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Innovation and sustainability

Is the Innovation Society Sustainable?

From a long-term perspective, like the one of the archaeologist, we can compare the ups and downs of many civilizations and societies at different timescales, in different natural environments, both in the present and the past. Whether one looks at the Roman, Sassanian, Spanish, British, or American Empires, or at small-scale societies in Africa or Papua New Guinea such as the Huli, in each case a group of people constructs a way of living together, exploits it and grows in size and footprint to a full- scale society with many institutions, and ultimately disintegrates. Disintegration entails the dispersal of people, throwing them back on fending for themselves rather than depending on their group synergies for their survival. There may then follow a phase of reconstruction so that another society emerges, organized differently, with different means of subsistence and a different organization and institutions.

First of all the above observations leads us to the conclusion that such dynamics are inherent in the societies themselves, rather than in the circumstances under which they emerge and flourish. Rather than see the disintegration as an externally triggered ‘crisis’ as we often tend to do, we must shift the focus toward the internal dynamics of the society, arguing that all such ‘crises’ are in effect due to the incapacity of the society itself to deal adequately with the dynamics in which in is involved.

What might be the cause of such a widespread phenomenon? There are two main approaches to it. The first (cf. Tainter 1988, Tainter and Patzek, 2011) looks at the energy flows that a society maintains to keep its members alive (which requires about 100 watts), but also to maintain its infrastructure (which currently absorbs 9900 watts per capita in the USA). In its early phases, a society’s expansion depends on using energy (and other material resources) that are easily accessible in the environment or have been accumulating through either natural or human processes. But as the society grows, it needs more and more energy. Ultimately, the rate of energy return on energy invested will go down as the resources on which the society is based become scarcer, have to come from further away, etc. In the extreme case, this throws the society back on the net energy productivity of the sun in the area it covers. This – in my opinion entirely correct – energy perspective on the rise and fall of civilizations is the perspective that is currently dominant, and as such drives our societies’ search for ever more and cheaper fossil fuel. There is no denying that our societies do indeed have an energy crisis looming, unless petroleum can be replaced by other sources of energy. And they do have a greenhouse gas crisis looming unless those new resources emit much lower levels of CO2 per unit of energy.

But there is another dynamic – that is inexorably pushing us towards a crisis in our mode of life – we would like to draw attention to. One that is much less frequently discussed, but no less dangerous to our societies. We also need to look at the information flows the society maintains (van der Leeuw 1981, 1997, 1998). This finds its roots in the growing awareness that all societies (and not only modern ones) are information societies because it is the information processing by their members that keeps these members together, sharing knowledge about resources, institutions, customs, language, etc., so that they can support each other in the life-ways that characterize the society. The two flows are related because the information processing enables the society to make choices about which forms of energy to use, how to process them, how to use them, and the energy flows enable the members of the society to survive and create the infrastructure (material and immaterial) that constitutes the society itself.

There are some interesting particularities of human information-processing that create their own limitations to the growth of societies. Whereas, ultimately, the limit to energy is external to society, the limit to information processing is internal to it. Individually, we are limited in the number of dimensions we can observe or manipulate (some argue that the limitation is of the order of 7±2, inherent in the limitations of the Short-Term Working Memory of the human brain). Collectively, by dividing tasks and communicating and coordinating activities, clearly a society can handle more dimensions but it, too, is limited to a selection from among the infinite number of dimensions that constitute the complex system in which any society is embedded. Whether individually or collectively, therefore, any action that we humans undertake is based on a reduced perception of the challenges that action attempts to deal with. But the actions impact on the full set of dimensions of the complex system, inherently creating ‘unanticipated consequences’ that result from any actions we as human undertake. Now, suppose our knowledge and understanding expands linearly or even geometrically (as in the current phase of very rapid innovation in our societies), nevertheless, because of the difference in dimensionality between the complex system itself and the representation we have of it, the unintended consequences will increase exponentially. Hence, though we think we know more every day, proportionately we in fact know less and less about the socio-environmental system that we are continuously modifying.

On the one hand, this dynamic interaction provides an explanation for the fact that societies generally, when there are no energy limitations, grow larger and larger. That growth is due to the following feedback loop:

Problem solving structures knowledge ––> increases information processing capacity – –> allows the cognition of new (unanticipated) problems ––> creates new knowledge ––> more and more people involved in processing information ––> population and its aggregation increase ––> energy flow increases ––> etc.

But on the other hand, this feedback loop also explains why there is a ‘natural’ end to that process. Clearly, through time, any society will initially tackle the challenges that it encounters most frequently, i.e. the ones that involve rapid temporal rhythms. But as they tackle them, the human impact will transform the complex system in many different ways, involving many different temporal rhythms, including much slower ones. The cumulative effect of that process over the long term is a shift in the risk spectrum the society deals with, taking out known short-term risks and introducing unknown longer-term ones. Ultimately, that will lead to a ‘risk barrier’, a moment in time when, unexpectedly, many such hidden longer term risks emerge more or less simultaneously or at least in quick succession, and the society needs to face them. In fact, as we become ever more adept at solving short-term problems, we shift the risk to long-term problems—such as climate change—which do not match the skills we have developed and know how to reward. We are headed into a trap of our own devising. Or to put it differently, over time any society comes to a point when it is overwhelmed by the unintended consequences of its own actions. That is the ‘tipping point’ that we commonly call ‘a crisis’.

What does the lead-up to that state actually look like, as far as we can learn from the study of ancient societies that have gone through the complete cycle of expansion and disintegration? It’s all a question of value creation. Societies cannot exist without value systems and ideals their members share, or at least participate in, because they create similarities in expectations, and thus provide the society with behavioral norms, and with shared objectives to strive for. Values align underwrite the coherence of the society by aligning the behavior of its members.

All societies have developed value systems that are internal, valuing individuals’ behavior, as well as their position in society, according to these internalized values. In isolation, societies can survive a very long time on such internalized values along. The Australian Aborigines, the Hopi of the US Southwest and the Amish are excellent examples. But when a society has grown so large that it can no longer provide the resources it needs locally, it starts to exchange and comes out of isolation. That sets a whole different dynamic in motion.

Most of the larger civilizations (in terms of population) have ultimately focused on externalized values, creating monuments, material wealth, etc., in order to foster a bond between their members. One advantage of an externalized, artifact-based value system is that it can be cross-cultural, such as we currently see in the globalization of material culture, because sharing objects (and the love of them) can be integrated in very many different value systems. Such value systems therefore emerge when groups of people start trading across wide spaces in which populations with different cultures are living. Slowly but surely, this then shifts the value system in the (generally urban) core, increasingly involving values derived from trade, including ideas and objects obtained from elsewhere, to the detriment of values attached to local products such as primary resources, crops, etc.

As this allows more and more people to aggregate at the center, and spawn more urban centers because more value is available per capita, this also leads to more specialization, and increasing innovation at that center. Yet all these people need food, which generally comes from closer by, so the local environment is likely at some point to get exhausted. The specialization, if pushed too far, tends to increase dependency on communication and sharing the overall way of life, and have as a consequence that people cannot easily fall back on pre-specialization (pre-urban) modes of life. Ultimately, therefore, the urban centers are confronted with a shortage of reasonably easily available energy and other resources, and an incapacity of the population to go back to a different (pre-urban) mode of life. The society has driven itself into a trap as a result of the unintended consequences of the changes that have occurred. This seems to be the current state of our World System.

The last part of the trajectory up to that state of the system is characterized by an increasing focus of the society on short-term, tactical interventions rather than the strategic ones that characterized the early stages of the process of societal growth. We currently see this most clearly in the financial domain. There, long-term investment – enabled by long-term shareholders not required to report to the public – has been replaced by short-term reporting with an emphasis on transparency. In my opinion this reflects the collective awareness that unintended consequences may at any time overwhelm us. But our current situation, characterized by a number of quasi-simultaneous ‘sectoral crises’ (environmental, resource, financial, economic, etc.) occurring at different speeds, increasingly shows the hallmarks of a system that has been driven close to a much more encompassing tipping point.

To explain how the Western world has come to that point, we need to consider the interaction between the energy and the information flow dynamics, and go back about two centuries in time. Until the Industrial Revolution began, c. AD 1800, innovation was essentially constrained by the availability of energy. To implement an invention, i.e. to spread it throughout society and as a result transform the structure and customs of that society to integrate the innovation, is costly in energy. Hence, up to the Industrial Revolution – bar very short periods in human history – innovation was essentially demand-driven. Inventions were only taken up widely if they responded to a particular, clearly identified, practical need that people were willing to spend the necessary energy to overcome.

But once the use of fossil energy freed our societies from that constraint, innovation became increasingly supply-driven. Nowadays, once an invention is available and recognized by a few, major investments are made to almost forcibly spread it around. This reflects the fact that our societies have become structurally and politically innovation-dependent. Over the last sixty years in particular, in order to maintain this acceleration in innovation, we needed (1) more and more energy and (2) more and more innovative capacity. We have thus invested more and more human, financial and resource capital in finding energy and innovating (by investing in R+D). One result of this dynamic is the consumer society, in which the number of different artifacts increases geometrically, triggering an equal number of new, thus far unidentified, ‘needs’ and exponentially increasing the unintended (mostly hidden) consequences of this process.

We are now at the point that innovating within our existing problem- and possibility space is no longer sufficient to maintain the dynamic structure of our society. We continuously have to expand that possibility-space itself, through more and more rapid innovation, in order to maintain the growing GDP that is deemed the hallmark of societal success and a stable democratic society. This has led us to explore the innovative possibilities of completely new – and thus far invisible – domains, such as nuclear-, information-, communication-, bio- and nanotechnology. The inventions that emerge from these efforts are not in themselves needed by our societies, except in so far as they create new ‘value domains’ that allow this ‘Ponzi scheme of innovation’ to continue a little longer.

To get out of it, if we can, will require a battle with ourselves to wholly redefine our social structures and institutions to master the long term. The difficulty of that battle is that we do not have a fixed point outside our current societies’ dynamic structure to provide the leverage necessary for that process. Hence the transition will necessarily be a chaotic one. All of this makes us, of course, wonder what will happen in the next decennia, and whether the development as outlined here can be reoriented.