Energy, Complexity, and Sustainability: A Historical Perspective
Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions
The common view of history assumes that complexity and resource consumption have emerged through innovation facilitated by surplus energy. This view leads to the supposition that complexity and consumption are voluntary, and that we can therefore achieve a sustainable future through conservation. Such an assumption is substantially incorrect. History suggests that complexity most commonly increases to solve problems, and compels increase in resource use. This process is illustrated by the history of the Roman Empire and its collapse. Problems are inevitable, requiring increasing complexity, and conservation is therefore insufficient to produce sustainability. Future sustainability will require continued high levels of energy consumption to address converging problems.
Tainter, J. A. Energy, Complexity, and Sustainability: A Historical Perspective. Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions 1: 89-95. (Invited contribution to the inaugural issue.)