Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Joseph Tainter: 'The Collapse of Complex Societies.' Part Two

4. Are Science, Technology and Innovation our Ace in the Hole?

Today, most people believe that continued growth is the solution. The near-consensus is that it is possible to overcome the limits to increasing complexity through technological innovation, which is unlimited.

Tainter compares and contrast two views of sustainability in our future:

1. One is associated with names such as Jared Diamond. It argues that staying the present course will result in collapse, due to scarcity of environmental resources. This is the Malthusian perspective, or what I call the “Easter Island Model.”

 2. On the other side are the technological optimists, who reject Malthusianism and other doomsday scenarios. They believe in the infinite substitutability of new types of energy. Innovation is the key. As long as Research and Development are funded sufficiently, progress will continue.

Innovation is a recent phenomenon. For example, President Franklin Roosevelt felt that government support for scientific research was of the essence, and that this would save the world. Today, advanced societies spend roughly 3% of GDP on R&D. Innovation has been institutionalized. This was not the case in Ancient Rome.

 However, Tainter points out that innovation is also subject to the laws of complexity. He cites the Pragmatist philosopher Nicholas Rescher, and that man’s “law of diminishing returns.” The pursuit of scientific knowledge is also increasingly complex and costly. Every new break-through, every victory over nature becomes more expensive and more challenging. Early research in every field plucks the lowest fruit. Early discoverers are individual mavericks - the likes of Newton, Darwin, Edison, Mendel, Einstein. Today, on the other hand, scientific research and discovery require teams, massive funding, laboratories, expensive equipment. The trend is from lone dilettantes and generalists to teams of specialists; from simple to complex. There are fewer and fewer outputs per unit of investment. This is the evolutionary pattern for research and innovation.

Tainter provides an anecdote illustrative of the law of diminishing returns in military technology: During the 1950s, American industry manufactured 754 B52s. In the 1980s, the far more advanced B1 began to replace the B52. 100 of them were produced. Fifteen years later, the even more fanciful B2 bomber was introduced, of which 21 were built, at a cost of $13 billion per aircraft. This has led the aerospace engineer Norman Augustine to postulate the following “death spiral law of the military:” By the year 2054, the entire U.S. military will have to share ONE airplane - one year it will be run by the Air Force, the following year by the Navy, then it will be on loan to the Marines, etc.

Medical research follows the same pattern of diminishing returns. It costs more and more to achieve smaller and smaller health improvements.

Recently, Tainter and his colleagues analyzed a data base of five million patents given out worldwide over the past 30 years, in order to measure the long-term rate of productivity and innovation. Their results reveal an increase in the size of patenting teams, an increase in research complexity, and a decline in per person productivity.

But perhaps innovation productivity is only declining in older, more mature fields, Tainter asks, but not in newer fields?

Not so: innovation productivity has also declined in bio-medical research, in energy, in solar and wind technology, in information technology and in nano-technology. In sum, the productivity of all scientific research is declining and requiring increased funding.

5. The Problem, Then.

According to Tainter, the next ten to thirty years will see the convergence of the following seven major societal problems facing the U.S. and the rest of the developed world:
1. Funding the retirement of the baby boomers.
2. The rise of health care costs.
3. The decaying infrastructure.
4. The environmental crisis.
5. The energy crisis.
6. Continued high military costs.
7. The increasing cost of technological and scientific innovation.

There are at least five possible responses to problems of cumulative complexity - responses that are not mutually exclusive:
1. Pay the cost of solving the problem(s).
2. Defer paying for the cost. That is, borrow (against the future).
3. Subsidize to pay for the costs. For example, the widespread use of fossil fuels today is a form of subsidy.
4. Reconnect costs and benefits. Today, most of the costs of dealing with society’s increasing complexity are born by society’s lower echelons, in the form of added burdens.
5. Don’t solve the problem.

6. Are there Solutions?

A key concept in Tainter’s analysis is sustainability. By this, the author does NOT mean a mere passive stance, one that is synonymous with conservation, or with consuming less. Sustainability is a problem-solving ACT, as is complexity. However, the latter approach is fraught with the specter of diminishing returns and of compounding the problem which it is attempting to solve. It is the cumulative cost of complexity which in the end destroys us. Sustainability, on the other hand, can be defined as “maintaining a desired state or condition.” Therefore, what men desire to sustain will depend on their values.

One condition which has recently been recognized by some as perhaps sustainable is a steady state. That is, a steady no-growth demographic, environmental and economic environment (with possible internal corrections so as to maximize equity and improve the quality of life). Countries like Switzerland, Denmark and the Netherlands come to mind as societies that approximate these conditions. In an interesting anecdote, Tainter tells us about a new Dutch law which requires the buyer of any new car to pay up front for the car’s eventual disposal at the end.

However, Tainter does not advocate steady state. For one thing, a full-employment economy is predicated on continued growth.

Nor does Tainter believe that idealism or altruism are likely to play important roles. I may be wrong, but I got the feeling that according to the author, there must be incentives before men will implement the strategies necessary for their survival.
In other words, Tainter remains wedded to a market perspective. I suspect that he would reject Kropotkin’s ideas of cooperation and mutual aid, or Theodore Roszak’s validation of the 1960s Counterculture, or Christian notions of altruism and self-sacrifice. He may not reject such values, but he would view them as unrealistic.

Yet, in the question-and-answer session which followed the lecture, some excellent comments from the audience addressed precisely such issues.

One person asked whether Tainter knew of societies which had successfully survived the challenge of collapse caused by complexity. Tainter’s position was that few governments care for society’s general welfare. Furthermore, while ethical leaders do try to solve societal problems, even ethical decisions can have catastrophic consequences.

A follow-up question asked whether there were any societies which saw the light in time. In other words, is it possible for people  to VOLUNTARILY decide to simplify life before it is too late?

Tainter mentioned the Byzantine Empire which, as heir to the West Roman Empire, survived for another 1,000 years. It did this by deliberately simplifying, and this worked for a long time. After the collapse of the West Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire practically did away with a money economy, reduced the size of its army and of its administration, and simplified in various other ways. Within two hundred years it was back in the saddle.

However, Tainter claims that the Byzantine simplification was not based on an enlightened and freely chosen decision. The empire had its back to the wall. It was forced to act by the Arab threat. The reforms were not based on philosophical or religious justifications.

Another member of the audience argued that sustainability IS possible, as exemplified by Australian aborigines, American Indians and other pre-industrial societies which survived in a steady state for thousands of years. The implication was, of course, that the modern world could sustain itself at a much higher level of advancement without returning to the stone-age.

In sum, if we recognize these as possible options - voluntary simplification, steady state, cooperation replacing competition - then the specter of apocalyptic and pathological collapse recedes. Hollywood and popular culture have long exploited the apocalyptic scenario. Decades of movies ranging from Soylent Green, The Omega Man and Silent Running to the Hunger Games have insinuated that collapse is inevitable. So has much of the Science Fiction literature (see for example Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz). The Roman analogy has become a popular cliché.

Tainter’s analysis is flawless. He is correct in calling for a conversation about our future, a conversation which we are NOT having. Part of this conversation must point out that there are ways out and that catastrophic and pathological collapse is NOT inevitable. leave comment here

© Tom Kando 2013