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Peak oil solutions: Is simpler better?

Is complexity bad for us? Is simpler better?

Joseph Tainter first posited in his book, "The Collapse of Complex Societies," that complex societies most frequently attempt to solve their problems by increasing their complexity. This usually requires the input of additional energy from people or fuel sources or both. This strategy may be a good one when returns from complexity are high. But, such a strategy may also subject a society to collapse. Returns tend to diminish as complexity increases. Ultimately, returns go negative. In short, more complexity isn't necessarily better.

For Tainter there are many reasons to believe that contemporary civilization has reached the point of diminishing returns from complexity. If he is correct, this calls into question proposals for technical fixes for our energy problems since by definition those fixes will increase complexity in an energy-starved world. Will solar platforms in space or a vastly increased number of nuclear power plants lead to a more stable, sustainable society? There are many ecological reasons to doubt this in the long run. But there are historical reasons to believe that these things might not even work in the short run, say, the next several decades. Increased complexity may result in less resiliency in our current world system making it vulnerable to novel or persistent shocks. Terrorist attacks on infrastructure and proposals to militarize space are just two that relate to the examples given above.

The alternative would be to simplify our systems. This may necessarily lead to a lower standard of living and to decentralized forms of social, political and economic organization. That will be hard to sell to a population accustomed to having giant international corporations and central governments organize large parts of their lives. These same corporations and governments also propagandize their customers and citizens into believing that material wealth is the only true wealth. Even harder will be breaking through a belief in the magic of technology. Hidden from most people is the fact that technology has its greatest effect at low levels of complexity; new technologies may fail to deliver the promised results when societies have become too complex.

Tainter likes to say that resource depletion is not the direct cause of societal collapse. It is the inability of social and political institutions to adapt to resource depletion that leads to collapse. As we approach the peak in world oil production--whether now or sometime a decade or two down the road--we will certainly test whether one more round of technical fixes will work. Those cheering for technical fixes will likely include environmentally minded people who want to believe that "green" energy and ultralight hypercars will allow us to continue to live the way we do now by using sources of energy and methods of efficiency that we haven't exploited to date.

If the technical fixes fail us and we have made no plans for a less complex and thus lower energy future, we may be faced with a hard and devastating collapse--one that might have been mitigated by a more skeptical response to promises of technological deliverance.

What a pity it will be if the first civilization to publish a thoroughgoing analysis of the dynamics of collapse chooses to ignore that analysis altogether.

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer who focuses on environmental and natural resource issues. He authors a weblog called Resource Insights.

Editorial Notes: Another web resource is an academic paper, for which Tainter is the lead writer: "Resource Transitions and Energy Gain: Contexts of Organization" in the journal Ecology and Society. Both a PDF version and an HTML version are available (PDF is easier to read and only 321 KB.) Abstract:
Energy gain constrains resource use, social organization, and landscape organization in human and other living systems. Changes in energy gain have common characteristics across living systems. We describe these commonalities in selected case studies involving imperial taxation, fungus-farming ants, and North American beaver, and propose a suite of hypotheses for the organization of systems that subsist on different levels of energy gain. Organizational constraints arising from energy gain predict changes to settlement and organization in postcarbon societies.

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