Professor Joseph Tainter
Department of Environment & Society
Utah State University

TITLE:  Depletion and Innovation: The Sustainability Balancing Act

February 14, 2014

3:00 -5:00p.m.

DBH 6011

Contact: Adriana Avina at


One of the fundamental debates about the future of the industrial way of life concerns the balance between resource depletion and technical innovation. Technological optimists claim that depletion will always be compensated by innovations that lead to more efficient use of resources (more output per unit of resource input), or by development of new resources. In this view, as a resource becomes scarce, prices signal that there are rewards to innovation. Innovators and entrepreneurs accordingly respond with novel technical solutions.  Optimists believe that this will always be the case, and that sustainable resource use is therefore not an issue. Technological pessimists focus on absolute limits to resources in a finite world, on returns to investment, and on externalities such as pollution. In the history of the industrialized way of life, the optimists have so far been correct: Innovation has managed to keep pace with depletion, so that over the long run, the prices of many commodities have been constant. The factor overlooked in this debate is that innovation, like other forms of knowledge production, grows in complexity and costliness and produces diminishing returns. This presentation explores the productivity of innovation since the early 1970s to inquire whether our system of innovation can forever offset resource depletion, and even whether it can continue in its present form.


Joseph A. Tainter is Professor of Sustainability in the Department of Environment and Society, Utah State University, having previously served as Department Head. He received his Ph.D. in Anthropology from Northwestern University in 1975. Dr. Tainter worked on issues of sustainability before the term became common, including his acclaimed book The Collapse of Complex Societies (Cambridge University Press, 1988). He is co-editor of The Way the Wind Blows: Climate, History, and Human Action (Columbia University Press, 2000), a work exploring past human responses to climate change. With T. F. H. Allen and T. W.  Hoekstra he wrote Supply-Side Sustainability (Columbia University Press, 2003), the first comprehensive approach to sustainability to integrate ecological and social science. His most recent book is Drilling Down: The Gulf Oil Debacle and Our Energy Dilemma, with Tadeusz Patzek (Copernicus Books, 2012). Dr. Tainter has taught at the University of New Mexico and Arizona State University. Until 2005 he directed the Cultural Heritage Research Project in Rocky Mountain Research Station.  Dr. Tainter's sustainability research has been used in more than 40 countries, and in many scientific and applied fields. Among other institutions, his work has been consulted in the United Nations Environment Programme, UNESCO, the World Bank, the Rand Corporation, the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, the Beijer  Institute of Ecological Economics, the Earth Policy Institute,  Technology Transfer Institute/Vanguard, and the Highlands Forum. Dr.  Tainter has been invited to present his research at the Getty Research  Center, the University of Paris (Pantheon-Sorbonne), the Royal  Swedish Academy of Sciences, Uppsala University, the Universitat  Autonoma de Barcelona, the University of Sheffield, Politecnico di  Torino, and many other venues. His research has been applied in numerous fields, including economic development, energy, environmental conservation, health care, information technology, urban studies, and the challenges of security in response to terrorism. He appears in the film The 11th Hour, produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, Leila Conners Petersen, Brian Gerber, and Chuck Castleberry, in the ABC News special  Earth 2100, and in other documentaries. Dr. Tainter's current research focuses on complexity, sustainability, energy, and innovation.

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