Citizen Action Monitor

Can Joseph Tainter save us from ourselves? Pt 5/7: Fossil fuels gave Industrial Revolution sustainable problem solving system

No 121 Posted by fw, February 20, 2011

Roberto Savio

Roberto Savio

In Part 4, Why societies become complex. How complexity triggers collapse, Dr Tainter identified the two defining elements of a complex society as structural differentiation and organization, noted that complex societies required more biological, mechanical or chemical energy to remain self-sustaining, and explained that increasing complexity is driven by a continual need to solve problems. Complexity development is an economic process in the sense that there are associated costs and benefits. Increased complexity may reach a point where innovations yield diminishing or negative returns, consuming more energy than they produce. When it enters this phase, societies are vulnerable to collapse. It is important for a society’s elite decision makers to understand the conditions which might trigger collapse.

In this post, Part 5, Tainter explains how industrialized societies of the 18th and 19th centuries avoided collapse in spite of their rapidly increasing complexity and signs of diminishing returns.

Continuing with selections from Tainter’s 1996 paper, Complexity, Problem Solving and Sustainable Societies:

The fate of the Roman Empire is not the unavoidable destiny of complex societies. It is useful to discuss a historical case that turned out quite differently. In one of the most interesting works of economic history, Richard Wilkinson, in his first book, Poverty and Progress: An Ecological Model of Economic Development, London: Methuen (1973), showed that in late-and post-medieval England, population growth and deforestation stimulated economic development, and were at least partly responsible for the Industrial Revolution. Major increases in population, at around 1300, 1600, and in the late 18th century, led to intensification in agriculture and industry. As forests were cut to provide agricultural land and fuel for a growing population, England’s heating, cooking, and manufacturing needs could no longer be met by burning wood. Coal came to be increasingly important, although it was adopted reluctantly. Coal was costlier to obtain and distribute than wood, and restricted in its occurrence. It required a new, costly distribution system. As coal gained importance in the economy the most accessible deposits were depleted. Mines had to be sunk ever deeper, until groundwater came to be a problem.

Industrialism generated its own problems of complexity and costliness

1705 – Newcomen steam engine pumps water out of coal mines

Ultimately, the steam engine was developed and put to use pumping water from mines. With the development of a coal-based economy, a distribution system, and the steam engine, several of the most important technical elements of the Industrial Revolution were in place. Industrialism, that great generator of economic well-being, came in part from steps to counteract the consequences of resource depletion, supposedly a generator of poverty and collapse. Yet it was a system of increasing complexity that did not take long to show diminishing returns in some sectors. Industrialism . . . generated its own problems of complexity and costliness. These included railways and canals to distribute coal and manufactured goods, the development of an economy increasingly based on money and wages, and the development of new technologies.

Abundant, easily accessible fossil fuels made industrialism a sustainable system of problem solving

While such elements of complexity are usually thought to facilitate economic growth, in fact they can do so only when subsidized by energy. Some of the new technologies, such as the steam engine, showed diminishing returns to innovation quite early in their development. What set industrialism apart from all of the previous history of our species was its reliance on abundant, concentrated, high-quality energy. With subsidies of inexpensive fossil fuels, for a long time many consequences of industrialism effectively did not matter. Industrial societies could afford them. When energy costs are met easily and painlessly, benefit/cost ratio to social investments can be substantially ignored (as it has been in contemporary industrial agriculture). Fossil fuels made industrialism, and all that flowed from it (such as science, transportation, medicine, employment, consumerism, high-technology war, and contemporary political organization), a system of problem solving that was sustainable for several generations.

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