94th ESA Annual Meeting (August 2 -- 7, 2009)

SYMP 8-9 - Human resource use: Timing and implications for sustainability

Tuesday, August 4, 2009: 4:05 PM
Blrm B, Albuquerque Convention Center
Joseph A. Tainter, Department of Environment and Society, Utah State University, Logan, UT
Background/Question/Methods In the cosmology of Western industrial societies, “progress” results from human creativity enacted in appropriate circumstances. Creativity, in this view, is enabled by time free from subsistence pursuits, free time being thought to derive from surplus energy. Thus “progress” is considered to have resulted from the energy surpluses made available by such developments as agriculture and industrial production based on fossil fuels. Applying these beliefs to the issue of sustainability leads to the supposition that we can voluntarily reduce our resource use by choosing a simpler way of life with lower consumption.


Historical research suggests that these beliefs are deeply flawed. Humans develop complex behaviors and institutions to solve problems, often urgent problems that must be addressed without delay. Complexity and problem solving always have costs and require resources. Rather than emerging from surplus energy, cultural complexity (denoted “progress” in popular thought) often precedes the availability of energy and subsequently compels increases in its production. This suggests that, with major societal and environmental problems converging in coming decades, voluntary reductions in resource use may not be feasible. It is likely that future sustainability will require even greater energy production than is now the case.