Wednesday, May 15, 2024

The wickedest of all problems - IV

Environmental degradation and climate change have caused societies to collapse earlier also. Mesopotamians gradually brought ruin on themselves through the salinisation caused by their massive irrigation system.  The Maya, too, were brought down not just by drought but by overexploitation of their land. The Harappan civilisation is believed to have collapsed after a loss of the monsoon rains. Many believe that modern civilisation, with its scientific and technological capacity should be able to survive whatever crises ancient and simpler societies found insurmountable. 

Some point out that civilisational collapse is caused not just by environmental pressures alone but by how the society responds to these problems. One anthropologist, Joseph Tainter says, “If a society cannot deal with resource depletion, then the truly interesting questions revolve around the society, not the resource. What structural, political, ideological, or economic factors in a society prevented an appropriate response?” Tainter extensively studied different civilisations in history and published his conclusions in a work called The Collapse of Complex Societies

He describes a generic life cycle that applies, in his view, to every complex society including our own. He says that at their core, societies can be understood in terms of energy flows. If a society is fortunate to discover a new source of energy, it will naturally grow in size and complexity as it exploits that energy. This energy can be from a new technology or be the collective energy of conquered nations. As a civilisation gets more complex, it needs ever more energy to maintain its growth and will generally keep doing what it's done successfully in the past.

Tainter describes this as a society's investment in complexity. However, after the first easy pickings, the next steps in the society's growth become more difficult and costly, offering more miserly returns. At a certain point, the society's return on investment in complexity peaks, and it finds itself spending increasing amounts of resources for ever more meagre returns. In effect, as the society gets more complex, it finds itself having to run harder and harder just to stay in the same place.

This requires even more energy than before, causing a new round of problems that become ever more insurmountable. It becomes increasingly difficult for regular citizens to maintain the lifestyle they are used to, frequently leading to social unrest. With continuation of this trend,” Tainter concludes, “collapse becomes a matter of mathematical probability, as over time an insurmountable stress surge becomes increasingly likely”.

Leaders will keep kicking their problems down the road for later generations to deal with. In a complex system, cause and effect may be more distant in time and space than we realise. “The inflation that would inevitably follow,” writes Tainter, “would tax the future to pay for the present, but the future could not protest”. It would be difficult for someone living in the middle of it to predict how bad things were going to get. 

A modern version of this process has occurred in the overexploitation of fisheries, where stocks decline as a result of being overfished from one generation to the next, but people forget how things used to be and consider the situation to be normal, until the next decline. The term “shifting baseline syndrome” has been coined to describe how people get used to each new level. 

When Tainter turns his attention to our civilisation, he sees nothing to suggest that we can somehow escape the inexorable logic of his grand theory. The primary energy source of our civilisation is fossil fuels. We want to maintain our standard of living so we will keep choosing short-term solutions even though we know it will lead in the future to runaway climate change.  The only thing that can save us, he believes, is a new source of energy to fuel our continued rise in complexity.

When we look at how our society is currently deriving its energy, the facts seem to support Tainter's viewpoint. We are receiving diminishing returns as the oil companies mine the furthest reaches of the globe for fossil fuels. The oil industry's recent desperate rush into tar sands and “fracking” seems to confirm Tainter's thesis, as our global economy invests billions of dollars into technological solutions to extract ever more fossil fuels, even while their carbon emissions are threatening the future of our civilisation.

Can technology save us? Tainter thinks not. He points to what is known as the “Jevons paradox,” which shows that whenever technology makes the use of a resource more efficient, this only increases its use, as consumption goes up to exploit the new efficiencies. As Pogo famously said, “We have met the enemy and he is us”. Our rampant use of fossil fuels is at the very heart of the issue.