Citizen Action Monitor

Can Joseph Tainter save us from ourselves? Pt 3/7: How complex societies can remain sustainable

No 119 Posted by fw, February 14, 2011

Roberto Savio

Roberto Savio

In Part 2, Historical knowledge is essential to sustainability, Dr Tainter asserts: “No program to enhance sustainability can be considered practical if it does not incorporate [historical knowledge].” His analysis of the Roman Empire’s practical interventions to resolve problems increased its socio-economic complexity, leading to higher costs, diminishing returns, alienation of the population, economic weakness and, ultimately, collapse.

What does it mean for a society to be both practical and sustainable?

Tainter’s account of the collapse of the Roman Empire exemplifies, in general terms. how societal problem solving evolves along a path of increasing complexity, higher costs, and declining marginal returns. His historical analysis of the collapse of the Roman Empire gives a perspective on what it means to be both “practical and sustainable”. He considers what these historical patterns can teach us about our efforts to address contemporary problems. Here are Tainter’s Seven Teachings:

Teaching 1: Over time, devising practical solutions to immediate problems made the empire even weaker

This historical discussion gives a perspective on what it means to be practical and sustainable. A few years ago I described about two dozen societies that have collapsed. In no case is it evident or even likely that any of these societies collapsed because its members or leaders did not take practical steps to resolve its problems. The experience of the Roman Empire is again instructive. Most actions that the Roman government took in response to crises –such as debasing the currency, raising taxes, expanding the army, and conscripting labor — were practical solutions to immediate problems. It would have been unthinkable not to adopt such measures. Cumulatively, however, these practical steps made the empire ever weaker, as the capital stock (agricultural land and peasants) was depleted through taxation and conscription. Over time, devising practical solutions drove the Roman Empire into diminishing, then negative, returns to complexity.

Teaching 2: Focusing a problem-solving system on practical applications will not automatically increase the knowledge system’s value to society nor enhance sustainability

The implication is that to focus a problem-solving system, such as ecological economics, on practical applications will not automatically increase its value to society, nor enhance sustainability. The historical development of problem-solving systems needs to be understood and taken into consideration.

Teaching 3: As knowledge increases and practical solutions emerge, cumulatively these practical steps bring increased socio-economic complexity, higher costs, and diminishing returns to problem solving

Most who study contemporary issues certainly would agree that solving environmental and economic problems requires both knowledge and education. A major part of our response to current problems has been to increase our level of research into environmental matters, including global change. As our knowledge increases and practical solutions emerge, governments will implement solutions and bureaucracies will enforce them. New technologies will be developed. Each of these steps will appear to be a practical solution to a specific problem. Yet cumulatively these practical steps are likely to bring increased complexity, higher costs, and diminishing returns to problem solving. Richard Norgaard has stated the problem well:

“Assuring sustainability by extending the modem agenda . . . will require, by several orders of magnitude, more data collection, interpretation, planning, political decision-making, and bureaucratic control.” (Norgaard, R. B. 1994. Development Betrayed: The End of Progress and a Coevolutionary Revisioning of the Future. London and New York: Routledge). A review of Norgaard’s book is accessible here.

Teaching 4: All environmental problem solving will face economic constraints, not all of which may be accounted for

Donella Meadows and her colleagues have given excellent examples of the economic constraints of contemporary problem solving. To raise world food production from 1951-1966 by 34%, for example, required increasing expenditures on tractors of 63%, on nitrate fertilizers of 146%, and on pesticides of 300%. To remove all organic wastes from a sugar-processing plant costs 100 times more than removing 30%. To reduce sulfur dioxide in the air of a U.S. city by 9.6 times, or particulates by 3.1 times, raises the cost of pollution control by 520 times. All environmental problem solving will face constraints of this kind. (Meadows, D., H. Dennis, L. Meadows, J. Randers, and W. W. Behrens 111. 1972. The Limits to Growth. New York: Universe Books).

Teaching 5: Bureaucratic regulation generates further complexity and costs

Bureaucratic regulation itself generates further complexity and costs. As regulations are issued and taxes established, those who are regulated or taxed seek loopholes and lawmakers strive to close these. A competitive spiral of loophole discovery and closure unfolds, with complexity continuously increasing. In these days when the cost of government lacks political support, such a strategy is unsustainable. It is often suggested that environmentally benign behavior should be elicited through taxation incentives rather than through regulations. While this approach has some advantages, it does not address the problem of complexity, and may not reduce overall regulatory costs as much as is thought. Those costs may only be shifted to the taxation authorities, and to the society as a whole.

Teaching 6: Absent economic growth, investments in problem solving will result in a decline in a society’s standard of living

It is not that research, education, regulation, and new technologies cannot potentially alleviate our problems. With enough investment perhaps they can. The difficulty is that these investments will be costly, and may require an increasing share of each nation’s gross domestic product. With diminishing returns to problem solving, addressing environmental issues in our conventional way means that more resources will have to be allocated to science, engineering, and government. In the absence of high economic growth this would require at least a temporary decline in the standard of living, as people would have comparatively less to spend on food, housing, clothing, medical care, transportation, and entertainment.

Teaching 7: Lowering the cost of complexity in one sphere causes them to rise in another

To circumvent costliness in problem solving it is often suggested that we use resources more intelligently and efficiently. Timothy Allen and Thomas Hoekstra, for example, have suggested that in managing ecosystems for sustainability, managers should identify what is missing from natural regulatory process and provide only that. The ecosystem will do the rest. Let the ecosystem (i.e., solar energy) subsidize the management effort rather than the other way around. It is an intelligent suggestion. At the same time, to implement it would require much knowledge that we do not now possess. That means we need research that is complex and costly, and requires fossil-fuel subsidies. Lowering the costs of complexity in one sphere causes them to rise in another. (Allen, T. F. H. and T. W. Hoekstra. 1992. Toward a Unified Ecology. New York: Columbia University Press).

Agricultural pest control illustrates this dilemma. As the spraying of pesticides exacted higher costs and yielded fewer benefits, integrated pest management was developed. This system relies on biological knowledge to reduce the need for chemicals, and employs monitoring of pest populations, use of biological controls, judicious application of chemicals, and careful selection of crop types and planting dates. It is an approach that requires both esoteric research by scientists and careful monitoring by farmers. Integrated pest management violates the principle of complexity aversion, which may partly explain why it is not more widely used.

The above teachings clarify what constitutes a sustainable society

A sustainable society has a sustainable system of problem solving — one with increasing or stable returns, or diminishing returns that can be financed with energy subsidies of assured supply, cost, and quality.

Such issues help to clarify what constitutes a sustainable society. The fact that problem-solving systems seem to evolve to greater complexity, higher costs, and diminishing returns has significant implications for sustainability. In time, systems that develop in this way are either cut off from further finances, fail to solve problems, collapse, or come to require large energy subsidies. This has been the pattern historically in such cases as the Roman Empire, the Lowland Classic Maya, Chacoan Society of the American Southwest, warfare in Medieval and Renaissance Europe, and some aspects of contemporary problem solving (that is, in every case that I have investigated in detail). These historical patterns suggest that one of the characteristics of a sustainable society will be that it has a sustainable system of problem solving — one with increasing or stable returns, or diminishing returns that can be financed with energy subsidies of assured supply, cost, and quality.

Tainter’s conclusion: To remain sustainable, complex societies require a sustainable system of problem solving financed by an increase in the effective per capita supply of energy

  • Energy has always been the basis of cultural complexity and it always will be. There is an energy / complexity spiral relationship — they go UP together, they go DOWN together
  • If our efforts to understand and resolve such matters as global change involve increasing political, technological, economic, and scientific complexity, as it seems they will, then the availability of energy per capita will be a constraining factor.
  • To increase complexity on the basis of static or declining energy supplies would require lowering the standard of living throughout the world. In the absence of a clear crisis very few people would support this.
  • To maintain political support for our current and future investments in complexity thus requires an increase in the effective per capita supply of energy — either by increasing the physical availability of energy, or by technical, political, or economic innovations that lower the energy cost of our standard of living.
  • Of course, to discover such innovations requires energy, which underscores the constraints in the energy-complexity relation.

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This entry was posted on February 14, 2011 by in climate change red flag warning, information counterpower, sustainability and tagged , , .
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