The End of Innovation?

At the annual GreenAccord gathering of environmental journalists last week, Utah State University professor Joseph Tainter pretty successfully nixed the notion that technological innovation will save us and the planet from climate change.

Tainter, who studies how people respond to environmental problems, argues that the world has been living through such a robust era of innovation — the internal combustion engine, the telephone, the computer, to name but a few — that we take such breakthroughs for granted, though maintaining the pace of innovation indefinitely is just not possible.

Why? Well, it has to do with all those past inventions and the complexity they have introduced (think of computer chips or solar panels). Because all those existing inventions have built on the complexity of the inventions that came before them, each new innovation is necessarily more complex, and so on. Such increasing complexity  requires ever-increasing quantities of time and money. Tainter argues that proof of this trend can be seen in the growing number and size of research teams, and the declining number of patents per inventor, among other things.

Whether we have enough of both to solve climate change is one question that fits into the bigger picture. Tainter concludes:

“[W]e can foresee that the age of innovation as we have known it will be a passing phase of human history. It will not last forever.”

To read his whole paper, click here and scroll down to the list of Speakers’ Abstracts and Presentations. (Unfortunately, no one seems to have a copy of Tainter’s PowerPoint presentation that had a number of charts and graphs that back up his words. I emailed the professor and asked him to send me a copy and will update this post when he sends it.)

GreenAccord is an annual gathering of environmental journalists hosted in Italy each fall by a dedicated group of volunteers. In the last three years that I’ve attended there have been some wonderful speakers such as Bill Rees, who coined the expression (and concept) of the ecological footprint; and  Walden Bello, winner of the Alternative Nobel Prize. Also present both this year and last was D.C.’s own Erik Assadourian, a senior fellow at WorldWatch Institute, who made a compelling case that our burning need to “shop until we drop” is not a natural instinct but one we “learned,” Pavlovian-style and with the help of advertising — and we could just as easily unlearn.

This year, other standouts included a couple of complimentary presentations by ecological economists Robert Costanza and Fritz Hinterberger. Interestingly, in the course of their detailed discourses, Costanza and Hinterberger both mentioned research correlating happiness and affluence around the world. It’s not new research. I had heard it before but, each time it makes me *happy* to hear again that, while we all need some economic security to be happy, after a certain point, money won’t by you contentment.

Conclusion: While innovation may not solve global warming, living simpler is still looking viable.


About greendistrict

I'm Christine MacDonald, a journalist and the author of the book: "Green, Inc., An Environmental Insider Reveals How a Good Cause Has Gone B

Posted on October 24, 2010, in Carbon footprint, Climate Change, Environment, environmental justice, Global Warming, Green Living, lifestyle, sustainability, World. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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