Connections Between Energy Use and Leadership Transitions

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* Article / chapter: Exploration of Connections between Energy Use and Leadership Transitions. By David J. LePoire. Chapter 10 of: W. R. Thompson (ed.), Systemic Transitions.



"The hypothesis (is) that historical transitions may reflect the emergent phenomena (e.g., bifurcations and logistic growth) of an underlying complex adaptive system.

To explore the suggestion that energy flow through the system is the driving parameter of this complex system, this paper analyzes estimates of historical energy use over the recent (500-year period) transitions in leadership. The relationship between the progression of energy use and complexity of civilization is then further explored by investigating associated technologies and social organization."


"Historical analyses suggest that the adoption of new technologies is accompanied by an increase in energy use and subsequent social transformations.

These analyses include

  • the early identification of energy’s role in societies by White (1959),
  • the role of energy in the historical transformation and collapse of previous civilizations by Tainter (1988),
  • the recent contributions to this issue in the extended logistic complexity curve of Modis (2002),
  • and the connection between extended evolution and energy of Chaisson (2001 and 2004).
  • Further hypotheses of an extended theory of evolution have been proposed by Gardner (2003).

White (1959) was one of the first to make the connection between energy and cultural change. He identified the leverage that technology could provide to sustain more complex societies.

This work was incorporated into the analysis of the collapse of complex agricultural societies by Tainter (1988), who identified the marginal return on investment of resources, such as energy, as societies grow larger and more complex. He suggested that many agricultural societies collapsed by overextending their reach into non-sustainable systems.

The impact of environmental degradation has been an important factor in the development and decline of civilizations (Ponting 1991; Chase-Dunn and Hall 1997; Tainter 1996; Diamond 2005). Most of these analyses focused on agricultural societies because of their simplicity relative to industrialized societies.

Chaisson (2001, 2004) recently connected the energy flow (i.e., the free energy density flow) to possible bifurcation points throughout the history of the universe, from galaxy formation to present society. However, Chaisson’s focus was on the connection of the early development of galaxies, stars, and planets to the period of time since the big bang. Therefore, the graphs of the progression of energy flow over time display the recent accelerating rates.

This connection between increased energy flow and historical transitions were also suggested by Prigogine (2000) and Spier (2002).

Modis (2002) approached the cosmic evolution in a slightly different manner by relating complexity to the sequence of generally agreed upon important events. This definition of complexity was inversely proportional to the period of time between subsequent events. This treatment emphasized the recent events, which is similar to using a time scale based on time before present (not time since beginning). An important aspect of this study was the comparison of the data to two possible mathematical trends—an exponential curve, which would lead to a singularity given how Modis defined complexity, and a logistic curve, which would reflect a learning or adaptive element throughout the history of the universe. However, Modis did not specifically discuss the role of energy flow in relation to the increase in complexity."


More information


Chaisson, E.J. (2001) Cosmic Evolution: The Rise of Complexity in Nature. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. — (2004) “Complexity: An Energetics Agenda; Energy as the Motor of Evolution.” Complexity, 9 (3): 14–21.

Modis, T. (2002) “Forecasting the Growth of Complexity and Change.” Technological Forecasting and Social Change 69: 377–404.

Tainter, J.A. (1988) The Collapse of Complex Societies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. — (1996) “Complexity, Problem Solving, and Sustainable Societies,” in R. Constanza, ed., Getting Down to Earth. Washington, DC: Island Press. Available at, accessed July 2006.

White, L. (1959) The Evolution of Culture. New York: McGraw Hill.