Sunday, May 29, 2005

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.

(Comments are open to all. See the list of environmental blogs on my sidebar.)


Big Gav said...

Good post Kurt - thats a point thats worth repeating - decentralise as well as pushing for development of alternative energy sources.

By the way, the post seems to have been published twice (nothing new for Blogger there).

odograph said...

I think it might be a trap, to think that simpler equals "a lower standard of living."

There is a whole other vibe here, where some question whether complex (many-choice) systems make us any happier - whether they are really "higher" standards of living.

There is, for instance, this Barry Schwartz interview called "Less is More." link

Also, if I am recalling correctly, even as many in the US decry restrictive choices in Europe (smaller cars, no SUVs, etc.), I believe that surveys actually find Europeans to be happier, in their daily lives.

So, rather than going down some Carter-esque "put on a sweater and be cold" downer, maybe we should talk about how to be happier, even as we learn to be more efficient.

dinopello said...

I think we must take care not to conflate 'complexity' with dependency on technology. Organic systems and things like traditional sustainable human settlements are very complex in many ways. They are diverse and adaptable as well.

Suburbia, for example is as it is, in part because it is a simpler, predictable system. It segregates land-uses, economic levels, and building types using a system that is easy to describe and whose function is easy to model (eg, predicting traffic volumes).

In contrast, traditional mixed-use urban environments support a complexity of human interaction that is close to impossible to operationally model, yet it works very well in an almost organic, adaptable way.

tstreet said...

It's not just complexity, it is the degree of tehnological interdependence that characterizes that complexity.

I concur with dinopello in the sense that it is more complext to have your own organic garden that simply go to the grocery store, but that complexity has its rewards which cannot be garnered by purchasing in the market place.

As far as standard of living goes, we mistakenly equate income with standard of living, when it is much more complext than that. My standard of living increased this summer based upon the wonderful organic food I got from my garden. None of that will show up as GDP or be reflected in my tax return. It's all a win-win, though. Both I and the planet have profited.

We also need to focus on population. At any level of resource utilization, our problems will be increasded by population.