On Friday, February 25 2011, The Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future and the BU Department of Geography and Environment convened for the sixth Sawyer Seminar on Energy and Society. The session, entitled The Role of Energy in Avoiding Collapse, featured Joseph Tainter and Robert Kaufmann and was moderated by Robert Weller.
Joseph Tainter, Professor in the Department of Environment and Society at Utah State University, began the conversation by examining the collapse of the Roman Empire, in terms of network theory, energy economics and complexity theory. His analysis of the Roman Empire’s practical interventions to resolve problems increased its socio-economic complexity, leading to higher costs, diminishing returns, alienation of the population, economic weakness and, ultimately, collapse. He emphasized that sustainability ought to be a historic science, and that contrary to misconceptions that frame it as a passive consequence of consuming less, it ought to be framed as an active condition of problem solving.
Robert Kaufmann is Professor and Chair of Geography and Environment at Boston University. His presentation offered an energetic interpretation of the twentieth century history of the United States and the former Soviet Union, which reflected the importance of “cheap oil” as well as the economic, political and social changes subsequent to changes in the supply of oil. His presentation highlighted different social and political responses in the U.S. to offset the energy decline, whether the rise in women’s employment, the decline in U.S. savings rate and federal debt.
Following the presentations the audience engaged in a lively discussion with the panelists. Some of the issues discussed included a reflection on the future of social relations in the U.S. in light of increased income inequality and a stagnant median family income, the relations of structure and agency in thinking the resilience and collapse of complex societies, and the possibilities of geographic contraction as response to existential threats.
The interdisciplinary seminar series continues throughout the spring semester and will bring together leadings scholars to discuss various aspects of how energy transitions are themselves socially constituted and how they have, and are likely to, impact society. The next seminar, entitled Energy, Security, and Conflict will feature Amy Myers Jaffe and Michael Klare, and will be held on Friday, March 25 at the Pardee Center.