No 122 Posted by fw, February 22, 2011
“In the year 2054, the entire [U.S.] defense budget will purchase just one aircraft. The aircraft will have to be shared by the Air Force and Navy 3½ days each per week except for leap year, when it will be available to the Marines for the extra day.” Norman Ralph Augustine, Augustine’s Laws (1983)
“The chief cause of problems is solutions.” Eric Sevareid, CBS news journalist
In Part 5, Fossil fuels give Industrial Revolution sustainable problem solving system, Dr Tainter explained how industrialized societies of the 18th and 19th centuries avoided collapse in spite of their rapidly increasing complexity and signs of diminishing returns. Abundant, easily accessible fossil fuels, beginning with coal and later with oil, made industrialism a sustainable system of innovative problem solving.
The first five posts in this series featured extracts from Dr Tainter’s 1996 paper, Complexity, Problem Solving and Sustainable Societies. As a memory aid, here is Tainter’s overview of the thesis of this paper:
Historical knowledge is essential to practical applications of ecological economics. Systems of problem solving develop greater complexity and higher costs over long periods. In time, such systems either require increasing energy subsidies or they collapse. Diminishing returns to complexity in problem solving limited the abilities of earlier societies to respond sustainably to challenges, and will shape contemporary responses to global change. To confront this dilemma we must understand both the role of energy in sustaining problem solving, and our historical position in systems of increasing complexity.
In this post, Part 6, I turn to a 2010 source, Why societies collapse and what it means to us, a 5-part YouTube video recording of a paper that Dr Tainter delivered as the keynote speaker at the 2010 International Conference on Sustainability: Energy, Economy and Environment, November 2010, Prince Conference Center, Grand Rapids, Michigan. In his 2010 presentation, Tainter departs very little from the thesis of his 1996 paper, continuing his focus on complexity, problem solving, and sustainability.
Choosing selectively from YouTube’s videos of Tainter’s 2010 Conference presentation, I focus this post on his explanation of why we won’t be able to innovate to a sustainable future. I begin with a review of Tainter’s seven sustainability lessons — after all, maintaining sustainability is the driving force behind technological innovation.
Tainter’s seven sustainability lessons
Can we overcome societal problems with scientific and technological innovation?
We have a belief, almost a faith, that we can always overcome problems through innovation, particularly through technological innovation. This is something deeply seated in all of us. We all grew up thinking this. I believed this once too.
To illustrate America’s continuing blind faith in technological innovation, Tainter selects quotes from two eminent scientists, Vannevar Bush, an American engineer and, in effect, the first presidential science advisor, and Steven Chu, current U.S. Secretary of Energy and Nobel Prize winner in physics.
“Advances in science will . . . bring higher standards of living, will lead to the prevention or cure of diseases, will promote conservation of our limited national resources, and will ensure means of defense against aggression.” Vannevar Bush, from his report to President Truman outlining his proposal for post-war U.S. science and technology policy, Science, the Endless Frontier (1945).
“Scientific and technological discovery and innovation are the major engines of increasing productivity, and are indispensable to ensuring economic growth, job creation, and rising incomes for American families in the technologically-driven 21st century.” Steven Chu in his May 21, 2009 appearance before a Senate Appropriations committee.
Innovation as we know it today is a recent development
Two views about sustainability in our future
The first is Jared Diamond’s concept: Diamond argues that “a modern societal collapse would be triggered ultimately by scarcity of environmental resources”
The second is the conventional economic perspective, representing the point of view of technological optimists: This perspective is based on the Principle of Infinite Sustainability which holds: (a) that resources are never scarce, just priced wrong; (b) as resources become scarce and rise in price, the market signals that there are rewards to innovation. And, ipso facto, new resources or technologies will rapidly emerge. It’s a matter of faith.
An alternative view
“Innovation reaches diminishing returns”
So said American philosopher, Nicholas Rescher, Chairman of the Center for the Philosophy of Science, University of Pittsburgh. Tainter bullets three relevant points from Rescher’s wide-ranging contribution to knowledge:
Although Tainter does not cite the specific work from which Rescher’s quotes were taken, it may well have been his 1978 classic book, Scientific Progress: A Philosophical Essay on the Economics of Research in Natural Science. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press. This book examines the future prospects for research in the natural sciences:
Rescher argues that if an exponentially increasing effort is required to maintain a relatively stable pace of scientific progress (as it has over the past century or so), then science is bound to enter a period of deceleration. Although the prospects of scientific progress remain literally limitless in principle, the facts indicate that the cost of scientific inquiry rises faster than the significant returns that it can yield, and hence a deceleration in scientific innovation will come about not only because of the ending of the frontier, but because of the increased difficulties of pushing it further out. The book concludes by providing an explanation of the reasons for the cost-escalation of scientific work.
Two contending possibilities: Conventional economic perspective or Rescher’s view of a “technological arms race”
For planning our future, it’s pretty important to understand which of these views is correct.
Science and innovation today
Patent studies reveal declining productivity in innovation in both newer and older technical fields
Tainter points out that it’s common for older technical fields to become less productive in innovation: “We’ve always assumed that this was offset by higher productivity in innovation in newer technical sectors.” To investigate whether this is so, Tainter’s research team used a patent database to investigate a selection of both older and newer technical sectors, measuring patents per invention per year.
In older fields, the findings show a decline in productivity, as expected. But it is in the newer technical fields that the findings are truly surprising:
Two studies worthy of special atention
Choosing from his wide-ranging body of evidence, here are just two examples that I have selected to highlight Tainter’s evidence of the declining productivity of innovation
1. Augustine’s Law
In case you skipped this quote at the top of the post, here it is again:
“In the year 2054, the entire [U.S.] defense budget will purchase just one aircraft. The aircraft will have to be shared by the Air Force and Navy 3½ days each per week except for leap year, when it will be available to the Marines for the extra day.” Norman Ralph Augustine
As a Wikipedia entry points out:
“Augustine’s Laws (1983) were a series of tongue in cheek aphorisms put forth by Norman Ralph Augustine, an American aerospace businessman who served as Under Secretary of the Army from 1975 to 1977. His most cited law is number 16, which shows that defense budgets grow linearly but the unit cost of a new military aircraft grows exponentially.” (See the above graph showing the price of U.S. military aircraft over time. By extrapolating from this factual data, Augustine arrived at his preposterous 2054 budget forecast. Or is it so preposterous?)
2. “Scientific doomsday is less than a century away” Derek John de Solla Price (1963)
In his use of this quote, Tainter points out that almost half a century has passed since it first appeared in de Solla Price’s most famous book, Little Science, Big Science (1963). de Solla Price was a physicist, historian of science, and information scientist, credited as the father of scientometrics. Here is the full quote:
“It is clear that we cannot go up another two orders of magnitude as we have climbed the last five. If we did, we should have two scientists for every man, woman, child, and dog in the population, and we should spend on them twice as much money as we had. Scientific doomsday is therefore less than a century distant.“
Tainter’s four conclusions about the future of innovation
In the context of the two preceding examples, plus the many other examples he reviews in the video of his conference address, Tainter concludes:
The future of innovation: Can’t we innovate our way out of problems?
Here is Tainter’s prognosis:
If technological innovation will not save the day, how will we solve the problem of sustainability? That’s the topic for Part 7.
Watch the 1 hour, 10 minute video of Dr Tainter’s 2010 Conference presentation here —