped out]

[5:00 p.m. Open discussion]

Links between models and what we see in history.  Social capital entertained in civilizations?

  • Tainter: no, I work at a macro level
  • Could say that we're always constrained by social capital, e.g. Rome as a low-level society

Roman empire increased, and pulled resource into the empire.  Depressing, on the edge of collapse.  Any escape doors?  Spatial variation, moving people around in space.

  • Tainter: Yes, we move resources around, in a market economy, particularly oil
  • Complexity is neither good nor bad
  • Hyperconnectivity today creates vulnerability in supply chains

Growth:  in times of Rome, fears of influence.  Rome collapsed, China declined.  Now, we're one economy.

  • Next collapse will be the collapse of the world, because we're interconnected

Religions, after collapse, decreasing complexity.  Transition Towns in UK trying to reduce complexity.  Social innovation.

  • Always people experimenting with social forms, but they're on the fringe.
  • Is there a time when we'll see one as a model, and follow it?  I don't know
  • Not vision.  People don't respond to abstractions of the future, they respond to immediate.

Not vision, but ideology.

  • When Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, couldn't get good quality data
  • It wasn't a collapse, it was a change in regime.

Industrial agriculture is considered simple, and grazing is considered complex.  Inverted?

  • Integrated pest management takes more energy than Roundup
  • Also complexity in organic, and integrated pest management: writers, sources of technology, imposing a time burden on individual farmers.

James Scott, Seeing like a state.  Crop, husbandry, complexity moves to another level.

  • Irony of complexity is that complexity simplifies
  • It simplifies behaviour, so that human beings behave in a patterned way.
  • State institutions can oversimplify on the ground

Substitution of complexity of nature as compared to complexity of technology.  Tribes using nature in more complex ways, in health.

  • Book in Supply Side Sustainability
  • Focusing management at level of context rather than level of system.

Resilience as a matter of scale.  Permaculture takes to next level of complexity at the farm level, so that nature manages it

Relying on highly-connected trading world.  More people with more miserable lives.  Can't go back from technology we have.

  • See recommendations for putting more money into agricultural research
  • Old question of how many people can the earth support
  • Basic premise is right
  • If we went back to farming of 1650, we'll lose 5 billion people
  • If we find a better way, will we just expand our consumption?  We probably will

Epidemiological implications of a planet of 9 billion

All problems are population problems

Hunger problem.  Distribution may not go to the poor.