Joe Tainter: “Surplus, Complexity, and Simplification”

July 18, 2022

(Conversation Recorded on June 15, 2022)

On this episode we meet with anthropologist, historian, and Professor at Utah State University, Joe Tainter.

What are the key differences between complicated and complex? How can we better understand energy and society through these key distinctions? Tainter explains our current predicament based on decades of research and offers pathways for our collective future.

About Joe Tainter

Joe Tainter has been a professor at Utah State University in the Environment and Society Department since 2007, serving as Department Head from 2007 to 2009. His study of why societies collapse led to research on sustainability, with emphasis on energy and innovation. He has also conducted research on land-use conflict and human responses to climate change. He has written several books, including The Collapse of Complex Societies and Drilling Down: The Gulf Oil Debacle and Our Energy Dilemma.

Show Notes

00:57 – Joe Tainter Works + Info

02:00Living in the Future’s Past (Movie with Jeff Bridges)

04:10Collapse of the Roman empire and collapse of the Mayan empire

04:13Optimal Foraging Theory

06:43Agates and Stromatolites 

07:20EROI/Energy Gain

10:48Tadeusz Patzek + Drilling Down: The Gulf Oil Debacle and Our Energy Dilemma

11:01U.S. forces in North Africa in 1942

15:40 Complexity develops to solve a problem

16:57Underpaying for fossil carbons

17:58In the past, 90% of humans labored in food production

20:09Paul Maidowski Twitter

20:35Early socialization creates synapses that shape the person to come

22:11 Maximum Power Principle

22:59Energy Complexity Spiral (Drilling Down)

23:38Joe on the Byzantine Empire (pg. 63)

29:50We are not evolved to think broadly in space and time

31:07Mayan calendrical and astronomical knowledge

32:50Climate Change

34:33Thomas Malthus

34:38 – Paul Ehrlich info + TGS podcast

35:20 A refrigerator uses more energy than many countries use per capita

35:45 George H.W. Bush on Climate

36:24Tragedy of the commons

38:25Petroleum and WW2

38:30Oil used to be 100:1 EROI, now it is 15:1

41:11Fracking technology “makes the straw bigger”

41:23 – Countries like Germany and Japan have to import most energy

41:57The Euro has weakened against the Ruble

42:11Freeport LNG explosion

42:31Natural gas prices


45:20Energy drawbacks of a renewable system in comparison to oil based

46:00We are optimizing societies for growth – which will never be possible

47:05Dominican Republic dictator who preserved the forests

48:05How money and debt interacts with energy

50:34What would life be like in 1750 Europe

54:45Steady State economy

56:35Issues with assumptions in modern economic theory

57:20Charles Darwin, Marie Curie, Gregor Mendel

58:40Deborah Strumsky and Jose Lobo, patent paper

1:03:18All the things that petroleum is valuable for

1:10:55Montessori education


Teaser photo credit: By Petar Milošević – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Nate Hagens

Nate Hagens

Nate Hagens is the Director of The Institute for the Study of Energy & Our Future (ISEOF) an organization focused on educating and preparing society for the coming cultural transition. Allied with leading ecologists, energy experts, politicians and systems thinkers ISEOF assembles road-maps and off-ramps for how human societies can adapt to lower throughput lifestyles. Nate holds a Masters Degree in Finance with Honors from the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. in Natural Resources from the University of Vermont. He teaches an Honors course, Reality 101, at the University of Minnesota.

Tags: building resilient societies, Complex Societies