Sunday, July 19, 2009

Why Science won't save us

Last week one of the three main French trotskist group – Worker's Struggle – published an editorial denouncing "degrowth" as "reactionary". I am no fan of French style degrowth. Most of the time, it is hardly more than revolutionary mythology repackaged as ecology and in my humble opinion, anybody telling that the best way to solve today's society's problems is to destroy it entirely is better off the farthest away possible from any real power. Yet the red hard-liners' reaction is interesting because it highlights one of the industrial world's most pervasive delusion : the faith in science as an all-powerful mean to manipulate reality.

Workers' Struggle's argument is twofold. First they say the decreasing economic activity is unacceptable because it will destroy industrial jobs and reduce general prosperity. This is indeed the whole point but since all those industrial jobs depend upon a clearly unsustainable system, which will collapse no matter what we do, it is probably a better idea to tell people to prepare for the inevitable. The writer probably realized this, so he added there was nothing to fear from the Limits to Growth because technological and scientific progress will lift them (once the evil capitalists will have been overthrown, of course, but since this particular group is called Worker's Struggle, this was to be expected.)

Worker's Struggle is a marginal group, but the faith into the all-powerfulness of science is not, especially among the various political, economical and cultural elites which set the policies of this country. One owes to the truth to say that Reverend Malthus' predictions were ill-timed and that science played a major role in making sure of that. This led most people – including some who should have known better – to consider science as a kind of working magics.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. Science, and its offspring technology, is definitely not some kind of mystical product of human creativity and intellect. It is, to paraphrase Joseph Tainter, an investment into problem solving complexity. It has proved quite a good investment and it certainly beats other popular choices such as erecting giant anthropomorphic statues but it has its limits.

Saying that scientific and technological research is an investment means that pouring resources into it is roughly the same thing as buying, say, a new mechanical saw for your sawmill. You spend money – or some other kind of resource – and get capital in return. With some luck this capital proves to be productive and enables you to get more money to invest. Of course, sometimes you miscalculate and end up with nothing but bills, but that's not the real problem.

The real problem is, of course, Reverend Malthus' law of decreasing return. It is relatively easy to raise massively one's productivity by investing into easy solutions, but that works only so far. Afterward, however, making further progress becomes increasingly harder and costlier, so you must steadily increase your investments lest you see the pace of your advance slow down to a grinding halt.

Tainter and Huebner have shown that this applies to science as well as to car plants or sawmills. No matter how we measure it, the productivity of science is decreasing since at least the beginning of the XXth century. At that times it was quite possible – and fairly common – for a lone man to make major discoveries in his basement workshop. That is what Thomas Edison or Albert Einstein did. This possibility still exists in marginal domains – for instance the deciphering of dead languages – but everywhere else, including in computer sciences, it has essentially vanished. Science today is done in teams, with very costly equipments in never funded enough institutions.

Another problem comes from the fact all capital needs maintenance, and it is as true for the immaterial capital that are science and technology as for a tractor plant. Mastery of science and technology is not innate. It must be taught again with each passing generation, lest it becomes lost as did fire making did among Sentinelese. As our body of knowledge grew so did the need for a very complex – and very costly   specialized education system. Moreover, this education system is subject to the law of diminishing returns. It is relatively easy to alphabetize a population, but going farther becomes harder and costlier as the general level of education rises.

So far we have compensated by pouring ever more resource in our scientific and educational system, and managed to continue advancing … at the price of having more scientists and teachers alive today than during the whole rest of human history. This was possible only because fossil fuels enabled us to produce very large surplus and keep them, and their support institutions, well funded enough to remain productive.

The situation will change as we slide down the far side of the Hubbert curve. In fact, it already has begun to change. As the amount of net energy available to our civilization decreases, the quantity invested into science and technology will decrease too. Whole programs will be quietly put on hold as scarce resources are focused on the keeping afloat of the "essential" ones. The pace of progress will slow down then stop. It may even go backward, as costly technologies are abandoned the way civilian supersonic flight was after the Concord disaster.

Resource scarcity is also likely to affect the education system. I don't think schools will be closed down, or that children will quietly drop out, before quite a long time, at least in European countries. What will happen is that the quality of the teaching will go down as funds grow scarce and affluent people migrate toward private schools. Irrelevant – or seemingly irrelevant – technologies will stop being taught and will be forgotten or kept frozen in libraries. This, of course, will harm our ability to exploit efficiently the resource we are left. The productivity of the society will decrease, which will cause the funds allotted to research and education to decrease further.

Those who follows the peak oil debate will have recognized the basic mechanism of John Michael Greer's catabolic collapse – and rightly so for science is every bit as subject to it as the rest of our civilization's immaterial capital. And of course counting on science to stop a process of which the decline of science is an integral part is an exercise in futility.

In Dark Age Britain the rulers of what had been a highly urbanized and literate society could not have signed their names to save their life. In late bronze age Greece, the very idea of writing was lost with the collapse of the palatial economy. The only question worth asking about technology and science in the age of the energy descent is how much of it will we lose ?


  1. Oh here we go again. The same old doomer ideas repackaged to assault this time... science.

    This is nothing new. Just another blogger jumping on the doomer bandwagon, because he thinks he has something unique and creative to "get out there"

    And this time you got on Energy Bulletin! Good for you! You just hooked a few more gullibles into the doomer trap.

    And what's your alternative to science? Well because you have all the "self-sufficiency" skills, you'll be able to convince your followers that it's best that they go out on their hands and knees weeding your fields.

    Now let me give you just one example about how much more scientific progress we can make with less time, energy and effort. And yes, the evil technololgy played a role in this one. The example is that of synthesis of long strands of DNA. In yesteryear, cloning a longer stretch of DNA would have taken you weeks, if not months. Now we simply assemble the sequence on computer and order it online.

    Hmmm, 2 days work instead of 2 weeks/months. Is that a diminishing return on complexity?

    If you have something new to say about collapse, please do. But please spare us from your "which idea can we put through the doomer-matic this week" formula.

  2. Jane Jacobs explored these themes of loss of knowledge and technical knowledge in her book Dark Age Ahead in 2004, her last book before her death.

    Instead of Greer's catabolic collapse, Jacobs noted that it only takes the memory of what has been lost to also been lost to result in a Dark Age.

    What you wrote seems plausible, but combining the two concepts I see instead it taking two generations of neglect for Dark Age mentalities to supercede corrective action. This will depend much on how collapse manifests itself. Since it's unlikely to be at the same moment all around the world it may have no equal example.

    I"ve often though that as we're forced to reconcile being on only one earth, not six or seven, forced to not grow anymore what is growth? What resource can grow? How will society strive to continue? The answer seems to be education. The wonder of the human mind and finding solutions to our so many different problems are infinite. That is where we can grow infinitely. Not resource based, not killing our good earth, but growing in our vast interests and experiences.

    Given that there are so many people now and so well educated, I don't have the same dire feeling but rather the beginnings of that moneyless Star Trek universe of peace, bored of sports and finding more interesting things to do than amass things for just the sake of it.

    We will not travel to the stars by fuel, but the end of the car will just as much wake people out of their purposeless lives to seek something more meaningful to do. That's going to be a good thing. No more Paris Hilton updates. Sports will be played, but for fun and not status. We will sleep at night and wake up during the day.

    It may end up being that we had been quite literally living in a Dark Age all along, and it took a shock to the system to finally find out our purpose again.


  3. David, the exemple you give is just mass-production after a breakthrough. This happened in every industry in the past -the car and the plane ones to begin with - and of course it always levelled off after a time.

    The fact is that the productivity of science measured in patent per invested dollar or in patent per working scientist is decreasing, as shown by Tainter and Huebner. You can contest the figures, of course, but do it scientifically.

    Energyblog, as Tainter demonstrated, collapse, if it happens, will happen everywhere roughly at the same time or not at all. As long as the system of peer polities which makes up today's world holds, it won't allow chaos to spread too much (the key word being too much).

    As for people finding a new purpose after the collapse - which will be a slow one, remember - I a skeptical. New religions and ideologies will develop, for sure, but most people will do what they do today : survive, fight for a better position in the social order, look for a mate, care for their family and have fun. They will just have to do it in a very different context.

    You have a very nice blog, by the way

  4. Why would you assume that the metric for productivity of science measured in patent per invested dollar has any relevance to the question you are addressing? Patent-counts are relevant to the patent office. Pick something else.

  5. Thank you. I appreciate your articles as well, keeps me thinking and considering wider perspectives