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.

Saul: Right

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.

Saul: Right.

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.

Saul: Yes.

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 find​the​con​ver​sa​tion​.com

Anderson: So thanks for lis­ten­ing. I’m Aengus Anderson.

Saul: And I’m Micah Saul.

Further Reference

This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.


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