December 05, 2011
Innovation Costs For Maintaining Civilization

We need to innovate just to run in place. We need a constant stream of innovations in energy, materials, automation, and other areas just to maintain a constant standard of living. Some substantial fraction of all innovation goes toward just maintaining our current standard of living and quality of life. My guess is the fraction of all innovation goibng toward maintaining our position is actually rising. Whether that is true is a very important question.

This need to innovate just to maintain our current living standard seems to get little attention. So I'd like to explain some of the reasons why the need exists and why I suspect a rising fraction of our total innovation must be going toward just maintaining previous gains.

Let us start with population increases. As population rises so do the damaging side effects of human activities (often called external costs by economists). For example, 100 million people can emit 3 times the pollution per person as 300 million people with the same total pollution. Therefore when population increases the amount of pollution allowed per person has to decline in order to maintain the same level of air and water quality. The cost of emissions reduction is not linear. Cutting tailpipe pollution 50% is much less than half as expensive as cutting it 100%. We need more innovations that lower the costs of emissions reduction or else population increases will translate into either higher pollution or lower living standards or both.

Population increases also mean more demand for water, oil, copper, zinc, manganese, and other minerals. Even as demand increases the marginal costs of minerals go up due to rising demand from larger industrialized populations, declining ore quality, and higher energy costs. Therefore we need innovations in ore extraction and energy production to compensate for both higher demand and lower quality supply. Plus, we need innovations that enable us to use substitutes. How many of our innovations are going toward developing needed substitutes?

Look at the cost of fish. Overfishing has raised the costs of finding fish. Whereas fish used to be easy to find without going very far they are now harder to find and require ships to travel over greater distances and with more expense and fuel in order to catch them. This trend has already developed so far and fish prices have gotten so high that aquaculture to raise fish has been developed as an alternative. Researchers work to lower the pollution effects of aquaculture and to reduce infections and other problems in aquaculture farms. Fish production now requires scientists who study how to manage fisheries in the wild and how to produce feed and suitable conditions for aquaculture farms.

Look at energy production. Innovation for oil extraction has not progressed fast enough to prevent a large rise in the cost of oil extraction as the easier to get oil reserves have been depleted. Offshore drilling now requires drilling rigs that cost hundreds of millions of dollars along with support ships and helicopters to ferry out workers. Large numbers of scientists and engineers toil away at considerable expense at trying to make photovoltaic and other alternative energy sources cheaper. Still other scientists and engineers work toward lowering the cost electric vehicle batteries in order to enable a migration away from increasingly expensive oil as a source of fuel for vehicles.

Here is a partial list of depleting resources, external costs, and other changes that require innovation to compensate:

  • Aquifers are being unsustainably depleted for water even as water demand rises due to growing populations.
  • Lower cost oil reserves are getting depleted. Therefore more innovation (and capital and energy) is needed to extract harder to get oil. Ditto coal. Coal quality is declining as the higher quality grades such as anthracite get depleted.
  • Mineral grades are declining as higher quality mines get exhausted. So more innovation, energy, and capital are needed per unit of minerals extracted. Also, more innovation is needed for substitute materials.
  • Fisheries are overfished. We will have to grow more food in farms to compensate for less food available for harvest from the wild.
  • Rising population densities require more research and capital spent on pollution reduction.
  • Rising populations lower the ratio of land per person and therefore require more innovation and capital to boost food and fiber production per acre.

What I'd like to know: How to measure what fraction of innovation goes toward breaking even, basically running in place? If we could measure that we could also measure whether the amount of innovation devoted toward civilization maintenance is rising, falling, or staying the same.

Update: It is difficult to predict future rates of innovation. One reason why: Key discoveries can enable many derivative innovations. So, for example, it would be an understatement to say that the transistor enabled quite a few other innovations. Ditto the laser which has revolutionized communications.

Whether we can generate innovations faster than we create conditions (e.g. depleted mines or depleted aquifers) that require innovations is hard to know. In theory we have huge potential for advances in a number of fields including computing, nanomaterials, and fusion energy. But it is hard to forecast, for example, when fusion energy will become commercially practical.

I think the overall rate of technological progress seems faster than it really is because the computer and communications revolution has done so much to increase the flow of stimuli to people. They experience videos and web sites and buzzing sounds indicating that new text messages have arrived and it all seems very fast paced. But we need advances in areas that are more basic such as in materials and energy production in order to stay out of the Malthusian Trap. So far those advances haven't come easily. We still don't have nanobot manufacturing devices or fusion energy for example.

Perhaps manufacturing nanobots will make nuclear power, photovoltaics, and long range lithium car batteries a reality in 20 or 30 years hence. We might really be approaching some huge enabling advances that speed up the rate of innovation. But right now the rate of innovation doesn't seem to be keeping up with the rising demands for resources.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2011 December 05 09:44 PM  Trends Technological Advance

Sergey Kurdakov said at December 6, 2011 7:03 AM:

I thought on the question here is my catch.

estimation of energy amplifier ( it can be already be done in a form of electron accelerator - it is a little worse than neutron accelerator ( less efficiency more non transmuted waste ), but it is ready for use is about 2 cents per Kwh ( so much less, than almost any other existing source ).

This does not require new innovations.

with the capability to provide all energy needs - the coal, natural gas - could be converted to oil ( with less expenses than now - so about 25 usd per barrel of oil ) - again, almost anything is here.

Then water . Current prices to have 1 cubic meter of water is half of a dollar - this is very reasonable price even for most underdeveloped countries. with less cost of energy - the cost might drop to 25 cents per cubic meter of fresh water.

now on materials. Bjørn Lomborg in his book The Skeptical Environmentalist provides estimations - for this century, actually - there are no problems whatsoever. Then let consider asteroid mining.
What is required? cheap launch. OK there are proposals a) launch payload using by railguns ( cost about 100 usd per kilogram ) and b) build high altitude launch pad. While it will reduce the cost just slightly ( at 30 km high launch pad it will be possible to launch 1/3 of the weight of rockets - so hundred of tons of payload, instead of current dozens of tons ) but still it will be several orders lower of current costs .
Does it requires expensive research? no. not quite. It is just order of several trillion dollars to have everything running. Then with asteroids - we are done with all 'rare' materials - they are quite abundant in asteroids.

It is just we lack an organisation which can focus on mentioned issues. Still - energy amplifiers will certainly appear in 20 years time frame ( there are many projects, so one of them will be finished ), and cheaper space exploration will also be on agenda quite soon because due to new entrants ( china etc ) in space race will push efforts here.

PacRim Jim said at December 6, 2011 12:38 PM:

If you believe in the anthropomorphic concepts of Nature and Gaia, then you must accept that what is happening is what they intend to happen, since we are their creations.
Could it be that Gaia/Nature is self-destructive, and as such reprehensible?
Down with Nature! Down with Gaia!

PacRim Jim said at December 6, 2011 12:41 PM:

Was it not Plato who said that necessity is the mother of invention.
When up against it, and as a last resort, humans use their brain to muddle through, somehow.
Don't bet against us.

bbartlog said at December 6, 2011 2:16 PM:

I'm not betting against humanity muddling through... but if I have to choose a future, I'd prefer one that has tigers, cod, clean oceans and air, rhinos, elephants, wild spaces, and so on. Just because people can figure out a way to jam 20 billion of us on to the planet doesn't mean it's the right thing to do. This is why in my darker moods I feel like the Nazis were right about some things (eugenics, and broadly the idea that some peoples are just better than others).

Joe said at December 6, 2011 3:27 PM:

This reminds me of the Unibomber's manifesto. His basic point was that new technology creates more problems than it solves. Food for thought.

Randall Parker said at December 6, 2011 7:03 PM:

PacRim Jim,

I don't think the planet is a sentient life form.

Don't bet against us? To do what exactly? So far we are still using resources faster than we are innovating substitutes. This shows up in the cost of oil and minerals and fish.

I'm not forecasting the extinction of the human race. But I think humans have become so numerous and their resource consumption has risen so high that our innovations that got us this far are nowhere near enough to keep us at the level of comfort we currently enjoy.

Andrew Guenthner said at December 6, 2011 11:16 PM:

While this is an interesting concept, the more I think about how to answer the question the more I tend to believe that the concept has too many shortcomings that preclude a clear answer. First of all, what does it mean to "maintain our standard of living"? If it means simply that more people live exactly the way we live now, then this is really an impossibility. If we all stay on Earth, then more people means more crowding, and I have met quite a few people who feel that a more crowded lifestyle is inherently an inferior one. If we don't all stay on Earth, then some of us live quite differently than we do now, thus our collective standard of living is not maintained. And that's just the beginning of the argument.

On the other hand, if "standard of living" is reduced to some aggregate measure (per capita income, let's say), then it may well be, at least now with ~1% per year population growth going to zero in perhaps 40 years, that no technical innovation at all is needed. Simply making different choices with our existing technology or simply making existing technologies more widespread might suffice. While without innovation, we are at least in some cases worse off than we would be otherwise, I am not sure that our aggregate living standard would have to decline in an absolute sense, at least not for a long time. Also in an aggregate sense, we definitely do not need any particular mineral or fish to maintain our standard of living. Only if you go beyond that and start naming specific aspects of how we live now do such things come into play, but then where do you draw the line?

Regardless of how much or what kind of innovation is going to happen, we can already be very certain that the world is going to change, so a better question to ask might be "What level of innovation is required for us to adapt successfully to the inevitable changes?" And on that topic, I'd point out that perhaps the biggest changes we will have to adapt to will not involve natural resources and a growing population, but a population that grows older and machines that can do more and more things better and cheaper than people can.

Abelard Lindsey said at December 7, 2011 8:43 AM:

In terms of population, I've heard that only around 100 million people is necessary to maintain a technological civilization.

Neo said at December 7, 2011 11:27 AM:

I've always noticed that the more things you have, the more things you need to maintain.
This must be a real problem for the "rich"

DonM said at December 7, 2011 11:36 AM:

One point made and used a few times is overfishing.

Humans are not the only consumers of fish. Small whales (e.g. Narwhale) also consume fish, and probably consume a lot more of it that we do. Reducing the number of Narwhales would reduce pressure on fish, and make space for more human consumption.

That is what is routinely done with the deer population in the American north east. Without frequent hunting seasons, the white tail deer (aka the hoofed rat) population would explode, leading to a great deal of crop damage, and disease. By issuing permits, and having them returned when the item is taken, an estimate of the number removed can be obtained. And the Narwhale often has a trophy quality tusk.

Sean Gilligan said at December 7, 2011 11:57 AM:

As population increases (ceterus parabus) the rate of innovation increases non-linearly because of the increase in the division of labor. In general the nominal prices of commodities have not increased in the last couple hundred years. Your basic point is valid, but I'm optimistic that the necessary innovation is forthcoming.

Tedd said at December 7, 2011 11:58 AM:

I'm sure one of the key reasons we need innovation just to "run in place" is the cost of maintaining infrastructure. As I acquire assets I need to spend more and more of my time and money looking after those assets -- maintaining them, insuring them, or replacing them. Mankind as a whole is no different. As we acquire assets -- from roads to retirement benefits -- we have to spend more and more of our wealth just maintaining those assets. So, less and less is left over for other things, unless our wealth keeps increasing. Hence the need for innovation.

Michelle Clindon said at December 7, 2011 12:19 PM:

The world is suffering from a governmental Obama-constipation, where ideas and innovations get "stuck" in the pipeline and back up until the system explodes. It is a serious problem that precludes the type of productive innovation which you feel is required.

You may wish to invest in a bit of industrial strength Ex-Lax.

GeoffB said at December 7, 2011 12:26 PM:

Your comments about aquifers and pollution make me wonder about the idea that urbanization is part of going green. Adding 1000 people to a metro area pushes it that much closer to a tipping point where aquifers deplete too fast and the next level of pollution controls are called for. Adding the same 1000 to a sparsely populated county might require more driving, but in a place where the atmosphere can better absorb it and where aqifers still replenish a little closer to the rates at whicch they are they are tapped. Maybe the true way to go green is to spend 25 minutes driving 20 miles to work in a town of 25000 instead of 10 miles to work in 40 minutes in a city of one million.

rob said at December 7, 2011 2:02 PM:

I've thought a lot about this lately. The idea that technology creates more problems than it solves is often brought up, but it's laughably wrong, unless your value system is very different from mine. Technology in various forms is likely keeping several billion people alive right now, taking it away just isn't an option. Even letting it decline just a little, as Randall worries, is a disaster for thousands or millions.

My worry is for the educational system. Talk to anyone who hires young people (or educates them in college) and they will tell you that the kids they are getting to hire in the last six or eight years are remarkably less capable and dedicated than just a few years ago. It's not that there aren't still exceptional kids, just not as many as before and the average is dropping. At some point (we don't know where), we drop below the replacement rate for engineers, skilled trades, technicians and so on. The company I work for hires a lot of engineers and the average age of the new hires seems to be going up and up. Once you run out of these folks, your civilization is guaranteed to decline - you don't have the folks to keep it going.

I wish I knew how close to the edge we were now...

Renaissance Nerd said at December 7, 2011 2:42 PM:

This question turns Malthus on his head. Thus far innovations in technology have managed to keep well ahead of the population curve, and since world population is getting close to plateau, and an expected decline, I wonder more what innovations will be required to keep a more-or-less constant standard of living. There may come a time when more energy is expending on fixing problems like the sewer systems backing up through lack of use in Russian ghost towns. There has never been a voluntary reduction in population that we know about--most sudden or prolonged reductions came from pestlience, famine or wars, etc. What'll happen when world population starts contracting due to prosperity? There's another unanswerable question.

We have a lot of people who have self-selected out of the category of 'breeders;' these will have no descendants and many others have opted for below-replacement levels with only children. We'll have an aging population for several decades to come, and several smaller follow-on generations saddled with horrendous debt and onerous taxes to keep the earlier generations fed and pampered. Energy and labor-saving innovations are going to become crucial in the next few years, or we might see a eugenics/euthenasia horror show to match WWII. Maintaining the status quo is already off the table, and innovation is the one way to stave off gruesome possibilities.

Deoxy said at December 7, 2011 3:15 PM:

This all assumes several things that are not given, the most obvious being continuous population growth. The only western country that is still even at (much less above) replacement rate is the USA! A "knowledge" society makes children very expensive.

The next is that oil is getting more expensive - if the government were to allow drilling in the US with existing technology, the price of oil would be lower today than it was 10 years ago. Our proven reserves are certainly MUCH MUCH higher.

I've got to give you the fish thing, but the minerals are in a very similar situation to the oil.

In short, we've largely got a government problem at this point. We've got 100+ years of usage on almost everything at our current rates... and with a stagnant population size, that's likely to remain fairly unchanged.

EVENTUALLY, you might be right, but not in the (likely) lifetime of anyone commenting here.

Matt in Maine said at December 7, 2011 3:33 PM:

This reminds me of the Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894.

aso said at December 7, 2011 4:27 PM:

well, really what you are saying is that if we stop tech innovation we just revert to malthus' type of cycles. when there are too many people some will just die and we won't have the problem anymore. which is true. only thing that allowed us to escape malthus is that pace of tech innovation is faster than pace of pop growth.

having said that, i believe that this problem will solve itself once (if) economic growth will make everyone just have less kids, like us in the west.

Randall Parker said at December 7, 2011 9:16 PM:

Renaissance Nerd,

I do not believe the world fertility rate will continue to drop. What will happen: Some populations will select themselves out of existence by not having babies while other populations which have more babies will have their genes and their beliefs selected for. This is already happening. The Amish doubling rate is 14 years. They are not the only high fertility population in industrialized countries that have made themselves effectively immune to the fertility-depressing effects of industrialization.


The sizes of the areas off-limits to drilling are really very small compared to the areas available for drilling in the United States. We can tell from the far larger areas open to drilling that the areas that will be opened in the future (when high oil prices swing public opinion firmly in favor of opening these areas) won't make a big contribution to oil production.


I'm saying we need not only innovation but quite a lot of innovation to stay out of the Malthusian Trap. For example, we suffer top soil loss every year. That becomes a big problem eventually. We need innovations to create perennial grains that don't have to be plowed every year. Morocco has 2/3rds of the world's phosphate reserves. How do we grow food when it runs out? Probably possible. But we'll need innovations (and more energy) to concentrate the phosphorus. I could go on. Lots of things we are doing now aren't sustainable even if the world population shrinks in half.

anonyq said at December 9, 2011 3:57 AM:

The Amish is not the only minority in the world with a high birthrate but what happens is that at one point in time those minorities will connect to the industrialized world and loose their high birthrate. Keeping yourself dumb and outside the industrialized world as the Amish are doing is simply not a longterm solution. Besides could you name another group like the Amish with such a high birthrate and more than a few thousand followers?

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