Ecologists can learn from economists, says Timothy F.H. Allen, paying attention to return on effort. This video is a refined presentation of ideas based in hierarchy theory and the collapse of complex societies, jointly researched with Joseph Tainter and published in Supply-Side Sustainability.
[3:40] This is a resource that gives you a lot of gain for minimal effort. We call them high gain. High gain systems are wasteful. They’re local because they sit on the hot spot of the resource. They’re ephemeral because the hot spot doesn’t last very long. And they’re dynamical. You can describe them in terms of the dynamics of the situation. [….]
[04:18] … whereas tomatoes are all tomatoes all the way, basil consists of leaves — which you want — and these stalks and stems and flowers and things that you don’t. So we have to approach basil quite differently. We have to treat it as a low quality resource.
[04:40] It’s low gain. That is to say, you put in a lot of effort. You tend to be prudent. The resource is consumed in a dispersed way. The resource tends to be long lasting and structural.
[04:57] And so that in this way, basil is reduced down, processed, increased in quality, until we just have
the leaves. [….]
[05:30] I have a good colleague, Joe Tainter. He’s written a wonderful book in 1988 called The Collapse of Complex Societies. And his basic premise is that societies are problem-solving units, and they solve problems by complexifying. In the beginning you don’t get a lot of benefit for complexification. Then you get a lot. But in the end, there’s a diminishing return on effort. So over time, we consume a resource. It collapses. It becomes too expensive. We then indulge in some sort of a substitution.
[06:07] Notice though that the cost over time keeps on going up. Relative complicatedness is a different manner. Notice the way that we get more and more complicated and difficult to deal with, but but then all of a sudden, you change your strategy.
[11:30] Remarkably enough, hardly any systems go prudent [in their consumption]. […] As long as there is a high gain resource in the vicinity, they will use it. All systems do that. All systems are wasteful. [….]
[12:15] We never look after our resources. Once you’ve gotten to this prudent use, then, all of a sudden, instead of living in your food, you move out to get the food and bring it back again.
Here’s an abstract from a similar talk from Allen, on “Introducing the Concept of Profit Across Ecology“, given in 2016 at the U. of Georgia.
Ecologists often speak of resource use, but not of profit. Return on effort is neglected. Ecologists are so doom and gloom because their systems are seen as going round a cycle from establishment to demise as resources run out. Sometimes they lead to death and extinction, but economists know better that resources do not run out; usually they just get more expensive in the next pass around the cycle. There are successive cycles of increasing efficiency. Some cycles are predictable from rate-dependent energy gradients (high gain), and whole other systems are predicted from rate-independent constraints on those flows (low gain). We have examples from ants, termites, birds, the Roman Empire and prevailing global ecology.
The Power of Profit in Ecology | Timothy F.H. Allen | 2017 | TEDxMadison at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rhVlJDH3pTE
“Confronting economic profit with hierarchy theory: The concept of gain in ecology” | Timothy F. H. Allen, Peter C. Allen, Amy Malek, John Flynn, Michael Flynn | 2009 | Systems Research and Behavioral Science at https://doi.org/10.1002/sres.998
“Insights into Service Coming from Biology” | Timothy F. H. Allen | ISSS 2012 San Jose at http://isss.org/world/sanjose-2012-retrospective#plenary-allen
“Insights into the Relationship Between Products and Services Coming from Biology” | Timothy F. Allen, Duncan Shaw, Peter C. Allen, James Spohrer | 2013 | Systems Research and Behavioral Science at https://doi.org/10.1002/sres.2216