Complexity, Problem Solving, and Sustainable Societies - Focus - Requirement of Knowledge

Requirement of Knowledge

Tainter argues that this would "require much knowledge that we do not now possess. That means we need research that is complex and costly, and requires fossil-fuel subsidies. Lowering the costs of complexity in one sphere causes them to rise in another."

"Industrialism illustrates this point. It generated its own problems of complexity and costliness. These included railways and canals to distribute coal and manufactured goods, the development of an economy increasingly based on money and wages, and the development of new technologies. While such elements of complexity are usually thought to facilitate economic growth, in fact they can do so only when subsidized by energy." (italics ours).

This is the central argument Tainter makes: the energy economy always subsidizes the product economy and service economy, and any intermediates such as commodity markets. Without looking at energy costs at every trophic level, and the transfer between, which appears to be decreasing as more technology is applied, there is simply no way to discover what is and is not "efficient".

"With subsidies of inexpensive fossil fuels, for a long time many consequences of industrialism effectively did not matter. Industrial societies could afford them. When energy costs are met easily and painlessly, benefit/cost ratio to social investments can be substantially ignored (as it has been in contemporary industrial agriculture). Fossil fuels made industrialism, and all that flowed from it (such as science, transportation, medicine, employment, consumerism, high-technology war, and contemporary political organization), a system of problem solving that was sustainable for several generations."

"Energy has always been the basis of cultural complexity and it always will be."

Tainter concludes that considerable hardship will be required to adjust to an economy that is (a) smaller (b) reliant more on individuals to carry out their own primary production, say in gardens and farms (c) not investing in problem solving to a greater extent than is warranted by the actual savings in energy that result out the other end.

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