Peak Knowledge and Social Complexity: Are They Linked?

The New York Times carries a thought provoking op-ed by William Gail on what he refers to as a looming new scientific dark age.

Let us put aside the quibble that the dark ages might not have been as dark as commonly supposed.

Gail makes the argument that as global warming proceeds much of the knowledge that we possess of dynamical Earth processes, that is that knowledge which is largely inductive in nature, will “peak” posing serious problems for civilisation.

Gail observes,

Our foundation of Earth knowledge, largely derived from historically observed patterns, has been central to society’s progress. Early cultures kept track of nature’s ebb and flow, passing improved knowledge about hunting and agriculture to each new generation. Science has accelerated this learning process through advanced observation methods and pattern discovery techniques. These allow us to anticipate the future with a consistency unimaginable to our ancestors.

But as Earth warms, our historical understanding will turn obsolete faster than we can replace it with new knowledge.

Which leads him to contend

Historians of the next century will grasp the importance of this decline in our ability to predict the future. They may mark the coming decades of this century as the period during which humanity, despite rapid technological and scientific advances, achieved “peak knowledge” about the planet it occupies. They will note that many decades may pass before society again attains the same level…
… As the patterns that we have come to expect are disrupted by warming temperatures, we will face huge challenges feeding a growing population and prospering within our planet’s finite resources.

The complexity of civilisation, in part, is based on a stock of knowledge and that stock of knowledge, in part, is inductive knowledge of dynamical Earth processes. If that knowledge should peak, and then decline, as a consequence of global warming one would expect then there to be a concomitant decline in the complexity of society or societies in the sense discussed by Joseph Tainter in the context of ancient societies.

You would get a collapse back into simpler social forms. Notice this is strongly implied in Gail’s observations regarding the challenges of population growth and economic growth.

To be quite speculative, imagine the stock of knowledge grows again over time. If society would remain, in its essence, dedicated toward the pursuit of capital accumulation and is pervaded by externalities then, it is easy to imagine, we would again reach “peak knowledge” as we enter upon another ecological crisis. The growing stock of knowledge will serve capital accumulation and will lead to global externalities.

That is to assume that knowledge of dynamical Earth processes of the type outline by Gail remains inductive.

Here lies another little diddy for those interested in the relationship between knowledge and society. One thing that has long interested me is the relationship between (a) the stock of knowledge, (b) economic growth and (c) ecology. There exists a problem of knowledge here.

Given our rich systems of knowledge how ought we to live?