Energy and Diminishing Returns

In his book The Collapse of Complex Societies, Joseph A. Tainter identities a number of factors that contribute to the decline and fall of civilizations, i.e., complex societies.  Among the major reasons he cites is what economists call diminishing returns on investments.

Tainter argues that complex societies exist to solve problems, such as resource needs, and that as problems become more complex, often through population expansion, the society becomes more complex also, particularly in terms of administrative or managerial functions:  government bureaucracy, information processing, social organization, and so forth.  But complexity brings its own problems, one of which is that as more energy is invested in obtaining the increased resources necessary to sustain the society, the per unit benefit of those increases tends to decline.  He cites such examples as the conversion from wood to coal as a source of fuel in Europe in the late middle ages and early modern period.  As the population increased, more trees were cut down, resulting in deforestation over wide areas of Europe.  Eventually, there were not enough trees left to supply the people’s needs for fuel, so Europeans turned increasingly to coal; but coal is much harder and more costly to obtain that trees had been—coal sources were located at considerable distances from where the fuel was needed, it was buried underground, and as more of it was mined, people had to dig deeper to get at it, and so on.  The per unit cost of the energy obtained from the coal was higher than the per unit cost obtained from wood.

Fortunately, industrial technology discovered other sources of fuel, oil and natural gas being the two most important ones, and for over a century the industrial world has obtained its energy from these two new sources (although coal still remains important, particularly for industrial uses such as electric plants and steel mills); yet now we are entering a period when the return on investment in oil production is declining, as oil reserves become harder to discover and exploit and as the oil obtained from new finds tends to be heavier and require more refining before being usable as gasoline or diesel.  It is possible, even likely, that geologically speaking, the Earth will never run completely out of oil, but we may reach a point at which we simply cannot reach what remains or cannot afford the costs of obtaining it.  Big industries might be able to continue to afford the cost of oil to produce certain essential products such as plastics for limited uses, but the average citizen likely won’t be able to afford filling up the tank of an SUV with gasoline.  “Peak oil” may simply mean “way too expensive oil.”

Thus, the real question for modern industrial societies, the United States in particular, is not whether or not we will run out of oil, nor even when, but rather at what point oil will simply be too expensive to rely on to provide the energy our complex technological civilization requires.  Developing alternative energy sources is not, then, exclusively a matter of preserving the environment or reversing global warming.  It is not even a matter of so-called “energy independence” (a political rather than scientific or economic issue, at any rate, given the global extent of all markets today—many people would be astonished to learn that the United States exports a great deal of oil and oil products, as well as importing them).  It is rather a matter of civilizational survival.

Societies that fail to respond appropriately to the problems created by their own complexity tend to fragment into smaller, less complex units, as the Mayan civilization broke into small swidden villages scattered over a wider area.  But as sophisticated as the Mayan civilization was, in terms of population, it was relatively small compared to U.S. and world populations today.  World population in 1492 (several centuries after the Mayan collapse) was a mere 500 million, and economies and cultures were still largely local rather than national or global.  Today, world population exceeds 7 billion, with China alone having twice as many people as all the world in 1492, and our economies and cultures are irrevocably intertwined and interdependent.  We cannot feasibly fragment into small states or swidden cultures today.  Nor is it feasible to return to some imagined Golden Age of the 1950s or 1780s.  Our solutions can only apply to the future, not to the many pasts of human history.

Given the intrinsic importance of energy to our industrial, scientific, and technological societies, solving the problem of the increasing cost of oil is crucial to the entire world, not just the United States.  To prepare for “peak-cost oil,” we need to invest now in alternative energy sources, including nuclear power, and stop the political and partisan wrangling and one-upmanship that impedes our ability to save ourselves.

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  • Gabriella Anene  On July 12, 2012 at 7:00 AM

    Alternative energy should be the focus of our governments and every private contractors in the market today. Alternative energy is non-polluting and of course very renewable. `;**` Regards health supplements page

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