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NYT OpEd by Thomas Homer-Dixon "The End of Ingenuity"
November 30, 2006 5:01 AM   Subscribe

The End of Ingenuity (NYT OpEd by Thomas Homer-Dixon)"..cheap energy is tightening, and humankind’s enormous output of greenhouse gases is disrupting the earth’s climate. Together, these two constraints could eventually hobble global economic growth and cap the size of the global economy." See also The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization. (2006).
posted by stbalbach (61 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

 
Huh. Energy ROI. Seem simple and yet it always takes some guy with a big brain to come up with the simplest ideas.

The exciting thing about measuring energy ROI is that it's going to push us in one direction: more nuclear energy.
posted by GuyZero at 6:18 AM on November 30, 2006


The exciting thing about measuring energy ROI is that it's going to push us in one direction: more nuclear energy.

"...the amount of fossil fuel used in the creation of nuclear power—from the construction of nuclear power plants, to the mining of uranium ore, to the expensive decommissioning and cleanup of nuclear power sites, makes it impossible to use nuclear power as an alternative to fossil fuels."

The EROEI on nuclear energy has been significantly overestimated. It's no silver bullet. Not only has uranium production already peaked, but it doesn't create enough energy to sustain itself--not when you account for mining, decommissioning, etc.
posted by jefgodesky at 7:09 AM on November 30, 2006 [1 favorite]


"...the amount of fossil fuel used in the creation of nuclear power—from the construction of nuclear power plants, to the mining of uranium ore, to the expensive decommissioning and cleanup of nuclear power sites, makes it impossible to use nuclear power as an alternative to fossil fuels."

Correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't this only hold true while most of our energy economy is based on fossil fuels? It would seem that once we are deriving a large chunk of our energy from nuclear, we could use some of that energy to further harness the atom.

However, this may require us to make some adjustments, such as using electric vehicles.
posted by Afroblanco at 7:15 AM on November 30, 2006


So lifecycle costs always vary depending on where you put the beginning and end of the lifecycle, but I have a tough time believing that the ROI on uranium is less than unity - although nuclear power plants are no free lunch, they pump out massive amounts of power with little ongoing input.

No silver bullet perhaps, but a sight better than tar sands extraction in terms of ROI.
posted by GuyZero at 7:19 AM on November 30, 2006


What a dreadful and misleading title Mr. Homer-Dixon has chosen. Change is what drives ingenuity, and there has been (and will be) ample change in these interesting times to spark a heap of innovations. Necessity, not coal or oil, is the mother of invention.

The fatal flaws in his argument are the assumption that efficiency in extracting and consuming (burning) energy sources will not increase, and that new or under-utilized sources will not take on larger roles in global energy production.
posted by Mister_A at 7:24 AM on November 30, 2006


Make that assumptions.
posted by Mister_A at 7:25 AM on November 30, 2006


Correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't this only hold true while most of our energy economy is based on fossil fuels? It would seem that once we are deriving a large chunk of our energy from nuclear, we could use some of that energy to further harness the atom.

So, you use electric-powered drilling machines to mine for uranium, powered by nuclear reactors, that kind of thing. That's kind of implicit in the assessment made in the link. What you get then is that it takes you more energy to make nuclear power than you get from the nuclear power itself. The EROEI of nuclear power looks really great right now—because it's subsidized by fossil fuels, and we're not taking those costs into account. If you eliminate those and pay those costs with nuclear power, the EROEI of nuclear power drops off precipitously.

No silver bullet perhaps, but a sight better than tar sands extraction in terms of ROI.

Perhaps, but they're all too close to just breaking even (or less) to offer any kind of realistic alternative to fossil fuels. Our economy is predicated on the assumption of growth; an energy source with an EROEI of 1 doesn't allow for growth.

What a dreadful and misleading title Mr. Homer-Dixon has chosen. Change is what drives ingenuity, and there has been (and will be) ample change in these interesting times to spark a heap of innovations. Necessity, not coal or oil, is the mother of invention.

Read Joseph Tainter's Collapse of Complex Societies, or Homer-Dixon's own, earlier book, The Ingenuity Gap. Change does not drive ingenuity; ingenuity is subject to diminishing returns, and more than anything else, it's driven by energy.
posted by jefgodesky at 7:42 AM on November 30, 2006 [1 favorite]


Back to slavery.
posted by meehawl at 7:46 AM on November 30, 2006


jefgodesky,

I am not suggesting that we will wake up one day, all our energy sources tapped out, and then we'll get clever and inventive. The need to increase the amount of energy available to consumers and industry will lead to the development of more efficient power plants, motors, light bulbs, etc., and will also drive the increased exploitation of alternates sources, including but not limited to nuclear energy, to supplement and eventually supplant fossil fuels as our primary sources of energy.

There will not be a single "alternate" source of energy; there will be many, deployment of which will be dictated largely by geography (eg, put wimdmills in windy places). We have finally begun the national discussion about "energy independence", which is a watershed event in the development of a new energy economy to replace the petroleum economy. The development of a new energy economy will take real ingenuity, not the phony "better mousetrap" ingenuity that results in salad shooters and so forth.

I point you once again to the critical flaws in Homer-Dixon's op-ed, the assumptions that efficiency in extracting and burning/fissioning/transmitting energy will not increase, and that no new practical sources of energy will be developed. Applying present-day ROI on "exotic" energy sources gives a skewed picture of their potential value. Nuclear power, wind power, solar power, and so forth are in their infancy, or beta, stage. Iceland has harnessed hydropower and volcanic energy to supply most of its electrical and heating needs. These sources will not supply the entire world, but other sources will progress, becoming energy neutral, and then producing net positive ROI. That's just my opinion though.
posted by Mister_A at 8:10 AM on November 30, 2006


The fatal flaws in his argument are the assumption that efficiency in extracting and consuming (burning) energy sources will not increase, and that new or under-utilized sources will not take on larger roles in global energy production.

Thus speaks the economist! Of course, I'm sure you understand that his whole argument is precisely about the limits of your own assumptions (because price does not always send a good signal about availibility, institutional "lag" and the limit of ingenuity... etc.).
posted by bluefrog at 8:14 AM on November 30, 2006


Mister_A: The fatal flaws in his argument are the assumption that efficiency in extracting ... energy sources will not increase...

But that is the Peak Oil / Hubbert theory of resources in a nutshell. On a sufficiently long timescale, efficiency of extraction of finite resources has always and will always go down, because we harvest the most-efficient-to-extract stuff first.
posted by Western Infidels at 8:24 AM on November 30, 2006


Efficiency follows an extinction curve. You don't just keep getting more and more efficient. Your first efficiency gains are impressive; as you go on, less so. You start to approach an asymptote of "as efficient as it can be," where further efficiency gains are so minute they don't bear much fruit.

The problem is that it's precisely the kind of "real ingenuity" you mention that we're running out of. Ingenuity is a function of energy, it's our ability to create more complexity, and ultimately, the energy crisis is just one facet of our larger problem of complexity beyond the point of diminishing returns. "Real ingenuity" has been in decline for nearly a century now. The biggest changes of the 20th century were from 1900 to 1950; the last fifty years primarily saw innovations of the "better mousetrap" variety. We're paying more and more for research and development that nets us less and less real improvement: the very definition of diminishing returns. We're approaching an asymptote, and that means that what we have now is probably, more or less (on the grand scale) as complex as we can ever be.

I think at this point we've probably tried burning, bending, crushing or striking pretty much every substance that exists in economically viable quantities on this planet, so that means all the viable alternatives are on the table right now (the rest are either in space, so we'll need a new energy source to get to them, or so rare that they won't make any difference on a global scale). What we have on the table, there's nothing that can replace petroleum (which, really, is to be expected--it's very much like a savings account of the earth's energy). Nor does the "mix-n-match" approach offer much practical possibility, because it ignores the most basic reason why petroleum has been so effective: you can use it to power anything. With the "mix-n-match" approach, you lose that interoperability, and introduce a whole new level of dizzying complexity. Complexity isn't free; complexity is a function of energy, and none of the methods on the table offer much more than breaking even. This isn't a matter that efficiency can fix, either; many of these methods are already starting to approach that efficiency asymptote. PV panels, for example, had prices falling for several years precipitously, but that has leveled off in the past decade. PV panels are now more or less as cheap as they're ever likely to be: we've made them about as efficient as we can. There will always be room for improvement, it's just that room becomes increasingly smaller, like Zeno's second paradox.

Ultimately, we are going to have lifestyles dictated by our geography, and bioregionalism will reign again, but I think we also need to face the fact that we've been living far beyond our means for quite some time now, and if there is a future for humanity, it means scaling back to something much more reasonable. It takes an extreme optimist to think that such a transition can be made painlessly.
posted by jefgodesky at 8:25 AM on November 30, 2006 [1 favorite]


jefgodesky, I'd be curious what you thought about technologial singularity, it is kind of the opposite view. Interesting how radically difference these views are but both have a lot of currency.
posted by stbalbach at 8:34 AM on November 30, 2006


although nuclear power plants are no free lunch, they pump out massive amounts of power with little ongoing input.

No silver bullet perhaps, but a sight better than tar sands extraction in terms of ROI.


Are you purposefully ignoring the disposal costs of nuclear waste in your ROI calculation, or are you just flummoxed by the complexity of funding and sustaining a regulatory institution for One Million Years? (or at least 10,000)

Nuclear is bunk. It is morally untenable to continue to dump on our decendants when there are alternatives available. Climate pollutants like CO2 have an atmospheric hang time of something like 150 years, but plutonium waste sticks around for MUCH much longer.

It may seem silly that the cost estimate varies so widely, but you can't ignore the clean-up costs.
posted by eustatic at 8:58 AM on November 30, 2006 [1 favorite]


Ingenuity is a function of energy

Can you explain that? Not sure what you mean by it.
posted by storybored at 9:04 AM on November 30, 2006


I don't think the transition to a more sustainable lifestyle will be painless, but I don't think it has to be catastrophic either. While I agree that the ROI on extraction of fossil fuels will never increase (that's just common sense), I strongly disagree with assertions that ROI on extraction/capture of other energy sources will not increase. To suggest that solar power has reached some sort of theoretical maximum ROI is just plain silly, given the low production volumes and high costs of solar energy harvesters, recent reductions in price notwithstanding.

And I must point once again to the efficiency issue - Significantly more efficient transmission of power over distance could make more energy per joule "captured" available to the end users. Improvements in the efficiency of electrical devices can also have the effect of increasing the amount of energy available to end users. While not an actual increase in the number of joules harvested, it is an effective increase in the number of joules available.

Compatibility of the many sources approach is not a problem at all. Hydro, wind, solar, nuclear, coal, oil, natural gas, and Lance Armstrong can be (are!) all hooked up to the same power grid. I see no reason that this would become a deal-breaker in the future, when it is not a problem now.

Finally, the earth does indeed have a finite carrying capacity, but I think that the finite usable living space and finite arable land available on earth defines that carrying capacity, not the large but finite energy available.
posted by Mister_A at 9:19 AM on November 30, 2006


Just saw this:
"Real ingenuity" has been in decline for nearly a century now. The biggest changes of the 20th century were from 1900 to 1950; the last fifty years primarily saw innovations of the "better mousetrap" variety. We're paying more and more for research and development that nets us less and less real improvement....

1951: contraceptive pill
1952 : wide-screen cinema
1953 : transistor radio
1954 : solar cell
1955 : atomic clock; polio vaccine; structurally modified antibiotics
1956 : video tape recorder
1957 : satellite; endoscope
1958 : microchip; modems
1960 : cardiac pacemaker; laser
1961 : Valium
1963 : lava lamp
1964 : miniskirt
1965 : HTML
1966 : kevlar; fibre optics
1967 : portable calculator
1968 : biometrics; artificial heart
1969 : the Internet
1970 : LED and LCD’s
1971 : floppy disc
1972 : Prozac
1973 : genetic engineering; post-it-note
1975 : personal computer; laser printer
1977 : In vitro fertilisation; MRI scanner
1979 : first personal stereo
1980 : abortion pill; Hepatitis B vaccine
1981 : scanning tunnelling microscope
1986 : high temperature superconductor
1989 : World Wide Web

And many more. Some are on the list just for fun, some are really important advances in science, some have changed the way we communicate with one another.

Remember, most of these inventions were invented many many many years before they started yielding any practical benefits. Someone is right now building some cool thing that will save my life in 2050.
posted by Mister_A at 9:31 AM on November 30, 2006


jefgodesky, I'd be curious what you thought about technologial singularity, it is kind of the opposite view. Interesting how radically difference these views are but both have a lot of currency.

I get asked that a lot, so I'll just quote myself:
The Singularity, sometimes called "the Rapture of the Nerds," predicts that the exponential curve of technological development will continue until we reach that point where the graph most resembles a straight, vertical line, and technological innovation comes at a pace too great for anyone to predict.

The problem with this scenario is that it only looks at a small part of the graph. If we see it in its whole, we see that technological invention is not following a graph of exponential growth at all--but a curve of diminishing marginal returns. ... Facile excitement about "the Singularity" is engendered by such ideas as "Moore's Law" ("computer chip performance doubles roughly every 18 months"), which remains "true" only because computer technology is younger than most other forms, and so is one of the very few areas of technological innovaton still seeing significant activity--because computer technology, unlike technology in general, has not yet reached the point of diminishing returns. However, even here, Moore's Law is beginning to fail.
The article in the link goes on with further evidence, but you get the idea. "The Singularity" is simply the error of looking at a diminishing marginal returns curve, and ignoring everything before the first inflection point. That subgraph is an exponential growth curve. The problem is that it's a subgraph, and Singularty enthusiasts mistake it for the complete picture. It's not.

Can you explain that? Not sure what you mean by it.

Ingenuity is the creation of more complexity. A new idea, a new process, a new technology, etc. It's a function of energy. Energy not just to provide the raw materials of ingenuity (usually the lowest cost), but energy to create the social ambience necessary. A show like Connections nicely illustrates how ingenuity is less the cause of "great men and great deeds," and more a simple social function. The same inventors, in a different millieu, would have gone utterly unnoticed. To produce a society that produces that kind of ingenuity you need a sufficiently large population to produce a sufficiently large elite of intelligent innovators and thinkers. That requires a great deal of energy. You need the direct energy inputs of research and development. Most importantly, there's the problem of the low-hanging fruit. We invent the most obvious things first. The introduction to America: The Book, written from the viewpoint of Thomas Jefferson, makes fun of this, where he jokes about how it was impossible not to invent something in their day. Today, of course, that means that the obvious inventions have all been invented already. As society becomes more complex, it becomes harder and harder to make it more complex. Ingenuity comes at a higher energy cost. Something like a paradigm shift (in Thomas Kuhn's original sense of the term) can reset the clock as it were, the same way that an energy subsidy can reset society's marginal returns curve, but these are "black swans" that either happen or don't. You can't predict them, and you can't really force them.

Joseph Tainter's book goes into much greater detail about the diminishing marginal returns on complexity, and though Homer-Dixon's earlier book, The Ingenuity Gap, is still on my "to read" list, from what I've heard of it, it sounds like a very good treatment of the same idea.

To suggest that solar power has reached some sort of theoretical maximum ROI is just plain silly, given the low production volumes and high costs of solar energy harvesters, recent reductions in price notwithstanding.

If they can still be more efficient, why aren't they? Why haven't they been deployed? This is a very good discussion on PV ROI, as is this one. The low production volumes and high costs of solar energy harvesters are, I think, ample evidence that we have maxed out the efficiency of PV.

Significantly more efficient transmission of power over distance could make more energy per joule "captured" available to the end users. Improvements in the efficiency of electrical devices can also have the effect of increasing the amount of energy available to end users. While not an actual increase in the number of joules harvested, it is an effective increase in the number of joules available.

They could. That's not the question. The question is, how much improvement is possible? When there is so much market demand for more efficiency and it is not answered, that's an excellent indicator that the supply--our ability to make it more efficient--has been tapped out.

Compatibility of the many sources approach is not a problem at all. Hydro, wind, solar, nuclear, coal, oil, natural gas, and Lance Armstrong can be (are!) all hooked up to the same power grid. I see no reason that this would become a deal-breaker in the future, when it is not a problem now.

OK, so everything runs on electricity? That's much less of a mix-and-match scenario than most others imagine. It does get around the interoperability problem, but it also severely limits your capacity, since all energy must now come in electrical form.

Finally, the earth does indeed have a finite carrying capacity, but I think that the finite usable living space and finite arable land available on earth defines that carrying capacity, not the large but finite energy available.

Living space is one of the very last limits you reach; even now, when it takes 40% of the earth's total surface to supply our food, we could still fit all the people in the world comfortably in Texas (a point that might even be relevant to the question of overpopulation, if people only ate what's directly under their feet). Arable land is a question of energy. It's what you convert into food, which is what humans convert into energy. So, it's all very much about energy.

And many more. Some are on the list just for fun, some are really important advances in science, some have changed the way we communicate with one another.

And all of them pale compared to the advances made from 1800-1900. We could make similar lists for practically any time in the past 1,000 years; that does not constitute any kind of evidence. Quoting Tainter's book:
[P]atents have been declining in respect to population and number of technical workers since about 1920, well before the R&D effort of World War II and thereafter. Even more significantly, patenting relative to numbers of scientists and engineers has declined continuously since 1900. Jacob Schmookler has compiled figures showing that, excluding government-financed projects, the number of industrial research personnel increased 5.6 times from 1930 to 1954, while the numbers of corporate patents rose between 1936-40 and 1956-60 by only 23 percent.

...

There are, morevoer, other data suggesting declining productivity of inventing activity in the industrial world. Hornell Hart has demonstrated consistent patterns of increasing and then declining rates of patenting (logistic curves) in many fields that are partially or wholly unrelated to military R&D. These include airplanes, automobiles, cotton machinery, electric meters, radios, sewing machines, spinning machinery, sulky plows, telegraphy, telephony, typewriters, and weaving machinery. He also noticed that the same patterns are evident in the major inventions and discoveries of the Western world, and in patents sealed in Great Britain between 1751 and 1820, and between 1821 and 1938.

Thus, it seems that military R&D cannot account for more than a small part of the decline in patents. Furthermore, the decline is so widespread in so many fields, over such a long time, that declining propensity to patent can hardly account for it either. Recent research shows that there is in fact a strong positive relationship between R&D and patenting. Thus the patent statistics appear to be a reliable indicator of inventing accomplishment.

It would appear that there has indded been a genuine drop in the inventive productivity of research and development, and that as investments in R&D have increased (from 0.1 percent of gross national product in 1920 to 2.6 percent in 1960), the marginal product of these investments has declined. Although there are some demurrals, many economists recognize this trend.
posted by jefgodesky at 9:38 AM on November 30, 2006


Actually, I just noticed in your list....

1950s: Skipped 1 year.
1960s: Skipped 1 year.
1970s: Skipped 3 years.
1980s: Skipped 6 years.

From the years you didn't list anything for, I'd say your list actually illustrates that our ingenuity is declining!
posted by jefgodesky at 9:44 AM on November 30, 2006


I always cringe when I hear that "everyone in the world could live in Texas" claim. That's why I used the term "usable" living space - everyone could live in Antarctica, or even New Jersey, if we stacked 'em like cordwood. But it's not a realistic way of looking at the world.

More importantly, though, thanks jefgodesky for the really interesting discussion. You put forth a persuasive argument, and I have learned quite a few things here today. Cheers!
posted by Mister_A at 9:53 AM on November 30, 2006


Ok, jefgodesky. It's totally hopeless. Time to pack up our toys and go home.

Have fun churning butter on your Amish farm or whatever. Meanwhile, I'll be with the scientists and engineers and other assorted smart people who have been solving humanity's problems since the dawn of history.

And mousetraps? Damn useful is what they are.
posted by Afroblanco at 9:54 AM on November 30, 2006


On preview: D'oh! I omitted years that were too silly or had to do with new car contraptions. Here is the list I cribbed from:
posted by Mister_A at 9:55 AM on November 30, 2006


What is this? Earth day. You damn hippy liberals/commie bastards.

But seriously, the world has been overpopulated for sometime now. Having more than two children is selfish and unacceptable. It is as simple as that. We talk about innovation, but civilization still hasn't found a way to deal with this problem (although the answer is obvious). This would lead me to believe that energy might be something of a red herring.
posted by j-urb at 9:55 AM on November 30, 2006


Have I misunderstood? A really superb Energy ROI would seem to be a bunch of boys working in the dark down a coal mine.

Thank god for the 'endless decline in our ingenuity'. And how sweet, how wonderfully ironic that the actual stuff of this thread, the very machine being used, those glowing little letters, clicking keys and humming routers provide such overwhelming, undeniable evidence of the very opposite.
posted by grahamwell at 10:18 AM on November 30, 2006


Ok, jefgodesky. It's totally hopeless. Time to pack up our toys and go home.

He has that effect on me as well.
posted by peeedro at 10:33 AM on November 30, 2006


Have fun churning butter on your Amish farm or whatever. Meanwhile, I'll be with the scientists and engineers and other assorted smart people who have been solving humanity's problems since the dawn of history.

And never have they come up with a solution that didn't introduce a whole new problem--usually at least as bad as the problem originally solved. That's another drawback of our technological approach: unexpected consequences. To say that we've been "solving humanity's problems since the dawn of history" is clearly turning a blind eye to all the harm our technological progress has done. That's not to say it hasn't yielded a good many pleasant things along the way, but it does mean that on the whole, glorifying technology as some kind of savior is as ignorant as condemning it as all-evil. I'm not anti-technology, I'm just suggesting that our innovation is not a limitless, godlike force. It has its limits, like anything else, so at the end of the day, you'd best be able to figure out some way of living within your means.

But seriously, the world has been overpopulated for sometime now. Having more than two children is selfish and unacceptable. It is as simple as that. We talk about innovation, but civilization still hasn't found a way to deal with this problem (although the answer is obvious). This would lead me to believe that energy might be something of a red herring.

Overpopulation is itself just one part of the energy problem. "Over"-population only makes sense in terms of your energy budget, and moreover, where are all those children coming from--fairy dust and happy thoughts? They're made out of food--i.e., energy.

Have I misunderstood? A really superb Energy ROI would seem to be a bunch of boys working in the dark down a coal mine.

Yes, you obviously have misunderstood, then. ROI is about how much energy you get out of something, compared to how much energy you put in. Today, remaining coal deposits are increasingly difficult to reach, so the cost is increasing. Meanwhile, the energy you get from one pound of coal is the same today as it was in 1800. It just costs a great deal more to mine that pound of coal. The ROI is dropping.

Thank god for the 'endless decline in our ingenuity'. And how sweet, how wonderfully ironic that the actual stuff of this thread, the very machine being used, those glowing little letters, clicking keys and humming routers provide such overwhelming, undeniable evidence of the very opposite.

So, you're saying that the fact that we're using the product of past ingenuity is evidence that our greatest ingenuity was in our past, not in our future ... ?

I'm sorry, but I'm not sure in what way that makes any sense at all.
posted by jefgodesky at 10:36 AM on November 30, 2006


Correction:
...the product of past ingenuity is evidence against my argument that our greatest ingenuity was in our past, not in our future ... ?
posted by jefgodesky at 10:41 AM on November 30, 2006


Err. I meant that your 19" LCD, your Pentium 4 3200, your 1GB of SDRAM, your wireless router and the entire internet are quietly mocking you.

The next time you type a line explaining how ingenuity is in constant decline, put your ear close to the monitor and you'll hear. Really, you will.
posted by grahamwell at 10:43 AM on November 30, 2006


Mister_A: Significantly more efficient transmission of power over distance...

Pipelines, electrical lines, and what-have-you are already 90+% efficient. I don't think there's headroom for "significantly more efficient."

Improvements in the efficiency of electrical devices can also have the effect of increasing the amount of energy available to end users.

But electrical devices have been making very signifigant efficiency gains in the past few decades, and electrical demand has only risen.

Some are on the list just for fun, some are really important advances in science...

We don't generally list oak fire, pine fire, elm fire, coal fire, etc. separately when we look back to the invention of fire. I think a historian from a thousand years hence will see the stuff on this list as mere details in larger trends. An awful lot of this list, for example, could be very reasonably be reduced to just one innovation: "semiconductors."
posted by Western Infidels at 10:46 AM on November 30, 2006


Ingenuity is the creation of more complexity. A new idea, a new process, a new technology, etc. It's a function of energy. Energy not just to provide the raw materials of ingenuity (usually the lowest cost), but energy to create the social ambience necessary.

Thanks for explaining. If I get your meaning correctly, your definition of ingenuity includes the concept of production/manufacturing and infrastructure. So yes, then it would be correlated with energy use.

But the typical use of the word "ingenuity" i.e. inventiveness doesn't usually carry this connotation. Nor does ingenuity always imply more complexity. The paper clip is a simple yet ingenious invention. And more often than not the act of ingenuity or invention requires very little energy in itself. In the end, that's the reason for optimism. We're using more energy but the act of invention, the intellectual aha moment behind all innovation is still virtually energy-less.
posted by storybored at 10:48 AM on November 30, 2006


The next time you type a line explaining how ingenuity is in constant decline, put your ear close to the monitor and you'll hear. Really, you will.

I didn't say ingenuity is in constant decline. I said that ingenuity is subject to diminishing returns. It rises very rapidly, and then it levels off. Further invention becomes harder and harder. It doesn't stop, and furthermore, the very notion expects periods of intense ingenuity to exist on the rising side of the curve. So, the fact that there has been great ingenuity in the past, and that some amount of ingenuity continues today, says absolutely nothing about the rate or cost of that ingenuity. So your "overwhelming, undeniable evidence" is, frankly, completely absurd and utterly irrelevant.

But electrical devices have been making very signifigant efficiency gains in the past few decades, and electrical demand has only risen.

Jevons' Paradox. When you make the use of a resource more efficient, demand for the resource grows, rather than declines as you might expect. Which is the death knell of every project to "save the environment" by making our resource use more efficient. Jevons first noted this in The Coal Question, with reference to the last major fossil fuel we relied on.

That doesn't make the situation hopeless, of course, but it does make it like a Chinese finger trap: the typical, "brute force" approach isn't going to work.
posted by jefgodesky at 11:04 AM on November 30, 2006


But the typical use of the word "ingenuity" i.e. inventiveness doesn't usually carry this connotation. Nor does ingenuity always imply more complexity. The paper clip is a simple yet ingenious invention.

You misunderstand what "complexity" means with regards to a society. The invention of the paper clip is indeed an act of ingenuity, and the paper clip itself is a fairly simple invention, but the addition of the paper clip to society was the introduction of one more cultural element, which made our culture just a little bit more complex than it was before. Likewise, the invention of the Bessemer process was an act of ingenuity, and it, too, made our society a little more complex. Even simple inventions are still new cultural items, and thus, add to a culture's complexity. So I am using ingenuity in its normal sense here.

And more often than not the act of ingenuity or invention requires very little energy in itself.

Indeed; as I said, this is usually the smallest cost. It's the cultural millieu leading up to that point that costs so much energy. Let's take one example to illustrate: Alexander Fleming's serendipitous discovery of penicillin. Yes, the actual innovation itself was nothing more than an uncovered petri dish, but this was only noticed thanks to his work on staphylococci, which was made possible by innovations with the microscope, etc. It was, in a long chain, the entire energy of society that ultimately allowed that discovery to take place, even though the energy cost of the discovery itself was almost nothing.

That's the nature of ingenuity's relationship with energy; you can't necessarily pin-point the energy cost of a specific invention with much certainty, but the aggregate level of energy in a society yields an aggregate level of ingenuity in that society.

In the end, that's the reason for optimism. We're using more energy but the act of invention, the intellectual aha moment behind all innovation is still virtually energy-less.

That assumes that such moments are random. They are not. The energy level of a society creates the space in which those moments can occur. With less energy, there's less space, and those moments become increasingly infrequent.
posted by jefgodesky at 11:13 AM on November 30, 2006


Jef. To pull you away from the monitor for a moment. Your point about diminishing returns - which seems to be the central point of the whole argument - misses something. From time to time technological advance opens up entire new fields of advance. Agriculture, the development of cities, the discovery of America were such advances, as was the discovery of electricity. In these new fields the law of diminishing returns is effectively reset to zero and an avalanche of productive innovation results.

The computer is the most recent and most obvious of these new fields. The constraints at work here, or rather the lack of same, are truly revolutionary. There's been a huge burst of innovation in the last twenty years that continues as we both type.

You have no idea whether "our greatest ingenuity was in our past, not in our future ... ?". Ingenuity defies a simple linear measure. Which is more ingenious, the Steam Engine or Digital Camera? For breadth of engineering challenge I would pick the Camera. If you don't already know, read up on how flash memory works, right down to the quantum tunnelling, it's truly awesome - yet a footnote in the current spurt of innovation in semiconductors.

Such spurts will continue and there's no ground for pessimism. Our current state is not final - certainly not where Energy is concerned. We are suffering from a loss of faith. The major source of energy in the Universe is understood by us, and is within our grasp. We will, eventually, master it. Our future is to use much much much more energy, not less.
posted by grahamwell at 11:19 AM on November 30, 2006


From time to time technological advance opens up entire new fields of advance. Agriculture, the development of cities, the discovery of America were such advances, as was the discovery of electricity. In these new fields the law of diminishing returns is effectively reset to zero and an avalanche of productive innovation results.

Yes, that's what I said. Thomas Kuhn called these "paradigm shifts" and discussed them with regards to scientific research, but you also have things like energy subsidies (agriculture, fossil fuels) that similarly restart the social complexity clock.

The computer is the most recent and most obvious of these new fields. The constraints at work here, or rather the lack of same, are truly revolutionary. There's been a huge burst of innovation in the last twenty years that continues as we both type.

Yes, the upside of the marginal returns curve usually inspires optimism. It's even been mistaken for an eternal state, simply because one field of technology is young, with lots of low-hanging fruit still to be plucked. But even this area has been slowing down of late, and the "Singularity" is betraying its real shape: a diminishing marginal returns curve.

Ingenuity defies a simple linear measure. Which is more ingenious, the Steam Engine or Digital Camera?

That's not the question; the question is how much ingenuity is going on, not how ingenious the acts of ingenuity are (though it's clearly the steam engine that's more ingenious--the digital camera is more of a "better mousetrap" type).

Such spurts will continue and there's no ground for pessimism.

That's where you're wrong. Such spurts are essentially random, and they don't always occur just because we need them to. That's the logic of a spoiled rich boy. The history of civilization is littered with examples of collapse in testament to the fact that such spurts do not occur simply because we need them.

We are suffering from a loss of faith.

Precisely--a faith that was misplaced from the very beginning.
posted by jefgodesky at 11:33 AM on November 30, 2006


The energy level of a society creates the space in which those moments [ingenuity] can occur. .With less energy, there's less space, and those moments become increasingly infrequent

But here's the thing: we both agree that the act of invention takes very little energy. So if you were to constrain the available energy in society, the impact on ingenuity isn't going to be that significant.

The first Compaq PC was designed on the back of a napkin. If the price of oil rises to $200/barrel, it'll be a shock but is it going to stop scientists from doodling on napkins?

If cheap energy is the dominant determinant of innovation, why aren't there a lot of patents coming out of Iran and Venezuela?
posted by storybored at 12:01 PM on November 30, 2006


Having just read a oral history of Chernobyl (Voices from Chernobyl), jefgodesky's ideas have a ring of truth. Technology is neutral there is no guarantee it will solve our problem and not create bigger and worse problems. I guess it is no coincidence that the biggest technological nightmare in the history of the human species was literally created by energy. Complexity is neutral, it can spawn innovation, it can create equally powerful problems.

One of these days I'd like to read Joseph Tainter's The Collapse of Complex Societies, sounds like a foundational book on this subject.

The question of complexity is interesting because humans and human culture is the most complex thing in the Universe (as far as we know). The Sun by comparison is a basic chemical reaction - writ large. We are at the center of the universe in terms of complexity. That's pretty serious, if we blow it, waste of a perfectly good universe.
posted by stbalbach at 12:21 PM on November 30, 2006


Jef, it seems that you write-off the actual condition of man in the last five hundred years as a blip. Such pessimism can do real damage, as the Irish or the Indians can attest.

That 'such spurts are essentially random' requires proof. Such spurts are the product of human brains applied to problems. I would counter with something that seems rather obvious. The more brainpower - and the more problems - the more likely are such spurts to take place. Consider then the enormous increase in Further and Higher Education close to home, and further afield the truly amazing increase in participation in the global economy (in Malaysia, or India, or China). There is vastly more brainpower being applied to our problems than at any time in the past. Grounds for optimism. There's no such thing as too much thinking.

I think I understand you though. This is Big History. You have an idea of a kind of social matrix where innovation is some kind of branching. If I've got this right then any innovation, whatever its nature, always leads, by definintion to more complexity (even if it seems to do the opposite). So there's an ever expanding, ever more complex thing called society which is a map of what we see 'on the ground' (you could call it History actually). There's then a relationship between this and energy - the relationship seems to be built-in, the matrix is somehow made of energy? Then there's what seems to be an elision to the actual facts of energy consumption and some rather pedestrian considerations about oil and gas extraction right now. Is that right?

But I don't understand how you can agree that there are new technologies with low hanging fruit and yet that the overall picture is of endlessly diminishing returns. There is no overall picture - there are just lots of technologies, technologies past, present and to come - a jagged graph which shows one trend in one period and another in another. We have as little idea what the future holds as my grandfather had of the internet.

If ever you find yourself arguing "well it looks like it's going up but *really* it's going down", be careful. Perhaps things are just as they seem. Be careful also when you are carefully selecting the periods for consideration so as to support your argument. Over months and over centuries the picture painted by the facts is all one way. More of us are better fed, better clothed, properly warmed, educated and entertained than ever before. Even in the Ukraine.

It's true that this has been achieved by tapping fossil energy resources. However in terms of the overall energy resources available to us, this tapping is small beer. We have discovered - to our amazement - that the useful energy in a drop of water is immense. We now have to get that energy out in a controlled manner. It's tricky but it's clearly possible. We have to do it and we will. It won't be an unmixed blessing. Nothing is. Nevertheless we will make it work for us. We have some three hundred years of increasingly expensive dinosaurs left. Should be more than enough.

Smile.

Storybored: He means something special by energy and by innovation - in his view the napkin was just the end result of huge hidden processes which consumed equally huge resources. A History thing.
posted by grahamwell at 12:32 PM on November 30, 2006


You know I would actually almost want to see a world where oil is $200/barrel. As an intellectual exercise what would happen innovation-wise?

It's pretty clear that our societies are horrendously inefficient energy-wise. Yet it won't take a lot of ingenuity to make things better.

I live downtown and everyday you can see thousands of cars coming into town with single drivers. We've got mass transit with 25% occupancy. I figure we could use wifi/rfi/web technologies to raise that occupancy by at least 100%. Imagine the impact that would have on oil consumption.
posted by storybored at 12:46 PM on November 30, 2006


Thank you, grahamwell. You said some things that had been bothering me about what jefgodesky is saying, but I couldn't quite grasp them until you articulated them.

The problem with the diminishing returns view is that it rests on somewhat faulty assumptions, for instance:
"I think at this point we've probably tried burning, bending, crushing or striking pretty much every substance that exists in economically viable quantities on this planet, so that means all the viable alternatives are on the table right now."
and
"They could. That's not the question. The question is, how much improvement is possible? When there is so much market demand for more efficiency and it is not answered, that's an excellent indicator that the supply--our ability to make it more efficient--has been tapped out."
The assumptions here are that we have tried every possible avenue, and that if we could make something better, we would have already done so. But this seems wrong. We have no idea if we've tapped every resource available to us. But even worse is your second assumption. The fact that we can't do something now does not imply, nor "act as an excellent indicator that", our ability to make it more efficient has been tapped out.
posted by Sangermaine at 1:08 PM on November 30, 2006


Storybored - Hey, careful what you wish for ..

By the way, here's the rather obvious problem with the NYT article:

As the average E.R.O.I. of an economy’s energy sources drops toward 1 to 1, an ever-larger fraction of the economy’s wealth must go to finding and producing energy. This means less wealth is left over for everything else that needs to be done, from building houses to moving around information to educating children.

So an ever larger fraction of the economy's wealth is spent in extraction. But then this apparently means "less wealth" for the children.

But of course it means a smaller fraction, which may well be a larger absolute amount. As it is - very much larger. The fraction of energy spent in extraction is small - 1/25 in 1970, 1/15 now - and this is energy not wealth, (the equation of one with the other is revealing).

To sustain and improve our standards of living therefore we must ensure that the remaining absolute amount after extraction costs, continues to grow. There's no reason to think that it won't - for at least two hundred years (or so I am assured by people who work in the industry). EROI on fossil fuels will sometimes fall during that period, sometimes rise as discovery and technique improve the extraction process. In the meantime alternative fuels will provide an - alternative - hopefully a really attractive one.

However ....

.. stuck in traffic in my stupid smelly car, the mind wanders. We seem to have developed an extremely inefficient, expensive and wasteful system to go absolutely nowhere. Our decendants may remember us as the folk who found an irreplaceable treasure in the ground and just set fire to it.
posted by grahamwell at 1:20 PM on November 30, 2006


Sangermaine: I think Jason's perspective leads him to this view. It's a historian's perspective. There's a pre-ordained 'amount' of innovation possible - discoveries lie like flowers in the grass, waiting to be plucked - but there's only a fixed amount of them. If you come back from the field with only a few flowers, it's a bad sign, the flowers are running out.

There's really no reason to think this way. Discoveries are things we make - literally - they are constructions of the mind. There's no limit to our ability to make things, especially as the materials available become ever more plentiful, more subtle and more freely available.

If the 'problem space' in which we work had very distinct boundaries then perhaps Jason's view would have appeal. The lesson of the last century though is that it doesn't. Energy, matter and information are not what we thought, and the possibilities of each seem limitless.

In particular the opening up, by the computer, of a truly Platonic world that is independent of place, of material - that allows limitless invention wherever and whoever you are - seems of enormous significance. A significance as great as the Industrial Revolution? Possibly. We'll know in a couple of hundred years - but don't expect things to get boring.
posted by grahamwell at 1:47 PM on November 30, 2006


I'm glad we've managed to get down to the base of it: is human ingenuity a boundless, infinite thing, or does it have limits? Graham and Sangermaine obviously believe that it is boundless—but Graham also recognizes, rightly I think, that this is a question of faith. In the link I provided on faith, I discussed William Catton's Overshoot, and in particular, his notion of the "Age of Exuberance." Catton does an excellent job of showing how our social attitudes have changed in accordance with the waxing and waning of our resource fortunes. The "Age of Exuberance" that began with the discovery of the Americas included the beginning of this article of faith that human ingenuity is boundless and infinite, because we were on the upside of the marginal return curve. We were picking the low-hanging fruit. In his book, Catton writes:
Most of the people who were fortunate enough to live in that age misconstrued their good fortune. Characteristics of their world and their lives, due to a "limitlessness" that had to be of limited duration, were imagined to be permanent. The people of the Age of Exuberance looked back on the dismal lives of their forebears and pitied them for their "unrealistic" notions about the world, themselves, and the way human beings were meant to live. Instead of recognizing that reality itself had actually changed—and would eventually change again—they congratulated themselves for outgrowing the "superstitions" of ancestors who had seen a different world so differently. While they rejected the old premise of changelessness, they failed to see that their own belief in the permanence of limitlessness was also an overbelief, a superstition.
A myth of doom that emerges on the down-side of the marginal return curve is as natural, and as short-sighted, as the myths of eternal growth and prosperity that flourish on the up-side.

A napkin is fairly low hanging fruit. It's easy to invent, and has enormous usefulness, much more useful than the internet or computers. Orangutans make napkins (and even gloves). But of course, once the ingenuity that generates the napkin is done, it's not going to be invented again. You might next invent gloves—still very useful (though not as useful as napkins), and still fairly easy (though not as easy as napkins).

A better comparison than a field of flowers would be a fruit tree. The number is certainly limited; even inside our own brains, there are only so many concepts we're capable of coming up with. If nothing else, there are cognitive limits we must eventually reach. But that is fairly irrelevant, since you're never going to actually invent every concept possible. Long before you reach that absolute limit you will reach "softer" limits. You pick the low-hanging fruit first; what remains is higher up, and thus, harder to get. Well before the tree is out of fruit, you reach the point where it takes more energy to climb up the tree and get the fruit, than you get from the fruit itself. It's no longer worth it.

Which is precisely the reason why the oil industry will collapse long before we've drilled the last drop of oil. Oil fields are abandoned long before they are out of oil, simply because it takes more energy to get the oil than the oil provides. EROEI is everything.

It's unfortunate the article did such a poor job of explaining EROEI, since it's such a crucial concept. Leslie White suggested that civilizations advance as a function of the energy available to them; in actuality, it is the net energy available to them that matters.

Again, one can find no better illustration of how much energy goes into ingenuity than a show like Connections. Without the total complexity of society at a given level, the serendipitous moment of discovery is impossible. With declining energy, there's less money for research, or scientists ... there's no time to sketch out ideas on the back of a napkin, and more importantly, no time to spend simply on research that might or might not yield anything, and more importantly still, no one that can be spared for such idle lives when there's work to be done. Follow the curve of our inventions: when do they spike up, and when do they flatten out? Compare that to our net energy usage—they are nearly identical graphs.

For the past century, the number of inventions we've made has tapered off. That is an undeniable fact. There was a far greater number of inventions made from 1800-1900 than from 1900-2000. It is undeniable that our ingenuity is currently in decline.

Will a paradigm shift reset that, and take us back to the "good old days" of constant growth? It's a gamble. No one can really say. It's asking if a deus ex machina will swoop in to save us in the final act. You're asking for a miracle. It's a hope—it's not a plan.

Even if, by some miracle, it does this time, eventually, it won't. This is a game of Russian roulette, and there's only so many rounds you can play before you're dead. At some point, we're going to need to figure out a way to live that doesn't require constant growth, constant innovation, and constant consumption. At some point, we're going to need to figure out a way to live sustainably, because if there's one undeniable fact about unsustainable systems, it's that they're never sustained forever. We can try to do that on our own, or at least prepare for that, and stop fantasizing about how we can keep this charade up a little longer, but human nature being what it is, I'd say we're unlikely to change, but to be changed. Of course, it's never as easy a shift when it's inflicted upon you.
During the Age of Exuberance, Utopian thinking was adaptive, to use ecologists' jargon: it encouraged people to think big at a time when imperial expansion, technological progress, and soaring availability of fossil fuel energy made explosive growth pay off. As the Age of Exuberance ends around us, the equation is reversing. In a world of political and economic regionalization, technological stasis or regression, and dwindling supplies of all nonrenewable resources, those who move with the curve of industrial decline will be just as successful in the future as those who rode the waves of industrial growth were in the past. It's time, and past time, to learn again how to think small—and that process will be much easier if we say farewell to Utopia and focus on the things we can actually achieve in the stark limits of time and resources that we still have left.[source]
Of course, I am smiling. As Daniel Quinn put it in Ishmael, our current level of complexity is great for products, but not very good for people. The down-side of the marginal return curve means increasing quality of life for most people, and a return to "human scale" societies that we are much better suited to. It can be hard for us, in the First World, who reap the benefits of all this complexity, to understand what a terrible toll it has taken on overall quality of life, but we need to understand that when 10 people have to live lives that are so "nasty, brutish and short" in order for us to have the opulence we do, that's not a system that's really generating a very good quality of life on the whole.

In other words, the idea that human ingenuity is boundless is the exuberant fantasy of an age that's ending. The age that's upon us now belongs to anyone and everyone who can look at technology and see it as a tool, nothing more, neither good nor bad, and is just as quick to look for a cultural answer to our problems as a technological one. Ingenuity isn't the answer to every problem—sometimes, the answer is even to simplify.
posted by jefgodesky at 2:35 PM on November 30, 2006


Perhaps the most urgent step (...) is to figure out ways of safely disposing of coal’s harmful carbon dioxide — probably underground.

Or yet more likely, GILLS!
posted by kickback at 3:15 PM on November 30, 2006


wind and solar will create enough electricity in most countries, and many of the most innovative new technologies are coming from third-world countries--as a result of scarcity of established infrastructure--new farming methods, new communications workarounds, new everything, i think.
posted by amberglow at 3:16 PM on November 30, 2006


and there's nothing like necessity to get creative juices flowing.
posted by amberglow at 3:18 PM on November 30, 2006


Jason, fascinating that we're both disciples of James Burke. I grew up on "The Burke Special" and much of what I've said above is pretty much directly lifted from it - filtered through thirty years of puzzlement. I've never seen "Connections". I'll make sure that I do.

With regard to the fruit tree, you just know I'm going to come up with the "Shoulders of Giants" quote, so I'll get it over with. It is true and it is good news - some of our innovations have the special property that they make the others easier to reach. The computer is an example. Most of human knowledge is now laid out in front of both of us. I'm researching some obscure pieces of electrical equipment for a project - a very minor innovation. It would have been a hopeless task before the internet, now it's easy - and as a result the world will be offered a new tool.

There are lots of examples where an innovation which was too expensive, complex or clumsy at one point becomes very do-able a few years later. The tree is always moving and so are we.

You say that my belief that innovation is limitless is an article of faith. Perhaps so, but it does seem to me that all the evidence is on my side. Despite the increasing cost and complexity of the system, the number of patents keeps on rising. The torrent of innovation into our homes, our workplaces and everywhere inbetween seems to be accelerating. Entire new vistas have opened up in the last ten years - just look at the machine a few inches in front of you.

Your belief is radically opposed to mine, I understand it, but I can't see one single piece of evidence for it.

For the past century, the number of inventions we've made has tapered off. That is an undeniable fact. There was a far greater number of inventions made from 1800-1900 than from 1900-2000. It is undeniable that our ingenuity is currently in decline.

It is deniable and I deny it. How shall we measure this anyway? Number of patents? There were just under 10 Million Patent applications worldwide in 2000. By way of contrast the first 10,000 patents registered with the USPO took 46 years. All the graphs point up. What are you looking at?

(I have to say that Tatton's book sounds like total nonsense. The early Americans were right. They had outgrown the superstitions of their ancestors, further they stood on the threshold of something immensely greater - as might we)

Sadly, for the more optimistic (at least I think it's optimistic, in a rather dark way) part of your beliefs, there's absolutely no evidence for those either. It would be nice to think that scarcity will make us love our neighbour. It never has before.
posted by grahamwell at 3:25 PM on November 30, 2006


Can Mr. Godesky provide some explanation for the claim that the usefulness of the napkin exceeds that of the glove?
posted by little miss manners at 4:20 PM on November 30, 2006


Hey, careful what you wish for ..

Heh, grahamwell, the devil finds work for idle engineers.

I'm glad we've managed to get down to the base of it: is human ingenuity a boundless, infinite thing, or does it have limits

The need for infinite human ingenuity is also quoted by Homer-Dixon. But why is it necessary that our ingenuity be infinite in order to solve the problems we're facing?

I'd say if our ingenuity is good enough to harness fusion power or to develop very high efficiency photovoltaics/fuel cells, we'd be quite a long way to saying goodbye to the carbon economy.

Heck we don't even have to go that far. Infinite ingenuity isn't a prerequisite for the design of those beautiful wind turbines you see more of these days.

It isn't ingenuity that's stopping us, it's political will. A sophomoric example. Take the annual international defense budget, which is a few trillion dollars. Take the money and start building windmills and solar plants, equipping every home with geothermal heating/cooling. Repeat for twenty years.

What oil crisis?
posted by storybored at 5:05 PM on November 30, 2006


...the amount of fossil fuel used in the creation of nuclear power—from the construction of nuclear power plants, to the mining of uranium ore, to the expensive decommissioning and cleanup of nuclear power sites, makes it impossible to use nuclear power as an alternative to fossil fuels.

With current reactor designs. Current reactors require U235, which is only about 0.7% of mined uranium. Breeder reactors, by contrast, can use U238, which is the other 99.3%, making them much more cost efficient, at least in regards to mining. Combine this with extracting uranium from seawater, instead of mining it (which could provide much, much larger quantities than mining can), and nuclear power may be able to satisfy our energy needs for the next billion years. This stuff isn't economically feasible now, but it will be eventually.
posted by gsteff at 7:45 PM on November 30, 2006


eustatic: Are you purposefully ignoring the disposal costs of nuclear waste in your ROI calculation, or are you just flummoxed by the complexity of funding and sustaining a regulatory institution for One Million Years? (or at least 10,000)

As the depression deepens, people will stop worrying so much about safe disposal :P Which is to say, society subsidizes oil massively, but builds artificial costs into nuclear. Whether those artificial costs are a good idea or not, in the larger picture, is another question.

I think nuclear is something we should be considering at the most critical points, as a direct replacement for coal fired generation (issues of daily load balancing aside), and as a heat source for oil sands processing. It is a last resort, but we need every measure we can get.

Of course that isn't how private enterprise manages these things, so it probably isn't in the cards for the time being. Here's an article that will help clarify why the EROEI calculation for nuclear generation is almost impossible: Smarter Use of Nuclear Waste.
posted by Chuckles at 9:16 PM on November 30, 2006


Complexity isn't free; complexity is a function of energy,

Computers change this, which is where the silly singularity talk comes from. They change it in the way fossil fuel (starting with steam) changes manufacturing. We have only begun to explore what the implications are. To wit..

(the rest are either in space, so we'll need a new energy source to get to them, or so rare that they won't make any difference on a global scale)

But with the astonishing reduction in research, development and manufacturing costs made possible by the information revolution, energy sources don't have to scale globally..

The history of civilization is littered with examples of collapse in testament to the fact that such spurts do not occur simply because we need them.

This seems to be the crux of your argument.. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think you are saying that we are due for another dark age?

Some collapses have been harmful to the very viability of the species, and others have been limited to the end of a certain culture or lifestyle. For example, the collapse on Easter Island, if you are to take Ronald Wright's interpretation at face value, massively reduced carrying capacity. Meanwhile, the collapse of Rome ended the propagation of bath houses and mosaic floors, but, in a manner of thinking, that just made room for other civilizations - civilizations that didn't happen to write a lot about how great they were is all. So, there is collapse aka paradigm shift, and there is collapse aka extinction.
Not literally extinction, of course, because when it comes down to it we are probably more like cockroaches and rats than we are like dodo birds.

I guess to me it goes something like this.. A collapse of one definition or another is inevitable, because change is inevitable. By pushing for sustainability now, as well as the cultural changes that will help make sustainability possible, we reduce the possibility of an extinction-like collapse.
posted by Chuckles at 9:52 PM on November 30, 2006


There are lots of examples where an innovation which was too expensive, complex or clumsy at one point becomes very do-able a few years later. The tree is always moving and so are we.

I don't think that's a very accurate way of putting it. As Tainter argues in his book, complexity is an investment. It has a cost, and it has a return. A bow drill is a cultural element, it's a certain amount of complexity; so is an oil rig. Both have a cost in terms of the energy they take to create; both have a return, in the energy they provide. So the question is ROI—the ratio of energy invested, compared to the energy returned. And as Tainter shows, what you get is a diminishing returns curve. The "tree" doesn't move, and neither do we, but with greater complexity you have more energy available to you, which allows you to create cultural elements that were not possibly before. The problem is that as you continue down this road, first the ROI starts to level off, and then it actually starts to drop, and you reach a point where you're using a lot more energy but not getting any more out of it. You can even reach a point where you're putting in more energy, absolutely, than you get out.

The whole "Peak Oil" problem is one example of this: the question is no more when we'll "run out of" oil than when we'll "run out of" complexity (or things to invent). The problem is when we'll reach the point where we're spending more energy getting oil than we get from oil—or when we're spending more energy inventing than we get from the inventions. At what point does your society become so complex that your complexity becomes a burden, rather than a boon? That's the question.

You say that my belief that innovation is limitless is an article of faith. Perhaps so, but it does seem to me that all the evidence is on my side. Despite the increasing cost and complexity of the system, the number of patents keeps on rising.

Do you mean the absolute number of patents ever filed? That is, of course, true. How could it be otherwise? We can't make patents that were previously filed just disappear. But that's not really the question, is it? Now, if you're talking about the relevant metric—the number of patents filed each year—then you're simply incorrect. That number has been falling for nearly a century now, as already discussed in the passage from Tainter's book excerpted above. So the evidence is not on your side, it's on mine.

The torrent of innovation into our homes, our workplaces and everywhere inbetween seems to be accelerating.

It might seem that way to you, but when we take any objective metric of whether or not the pace of invention is accelerating—as, in this case, the number of patents—we find that it is declining, not accelerating. I believe Homer-Dixon's previous book, The Ingenuity Gap discusses a number of other metrics which show the same trend. Tainter discusses a number of other trends showing the same decline, as well.

Entire new vistas have opened up in the last ten years - just look at the machine a few inches in front of you.

Which shows us that the absolute number of patents continues to rise, which of course, is sheer common sense, and also entirely irrelevant. You might as well disprove the Hubbert peak by showing that peaked wells still produce oil. That's assumed; that's not the question. The question is the rate of invention, which has been slowing.

Your belief is radically opposed to mine, I understand it, but I can't see one single piece of evidence for it.

Fair, since I feel the same way, but given that the evidence you've cited so far is simply incorrect, it would seem that your belief is based on assumptions of what the evidence "seems" like, rather than any actual investigation of what the evidence actually is. I once assumed that the pace of invention was accelerating as well—until I actually looked into the evidence. It's one of those surprising, well-established but little-known crucial facts floating about that no one's really aware of, like the Neolithic Mortality Crisis.

It is deniable and I deny it. How shall we measure this anyway? Number of patents?

Since we're talking about ROI, a better analysis would look not only at the number of patents (return), but number of patents as a ratio of R&D money spent (investment). See also "Are We Running out of New Ideas? A Look at Patents and R&D," from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.

I have to say that Tatton's book sounds like total nonsense. The early Americans were right. They had outgrown the superstitions of their ancestors, further they stood on the threshold of something immensely greater - as might we

Catton, and Overshoot is generally considered one of the most important books for understanding human society and its relationship to ecology published in the past 30 years, so I'd say if nothing else, it would hard to call "total nonsense." Your bald assertion that it's simply wrong does not constitute a counter-argument. All you've done is re-establish that you place your faith in human ingenuity as a limitless force that knows no bounds. Well and good, but it's still only a faith, unless you can present evidence for such a grandiose claim. If you read the rest of Catton's work, you'll see the context and further support for the conclusion I've excerpted here, and why I find his claim so much more compelling.

Sadly, for the more optimistic (at least I think it's optimistic, in a rather dark way) part of your beliefs, there's absolutely no evidence for those either. It would be nice to think that scarcity will make us love our neighbour. It never has before.

You should look into how hunter-gatherer life actually works. The Hobbesian nightmare of "nasty, brutish and short" is a fantasy that's been thoroughly overturned by anthropological research. Scarcity does make us love our neighbor. It did for 99% of our time on this planet; only in the most recent heartbeat of our genus' history did any other situation exist.

Can Mr. Godesky provide some explanation for the claim that the usefulness of the napkin exceeds that of the glove?

Napkins are useful year-round; gloves are typically only used during the winter. Napkins, as mentioned above, also provide a writing surface.

It isn't ingenuity that's stopping us, it's political will. A sophomoric example. Take the annual international defense budget, which is a few trillion dollars. Take the money and start building windmills and solar plants, equipping every home with geothermal heating/cooling. Repeat for twenty years.

What oil crisis?


Throwing money at the problem won't help it much, I think. The fact remains that these technologies all hover about 1:1 EROEI, just breaking even. That means they're not energy sources. It doesn't really make much difference for society as a whole whether it's the government footing the bill, private enterprise, or individual citizens. Society's complexity is a function of its net energy, and if all your energy sources hover about 1:1 EROEI, your net energy approaches zero.

Breeder reactors, by contrast, can use U238, which is the other 99.3%, making them much more cost efficient, at least in regards to mining.

Which would be great, if breeder reactors actually worked. At present, they don't, and it's anybody's guess whether or not they ever will.

This stuff isn't economically feasible now, but it will be eventually.

How do you know that? Isn't it possible that it can't be made economically feasible?

Computers change this, which is where the silly singularity talk comes from. They change it in the way fossil fuel (starting with steam) changes manufacturing. We have only begun to explore what the implications are. To wit..

Computers don't change anything about that. Computers still require a certain amount of energy to engineer, manufacture and power, and they produce a certain amount of energy in return. It's still an investment. The hysteria about the "computer revolution" aside, they really change extraordinarily little about the underlying dynamics of society, complexity and energy.

But with the astonishing reduction in research, development and manufacturing costs made possible by the information revolution, energy sources don't have to scale globally..

No? We're just going to leave China and India to rot, then?

This seems to be the crux of your argument.. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think you are saying that we are due for another dark age?

No, a collapse. A "dark age" is something else—primarily, it's a bit of Renaissance-era Italian propaganda. In actual fact, most peoples' lives improved markedly from the first "dark age," a fact that most historians have come around to now that that particular loaded term has become so disgraced.

Some collapses have been harmful to the very viability of the species, and others have been limited to the end of a certain culture or lifestyle. For example, the collapse on Easter Island, if you are to take Ronald Wright's interpretation at face value, massively reduced carrying capacity.

There are a lot of questions about Easter Island, but if we're to take the "traditional" interpretation of the evidence, then blaming the ecological collapse of the island on the social collapse is to blame the effect for the cause. The social collapse occured because of the ecological collapse, not vice versa.

I guess to me it goes something like this.. A collapse of one definition or another is inevitable, because change is inevitable. By pushing for sustainability now, as well as the cultural changes that will help make sustainability possible, we reduce the possibility of an extinction-like collapse.

I agree. Collapse is a particular type of change: rapid change towards less complexity. My position is that we're far past the point of sustainable complexity right now, so the first matter at hand is to dismiss this ridiculous notion that more complexity is always better. We need to start embracing the idea that complexity isn't always the answer—we need to embrace things like vernacular zen and elegant technology, and even rhizome.
posted by jefgodesky at 9:21 AM on December 1, 2006


This is entirely unconvincing:

Napkins are useful year-round; gloves are typically only used during the winter.

and I'm not even sure that the implied metric -- the duration of the items' respective periods of utility -- tilts the way you think it does. Do you have any more rigorous explanation of how you came to judge the napkin's utility superior to that of the glove?
posted by little miss manners at 10:12 AM on December 1, 2006


Lets deal with the Patents quickly.

".. if you're talking about the relevant metric—the number of patents filed each year—then you're simply incorrect. That number has been falling for nearly a century now, as already discussed in the passage from Tainter's book excerpted above. So the evidence is not on your side, it's on mine"

Not so. Counted year on year, for the last hundred years, the numbers have continually increased. Here are the numbers of patents granted in each decadal year in the US from the US Patent Office:

1790 - 3
1800 - 41
1810 - 223
1820 - 155
1830 - 544
1840 - 458
1850 - 884
1860 - 4363
1870 - 12517
1880 - 12926
1890 - 25308
1900 - 24656
1910 - 32855
1920 - 37057
1930 - 45226
1940 - 42237
1950 - 43039
1960 - 47169
1970 - 64429
1980 - 61819
1990 - 90365
2000 - 157494

It really doesn't take much time to find this out. Here's some more - exact numbers per year from the USPO. In fact you need only click on your own second link - to the discussion about R&D spending, to find a graph showing just the same thing. The number of patents granted per year has increased pretty much continuously in every year in the last two hundred.

Lest there be any further "misunderstanding", these are activity per year - not absolute numbers. The absolute numbers, as you say, would always rise. I shouldn't need to say this, you can check easily for yourself.

If Tatton's book, which does look interesting, is based on denying these facts, then I can't quite see why anyone should take it seriously. Perhaps you can help me out here.

There are some other minor issues, and it might be interesting to explore your rather complex use of the single term "energy" to mean a number of different things, but until we can get the simple facts straight, I don't see this going very far.

"It would seem that your belief is based on assumptions of what the evidence "seems" like, rather than any actual investigation of what the evidence actually is. "

Yeah. Right. Some links please. To facts please. I think I've made my point.
posted by grahamwell at 10:27 AM on December 1, 2006


and I'm not even sure that the implied metric -- the duration of the items' respective periods of utility -- tilts the way you think it does. Do you have any more rigorous explanation of how you came to judge the napkin's utility superior to that of the glove?

So you're saying that an item that's useful primarily for one season is more useful than an item that's used year-round, as often as three times a day? Glove use beyond winter is primarily a matter of manners, if anything, while napkins have pragmatic use all year-round. I don't have anything to base this on, since this kind of comparison is really fairly petty.

Graham: I'm afraid your arguments did get me a bit turned around, and I did make a fairly foolish stand. You're right, patents per year have risen. To use the oil analogy again, that would be the same as looking at absolute oil production. If we're talking about the marginal return curve for ingenuity, that's simply an irrelevant metric. What we should be looking at is ROI. In this case, investment would be measured by R&D expenditures, and return would be measured by number of patents. So we've measured the return here and we can both see it's growing, but what of the investment? It's growing even faster, and that means that the ROI is going down. The amount of R&D expenditure it takes to produce a patent today is greater than it was a hundred years ago. Besides the aforementioned titles by Tainter and Homer-Dixon, here are some links: 1, 2, 3, 4

There are some other minor issues, and it might be interesting to explore your rather complex use of the single term "energy" to mean a number of different things, but until we can get the simple facts straight, I don't see this going very far.

I use the term "energy" in its scientific sense. Of course, energy makes up the entirety of the human economy. Food is simply a means of storing and delivering energy; money, too, is a form of storing and delivering energy.

Catton (not Tatton, as you've put it twice now—you seem to be confusing William Catton and Joseph Tainter) does not write about patents, diminishing returns, or any of the rest of this in Overshoot. He is more concerned with the question of human ecology, and the relationship between human society and the ecology it's based in.
posted by jefgodesky at 11:03 AM on December 1, 2006


I use the term "energy" in its scientific sense.... money, too, is a form of storing and delivering energy.

Hmm. I think you lost the Scientists there. It's rather hard to work out how much energy there is in a dollar. Shame really because I see what you mean - but what you mean is something broader, something more like potential - the Marxists would have called it 'Work'. I have to say that this does all seem very much like Marxism redux. None the worse for that.

But is it true? Your third link (thanks) concludes not ...

"It appears that the decline in patents per real R&D expenditure over the last half century may not be as distressing as it initially seems....First, there is tentative evidence that firms are increasingly moving away from patents as a means of appropriating returns from their R&D investments and toward other means, such as secrecy. Second, the number of citations received by the average patent has increased over the last couple of decades, suggesting that the social value of the average patent has increased. The possibility that more and more technological change is not being patented and that the "size" of the technological change codified in the average patent is increasing leaves open the possibility that the relationship between research input and true technology output has not changed over time."

Your fourth link is fun, but it pulls its core set of values from a History book, a rather shaky secondary source on which to build such an alarming case.

The first link I can't properly follow because I no longer have Athens access but it makes a point with which I agree, you would expect R&D ROI to fall. A vastly larger proportion of the workforce is now educated to degree standard and working in research. A simple consideration of the bell curve, the low-hanging fruit and all the other arguments advanced in this thread would lead you to think that quality would fall, costs would rise and innovation per person would decline.

Interestingly that is not what's happening. Let's go back to patents (at least this is a primary source, even if it's not the oracle). Our friend Tainter (apologies for the Tatton snafu) picks the period 1930 to 1954. Given that he was publishing in 1988 you might wonder why. Well, this data set just about fits his case. Look more widely however, outside of this narrow band, and the story is different. Let's bring it up to date - from 1954 (77,185) to 2005 (390,733). The increase is just over five times. This is about in line with the increase in college graduations in the US over the same period. And that's surprising, given that people were being educated who would have been laughed at in previous years, they seem to have turned out to be just as productive.

So we seem to have static returns in terms of the number of people actively engaged in the knowledge sector. Given the huge expansion of that sector, by a factor of five, we don't seem to be close to any limits. At least not yet.

(Forgive me but I can't see how your second link is relevant, it seems to be making a different point altogether)
posted by grahamwell at 11:45 AM on December 1, 2006


Hmm. I think you lost the Scientists there. It's rather hard to work out how much energy there is in a dollar. Shame really because I see what you mean - but what you mean is something broader, something more like potential - the Marxists would have called it 'Work'. I have to say that this does all seem very much like Marxism redux. None the worse for that.

Insofar as it is materialist, it is a post-Marxist outlook, yes. But it's also very un-Marxist in many ways. For instance, class warfare isn't terribly important here.

But as for how scientific it is, I think you'll find fairly widespread acceptance that money is a fairly good proxy for the flow of energy throughout society, despite the fact that the energy value of a dollar is very hard to pin down.

But is it true? Your third link (thanks) concludes not ...

I can't say I'm not disappointed; I'd expected you to be able to spot why that argument is so specious. It admits that the ROI of research, as measured in patents awarded, has been dropping, and then clutches desperately for "hope" (where "hope" is defined as any excuse to continue believing that the concept of constant, eternal growth is anything but insane), and comes up with various reasons why patents aren't very good indicators of innovation.

For instance, the number of citations per patent increasing might indicate the increasing value per patent, were it not for the fact that the "publish or perish" mantra of the modern university has combined with cheaper, and often digital, publishing methods to yield an explosion of academic writing, so citations are up across the board. Moreover, the idea that people simply aren't patenting their inventions is a spurious excuse that was already addressed in the Tainter excerpt above.

In other words, this is simply a desperate attempt to rationalize away the facts on the part of a vested interest whose survival depends on the idea that one can grow forever inside of a finite universe. That's hardly noteworthy. What is noteworthy is that even despite this desperation, even they can see that the ROI is dropping.

Your fourth link is fun, but it pulls its core set of values from a History book, a rather shaky secondary source on which to build such an alarming case.

I disagree. I think it's really the only useful data set for such an examination. Whether or not it's "alarming" is rather irrelevant.

Look more widely however, outside of this narrow band, and the story is different. Let's bring it up to date - from 1954 (77,185) to 2005 (390,733). The increase is just over five times. This is about in line with the increase in college graduations in the US over the same period. And that's surprising, given that people were being educated who would have been laughed at in previous years, they seem to have turned out to be just as productive.

Again, this tells us very little about ROI unless we take into consideration the cost of those investments. What did it take, in terms of education costs, to create that more educated population? That's something else Tainter examines, and shows that educational costs, too, are subject to diminishing marginal returns, as well. Excerpting Tainter again:
With increasing time spent in education and greater specialization, the learning that occurs yields decreased general benefits for greater costs. The greatest quantities of learning are accomplished in infancy; learning that occurs earlier in life tends to be more generalized. Later, specialized learning is dependent upon this earlier, generalized knowledge, so that the benefits of generalized learning include all derivative specialized knowledge. Axiomatically, therefore, generalized learning is of overall greater value than specialized.

Moreover, this early, generalized learning is accomplished at substantially lower cost. Malchup has compiled figures showing that, in 1957-8, education of pre-school children in the home cost the United States $4,432,000,000 (in income foregone by mothers), which yields $886,400,000 per year for ages 0 through 5. Elementary and secondary education cost $33,339,000,000, or $2,564,538,462 per year for ages 6 through 18. Higher education cost $12,757,000,000, or $2,514,000,000 per year for far fewer students, assuming an average of five years spent in higher education. In other words, the monetary cost to the nation of a year of education between pre-school, when the most generalized, highly useful education takes place, and college, when the most specialized learning is accomplished, increases by about 284 percent. And this increase would be even more dramatic if these figures took into account the fact that college enrollment is but a fraction of the available population.

Similarly ... the overall production of investment in higher education for the development of specialized expertise has declined substantially since 1900. D. Price has demonstrated, in regard to the education of scientists, that educating more scientists causes those of average ability to increase in number faster than those who are most productive. Thus, increasing investments in specialized education yield declines in both marginal and average returns.

In 1924, S.G. Strumilin collected in the Soviet Union a set of educational data that reveal a corroborative pattern. He showed that the marginal return on investment in education declines with increasing education. The first two years of education, according to Strumilin, raise a Soviet worker's production skills an average of 14.5 percent per year. Yet the third year of education yields an increase of only an additional 8 percent, while the fourth through sixth years raise skills only a further 4.5 percent per year.
So, if the increasing number of patents is so dependent on an increasingly educated population, then the cost of those patents has increased dramatically—suggesting that the ROI may very well still be dropping.

Forgive me but I can't see how your second link is relevant, it seems to be making a different point altogether

My main point is that there are limits to ingenuity; the diminishing marginal returns of R&D investment is one example of those limits. My second link provides others, for instance, how complexity begins to stifle the innovation of further complexity:
In most situations, a new product or service has to interoperate with others. This severely limits what can be done, and in particular limits potential profits for the inventor. A new coding scheme that leads to higher speed modems has to be accepted as an industry standard before consumers will buy it. Similarly, most control schemes for ATM networks have to be adopted by the whole industry before they can be used. Therefore the company that comes up with even a great invention can usually only obtain profits from licensing the patents and from a slight lead in marketing a new product.
And the increasing rarity of major breakthroughs:
Neither unfettered research nor any other kind has been producing the kinds of striking results that truly impress the public. Jonas Salk's recent death led to recollections of the dramatic impact his vaccine had in defeating polio 40 years ago. Today, in spite of tens of billions of dollars spent on the "War on Cancer" over the last two decades, we have yet to see any treatment for cancer that can compare in its definitiveness to that of the Salk vaccine. Our knowledge of cancer has advanced tremendously, and current techniques are far more sophisticated than anything that Salk had at his disposal, but no "Magic Bullet" has been produced. The nice easy solutions have largely been found already. The problems we are facing are much harder. Therefore the payoff from investment in research is lower.
Both of these are fairly obvious examples of diminishing marginal returns.
posted by jefgodesky at 12:54 PM on December 1, 2006


So you're saying that an item that's useful primarily for one season is more useful than an item that's used year-round, as often as three times a day?

I'm not saying that. Let me break this down: if you judge the napkin superior in utility to the glove on account of the fact that a napkin is typically used year-round, several times per day, whereas in your imagination the glove is only worn during winter (which ignores such things as work gloves, addressed below) it's still not clear why I should value the thing used ~1100 times a year for a couple minutes per use instead of the the thing used for hours at a time, several times a day, summing to a much larger period of annual use.

If you have some reason -- either internal to your theory or, better, based on some broader criteria -- why I should prefer the use-count to the use-duration it would shore up your credibility somewhat.

You would eventually also need to address the many different kinds of gloves and their many different uses -- I also suspect the glove wins the battle of auxiliary uses -- or better define what you might mean by "the napkin" or "the glove".

napkins have pragmatic use all year-round.

As do gloves, if one does manual labor. I get several hours of use most days from my gardening gloves (except during winter, when it's too cold to garden).

I don't have anything to base this on, since this kind of comparison is really fairly petty.

Perhaps you may think so, but there are those of us who prefer to kick the proverbial tires prior to taking a ride on some train of rhetoric. When I encounter an author who at first brush seems interestingly novel I personally prefer to check whether the author is the sort of person who steadfastly keeps aware of what he can and cannot claim rigorously -- and abstains from making baseless claims -- or whether the author is the sort who gets caught up in his own words and says whatever comes to mind.

It's a pity, because you do seem like a nice young man who sincerely believes the things you write -- and you certainly have an interesting outlook that I have not seen as well articulated elsewhere -- but if you want to be taken seriously when writing about large topics you should avoid dropping statements you cannot back up -- doing so exposes the clay feet undergirding what might otherwise be an impressive theoretical edifice.
posted by little miss manners at 2:04 PM on December 1, 2006


Excerpting Tainter again:

...The greatest quantities of learning are accomplished in infancy;


Oh yeah. Measured how. By the litre?

Axiomatically, therefore, generalized learning is of overall greater value than specialized.

This from a College Professor. Did he use this argument when applying for tenure?

But let's have a closer look at this strange argument. It's rather like saying that the most cost-effective part of your house is the foundations. That may be so, but a citizen educated to nursery school standard is like a house built a foot off the ground. Useless. The most educated students also earn the most, as every parent knows - college pays. Mr. Strumilin's research about workers in the Soviet Union in 1924 notwithstanding.

However we're back to the central argument. That of return on investment. I return to my coal mine in the 1800s. My energy investment is bacon fat for my lads. Their output of coal, from the shallow seam, is a healthy number of buckets per day. The Energy Return on Investment is stellar.

Now, two hundred years later, I'm strip mining Shale. The horrible machines, which cost a fortune, consume fully a quarter of the partially refined crap just to keep them going. There are some unanswered questions as to where, exactly, we put all the waste. The smell is awful, so is the Energy return on investment, barely above 2:1.

But it's vast. The output of my Shale powers three cities, keeps Google running and lights the benches of six Universities. My coal-boys could barely heat their village.

What's my point? Return on Investment is often totally meaningless. It is a technical measure caused by dividing one real quantity - Income, by an abstract one - variable overhead. Variable overhead may be of interest from a management point of view but it is a derivative quantity. What matters is Income (or power output, or number of patents) and these are a function of scale which ROI is not.

It's rather like becoming upset that every pay packet represents a diminishing percentage of your gross earnings. Yes it does - but so what? What matters is the cash, and that is the same.

However this thread is demonstrating the problems of falling Return on Investment. The napkin argument is much more fun. I'm a little troubled that having asked you for solid evidence, I find that your sources don't support your argument and when this is pointed out, you describe your own sources as specious. I don't believe you've provided a single piece of evidence for your view that isn't a secondary analysis of someone elses opinion - or just wrong. You need to be clear why someone else pulling 'Significant Inventions' out of a history book, or the Polio versus Cancer argument above, does not count as fact. Whatever. I leave you with a quick overview of boring old facts about the world as it is today.

".. humanity has never been better fed: the daily food intake in poor countries has increased by 38 per cent since the 1960s to 2,666 calories per person per day on average. The population of those countries has soared by 83 per cent during that time, so this is a stupendous achievement which puts the final nail in the coffin of Malthusianism. I wouldn't be so sure

The number of people subsisting on $1 a day has declined from 16 per cent of the world population in the late 1970s to 6 per cent today, while those living on $2 a day dropped from 39 per cent to 18 per cent. In 1820, 84 per cent of the world’s population lived in absolute poverty; today this is down to about a fifth.

In China [Life Expectancy] has surged from 41 years in the 1950s to 71 years today; in India it is up from 39 years to 63 years, almost doubling the average lifespan of 2 billion people. In 1900 average life expectancy around the world was a mere 31 years; today it is 67 years and rising.

A ton of coal produces 12 times more electricity in modern power stations than a century ago. Energy intensity in the rich countries has been falling by 1.3 per cent a year for the past century and a half. This year the demand for oil from rich countries will actually fall, despite buoyant economic growth. Because one acre of agricultural land produces so much more food today than it did even a decade ago, Western countries have been able to cut back on the amount of space devoted to agriculture. Forests are growing again, replacing fields."


All the evidence points the same way. Our luck is holding. Good news. Let's celebrate.
posted by grahamwell at 3:13 PM on December 1, 2006


What matters is Income (or power output, or number of patents) and these are a function of scale which ROI is not.

It seems as though return on investment (well, specifically EROEI, but I think it might generalise) is a very interesting ecological measure. If you are getting a low return on a large investment, and still coming out ahead, the impact of your activities must be truly enormous. That's a problem..
posted by Chuckles at 5:00 PM on December 1, 2006


It's a pity, because you do seem like a nice young man who sincerely believes the things you write -- and you certainly have an interesting outlook that I have not seen as well articulated elsewhere -- but if you want to be taken seriously when writing about large topics you should avoid dropping statements you cannot back up -- doing so exposes the clay feet undergirding what might otherwise be an impressive theoretical edifice.

You're right, I do sometimes get caught up in the comments sections of websites, mostly because I don't maintain the rigor there that I put into my articles or essay on the subject. The kind of rigor you're looking for is something you'll find there, and certainly in a work like Tainter's, though I'm guilty of making off-hand remarks like the versatility of gloves vs. napkins that are more difficult to defend. In my defense, one could easily replace napkins and gloves with entirely fictitious items, and my original point—illustrating the concept of diminishing returns—would remain.

Oh yeah. Measured how. By the litre?

By number of things learned—small children learn all the basics of their existence in their first few years. As we get older, learning becomes more difficult, both because our neurological ability to learn begins to close, but also because the things left to learn are more specialized and take greater effort to learn.

But let's have a closer look at this strange argument. It's rather like saying that the most cost-effective part of your house is the foundations. That may be so, but a citizen educated to nursery school standard is like a house built a foot off the ground. Useless. The most educated students also earn the most, as every parent knows - college pays.

That's not only true, that's the very basis of Tainter's argument: the higher the level of education a society requires of an individual to be conversant, the lower the marginal return on that investment there will be. Yes, college educated graduates make more money—that's not the question, because they also pay more. The question is ROI, and not just for an individual, but for a society. What ROI does society get from a level of investment in complexity so high that a college education is necessary for most of your population? This is, of course, not a necessary state of affairs; many societies have had significantly less complexity, and contrary to popular myth, this did not lead to any kind of massive mortality or suffering. In fact, many less complex societies enjoy lives just as long, and healthier, and by most measures happier (though this is a very tricky thing to measure), than our own. So—what is the return on society's investment? As the statistics cited above in the except from Tainter show, the ROI has peaked, and is now declining.

What's my point? Return on Investment is often totally meaningless. It is a technical measure caused by dividing one real quantity - Income, by an abstract one - variable overhead. Variable overhead may be of interest from a management point of view but it is a derivative quantity. What matters is Income (or power output, or number of patents) and these are a function of scale which ROI is not.

I disagree. Firstly, the overhead is not abstract at all—it's merely ignored. There is a very important difference. We externalize our costs, push them onto others, and ignore the true, "hidden" costs of our way of life. This is of incredible importance, because those costs are still being paid, but the payment is being made in very round-about ways that become largely invisible to us. Most of our environmental and social problems are the result of such externalized costs.

Secondly, the question is whether or not all this complexity is worth it. Complexity is an investment; every society has some level of complexity, and that level is a function of the net energy available to a society. We can see how the logic works on an individual scale: when an investor decides whether or not to invest in a given piece of stock, he doesn't look at the return on the investment nearly so much as the ROI. As Tainter illustrates in numerous examples, the same logic is maintained at the society level. As the members of a society begin to realize that the ROI on their investments in complexity are dropping, and that they could maintain the same quality of life they currently enjoy, but with a smaller investment, by opting to live with less complexity, it is at that point that collapse takes over—because, as Tainter shows, collapse is an economizing process that begins precisely because it benefits most of the people involved.

It's rather like becoming upset that every pay packet represents a diminishing percentage of your gross earnings. Yes it does - but so what? What matters is the cash, and that is the same.

It's rather more like becoming upset that every pay packet includes increasingly less pay—or that you must work longer and longer hours to recieve the same pay check. In your comparison of coal vs. shale, your shale operation takes immensely more investment to return the same amount of energy you once had much more cheaply from coal. The net energy available to you is declining, because you're spending more of your energy just to get your energy. You may have more energy overall, but what you need to do to get it is increasing even faster.

I'm a little troubled that having asked you for solid evidence, I find that your sources don't support your argument and when this is pointed out, you describe your own sources as specious.

I said no such thing. The napkin/glove argument was my own invention, and one I didn't really think much of, since I was primarily trying to illustrate the concept of diminishing returns. In hindsight, it was a silly spot to plant my flag, but that doesn't say anything about Tainter's work, or even my own more formal work.

...humanity has never been better fed: the daily food intake in poor countries has increased by 38 per cent since the 1960s to 2,666 calories per person per day on average. The population of those countries has soared by 83 per cent during that time, so this is a stupendous achievement which puts the final nail in the coffin of Malthusianism

I'm no Malthusian; in fact, I think Malthus got the problem almost perfectly backwards.

All the evidence points the same way.

We're in the midst of the worst mass extinction in the planet's history; we've got global warming and massive climate change on the horizon. Both of these are the direct result of our society's investments in complexity beyond the point of diminishing returns, and even though we've been recovering from the Neolithic Mortality Crisis for 10,000 years now, even today and by our own deeply flawed metrics, our quality of life lags behind less complex hunter-gatherer societies, and that's by comparison only to those that still survive, who do so only in the most harsh, marginal ecologies. Have things been getting better for civilization? Yes, they have; but the pace of that improvement has also been slowing. Here's another excerpt from Tainter:
Medical research and application provide a good example of a declining marginal return for increased investment in a scientific field. While it is less easy to measure the benefits of medicine than its costs, one sure indicator is life expectancy. Unfortunately, ever larger investments in health care do not yield proportionate increases in longevity. In 1930 the United States expended 3.3 percent of its gross national product (GNP) to produce an average life expectancy of 59.7 years. By 1982, 10.5 percent of GNP was producing a life expectancy of 74.5 years. ... [F]rom 1930 to 1982 the productivity of the U.S. national health care system (measured thus) declined by 57 percent. (In fact, it is likely that the decline in the productivity of medicine has been even greater, for the effects of improved nutrition and sanitation on increasing life expectancy have not been included.)
So I see very little evidence that points your way. All your quotes show is that things are still improving; they say nothing about the pace of improvement, which is precisely my argument. If the pace is slowing down, then that suggests that we are approaching the asymptote created by the diminishing marginal returns curve on complexity.
posted by jefgodesky at 8:08 AM on December 4, 2006


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