Micah Saul: This project is built on a hypothesis. There are moments in history when the status quo fails. Political systems prove insufficient, religious ideas unsatisfactory, social structures intolerable. These are moments of crisis.
Aengus Anderson: During some of these moments, great minds have entered into conversation and torn apart inherited ideas, dethroning truths, combining old thoughts, and creating new ideas. They’ve shaped the norms of future generations.
Saul: Every era has its issues, but do ours warrant The Conversation? If they do, is it happening?
Anderson: We’ll be exploring these sorts of questions through conversations with a cross-section of American thinkers, people who are critiquing some aspect of normality and offering an alternative vision of the future. People who might be having The Conversation.
Saul: Like a real conversation, this project is going to be subjective. It will frequently change directions, connect unexpected ideas, and wander between the tangible and the abstract. It will leave us with far more questions than answers because after all, nobody has a monopoly on dreaming about the future.
Anderson: I’m Aengus Anderson.
Saul: And I’m Micah Saul. And you’re listening to The Conversation.
Aengus Anderson: So, I’m in beautiful, sunny, mountainy, Logan, Utah.
Micah Saul: How is it?
Anderson: It’s awesome, and I’m recording in my truck.
Saul: Ooh. I’m imagining that fantastic for air flow and temperature control.
Anderson: If I think of it as a sweat lodge, it’s not such a bad experience because I know some people pay a lot of money for sweat lodges. Depending on how long we talk now, I will probably end up on a spirit vision quest.
Saul: Well, I don’t know. That maybe seems like it might be worthwhile. Let’s let’s chat for a little bit, then.
Anderson: I Would just find out that I have no spirit and no vision. So anyhow, Dr. Joseph Tainter is here at Utah State University, and we’re going to talk about complexity and the collapse of civilizations.
Saul: This is one that I’ve been looking forward to since we first started researching. Even before we were talking seriously about the project, we were talking about the collapse of civilizations, and whether or not we were seeing that coming for ours.
Anderson: It’s just a cheery little dinnertime conversation that overstayed its welcome. But yeah, so Dr. Tainter, he wrote sort of the authoritative book on the collapse of ancient civilizations, and it keeps selling incrementally more every year. I’m curious to talk to him about it. Has he been intrigued with these issues because he is worried about the present? I assume he will say yes.
Saul: Absolutely. Especially because his central thesis is that societies reach a certain level of complexity, which he defines in multiple ways, but really boils down to there are so many systems required to keep a society running, they reach a point that they are no longer sustainable.
Anderson: Right. The actual drag from your social complexity exceeds the energy that you have. And he’s looked at this in Rome, he’s looked at it in the Mayan civilization, he’s looked at it in Chacoan culture. So he’s looked at this in a lot of different places, and he’s going to bring a really strong anthropological and historical sense to the conversation that we actually haven’t had thus far, and I’m really excited to bring in.
Saul: That’s a good point. We haven’t had any historians yet, have we?
Anderson: No, because I certainly don’t count.
Saul: This is actually going to be exceptionally good, I think, because it’ll be our first real foray deep into the past, and see what sort of parallels we can draw.
Anderson: And we’ve had a lot of thinkers who are synthesizing a lot of information but are often doing it in ways that seem pretty ahistorical. Looking at the present moment, maybe hearkening back to a quick reference to the past, but often that’s a very broad reference. Dr. Tainter is going to get into the real specifics.
Saul: I also think that many people, and not just the people we’ve been talking to, look back to the past and see a past that never actually existed.
Anderson: It’s very easy to caricature the past. Or to not think about it at all.
Anderson: I think they’re going to be some interesting connections with Dr Tainter and with Alexander Rose from the Long Now Foundation in terms of encouraging long-term thinking. I know as a historian and anthropologist he’s going to encourage long-term thinking.
Saul: Yes. Well, cool. I’m really excited. I’m gonna let you roll down the window and breathe again.
Anderson: Perfect. So, let’s introduce Dr. Joseph Tainter.
Joseph Tainter: My background is in anthropology. That’s what my degrees are in. And my passion since I was very young was to be an archaeologist. And so within anthropology I specialized in archaeology and went through the course of study, and worked in various areas for quite a few years. But I always had an interest also in contemporary issues. And I thought that it should be possible to use what we learn about the past to understand our situation today in the future.
So in the 1980s, I began a study of a topic that had intrigued me for a long time: why did ancient societies often seem to collapse? And by collapse I mean why do they seem to simplify rapidly. Think of the Western Roman Empire collapsing and being succeeded by the Dark Ages in Western Europe. As I did that study in the 1980s, and it appeared in 1988, I began to realize that what I was learning was not just about ancient societies. It had lessons for us and for our future.
Gradually, in the following years I began shifting more and more into working on sustainability, and particularly how can we use lessons from the past to understand whether we’re in a sustainable society today, or what we can do to be in a sustainable society. I work now largely on complexity, on energy, and most recently on innovation. Energy and innovation are really the two key elements to sustainability, and they interact with complexity to make a society sustainable or not over the long term.
Aengus Anderson: Let’s talk a little bit about complexity, because I’m sort of curious about complexity as a metric for looking at a civilization. What are we thinking of when we think of complexity?
Tainter: My understanding of complexity really comes from within by background in anthropology. Complexity in a society means first of all more kinds of parts, but particularly different kinds of parts. So you think of a simple hunting and gathering society, where generally there’s very little specialization. A few people are better at some things than others, but by and large the main social roles are defined by age and gender. There are males and females and children, and those are the three social categories.
Compare that to how specialized our society is today. In Europe, censuses recognize as many as forty thousand different kinds of occupations. We’re a highly differentiated society. Many different kinds of specializations, many social roles, very very differentiated technology. This is what I mean by the term “differentiation,” structural differentiation. That’s one aspect of complexity, but it’s not the only part of it.
The other aspect of complexity is organization. The parts have to be integrated together to make a functioning whole. They behave in patterned and predictable ways. You can’t have people in a government bureaucracy simply doing whatever they want. They’re told what to do. People within a family have certain specific roles that they’re expected to fulfill, and if they step outside those roles there are usually consequence. This is organization. Complexity consists of differentiation in structure along with increasing organization, the organization existing to make everything function as a coherent system.
Anderson: So what are some of the reasons we’ve seen these earlier civilization’s collapse?
Tainter: Societies grow more complex. One of the most fundamental ways is simply to solve problems. Complexity is actually a problem-solving tool. And let me give you a couple of examples from our experiences today.
After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, how did we respond? Well, we created new government agencies…Department of Homeland Security, Transportation Security Administration. We reorganized other agencies. So, in other words we differentiated structure. We created more structure in our system. And at the same time, we increased organization. That is to say we increased constraints on behaviors that were thought to be threatening. So now we all stand in lines to get into our flight at the airport. It channels behavior, makes behavior uniform and predictable. We increased complexity to respond to the threat of terrorism.
The problem with becoming more complex is that complexity is never free. In any living system, complexity has costs. It has metabolic costs. If you think of, in the realm of the natural world, the complexity of say a simple bacterium versus the complexity of a mouse or a deer, the mouse and the deer are more complex organisms and they have much higher energy requirements as a result. Not just relative to body size, but disproportionate to body size. And that’s because they’re warm-blooded mammals that regulate their internal temperatures and their reproductive systems. And they need extra amounts of energy to accomplish this.
It’s the same in a human society. You can’t have higher complexity without having a higher energy base. And it tends to grow almost unnoticed. It grows by small increments, each of which seems reasonable and affordable at the time. But over time, the complexity and the costs build up until you reach the point where you get into diminishing returns. And this is the point where societies start to become vulnerable to collapse, where you’re spending more and more to accomplish less and less.
Anderson: Does that seem inevitable to you?
Tainter: Yes. Growth and complexity is inevitable. And I think that reaching a point of diminishing returns to complexity is inevitable. And I will give you an example of how this works in an actual society, a case I’ve worked on a great deal, which is the collapse of the Western Roman Empire.
Agrarian empires can only expand so far. In the last few centuries BC, the Romans expanded throughout the Mediterranean basin and into Northwestern Europe. And every time they did so, they would essentially loot the provinces that they conquered. And what they were looting was stores of past solar energy, which is transformed into precious metals, works of art and people. And they then used this… First of all they eliminated taxation of themselves. And they used the wealth to fund further conquests. It was a nice positive feedback loop. But it can only go so far. Eventually in an agrarian society that doesn’t have modern communications and doesn’t have modern transportation, you reach the point where you’d simply have too high a travel distance to the frontier, and you eventually encounter people who just aren’t worth reconquering.
So, the Roman Empire reached this point about the 1st century AD. And then they had to transition from living off stored solar energy, which is the accumulated solar energy of the people they were conquering, to living off yearly solar energy. In other words, yearly agriculture. The Roman Empire was primarily an agricultural economy. 90% of the government’s taxes came from agriculture. So, beginning in the 1st century AD and thereafter, the government essentially had to live off a current solar energy budget. And this immediately began to cause problems.
Well, in 64 AD, the Romans were facing a dual crisis. One was a war on the East, and the other was the Great Fire of Rome, when Nero supposedly fiddled while Rome burned. And they simply didn’t have enough precious metal on hand to cope with this crisis, so they began to debase the currency by adding in copper. And this was the first step down a slope that resulted ultimately in the year 269 AD with a currency that had almost no silver at all. They could sustain their ongoing expenses only by debasing the currency, which effectively is a way of shifting costs on to the future, and this is very report because it has lessons for us today.
In the 3rd century AD, they faced a set of crises. A set of crisis that almost brought the empire to its end. There were invasions of the Persians from the East, and German peoples from the North. There were civil wars, there was unrest, there was banditry. In the late 3rd an early 4th centuries, a couple of reforming emperors rescued the situation. They were Diocletian and Constantine. First of all, they doubled the size of the army, but they also increased complexity. The differentiated financial functions within the bureaucracy, they increased the size of bureaucracy. The empire had to undertake this increase in complexity at great cost, and it worked. They survived the crisis and essentially bought sustainability for another two centuries. The sustainability of the empire and of Greco-Roman civilization, which were their goals.
But the cost was that they had to increase taxation on the peasantry. So, you hear reports of peasants being unable to pay taxes, peasants abandoning their lands. So the empire essentially went from living off interest, which was yearly agricultural production, to living off its capital. Its capital being producing lands and peasant population. At the same time, the increase in complexity didn’t bring in any new net wealth. It was simply to maintain the status quo. And in time it made them fiscally weaker and weaker, until finally in the end they began to lose more and more provinces. And then the last emperor was overthrown in the year 476 AD. This in a nutshell is what happened to the Roman Empire.
We can see several parallels to our situation today. When the Romans went from an economy based on seizing the past solar energy of the people they conquered to an economy based on current solar energy, that’s analogous to what may happen in our future when we go from living on stored solar energy (which is what fossil fuels are) to a renewable energy economy where we have to live on annual solar energy.
The Romans found they couldn’t do it. So they were forced to debase the currency. Debasing the currency for them was the same as borrowing is for us. It basically shifts the cost of solving your problems on to the future. Now, you can do that if the future doesn’t have any problems of its own. And we know that never happens, right? So the future has to deal with its own problems plus the cost of the past problems that you’ve deferred the cost of.
The other way in which this informs us about what our own future may look like is increasing in complexity just to maintain the status quo. I see a set of constraints facing us in the future, and they’re all going to be very expensive. First is funding retirements for the Baby Boom generation. Second is continuing increases in the costs of healthcare. The third is replacing decaying infrastructure. The fourth is adapting to climate change and repairing environmental damage. The fifth is developing new sources of energy. The sixth is what I see as in all likelihood continuing high military costs. The seventh is the costs of innovation.
We’re going to have to invest in each of these areas mainly just to maintain the status quo. And these are all problems that are going to converge over the next generation. Basically over the next ten to thirty years or so, which historically is more or less simultaneously. And this is exactly the same problem as did in the Romans. Having to increase complexity and costliness just to maintain the status quo. It brings on diminishing returns and fiscal weakness. I think it’ll bring on a situation where people’s incomes do not grow as people in the United States and other industrial countries have been accustomed to. And this is going to bring on political discontent, and the political discontent that we have in this country now I think is nothing compared to what we may be seeing in the future.
Anderson: Unlike the Romans, who weren’t studying complexity, we’re actually thinking about this. Isn’t that condescending? I always feel bad talking about people in the past like that. But here we are talking about these issues. Is there some way to recalibrate expectations and thus avert a problem like that?
Tainter: I’m not an idealist when it comes to that. I sometimes think I know too much history. I think I understand the species fairly well. People will not voluntarily refrain from consumption they can afford on the basis of abstractions about the future. If people don’t experience problems in their daily lives, they will simply continue spending whatever they can afford, and consuming whatever they can afford. Economists tell us, and in this point I agree with them, that what changes people’s behavior is the price mechanism. That is what curtails people’s consumption.
Anderson: We’ve got a couple tracks here. So, say there’s the material world in which people are living, and maybe they can no longer have their expectations fulfilled. The money hits them, they dial back on maybe retiring, or spending, or having a certain material quality of life. But their expectations, do they go away? How do you recalibrate the expectations?
Tainter: I think it takes a generation at least for expectations to change. Perhaps even two generations. And and this is one of the immediate problems that I see over the next generation, is simply high levels of political discontent over the economic problems that I think we’re going to be facing.
You can see this happening in Europe with the Euro crisis, where leader after leader after leader has been turned out of office in Greece, in Italy, in France. In this country of course, President Obama faces serious challenges with the economy, and he may very well lose because of it.
Anderson: So does the discontent in a way become sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy? There’s enough political discontent expressed that it leads to policy that actually continues to undermine the complex system? I’m kind of wondering about the point where things start to go downhill.
Tainter: The discontent I think leads to turmoil, and to continual changeovers in policy. I can foresee a situation where we may just cycle very quickly back and forth between say Democrats and Republicans as far as who’s in charge, because we’ll put one in charge for awhile, and they’ll fail, and then we’ll turn to the other one, and they’ll fail. Whereas in fact, it may be that no policy can solve the problems. That we have simply grown to the point where we are too complex for the energy base that we can expect in the future. Because this is all tied to the availability of fossil fuels.
We are reaching, or we will soon reach, we may even have reached, a peak for the production of fossil fuels. And this is going to mean that it’s going to be harder and harder to generate the wealth that we need to solve our problems.
Anderson: I’ve spoken to a fellow named Jan Lundberg who’s an oil industry analyst, and he thinks that we’ve already slightly hit peak oil and we’re waiting for ramifications. Other people I’ve spoken to see space as a solution. Is space the next pent-up wealth of resources that could unleash that sort of—
Tainter: That’s wishful thinking. That’s the kind of things children think about. We can’t afford the space programs we have now. How could we ever afford programs that would allow us to use resources from space?
Anderson: You don’t buy the silver bullet coming in from science and solving these problems?
Tainter: Well, now that’s a different matter. Technological optimists and conventional economists think this also, that as long as we have free markets and the price mechanism, there will always the incentives to innovate and that therefore we don’t need to worry about resources. There will always be either new resources, or more efficient ways of using the old resources.
There are a couple of problems with technological optimism. The first problem is what’s called the Jevons paradox. William Stanley Jevons was a 19th century British economist who’s very well-known in economic history. One of his books was called The Coal Question. Jevons was concerned that Britain would lose its preeminence in the world because of exhaustion of coal. Of course, he couldn’t foresee the future of petroleum, but he enunciated several principles that have simply lasting value, that have lessons for us today. He looked at improvements in technology of the steam engine so that they could get more and more work out of each ton of coal. And the expectation was that this would mean that Britain would be using less coal in the future. Jevons said no, what will happen is that the price of coal will be reduced so much that we’ll simply use more of it than ever before. That is, you improve the efficiency of using a resource, use of the resource actually increases rather than decreases.
Well, that was coal in the 19th century. You look at our more recent history, particularly the oil crises that the hit the United States in the 1970s, with major increases in the cost of oil in 1973 and 1979. This led manufacturers to introduce more and more fuel-efficient cars to the American market, and consumers bought them. So, how did consumers respond to having more fuel-efficient cars? Did they save the money? No. They drove more miles. This is the Jevons paradox. This is one reason why improving technical efficiency has only short-term benefits.
There’s also a problem with innovation itself. Innovation is also a system that grows in complexity and reaches diminishing returns. Basic discoveries like gravity and electricity are no longer out there waiting for us to find them. Instead, where once innovation could be done by a lone wolf scholar, someone like Charles Darwin or Henry Ford, it’s now done by very large interdisciplinary teams that require very large budgets and large institutions to work within. And it’s producing diminishing returns.
Some colleagues and I did a study a couple of years ago on the productivity of our system of innovation as it’s reflected in patent statistics. What we found is that over a period of about the last thirty years, our system of innovation has declined in productivity by 22%. And there’s no reason to think that’s going to end, and it appears to be declining because of increasing complexity and costliness in knowledge production. And so you see, for example, pharmaceutical companies that are withdrawing from innovation. Or they’re contracting out their research and development. It’s becoming less and less profitable to innovate because it’s becoming harder to innovate.
Anderson: And you think that’s because of the scientific point we’ve reached, or is there a social and economic system that discourages those sorts of small-scale…
Tainter: No no, I think it is primarily because it has simply become more complex to produce new knowledge. People generally don’t see this because when you go into the electronic stores there’s always new products. But the reason we keep having those new products is because the scale of the innovation enterprise has grown so large. We spend more and more resources on it. A number of years ago, Congress doubled the budget of the National Institutes of Health. There’s talk of doubling the budget of the National Science Foundation. But this is what’s necessary. You have to keep not only spending more and more to innovate, but you have to spend a larger and larger share of your economic pie to innovate, and at the same time productivity, which we measured as patents per inventor, has been going down for at least a generation. And there are indications it may have been going down even a lot longer than that.
Anderson: If I can bring in one of the other big ideas that sort of wanders through here, the idea of futurism and some of the ideas— Are you familiar with the idea of the Singularity?
Tainter: Oh, I have heard the term but you’ll have to tell me what if means.
Anderson: Ray Kurzweil is the originator.
Tainter: Right, yeah.
Anderson: I don’t know if I’ll be able to get him in this project, but I think it would be fun if I could. Essentially, for those thinkers, they plot increasing complexity as a hyperbola going from chemicals to simple organisms to increasingly complex systems, citing things like Moore’s Law, and for them there’s this point where all bets are off after that. There may be a notion that that’s the escape hatch. That’s how you get out of cyclical collapse.
Tainter: Personally, I feel that when your narrative about the future includes the phrase “and then a miracle happens,” you’re in trouble. That would be my short answer. Of course we can’t rule out the possibility. Yeah, I mean…something could happen in the future that none of us can foresee. It’s always possible. All we can deal with [is] what’s reasonably foreseeable.
Anderson: And so, working in the world of things that are reasonably foreseeable, we’ve talked about the crisis of the present, and the idea that in the next thirty years we could have a storm of these different things coming together. Do you see that leading to collapse, or do you think that will be some sort of momentary thing where we can actually develop more complexity? Some people in this project, and I’m asking this because they think of this as something that is pretty near-term and something that needs to be discussed now.
Tainter: Right now I am thinking one to two generations into the future. I don’t think we’re in immediate danger of a collapse. But looking thirty to sixty years out, I’m very concerned about how the future might evolve. Given declining supplies of fossil fuels particularly oil, given declining productivity of innovation, I think expectations of continual economic growth are…problematic. The government might be able to spur more economic growth with stimulus plans for awhile, but of course that’s simply shifting the costs onto the future. I’m not optimistic about continual economic growth indefinitely into the future. It’s going to be impossible.
Renewable energy sources simply do not give the energy density, the return on investment, that fossil fuels give us. There’s nothing out there remotely like the energy density of a gallon of gasoline. And that is what has been the basis of our wealth. We think we developed our wealth through ingenuity and hard work, and certainly we’ve been ingenious and we’ve worked hard, but those things would’ve been meaningless without cheap fossil fuels. People in the past were ingenious and worked hard, and yet they were impoverished. We have pulled ourselves up by employing fossil fuel subsidies. And that’s how we pay for complexity today.
So what does that leave us for the future? It leaves us with the possibility of what’s sometimes called a steady state economy. Or a collapse. The problem with a steady state economy is I think that most people would find it unacceptable. Steady state means steady state. Birth rates have to equal death rates. Which means if you want to have a child you need a permit. It means that if someone ascends the economic ladder, someone else has to fall down it. People in this country would find that unacceptable. So a steady state economy I think has potentially serious political problems.
So, what is the alternative? Is the alternative simply to try to keep forcing growth until we simply cannot support complexity anymore? In which case we become vulnerable to a collapse. I don’t have a crystal ball. I don’t know which way it’s going to go, but I’m very concerned.
Anderson: Why is collapse bad?
Tainter: A collapse in our near future would probably mean that hundreds of millions of people would die over a very short period of. It would be gruesome. It would be a horrifying thing. It’s not something we want to go through. If we could find a way to gradually reduce the earth’s population, say over the next century or so. If everyone voluntarily agreed to have only one child, which of course isn’t going to happen. Then a collapse might not be so bad. But it would be a wrenching change in people’s way of life. 90% of us would have to be farmers. Higher education would once again become the preserve of only the wealthy. An economy like that has very serious implications.
It would mean we would lose a lot in our way of life that is in fact valuable. The ability to be rewarded for one’s work, proportionate to one’s work. The ability to be rewarded for good ideas. The ability to move to wherever one wants to live. The ability to find interesting books to read. These are all things that would be lost in a collapse. The Dark Ages were dark for a reason. A collapse is really not a desirable thing.
Anderson: I’m thinking of the conversation I had with a primitivist. And for him, the collapse is a desirable thing. He has different metrics for measuring this. So he would probably say yes, all of those things would go away. But we’re living in a society that’s so hyper-individualistic, those things have disproportionate meaning, and if you have a collapse maybe you have stronger relationships with your community. You have a greater sense of connection with the people around you, a greater sense of connection with the Earth. Is there anything to that?
Tainter: Sure, all of those are valuable things. But they aren’t the only valuable things. Speaking only for myself, I enjoy a life where I can sit in a room with bright young people and talk about ideas, talk philosophy, teach them about complexity, and about history, and to think about our future. These are things that I value, and I value us having the kind of society that we do because it provides opportunities to do that. And we could take that example, my own experience, and we could multiply it many many times, to all of the different things that people do that they enjoy doing. All the different professions that people engage in that they find fulfilling and worthwhile. In a society in which 90% of us have to be farmers, most of those things would go away.
Now, being a farmer is an admirable calling. It’s a wonderful thing. My wife and I own an acre of land in New Mexico that we’ve cultivated fairly intensively at various times. I know farming. It’s just not what I want to do.
Anderson: To what extent can conversation change anything?
Tainter: When people ask me what is to be done, I always say the first step is awareness. And that’s what conversation is about, and that’s why I do interviews like this one. But at the same time I recognize that I reach very few people in doing these kinds of interviews, and I’ve done a number of them. What has an impact is what affects people’s daily lives, and that’s why I say what will change people’s behavior is the price mechanism. In human evolution, there was never selective pressure to think broadly in terms of either time or space. And so humans don’t. We’re simply not inclined to, by nature. A few people do, but they’re the rarity. I don’t know whether this is changeable.
I have actually written about this, wondering whether if we could start very early in our educational system, if children could be taught to be more curious about things that are distant in time and space. I’d like to be a little optimistic, to think that humans could learn to think differently. After all, we didn’t evolve to live by clocks, but a lot of us learn to. So humans can learn. But it involves I think some fundamental changes in K–12 education. And if I was thirty years younger but knew what I know now, I might spend a lot of time talking to K–12 educators. But I’m not a K–12 educator myself, and I don’t really know how you reach children at that age. How you teach them to think differently about broad-scale matters. But it’s something that we have to do. The future depends on it. Conversation is important, but I don’t know whether conversation is enough.
Anderson: Let’s just assume for a moment that those conversations actually do a little bit of steering and have some influence and aren’t just symptomatic. Is that a conversation that we’re having today? Is there sort of a social… Is there a change in the air, or is there an exchange of ideas between people of diverse backgrounds about the future, that you’re aware of?
Tainter: What I tell my students is go into the local Walmart and ask yourself, how many of the people shopping in there are aware of these things that we’re talking about? That’s my answer to your question.
But all we can do is try. I mean, we have to try. We have to try.
Aengus Anderson: Well, if that isn’t a little pick you up kinda happy ending, I don’t know what is.
Micah Saul: Oh, man. You know, we talked about it before but that was the perfect representation of my understanding of Ragnarök.
Anderson: Yeah. Let’s just start with like, a comment that Joseph made which I think was fascinating, which was when he said, “I wonder if I’ve read too much history.” It gets to sort of the sense of being caught in these gigantic wheels.
Anderson: It almost feels like the cyclical, increasing complexity and collapse thing is this giant– I mean, it’s like, the tides, and it just happens. And if you get in the way, well you don’t matter.
Saul: It’s a sort of fatalistic viewpoint. It’s like, what can you do against these massive systems? And is ignorance maybe desirable? If you don’t recognize you’re caught in the system are you may be a little happier? That’s interesting, actually. It makes me think of Timothy Morton.
Anderson: Spin that out a little more.
Saul: Something that you really latched onto from that conversation is the idea of the crisis of the present is presence. And the realization and the the sort of awareness of being stuck in this massive system, or in the mesh, is sort of the crisis of the present.
Anderson: Yeah, and it feels like Tim and Joseph deal with that in such different ways.
Saul: Oh, absolutely.
Anderson: But, I’m not sure— I mean ultimately, Tim talks about acquiescence. Joseph talks about needing to try, but it sounds like he doesn’t have any hope. You know what else it made me think of? A third spin on being caught in the wheels of history. Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche wrote On the Use and Abuse of History, which I think has several different translations. But he talks about sort of how history can at times be incredibly empowering. You know, you can look back and you see these momentous figures who’ve achieved great social changes, and that inspires you with hope. But at the same time, it can be debilitating, because by understanding more and more and more, you have a deep sense of your place in the strong current that you kind of can’t swim out of. And for me, that was really going through my mind when Joseph was talking.
Saul: Yeah, I totally see that.
Anderson: So what are some of the values that we’ve got in here? I thought it was interesting the way Joseph responded to John Zerzan.
Saul: Zerzan is very much a communalist, and Joseph Tainter basically said, “Well, I don’t want to farm.” Tainter points out almost the dictatorship of the community over the individual in Zerzan’s system, saying, “No, you you don’t have a choice. You have to farm.”
Anderson: Or not even farm, but you’ve got to gather berries, right. So yeah, the idea that primitivism as a choice almost has to be totalized. That’s cool. I don’t think we’d made that jump before.
Saul: No, I don’t think so, either. It takes Zerzan’s criticism of futurists and points it directly back at him. You can’t opt out.
Anderson: Which is interesting, because at the same time, Joseph really smacks down futurism pretty thoroughly. I don’t feel that he really got into the issues much. It may be actually so blunt that sort of the the humor of how harsh his smackdown is sets aside a more substantive discussion.
Saul: I agree, actually. There was a moment where he was talking about technological progress being harder now.
Anderson: Oh, that cost of innovation is getting higher?
Saul: The cost of innovation is getting higher, right. I don’t know that I buy that. And I guess my question to that is, one of the measures he was using was patents per [crosstalk] person
Anderson: Ah, I was going to say that, too.
Saul: And I just don’t think that’s a complete enough metric to be measuring innovation. The simplest version is it completely disregards that which isn’t patented. Or that which isn’t patentable.
Anderson: Or the changing structure of science, which is maybe working more in groups or as organizations. It wouldn’t trace back to an individual but to a big conglomerate.
Saul: You know, that was just one thing that jumped out at me about that.
Anderson: Yeah, similarly his dismissal of being unable to fund the space program now. Obviously, we’re not putting much money into it and we are putting huge amounts into wars. And those seem like they’re sort of something that we have chosen to do and we could have done without, and that money could have easily gone towards science. So, I don’t think I can dismiss the search for resources and outer space as flippantly.
But even as he discounts the rate of innovation and the feasibility of gaining new resources from outer space, I think he makes some really good critiques of scientific optimism, and I think the Jevons paradox is an amazing way to do that.
Saul: Absolutely. Which I think is a…well an interesting segue into who you are talking to next.
Anderson: Yeah. I’ll be talking to Representative David Miller in Wyoming. He proposed the “Doomsday Bill,” which is a bill that encourages the state of Wyoming to develop contingency plans in the case of a federal government collapse or some other sort of disaster scenario. But he’s also a mineral explorer. So we’re going to talk about the Doomsday Bill, we’re going to talk about worst-case scenarios, we’re going to talk about, presumably, energy and minerals and resources. And I think a lot of what Joseph has brought up is probably going to…well, you should keep it in your mind as we’re talking to David Miller.
Saul: So that’ll be next. In the meantime, drive safe to Wyoming.
Anderson: It’s always safe driving in Wyoming, where the deer jump on the road every four feet. I’m going to have to get one of those giant armored bumpers. And a grill for venison.
Anderson: Alright, well I’ll ship you some venison steaks from Wyoming, And and we’ll talk over steaks next time.
That was Dr. Joseph Tainter, recorded July 9, 2012 on the campus of Utah State University in Logan, Utah
Saul: This is The Conversation. You can find us on Twitter at @aengusanderson and on the web at findtheconversation.com
Anderson: So thanks for listening. I’m Aengus Anderson.
Saul: And I’m Micah Saul.
This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.