Drilling Down pp 185-214 | Cite as

Our Energy and Complexity Dilemma: Prospects for the Future

  • Joseph A. Tainter
  • Tadeusz W. Patzek


If fish were scientists, suggests our colleague T. F. H. Allen, the last thing they would discover would be water. We are not sure where this saying originates. Something like it appeared in The New York Times in 1920 in a report on a talk by British scientist Sir Oliver Lodge. “Imagine a deep-sea fish at the bottom of the ocean,” lectured Sir Oliver. “It is surrounded by water; it lives in water; it breathes water. Now, what is the last thing that fish would discover? I am inclined to believe that the last thing the fish would be aware of would be water.”1 We like a variant of this conundrum: imagine that you could talk to a fish, and ask the question: Is your nose wet?


Fossil Fuel Gross Domestic Product Renewable Energy Steep Gradient Complex Society 
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Further Reading


  1. 1.
    Allen, T.F.H., Tainter, J.A., Hoekstra, T.W.: Supply-Side Sustainability. Columbia University Press, New York (2003)Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Barstow, D., Rohde, D., Saul, S.: Deepwater Horizon’s final hours. The New York Times, 25 Dec 2010.
  3. 3.
    Tainter, J.A.: The Collapse of Complex Societies. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge (1988)Google Scholar

Circumventing the Energy-Complexity Spiral (or not)

  1. 4.
    Jevons, W.S.: The Coal Question: An Inquiry Concerning the Progress of the Nation and the Probably Exhaustion of Our Coal-Mines, 2nd edn. Macmillan, London (1866)Google Scholar
  2. 5.
    Owen, D.: The efficiency dilemma: if our machines use less energy will we just use them more? The New Yorker 86, 78 (2010)Google Scholar
  3. 6.
    Potter, A.: Planet-friendly design? Bah, Humbug. Macleans.Ca. Accessed 22 Jan 2011
  4. 7.
    Strumsky, D., Lobo, J., Tainter, J.A.: Complexity and the productivity of innovation. Systems Research and Behavioral Science. 27, 496–509 (2010)CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Energy Returned on Energy Invested and Renewable Energy

  1. 8.
    Cleveland, C.J.: Net energy from the extraction of oil and gas in the United States. Energy 30, 769–782 (2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 9.
    Hall, C.A.S., Powers, R., Schoenberg, W.: Peak oil, EROI, investments and the economy in an uncertain future. In: David, P. (ed.) Biofuels, Solar and Wind as Renewable Energy Systems: Benefits and Risks. Springer, New York (2008)Google Scholar
  3. 10.
    Hall, C.A.S., Balogh, S., Murphy, D.J.R.: What is the minimum EROI that a sustainable society must have? Energies 2, 25–47 (2009). CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 11.
    Kubiszewski, I., Cleveland, C.J., Endres, P.K.: Meta-analysis of net energy return for wind power systems. Renewable Energy 35, 218–225 (2009)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. 12.
    MacKay, D.J.C.: Sustainable Energy–Without the Hot Air. UIT Cambridge, Cambridge (2009)Google Scholar
  6. 13.
    Tainter, J.A., Allen, T.F.H., Little, A., Hoekstra, T.W.: Resource transitions and energy gain: contexts of organization. Conservation Ecology 7(3), 4 (2003), Google Scholar

The Future

  1. 14.
    Ackerman, F., Stanton, E.A.: The Cost of Climate Change: What We’ll Pay if Global Warming Continues Unchecked. Natural Resources Defense Council, New York (2008)Google Scholar
  2. 15.
    Daly, H.E.: Steady-State Economics: the Economics of Biophysical Equilibrium and Moral Growth. W. H. Freeman, San Francisco (1977)Google Scholar
  3. 16.
    Fridley, David: Nine Challenges of Alternative Energy. Post Carbon Institute, Santa Rosa (2010). Accessed 22 Jan 2011Google Scholar
  4. 17.
    Kemfert, C., Schumacher, K.: Costs of inaction and costs of action in climate protection: assessment of costs of inaction or delayed action of climate protection and climate change. In: Höppe, P., Pielke, R. (eds.) Workshop on Climate Change and Disaster Losses: Understanding and Attributing Trends and Projections, pp. 149–180, Hohenkammer, Germany. Accessed 22 Jan 2011

Proximate and Ultimate Causes

  1. 18.
    Perrow, C.: Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies. Basic Books, New York (1984) (Second edition, 1999, published by Princeton University Press)Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Joseph A. Tainter
    • 1
  • Tadeusz W. Patzek
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of Environment and SocietyUtah State UniversityLoganUSA
  2. 2.Department of Petroleum and Geosystems EngineeringThe University of Texas at AustinAustinUSA

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