By popular demand, we welcome Joseph Tainter, USU professor and author of The Collapse Of Complex Societies (free book download here).
Dr. Tainter sees many of the same unsustainable risks the PeakProsperity.com audience focuses on — an overleveraged economy, declining net energy per capita, and depleting key resources.
He argues that the sustainability or collapse of a society follows from the success or failure of its problem-solving institutions. His work shows that societies collapse when their investments in social complexity and their energy subsidies reach a point of diminishing marginal returns. From Tainter's perspective, we are likely already past the tipping point towards collapse but just don’t know it yet:
Sustainability requires that people have the ability and the inclination to think broadly in terms of time and space. In other words, to think broadly in a geographical sense about the world around them, as well as the state of the world as a whole. And also, to think broadly in time in terms of the near and distant future and what resources will be available to our children and our grandchildren and our great grandchildren.
One of the major problems in sustainability and in this whole question of resources and collapse is that we did not evolve as a species to have this ability to think broadly in time and space. Instead, our ancestors who lived as hunter-gatherers never confronted any challenges that required them to think beyond their locality and the near term(…)
We have developed the most complex society humanity has ever known. And we have maintained it up to this point. I have argued that technological innovation and other kinds of innovation evolve like any other aspect of complexity. The investments in research and development grow increasingly complex and reach diminishing returns. We cannot forever continue to spend more and more on technological innovation when we’ve reached the point of diminishing returns, which I argue we have reached.
Our system of innovation is going to change very significantly over the next twenty to thirty to fifty years or so. By the end of the century, our system of innovation will not be anything like what we know today. It will have to be very different. And it’s likely that innovation is not going to be able to solve our problems as readily as it has done to this point.
The technological optimists have assumed that the productivity of innovation is either constant or increasing. And in fact, what I think my colleagues and I can show is that the productivity of innovation is actually decreasing. What that means is that we will not forever be able to solve resource problems through innovation(…)
And so individuals need to take responsibility for their own ignorance. As I said, our species did not evolve to think broadly in terms of time and space and if we’re going to maintain our way of life, people have to learn to do so. People have to take responsibility for knowing and understanding the predicament that we’re facing. I have argued over the last few years that we need to start teaching early school age children in K to 12 to think differently, to think broadly in terms of time and space – to think historically, to think long-term about the future, to think broadly about what’s going on in the world around us instead of the narrow way – the narrow, local way – that most people live and think. So I put responsibility on individuals to broaden their knowledge.
Click the play button below to listen to Chris' interview with Joseph Tainter (42m:44s).
Chris Martenson: Welcome, everyone, to this Peak Prosperity podcast. It’s June 22, 2017, and I’m your host, Chris Martenson. Well, today, we’ve got a very special guest. We’re going to be discussing the subject of societal collapse. At many prior points in human history, humans have constructed elaborate societies with a lot of complexity, only to see that complexity disappear. Perhaps one defining feature of every prior civilization is at their apex, none of them could foresee their own eventual demise. Each carried on as if it were the very pinnacle of achievement, certain to survive forever.
Well, what’s different about today’s circumstances? What’s the same as in the past? Are we facing collapse now? And how would we even know? Today, we’re talking with Joseph Tainter, known best among our listeners perhaps as the author of the book, The Collapse of Complex Societies. He studied anthropology at the University of California Berkeley and Northwestern University, where he received his PhD in 1975. And since 2012, he’s held a professorship in the Department of Environment and Society at Utah State University.
Dr. Tainter argues that sustainability or collapse of societies follow from the success or failure of problem-solving institutions, and that societies collapse when their investments in social complexity and their energy subsidies reach a point of diminishing marginal returns. That is what we are going to be talking about today, especially in regards to where culture is today, the risks it faces, and whether or not we might already be past the tipping point, but don’t know that yet.
Joseph, welcome to the program.
Joseph Tainter: Thank you.
Chris Martenson: Well, I know many of my listeners are very eager to hear what you have to say. Let’s start here by defining a term. When you speak of collapse, what do you mean by that?
Joseph Tainter: What I mean by collapse is a rapid simplification. Collapse is a term that has many meanings; it has many colloquial meanings. I mean it in the sense of a society that exists at a level of complexity for a period of time; let’s say at least several generations and then, it seems rapidly to simplify. A classic example would be the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century A.D. Or another example would be the collapse of classic Mayan civilization in the 9th century A.D. These things happened fairly rapidly, and that’s why we apply the term “collapsed” to these phenomenon.
Chris Martenson: Alright. And so by simplification, I mean, we’re talking about a society with many different social niches, specializations, and then suddenly, those go away. Are we talking about that? Or is it the artifacts that they’re capable of producing? What actually is simplified in this story?
Joseph Tainter: Well, we have to start with what I mean by complexity because again, there are many usages of the term. I mean complexity to signify a society that has more parts, more different kinds of parts, more kinds of technologies, more kinds of social roles, perhaps more hierarchical levels, more institutions, processes more information, and so forth. As I’ve argued, these things tend to evolve as a society addresses problems and so they tend to accumulate over time.
In a collapse then, these characteristics – differentiation in structure and increasing organization and control – they rapidly disappear, perhaps within a period of one to three generations or so. So a collapse has to be fairly rapid relative to the time period that a society has existed. That’s why collapses come as such a surprise to us; why they’re of perpetual historical interest, because we have so many examples of societies that are well-known today that they produced – filled art museums; we write history books about them. And then suddenly, they seem to disappear. So collapse has always been a mystery for this reason.
Chris Martenson: Now, I’m interested in this term, “complexity,” as well, having studied complex systems in theory and we talk about it at my website, as well. Complex systems seem to require a couple of things to maintain their order and their complexity, and one of them is energy. And another feature of these complex systems is they’re inherently unpredictable, at least scientifically, with a geologic fault line or even a pile of sand that’s slowly accumulating. These complex systems still yet defy our best efforts at really predicting when, what, and how they’re going to evolve in the future.
When you’re talking about complexity, is it a separate term from “complex systems?”
Joseph Tainter: Well, complexity makes up complex systems or complex systems are made up of complexity. The terms, I use them essentially interchangeably. Complexity in my concept – and this is from my study of the evolution of human societies – this is two aspects. One is what I call – forgive the technical term – differentiation and structure. What that means is that as human societies evolved over time, they come to have more parts, more kinds of parts. As I just said, more kinds of technologies, more kinds of institutions, more kinds of social roles and so forth. So the society comes to have more and more kinds of parts.
The second aspect of complexity is organization, because the parts have to be organized and put them together to make a system work, to make a society. So in my conception, complexity consists of structure and organization.
Chris Martenson: Okay. So let’s talk about when complexity began to arise. I assume that as we came out of hunter-gatherer cultures and there were lots of them all over the place, each with their own very sophisticated sort of adaptations to their local environment, different cultural mores and practices and things like that. But at some point, humans banded together and began to go down this complexity route. What was the trigger for that?
Joseph Tainter: Well, the trigger is always that complexity increases to solve problems. Now, before the development of agriculture, people largely solved their problems by moving. They moved about the landscape in search of the resources that they needed, and they usually had a fairly well-established seasonal round where they would go to different resources in different seasons and obtain what they needed to live. And you can still see this in the few hunter-gatherer people who live today like the Sans of the Kalahari in Botswana.
At some point toward the end of the last Ice Age, it appears that human populations were increasing and the option to move around the landscape was being lost. In other words, the landscape was becoming populated with more and more people and so people shifted to reliance more and more on agriculture. And reliance on agriculture seems to be one of the triggers that generates further increase in complexity. Because to be agriculturists, people had to be sedentary. They had to live in more or less the same place every year, and year-round in order to tend their crops. And being sedentary means that they had to live in larger communities. You know, when you live in large communities, you have disputes between individuals, you have to have rules, you have to have ways of solving disputes. You tend to get people who specialize in certain kinds of things, maybe people who specialize, say, in making pottery or making stone tools or making metal tools. Other people specialize in producing food as farmers.
So you get markets emerging and complex economic exchange systems. And so once you have agriculture in sedentary communities that grow in size, then complexities in human societies seem to grow, and that’s been the story for much of – or about the last twelve thousand years.
Chris Martenson: And food, of course, agriculture producing a reliable surplus of food – well, reasonably reliable depending on the year we’re talking about. And then, that’s the energy source. So with a reliable source of energy, complexity seems to be able to emerge as an emergent property of that.
But let’s talk about this complexity and problem-solving. It’s a coin with two sides. And so clearly, complexity has clear advantages. I want to talk about that first. But I think your work surfaces, it has beyond a point in particular, it has disadvantages. Let’s start with the advantages. What does complexity really get us?
Joseph Tainter: Well, just think of how we solve problems. Pick an example of how we’re addressing the problem of pollution and declining supplies of fossil fuels. One of the solutions seems to be hybrid automobiles. It used to be that an automobile needed only one means of propulsion and now they seem to need two. So the system has become more complex. It has a differentiated structure, it now has two means of propulsion rather than one, and there is now software and electronics to integrate the two parts together so that the system is also more organized.
Or you could think of how we respond to the threat of terrorism. After September 11, 2001, think of how the United States and also, the European countries, responded to the problem of terrorism. We developed more bureaucratic institutions – the Department of Homeland Security, Transportation Security Administration. So, we’ve differentiated structure and at the same time, we’ve increased organization, meaning that we have tried to increase control over behaviors that we consider threatening.
So, what we see in these two examples is increasing complexity to solve problems. The challenge of this is that complexity isn’t free. It is a basic fundamental of thermodynamics that a more complex system takes energy. And so, as societies over the last twelve thousand years grew more complex, they needed more energy to sustain their complexity. At first, this came from intensifying agricultural production and then, over the last two hundred years, it’s come primarily from fossil fuels.
Chris Martenson: So, this increase in complexity, clearly, it’s providing some benefits up to a point. It has a tipping point where the complexity has an energetic – a metabolic – cost to it that begins to exceed, potentially, the benefits that you’re getting from that. Is that a fair way to put it?
Joseph Tainter: Well, I wouldn’t say that it exceeds the benefits but ultimately, given enough time and given enough growing complexity, investment in complexity reaches the point of diminishing returns. Develop the simplest and least expensive solutions first. So, human societies have grown from simple and small to large and complex, our technologies have grown from fairly simple to highly complex today. If you think about the amounts of information we process, information has gone from word of mouth to the information technology that we have today. You can see that we tend to adopt the simplest and more cost effective solutions first. And when those no longer suffice, then we go to more expensive solutions, but they tend to reach the point of diminishing returns, so that it costs more and more to solve our problems over time.
And what I see in the historical record – cases like the Roman Empire and the Maya – is that when a society reaches this point of diminishing returns, it starts to become vulnerable to collapse. Collapse doesn’t necessarily happen right away, but the society may be made vulnerable.
Chris Martenson: Well, let’s talk about that vulnerability in today’s world. Let me see how I focus this down. So our work at Peak Prosperity, it’s encapsulated in this body of work known as the Crash Course. And that connects our current economic model to resources, especially energy and particularly, oil. In brief, our work notes an economic model that’s based on perpetual exponential expansion. That model has a lot of proponents who are rather feverishly ignoring the idea of limits of any sort, but particularly, energy limits. And to, you know, make this really specific, in food production. Food production is now, and has been for a number of decades now, a net energy losing proposition to the tune of ten to one. That’s a minimum estimate. Some estimates go as high as almost twenty calories of fossil fuels imbedded in each calorie that you or I eat. And that’s an almost perfect inversion of the historical role of food as an energy source, not a sync.
So we’re literally eating fossil fuels in this regard. Those, by every model
I’ve studied, peak and begin to wane not instantly but it’s a long slow decline
into the distance, right about the time human population crests somewhere
between eight and ten billion souls. This to me and to the people who follow
my work and the work of others like what the Meadows did and other people
who simply note limits, this seems to us to be a very obvious conundrum that
we’re facing. Beyond a problem, even potentially, a predicament because we
don’t have that Plan B in this case.
The question I’m trying to get to here is this seems like a really obvious thing to me and yet, there’s almost no public traction – or certainly, no policy traction – around this idea. Instead, all of our eggs seem to be in the basket of, “Well, we’ll invent something. Elon Musk will be really clever. If necessary, we’ll all move to Mars or something will happen. That to me feels like a self-delusional arrangement in this particular case.
And I’m just wondering, is that a common sort of a feature that happens with societies reach their maximum complexity? You know, are there the Cassandras out there, as it were, who are able to note the data, bring it forward and do you have examples of where societies have successfully navigated what the data was telling them rather than where their cultural inertia was taking them?
Joseph Tainter: There are two aspects to the issue that you’ve raised. One is that sustainability requires that people have the ability and the inclination to think broadly in terms of time and space. In other words, to think broadly in a geographical sense about the world around them and the world as a whole, and the state of the world as a whole. And also, to think broadly in time in terms of the near and distant future and what resources will be available to our children and our grandchildren and our great grandchildren.
One of the major problems in sustainability and in this whole question of resources and collapse is that we did not evolve as a species to have this ability to think broadly in time and space. Instead, our ancestors who lived as hunter-gatherers never confronted any challenges that required them to think beyond their locality and the near term. And so, our species never evolved an inclination to think broadly in time and space.
So this is one of the major challenges in sustainability and I think it explains the problem you bring up of people not being aware or not paying attention to the kinds of resources used that you and your team are studying.
The second problem, which you alluded to, is that technological optimists argue that we don’t really to worry about resources, that all we need are free markets and the price mechanism. That as long as there are free markets that whenever resources start to become scarce, the market signals that it’s time to innovate, that there will be rewards to innovation. And so the assumption is that as a resource becomes scarce, people develop – put effort into developing a new resource or finding more efficient ways of using the existing resource or developing new technologies and so forth.
This is a hard argument to counter because up until this point, the technological – excuse me – the technological optimists have been correct. We have maintained the most complex society humanity has ever known, and we have maintained it up to this point. And this is a question that has interested me for some time. I have argued that technological innovation and other kinds of innovation evolve like any other aspect of complexity. The investments in research and development grow increasingly complex and reach diminishing returns.
What this means is that in the 19th century, for example, science advanced by the work of what is called the Lone Wolf Naturalists like Charles Darwin or Gregor Mendel. Today, research is done by large interdisciplinary teams who work in big expensive institutions. It’s a major activity; it’s very expensive, and I argue that it has reached the point of diminishing returns.
Well, a number of years ago – a few years ago – I teamed up with a couple of economists who actually had a data set that allowed us to test this. My colleagues were Deborah Strumsky and Jose Lobo, who are both at Arizona State University. And they had a database of over eleven million patents extending back to about 1974. And so we tried to measure the productivity of research using this database and our measure is patents per inventor. What we found is that over the last thirty, thirty-five, forty years, it has taken more and more inventors to achieve a patentable innovation. And at the same time, the number of patents per author is going down. What this means is that the cost of innovation is going up and the returns are diminishing. We are reaching the point of diminishing returns to our investments in innovation.
Now, you can’t tell this from today’s market because there are always new electronic products coming along. But in fact, this has implications over the long-term, because this can’t continue forever. We cannot forever continue to spend more and more on technological innovation when we’ve reached the point of diminishing returns, which I argue we have reached.
And so, one of the things I suggest is that our system of innovation is going to change very significantly over the next twenty to thirty to fifty years or so. By the end of the century, our system of innovation will not be anything like what we know today. It will have to be very different. And it’s likely that innovation is not going to be able to solve our problems as readily as it has done to this point.
So this is my [reply] to the technological optimists, what they have – they have assumed that the productivity of innovation is either constant or increasing. And in fact, what I think my colleagues and I can show is that the productivity of innovation is actually decreasing. And what that means is that we will not forever be able to solve resource problems through innovation.
Chris Martenson: Well, I’m glad to hear you say that because, you know, I do study the resource side. And so when we look at what’s really happening there, we see some very interesting and troubling signs. So for instance, I think whatever we’re doing agriculturally, it’s become very cost efficient and people are very happy with the cheapness of food. I believe that food costs now are at their pretty much human historical most inexpensive ever, and that’s a wonderful thing. But if you wander over into the ecological side, you’ll discover that insect populations have collapsed by upwards of 40% in the last couple decades across Europe and the United States, possibly other places, but that’s where they’ve been studied. And we’re missing things like whippoorwills and all the associated chain species going up and up.
But that innovation, whatever sets of innovations that we’ve unleashed to create cheap food, have had these other effects that I believe are heavily overlooked and going to be creating vast difficulties for us in the future. Because here’s the one thing I know about complex systems. You can’t predict them and they have this thing called “unintended consequences” that just will come through and change things for you.
So you know, with that, you know, that’s the kind of data that I would point to to some of the technological optimists to say whatever we’re doing technologically, it’s giving us these results, too, and we’re discounting those because they haven’t bitten us yet. But it feels – and my PhD’s in Biological Science, so I focus on the biology side of the story – to me, it feels pretty obvious that we can’t just continue to alter ecological systems at the pace that we’re altering them without experiencing some rather unfortunate knock-on effects coming down the line. But getting that conversation, connecting those two dots, not easy.
Joseph Tainter: I agree with you completely. I think your analysis is correct. And the emphasis that I put on it as a social scientist is how do we cope with the alterations that we’re making in ecological systems? How do we make up for the alterations we’re conducting to ecological systems?
I did a book with a couple of ecologists called Supply-Side Sustainability in which we argued that natural resource management basically consists of substituting human activities for things that nature formerly provided. And of course, any time we subsidize nature by our own activities, it’s very costly, and the cost ultimately comes down to energy.
So this comes back to – this always comes back to the question of how long are we going to be able to rely on fossil fuels to subsidize our way of life?
Chris Martenson: Well, to me, you can model that because we have a pretty good sense of how much coal, how much natural gas, how much oil’s in the ground and what it’s going to cost to get it out. And this gets us to what I think is probably the most unappreciated and most important point in energy studies, which is that we don’t live on the aggregate energy. You and I live on the surplus energy, the net energy delivered.
And so this is something that I spend most of my time when I do go give a talk, if I’m talking in front of a room full of financial people, say, at a wealth conference. I’ll just connect energy and the economy for them. If I can only connect two dots, that’s what I’ll do. And on the energy side, it’s really letting them know that when we first drilled into Spindletop or when we first tucked into the Ghawar Field in Saudi Arabia, drilling down a thousand feet and having wells that would produce three, four, five, ten thousand barrels a day for decades is a very different proposition from drilling into the Bakken in North Dakota down ten thousand feet, sideways for another ten thousand feet, a hundred stage frack of fifty million pounds of sand to open up a well that will yield five hundred barrels for the first month and then decline 85% in three years. Wash, rinse, repeat, do that as fast as you can and you can maintain the appearance of aggregate amounts of oil coming out into the world.
But what you’re missing is that the net energy involved in, you know, the first drill sets I talked about compared to the second, are entirely different propositions. And of course, society lives on the net energy. We’re happy that the oil people are busy drilling, doing what they’re doing, but if they’re only giving us five barrels back for every barrel of energy they use instead of a hundred barrels back, we have to figure out how to live on five instead of a hundred, and that’s a very different proposition.
That’s what’s happening as I look into the energy space right now, is a declining net energy profile coming out of our oil exploration, in particular. And you combine that with population metrics and you have declining net energy per capita. This gives me the willies. Should it?
Joseph Tainter: Oh, it definitely should. Your analysis is correct. This is what’s called – as you know – energy return on investment. For example, 1940, the United States produced oil and gas at an energy return on investment of 100 to 1. For every barrel of oil we would invest in finding and producing oil, we got one hundred back. This is how we fought World War II, is that we had this enormous – of high net yield energy and we provided not only all of our own petroleum through World War II but most of that, most of what our allies used, as well. So that was 100 to 1 in 1940.
The energy return on investment – we’ll use the term “EROI” – now in the United States is down to 15 to 1 and the trend is irreversible. It will simply continue to go down. You cannot reverse the trend, because we first exploit what are called the elephants – the big shallow pools that are onshore. And as we deplete those, we go to pools of oil that are what I call deep, dark, old, remote, and dangerous, and that require more complex technologies to find the oil and to produce it and get it to the consumer, because it reduces costliness and gets us back to the problem of increasing complexity. And in this case, increasing complexity in the technology to find and produce oil leads to the problem of declining EROI, declining net energy.
Chris Martenson: And so net energy per capita, I assume that – well, first, has that metric been tracked across any of the collapsed societies that you studied?
Joseph Tainter: No, because we don’t have much data on the productivity, I mean, just because they didn’t keep records like we do. What we can see is some of the indirect effects. For example, in the Roman Empire, we know that during the 4th century A.D. as the Roman Empire grew more complex, primarily in the 3rd century, to confront problems that it faced. It faced invasions from Germanic people from the north and the Persians from the east, and there was a period of just almost unremitting civil wars. And during the period – a fifty-year period in the 3rd century, there was something like fifty different emperors or would-be emperors. And at one time, the Roman Empire actually broke up into three pieces and it looked like it was about done, it was going to go away at that time.
But they reorganized themselves. They increased the size of the army, they increased the size and complexity of the government, and it worked, they survived. It was what I call an early exercise in sustainability. They sustained their way of life, the Greco-Roman civilization, and they sustained the Empire.
The problem is that they had to increase taxes on the peasantry to pay for this. So we know that taxes doubled and then doubled again during the course of the 4th century A.D. and we see some of the consequences of this. Peasants abandoned their lands; peasants weren’t able to pay taxes. Sometimes – there are even horrible stories of peasants having to sell their own children into slavery because they couldn’t afford to feed them.
So for ancient societies, we can see some of the indirect effects of increasing costliness of complexity. We see this also in the Maya civilization, where at a Maya city like Tikal, we can see in the human remains themselves and the skeletons of people who died and were buried there, we can see that over time, there’s – nutrition seems to get worse and worse; stature decline, meaning people became shorter over time. We see more and more indicators of disease in the skeletons. And it’s another indirect indicator of how the costliness of being a complex society was really undermining the support base, the support population, which was the peasants.
Chris Martenson: I think an analogy for that that I’ve got here is that we do have some pretty good data and we can track net energy per capita where you were noting those very high EROI returns in the United States up through the 40s. They actually peaked out about in the early – mid-1970s. And just coincidentally – or not – that was the time when we experienced a steady erosion of a single earner, particularly a minimum wage earner, to support anything that remotely looks like a household. And today, of course, you know, even two minimum wagers can’t support an average household in an average city.
So, just coincidentally or not but there’s very nice alignment in the data that says when our net energy per capita started to wane, so did what we call the poor and the lower classes, the middle classes; that we’re starting to see that erosion of it’s just becoming more difficult. It starts to work its way up the chain and there are a lot of other factors, of course – monetary policy, tax policy, things we could throw in.
But to me, you know, one thing that you might predict just from the outside without knowing a lot of the other variables, would be to say that as net energy per capital begins to decline, you’re going to start to notice that in the erosion of the social structures, particularly at the bottom. Would that be possibly a fair sort of a hypothesis to throw out there?
Joseph Tainter: Oh, I think that is a fair hypothesis to throw out, and it is something that people need to learn about. Since World War II, every recession has come about following a major spike in the price of oil. Even in 2008, you could see – you know, we attribute that recession to the housing crisis. But 2008 was also the peak in oil prices and there was also peak usage in several other commodities, primarily because of all the construction going on in China.
So you can clearly see how this affects people’s lives, and it is affecting people’s lives already, and it will continue to do so increasingly in the future.
Chris Martenson: Indeed, that when we had that spike in July of 2008 for oil, we saw the same difficulties in Europe and the so-called PIGS, which is Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain. If you look at those who had the most trouble, they were all 100% oil importers. So, there was Greece struggling along with this somewhat shoddy economy and some maybe fraudulent account, importing 100% of its oil. So that model broke apart for them and the same across the rest of the so-called PIGS.
So, what we’re really talking about is the collapse, this idea of collapse, which is a sudden simplification and “sudden” defined in terms of generations, potentially. Collapsing is really, it’s driven – it’s an economic description, something we’re describing economically. And I’m going to note here that an economy is merely the coordinated movement of energy flows. We might calls these goods and services, but each of those is dependent on energy. So, if I have no food and I’m out of personal energy, I’m not going to be taking your dogs for a walk. The dog-walking service economies itself then is a derivative of me being well-fed in the first place. Hey, food we know is a derivative of other highly structured energy flows, principally, fossil fuels.
So in this story, it feels like understanding and having a really grounded sense of the energy flows in an economy is really important. As you look about in the United States today, what would you make of the energy policies as you see them?
Joseph Tainter: Well, I think – I was quite concerned about 2008 when EROI was declining, the price of energy was just skyrocketing. And I was very concerned that if that trend continued, that within twenty to thirty years, we might be facing a collapse in the industrial society, right? I think now that hydraulic fracturing has given us a reprieve. It has given us – you know, of course, the oil is abundant now and the prices – but those are temporary conditions. You know, the hydraulic fracturing fields, they’re of course doing what resource obtainers always do, they’re going for the best deposits first. And so you know, the less desirable deposits are the ones that are going to be used in the future.
But at the moment, energy is inexpensive enough that I think this has given us an opportunity to rationally plan a transition to renewable energy sources. Not that renewable energy sources don’t have their own problems, but if we want to maintain our way of life, the way of life we’ve achieved – and there are many aspects that are worth retaining – we have to try to maintain something like the energy per capita that we enjoy today. In some places, that can be done with renewables, in other places it can’t be done.
But what I’m suggesting is that hydraulic fracturing has given us a reprieve and it’s up to us to take advantage of that reprieve.
Chris Martenson: And I would agree. And when I talk with some people in the energy business, they’re just ashen-faced that one of the things we’re choosing to do with all the natural gas we’re pulling out is put it into turbines and burn it for electricity because it’s – that’s a bad use for an amazing fuel source. And we’re doing that because it makes economic sense. Now, a lot of the analysis too complex for this moment but a lot of the reason we’re continuing to fracture – hydraulically fracture – at the pace we are is because extremely liberal financial conditions that exist right now courtesy of the Federal Reserve and other central banks.
So, if we can talk about the problems, even predicaments, we face today to get into this part of it, you know, world debt levels have never been higher in aggregate terms. And policymakers are “solving” today’s problems really by saving them up for tomorrow. So what we’ve really done is just massively increased the amount of debt, really eased the financial conditions, flooded the markets with liquidity. The central banks, I think, were hoping that growth would come roaring along and it hasn’t, Joseph. We’re like ten years into this low-growth experiment right now. I think you can understand it with declining EROI. In part, I think you can understand it the rest of the way with high debt levels. Neither of those analyses really are what I’ll say current [laugh] for the current policymakers.
But this idea of financially kicking the can down the road, this is an old story, isn’t it?
Joseph Tainter: Oh, it certainly is. And the debt levels concern me very much. Basically, we are solving today’s problems by taxing the future. That’s what we’re doing by taking on debt. The Romans did something like this back in the 1st through 3rd centuries A.D. where they were faced with costs of maintaining the Roman Empire that they couldn’t afford. They issued a primarily silver coin called the denarius. It starts out in the 1st century A.D., 98% to 99% pure silver. And as the expenses of being the Roman government grew, what they had to do was debase the currency by progressively adding more and more copper into it. So by the time you get to about the year 270 A.D., it’s down to about 2% silver.
So the currency came to have less and less intrinsic value and this generated inflation then two or three generations later. So it was another example of how a government solved its current problems by shifting the costs onto the future. And governments do this every chance they get.
Chris Martenson: That inflation showed up two or three generations later?
Joseph Tainter: Yeah, yeah. You see it primarily during the course of the 3rd and 4th centuries.
Chris Martenson: Wow, what a time delay. That’s interesting.
Joseph Tainter: Yeah, yeah.
Chris Martenson: Well, one of the things that I argue is that if you – like in Weimar, Germany, if you print money and throw it straight into the economy, you can see – you destroy your purchasing power temporally, right? Right in the moment. But if you issue debt that doesn’t have to be basically paid for five or ten years, you’re still destroying purchasing power, but you’re doing it then, not now. That provides enough of a gap for humans to not really notice and get us back to that, I think, famous Keynes quote that, “Not one man in a million can diagnose the actual cause of inflation,” because it’s been – it happened – like the inflation I think we’re going to experience in the future happened about five years ago and through current.
So given all of this, knowing what you know, if we were going to not go through a collapse – because I agree, there’s so much worth preserving here and so much that I would love to not lose. What would we be doing now as a culture, as a species, if we were going to take note of our current environment and really begin to operate according to what you’ve discovered?
Joseph Tainter: Well, I applaud the work that you’re doing. I think people like you and me and the others who work on limits need to continue trying to educate the public. But I also think that individuals need to take responsibility for their own ignorance. As I said, our species did not evolve to think broadly in terms of time and space and if we’re going to maintain our way of life, people have to learn to do so. People have to take responsibility for knowing and understanding the predicament that we’re facing. And I have argued over the last few years that we need to start teaching early school age children in K to 12 to think differently, to think broadly in terms of time and space – to think historically, to think long-term about the future, to think broadly about what’s going on in the world around us instead of the narrow way – the narrow local way – that most people live and think. So I put responsibility on individuals to broaden their knowledge.
Chris Martenson: So broaden their knowledge as part one and if they did broaden their knowledge [interruption]…
Joseph Tainter: Yeah, that’s part one, that’s part one. And then, changes will hopefully follow from there. I mean, we have to understand that our economies can’t grow forever.
Chris Martenson: [Laugh] From your lips to everybody’s ears, hopefully. And that just seems so patently obvious, I think, to anybody who takes the time to study it. It’s not even a light bulb moment, it’s more of a forehead-slapping moment. You go, “Oh, well, how did I miss that?” And we missed that because our cultural narratives are really robust and convincing us that that’s not something that we’re going to be talking about or thinking about.
And so I agree. You know, step one has to be the education. And there is no excuse for ignorance anymore. If I waved my cell phone about, you know, this is a device that allows me to access all the information of humanity, basically. So, it’s all there. But then, yeah, it has to lead to actions and coordinated actions, and that’s what we’re about in our organization is learn, but then do. And the doing, in many cases, is learning how to live with less just as fine. We notice that energy per capita in Europe is half that of the United States; they live fine.
So there are lots of things we can do. And so Joseph, this is, you know, where both my hope and frustration comes in this story is that I don’t think we need new technology. I think we’ve got plenty of technologies that are just sitting there that work perfectly well like solar thermal heaters – using the sun to heat hot water. Some countries have mandated it because it makes so much sense. You know, but here in the United States, it’s a very rare thing to even see one of those devices in the average city I visit.
So, that idea of what is it that you know about that we can do to begin to change our cultural programming, if I can call it that? But it feels like our narratives, like the stories we’re living by are not aligned with the reality as we see it today if we study it. So how do we go about realigning cultural narratives with the data?
Joseph Tainter: It can’t be done in the short-term, as I just mentioned. The emphasis I place is through childhood education. That’s where we have to start, so that perhaps in a generation, we have a populace that is more aware, that is more cognizant, that’s more responsible, and that knows that we have some difficult choices to make.
Chris Martenson: Well, with that, thank you very much for your time today. We’ve been talking with Dr. Joseph Tainter and just a fabulous interview. You’re doing fabulous work. Dr. Tainter, is there anything that you could direct our listeners to about do you have another book coming out or speeches coming up or a way to follow your work?
Joseph Tainter: There’s a book that I wrote, it’s a mass market book, it’s written for a mass audience called Drilling Down. It was a book that I wrote with a petroleum engineer in response to the Deepwater Horizon Oil spill. I had the opportunity to write my chapters about the role of energy in society and basically, about a lot of the things we were talking about today.
Chris Martenson: Well, fantastic.
Joseph Tainter: So the title is Drilling Down and it’s an inexpensive paperback.
Chris Martenson: Drilling Down. Well, I’ll certainly be directing people to that. We’ll put a link to it at the bottom of this podcast. So with that, Joseph, thank you so much for your time today.
Joseph Tainter: My pleasure.