Complexity takes energy

04/18/2013

Anthropologists have observed that the complexity of societies and their consumption of energy are directly related: as one increases, so does the other. Over the past 200 years, abundant and inexpensive energy has fueled tremendous growth in the size and complexity of culture, and has dramatically increased the numbers of people the earth supports.

We now need more and more energy just to maintain what we have and do—let alone to continue to grow. At the same time, our way of life and the ordinary challenges of living generate problems that require still more complexity and energy to solve. Abundant cheap energy first stimulates and then requires more complexity; complexity, in turn, requires yet more energy.  

Most people ignore our addiction to oil, and few see it as a problem. Everything we make comes somewhere from nature—our clothing, food, computers and vehicles—and the manufacture of these products is mostly fueled by oil. Oil companies continue to have record profits and little interest in admitting or changing anything that could threaten their margins. They have a vested interest in keeping business as usual, and we, by instinct, avoid problems until they affect us personally. It is our nature to avoid a problem everyone else is avoiding.

I say let’s bring on huge spikes in oil costs sooner rather than later so that we can finally deal with that which is inevitable. Human resilience will require that we abandon our dependence on all oil-based technologies.

Our behavior reflects the stories we tell ourselves about how the world works. One common belief is the need for continuous economic growth. We hear this from our president and media pundits every day. We frown on government regulation of business, declaring that it will stunt economic growth. We believe that we can rely on technology and innovation to solve our problems, including our social and environmental challenges.

People who have a strong faith in industrial culture do not generally believe there is any need for fundamental change.  When asked if continuous growth in a finite system is possible, most people answer that it is not. That’s just common sense. When asked if our planet is a finite system, most people will acknowledge that too—yet few people see the resulting conflict. It’s obvious that business as usual diminishes our resilience and undermines long-term sustainability. The desire to keep growing must be abandoned.

But maybe technology will save us; humans have done amazing things. Our culture has a tendency to embrace most new technologies without objectively assessing the potential negative consequences; nuclear power and genetically modified foods are recent exceptions. We are healthier and live longer, we produce mammoth quantities of food and most of us are able to live comfortably almost anywhere we choose. But these achievements have come with an overhead.

Since we can’t continue to grow exponentially in a finite system, it follows that we can’t continue to expand the human population. We are a biological species, and if we overshoot the capacity of our environment to supply us with air, food, water and shelter, we will most certainly become extinct, just as other species do. Unfortunately we tend to ignore information that contradicts our acculturated values and we pay special attention to messages and information that support our existing beliefs. Therein lies one fundamental problem.  

We are socialized from childhood to believe the ideas of our cultural paradigm. Our parents, teachers, peers and the media repeat these ideas over and over to the point that we accept them as true. When we hear that continuous growth is not possible, we might agree that it sounds logical, but it conflicts with what we have learned growing up, so we feel an uncomfortable tension. Such cognitive dissonance does not seem to change our behaviors; instead we discount, ignore or twist any information that conflicts with our beliefs. 

I believe it is time that we question our dominant paradigm and start thinking about the long-term survival of our species and others, for we are not the most important species on the planet. We cannot grow our population, complexities or economy infinitely. We must acknowledge our limits before we become extinct.

If we are as intelligent as we think we are, we must end the death-spiral of industrial civilization. We can no longer continue refashioning the world to suit our needs and wants, in the hopes that technology will keep up with our runaway appetites.

Before we reject uncomfortable responses to this predicament, let’s make sure we come together in clarifying the root problems we are facing.