Energy and society – it’s complex

At first glance, it is quite evident that society and its development depend on energy. But it takes a second, deeper look to grasp the complexity of this dependency and how that relates to innovation. Today, I’d like to develop a narrative for the nexus of energy, society, complexity, and innovation, building the storyline around two books I’ve come to appreciate: Joseph Tainter’s 1988 landmark investigation of “The Collapse of Complex Societies” and Ian Morris’ 2010 long-data analysis of “Why the West Rules – For Now“.

Let’s start with Joseph Tainter, who observes that:

ASociety uses complexity as a strategy for solving problems.

Tainter explains that societies solve their problems in a rather short-sighted piece-meal approach, trying to change as little as possible. Just think about improvements to jet engines, software products, tax codes, or organisational hierarchies. The existing structures are “updated”, “patched up” or “fixed”, rather than thoroughly rebuilt from scratch. As a consequence, the complexity of those structures increases. Now, if we define innovation as “solving problems in novel ways“, then we have a clear link of observation A with innovation. Even though complexity is not the desired outcome of our innovation endeavour, it still is an unintended consequence: innovation creates complexity. We can derive an additional observation:

B – The more we innovate, the more complex our society becomes.

Tainter goes on to draw a connection between society, complexity and energy. He suggests that society’s complexity has a practical limitation, that it cannot increase forever. Rather, energy supply defines the ceiling:

C – The level of sustainable complexity is limited by the energy available to a society.

Taking AB and C together, we find that society needs energy to solve the challenges it is faced with, that is to say: society needs energy to keep innovation going. This energy demand accumulates over time: of course every single innovation needs energy to be implemented for the first time, but then it will continue consuming energy for maintenance and sustainment. Hence society’s energy demand comprises the constant flow of energy necessary to maintain all the solutions to older problems, plus any additional energy required to implement novel problem-solutions.

Tainter presents historic evidence for observation C: some societies have hit the ceiling in the past, they experienced rapid simplification when energy demand exceeded available supply. Such simplification comes about as the collapse of the former level of order, when society is confronted with more problems than it has energy available to solve them. It’s a massive dilemma: either you innovate to solve the emerging problems (and stop investing energy in maintaining older problem-solutions), or you neglect innovation and focus on maintaining the current order. Either way, the society cannot sustain its former level of development.

Time to bring in Ian Morris. He investigates global social history since the last ice age, providing substantial evidence of the ups and downs of human social development. While Morris suggests that our intuiation of growth as the norm is strongly biased by the (historically exceptional) experience of the most recent two centuries, his long-range historic analysis demonstrated that perpetual growth is an unproven myth. These findings further underpin Tainter’s observation C.

Even more importantly, Morris offers an additional insight that he calls the Paradox of Development:

DRising social development creates the forces that undermine further development.

As he points out: “Success creates new problems, solving them creates still newer problems.” Transposed to innovation, that means: novel ideas generate novel solutions, but in addition they also create novel problems; these will need further solutions, which will create further problems, and so forth: once embarked on that innovation journey there’s no way to stop. And with this relentless innovation endeavour, societal complexity will continue to increase, as will society’s energy demand.

Summing up A through D, we observe that energy supply is limited, while energy demand keeps growing as we have to keep innovating to solve the emerging problems we continue to encounter.  With a limited energy supply and a continuously growing energy demand, we might conclude that we are a train wreck, that we are on track for collapse, just an accident waiting to happen. But is such a bleak outlook inevitable? Aren’t there any alternative scenarios?

Well, I think there are. I believe that these observations provide us some guidance for the kind of innovation we need in the future. In fact, I can see three avenues for future innovation that could help society to stay clear of the energy limit for complexity:

(1)increase energy supply ;

(2)increase energy efficiency ; or

(3)reduce complexity .

Avenue (1) is straightforward, it’s simple old-school thinking largely driven by economic considerations. If energy is getting scarce, prices will go up and make it economically viable to explore and exploit deposits that were previously too expensive to get access to. This approach is based on the assumption that the available energy is essentially unbounded, that only some of it cannot be exploited (yet). This has worked out for centuries, and with a narrow mindset, focused on just one single society, it might continue to be effective for some while. But if we take a broader perspective, it’s obvious that this approach is not sustainable at a global scale.

Avenue (2) is an invention of the 1970s and 80s, driven by the growing awareness for the environment and the evolving quest for sustainability. The idea is to develop and employ technology that reduces wasteful employment of resources, in machines, processes, systems. As a direct result, the increase in energy demand would be slowed down.

Avenue (3) could a novel approach to take, driven by a deeper appreciation of the root causes the underly society’s energy demand. It’s a macro consideration, tackling the societal processes, systems, rules & tools. When the energy demand accumulates over time driven by the ever-growing complexity, it cannot be sufficient to try to expand energy supply or to reduce the rate of demand growth. Rather, it is necessary to actively reduce complexity. Maybe we can think of it as a system reset, a dedicated self-imposed simplification to reduce the energy demand. And it will not be good enough to do that only once. Instead such a reset should become a default consideration, like a critical review every so many years.

Of course Avenue (3) is counter-intuitive. It defies the growth myth, it runs counter to any conventional expectation or assumption. On the other hand, isn’t it exactly what good housekeeping is all about? Through out what you don’t need any more, and keep the rest in good repair?  We seem to understand that logic at the smaller scale, but are unwilling to transfer it to larger scales. In the broader context of an entire society, its political, economic, technological systems, this needs thinking outside conventional boxes to tackle the underlying wicked challenges (in the fourth quadrant of the innovation landscape). Not for the faint at heart, but necessary and worthwhile.


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