Can information expand to enable solving complex social problems, without requiring unsustainable energy consumption?

graph from Tainter, Complexity, problem solving and sustainable societies
Figure 4.1: Diminishing returns to increasing complexity, in Tainter, “Complexity, problem solving and sustainable societies.”
Would considering the potential consequences of information flow, instead of or in addition to energy, affect this graph?

Energy has always been the basis of cultural complexity and it always will be.

Getting Down to Earth coverJoseph Tainter. “Complexity, Problem Solving and Sustainable Societies.” In Getting down to Earth: Practical Applications of Ecological Economics, Island Press, 1996.

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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, Joseph A. “Energy, Complexity, and Sustainability: A Historical Perspective.” Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions 1, no. 1 (June 2011): 89–95.


If readers have leads to answers to the following questions, please let me know. I’d guess the literature may well address the first set of questions. Applying physics and information theory to spiritual asceticism may be opening new ground? Unless the Dalai Lama’s seminars have gotten into it? —

What would happen if Tainter substituted the notion of “information” for “complexity?” Can information expand to support sustainability, without requiring high levels of energy consumption? Can major shifts in the organization of society, or some parts of society, result in a much greater level of function, without increase, or maybe even with decrease, of energy and materials use?

What happens if an analysis like Tainter’s, or one that considers information along with or instead of energy input, is applied to problem-solving methods practiced in spiritual communities such as Christian monasticism and Buddhist sangha?

Also, I’m curious about what happens if ecological and evolutionary notions are applied to developing organizational responses to complex management issues, such as, for example, wildlands management in a complex national park like Wrangell-St. Elias, which is the size of Switzerland, with many engaged landowners, jurisdictions and stakeholders, and conservation and preservation issues. Would it be useful to evaluate networked/collaborative management models vs hierarchical/authoritarian approaches, using information and energy input-output considerations? Could doing that give insights into how best to respond to agency budget and staffing declines, which are happening at the same time that management issues are becoming more difficult and complicated?

Networked/collaborative vs hierarchical/authoritarian management also likely differ in outcomes, beyond those typically identified in agency or business planning, but which other cultures, including but not limited to Christian or Buddhist ascetic communities, might feature. I wonder if applying information & energy input/output analysis in the planning process might tend to open up the process to an expanded set of alternatives. Maybe just by breaking set patterns of thinking & behavior?

I realize all this needs much more research and thinking to be clear & useful. Comments welcome.

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