Social complexity relies on surplus energy.??

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looloo's picture
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Social complexity relies on surplus energy.??

In all this series this is the one "key concept" that I am struggling to grasp . I always thought that social compexity was derived from the size of a community group , as in a twenty person community will not support say; a barber shop whereas  a thousand person community might, I do not understand how surplus energy makes a contribution unless in some way large communities are not feasable without surplus energy but this is not evident to me.

nickbert's picture
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looloo,I've always thought


I've always thought of it from the view that while the size of the community is directly involved with social complexity, without surplus energy it is difficult to have large groups of people to habitating together.  Since social complexity has strong correlation with community size, and community size has a strong dependence on available surplus energy, therefore social complexity is in some way levels dependent on surplus energy.  I don't expect there is a perfect correlation between social complexity and surplus energy (some societies may use their resources more efficiently than others and some societies with surplus energy may make the conscious decision to stay small), but it makes sense that the two are related.  As to seeing the evidence of the relationship, just think of all the things that surplus energy helps you do (feeds you, transports you, gives heat & light & sophisticated shelter, etc), things that would otherwise occupy the majority of the available hours of the day to procure.  Surplus energy takes care of many of the basics for us at far less expense of time and effort, which allows us to be more specialized in our careers and skillsets, which allows for the complexity and diversity of human activities in society.  I think Chris Martenson did a good job of explaining it in the Crash Course, but we've all become so accustomed to the idea of bountiful energy being around that it can be hard to grasp it on a personal level without having any experiences in low surplus energy environments.

- Nick

grandefille's picture
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energy = social complexity


While I agree that a very small number of people won't likely form what we think of as a "comlex society" it doesn't necessarily follow that a large group of people WILL form such a society.  Number of individuals is a necessary component of complexity, but not sufficient.  Consider an average city of 20,000 people in the United States vs.  one in Africa.  I would expect the African city to have fewer big employers, a smaller government, a smaller middle class, less electronic "toys" etc.  and also much lower per capita energy consumption.  A community needs to be able to "afford" the elements of complexity.  In the US, we've had cheap energy and abundant natural resources for a long time.  This makes the average worker more productive, the worker earns more, and society can afford to devlop complex social structures.  


jrf29's picture
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Social specialization

Social complexity does not derive directly from surplus energy.  It would be more accurate to say that surplus energy allows increased specialization, which in turn allows more complex societies.  Put another way: surplus energy increases the percentage of the population that can do something other than farming.

Take European society in the High Middle Ages.  Before the Black Plague, the population in some areas of Europe was as large as it would be in the 1950's.  But the society was still very simple, because virtually everybody needed to be a farmer.  Without oil, all of society's energy came from the land.  Furthermore, each farmer could produce just enough food to feed himself and his family, and to feed his farm animals.  Almost all of the energy produced had to be re-invested into the process of farming, with very little surplus.

What surplus did exist, when pooled together, was barely enough to feed the king, his knights, the local lords, a few merchants and tradesmen, and a few other people.  But 95% of the population had to be farmers.  There was not enough spare food to support a "Food and Drug Administration," or a "National Aeronautics and Space Administration," or a "Microsoft Corporation."  The extra food simply didn't exist.

Now we've discovered an enormous source of surplues energy: oil.  This surplues energy allows us to work the land mechanically, allowing the population the freedom to occupy all of the different kinds of jobs that you see around you.  If the oil running our machinery begins to run short, more and more of the population will have to go back to farming.

The snag, of course, is that human population has since exploded to numbers that are far, far beyond what can be fed without oil-driven agriculture.  But that's a problem for the next generation . . .

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