Energy Gain and Complexity

Using the Human and Ecological Past to Understand Our Future

27 October 2015
Leiden University

Speaker: Professor Joseph A. Tainter, Utah State University

Abstract: There is nothing more important for the human future than energy. While energy is normally considered the province of technologists, social scientists and biologists are uniquely placed to clarify transitions in energy use. Energy systems go through evolutionary processes that are recurrent, consistent across time and space, and unrestricted to species. Energy gain is a concept that is central to understanding the evolution of past human societies, other species, and our own future. This presentation explores changes in energy gain in fungus-farming ants, agrarian empires (specifically the Roman Empire), and contemporary oil production. Consistent patterns in energy transitions allow us to understand aspects of biological and cultural evolution, changes in complexity of organization, and return on investment in the energy technologies that power our societies today.

About the speaker: Joseph Tainter received his PhD in anthropology and is Professor of Sustainability in the Department of Environment and Society, Utah State University, having previously served as Department Head. His most famous books are The Collapse of Complex Societies (1988),  the co-edited volumes The Way the Wind Blows: Climate, History, and Human Action (2000), Supply-Side Sustainability (2003, with T.F.H. Allen and T.W. Hoekstra) and his most recent work Drilling Down: The Gulf Oil Debacle and Our Energy Dilemma (2012, with T. Patzek). These works all discuss in multidisciplinary ways a wide range of issues in which sustainability is central in networks of human actions and responses to climate changes, forms of both human and natural resources depletion, and how these may lead to changes and innovations in societies, past and present. Professor Tainter’s research concerns issues of complexity, sustainability, energy, and innovation, and have been applied to archaeology, environmental conservation, human ecology, urban studies and many more. His own and his collaborative research clearly indicate how archaeological research into economic aspects of societies can be relevant for current discussions in times of economic and ecological crises.