The Cost Of Complexity - Consuming Earth's Natural Resources

Reckless usage of the environment's natural resources has created for our civilizations a serious situation.

by Rex Weyler

We're all in Deepwater now.

Corporations don't need regulation, because protect­ing the environment is in their interest. The free market will protect nature.

That theory disintegrated at 21:49, April 20, 2010,un­der a waxing quarter moon, on a dark spring night in the Gulf of Mexico.

We've witnessed the collapse of corporate credibility before – at Bhopal in 1984, at Chernobyl in 1986, at the Marcopper Copper Mine in the Philippines in 1996, in Seveso Italy, at Love Canal, and in Minamata Japan, as Chisso Corporation poisoned a fishing village with mer­cury for four murderous decades,

These disasters cannot be written off as human error. They are the natural consequence of our society's practice of treating nature as a free resource for profiteering. Glo­bal corporations have demonstrated no ability to regulate themselves. Morality is too expensive. It is cheaper to cut corners on a hundred oil wells and pay the fines on the one that blows out. It is cheaper to dump mercury, cyanide, or dioxins into rivers and bays, and wait to see if the poor in­habitants have the muscle to make the company pay. It's cheaper to obliterate nature, finance your own “citizen group” to sign off on your treachery, and pay squadrons of lawyers to avoid liability.

Human industry now sinks its claws into every corner of the Earth, exploiting the last pockets of resources. The juggernaut took the easy stuff first because it was cheap. Now we go higher into the mountains for lithium and cop­per, deeper into the forest for ancient trees, and deeper into the earth's crust for oil and gas. Damn the cost. Rich con­sumers will pay, and the pelicans have no lawyers.

The Deepwater blowout that now stacks up among the greatest ecological holocausts of all time was not just an accident. It stands as the latest symptom of industrial civi­lization's hubris.

Solutions aren't the answer

Any robust species will naturally expand, if it can, to occupy its habitat. However, in nature “success” has a cost. A flourishing species must find new energy and nutrient re­sources, and must negotiate with its environment to process its wastes. Ecologist and historian Kenneth Boulding called this the “metabolic cost” of evolutionary success.

Likewise, as human societies dominated their habitats, they sought solutions to the problems of paying this meta­bolic cost. Societies often fail to see that those problems were the results of previous solutions. Irrigation allowed an­cient city states to solve the problems of population growth and scarce rainfall, but extensive irrigation produced salty, depleted soils.

To win new lands for food production, empires aban­doned their cities and moved to new watersheds. Eventual­ly, they clashed with other migrating communities, so they designed weapons and built armies to “solve” conflict. The subsequent arms race created new problems. They solved this with bigger armies, but big armies need more food. New problem.

Innovative technologies helped solve these problems, but technologies, like armies, must be fed resources. Ships consumed forests. Machines demanded iron and oil. Com­puters require copper, plastic, silica, and lithium.

Where does it all stop?

Anthropologist Joseph Tainter studied societies to find out where the problem-solution-problem cycle stops. Most complex civilizations and empires simply collapsed under the weight of their metabolic costs. Their solutions became bigger problems until they consumed all available resourc­es, depleted their habitat, and collapsed. Persia, Rome, Maya and Easter Island travelled this route to failure.

In The Collapse of Complex Societies, Tainter de­scribes how civilizations trapped themselves in increasing complexity until they experienced diminishing returns on their solution investments. At that point, new complex so­lutions no longer paid for themselves. To feed the bigger army meant expanding the empire, but a bigger empire has more borders to defend and more over-taxed, irate citizens to pacify.

To finance the rising cost of growth, an empire must discover new energy subsidies. Ancient Rome increased its energy consumption by annexing distant forests, taxing landed peasants, and capturing slaves. However, the hunt for more energy costs energy. “Imperialism,” Boulding ex­plained, “makes the empire poor.”

Finally, a growing civilization experiences negative re­turns on its investments. The modern disasters in Bhopal or the Gulf of Mexico provide examples of negative returns. As our industrial system seeks out more energy, we find ourselves digging up the Canadian boreal forest, destroying wild watersheds, draining lakes, and boring deeper into the Earth's crust below the ocean.

We may notice that the greatest driver of environmen­tal destruction is the growth process itself. Tainter points out that the only known examples of avoiding collapse – in both nature and in human history – involve simplifying, not growing. Eventually, we have to stop building false “so­lutions” that create new problems and negotiate a lasting peace with nature.

The high cost of high tech

We may believe that a new technology will solve the problems of growth, until we account for the full ecological cost of that new technology. To build hybrid cars and com­puters, we seek out copper, lithium, zinc, aluminium, and rare earth metals, displace communities, and push deeper into Earth's remaining wilderness.

Timothy Gutowski and colleagues cal­culated that as computer chips shrunk in size and grew in power, the material and energy intensity per unit mass increased a million-times. This is even before we fac­tor in the cost of armies swarming over Afghanistan to secure the lithium for bat­teries.

We tend to think that since our com­puters require so little energy to operate, they are “effi­cient,” but we're measuring the wrong thing. We need to measure the “embodied” energy and material required to mine and ship resources and to build telecom infrastruc­ture, server networks, software, research labs, and office towers. According to the International Energy Association report, “Gadgets and gigawatts,” electricity consumption for computers, cell phones, iPhones, and other devices will triple by 2030, and this does not include the bulldozers dig­ging up resources.

Remember when people claimed computers were go­ing to save paper? This never happened. In 1950, at the dawn of the computer age, humanity used about 50 mil­lion tons of paper each year. We now use 250 million tons, five times the paper. Growth swamps efficiency. Computers stimulated growth and created more uses for packaging and paper. Meanwhile, during that period, the Earth lost over 600 million hectares of forest.

In “The Monster Footprint of Digital Technology,” Kris De Decker points out that utility stations operate at about 35 per cent efficiency, so the actual energy consumed is almost three-times the electricity consumed when a de­vice is switched on. This is the metabolic cost of growth, the rising cost of complexity, paid long before you boot your computer or recharge your iPhone.

Where does this energy come from? It comes from damming rivers, lopping off mountain tops for coal, and boring wells deep into the Earth's crust below the ocean.

In Deepwater now

Like our ancestors, modern human enterprise took the low-hanging fruit and harvested the cheapest oil first. In the oil heyday, 50 years ago, oil flowed from shallow wells with 99 per cent net energy efficiency.

Today, we dig into oil sands, destroy the vast boreal forest, melt bitumen in giant furnaces, fill lakes with black sludge, kill migrating waterbirds, displace caribou and hu­man communities, trigger lung disease, mix bitumen with condensate refined thousands of kilometres away, ship the goop through long pipelines, endanger our coasts with oil tankers, and heat the planet like a flambé to deliver crude oil at 50 per cent net energy efficiency.

More costs, less benefit, represents the “declining return” on our investments. Eventually those returns turn negative. In the Gulf of Mexico, British Petroleum lobbied politicians to cancel regulations, drilled a 6,000 metre well in 1,500 metres of water, and cut corners to save money.

At 21:49 on April 20, 2010, gas from an improperly sealed well reached the BP drilling rig, ignited, blew up the rig, killed 11 people, devastated the Gulf's coastal econo­my, and launched an ecological holocaust on the scale of Bhopal, Chernobyl, and Minimata. The blowout has killed thousands of seabirds, turtles, fish, and marine animals. Some 50,000 to 150,000 barrels of oil per day poured into the Gulf of Mexico. On top of this, BP added over 1-million gallons of toxic Corexit dispersant, banned in the UK, be­cause it contains the neurotoxin 2-Butoxyethanol, arsenic, cadmium, cyanide, and mercury.

The Gulf of Mexico tragedy is not unique. It is only the latest symptom of a civilization out of control, stumbling blindly to pay the metabolic cost of reckless, unsustainable growth.


Originally published on “Deep Green,” Greenpeace International,

Rex Weyler is an author and environmental activist, living in Vancouver. He writes the “Deep Green” blog at Greenpeace International.

[From WS January/February 2011]

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