“The Collapse of Complex Societies” by Joseph A. Tainter

Tainter_Collapse_Complex_SocietiesISBN 978-0-521-38673-9. “The Collapse of Complex Societies” by Joseph A. Tainter was published originally by Cambridge University Press in 1988 (this 23rd reprint in 2011). Somehow the publishers have really sold Tainter short by slapping a label on this that reads “New Studies in Archaeology”. The UK cover price is a whopping £33. Compare that to Jared Diamond’s bestseller “Collapse” – a paperback you can pick up from Amazon for less than £8. Regardless of the publisher’s attempt to bury this book it has become a landmark. Twenty-three reprints people! For an expensive book on Archaeology? Why? Well, read it and you will know. This is brilliant.

Previous books on societal collapse have focused on individual case histories or attempted to find singular reasons for the fate of civilisations; resource depletion, catastrophe, intruders, social dysfunction and half-a-dozen others have been cited. For Tainter these explanations were not enough. Known causes lacked a framework to give us the understanding as to the timing of collapse. If a society faces the same problem five times in a row why do they collapse at the fifth time and not the second time?

Tainter’s answer gives us four concepts:

  1. human societies are problem solving organisations
  2. socio-political systems require energy for maintenance
  3. increasing complexity carries with it increased costs per capita
  4. investment in socio-political complexity often reaches a point of declining marginal returns

We have met the concept of diminishing returns before in the field of Economics. Tainter puts it like this:

“…human populations first make use of sources of nutrition, energy and raw materials that are easiest to acquire, extract, process and distribute. When such resources are no longer sufficient, exploitation shifts to ones that are costlier to acquire, extract, process and distribute, while yielding no higher returns.”

This simple explanation frames EVERYTHING. Douglas Adams famously joked in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that the answer to life, the universe and everything as “42” – now go and figure out what the question is. This is about as near an equivalent as we get to in the real world. (The marginal product curve is nothing new, it was developed to characterise changing cost/benefit curves in resource extraction and is as old as the nineteenth-century classical economists Thomas Malthus, David Ricardo and John Stuart Mill.) It is really simple, we have seen it before, but framing the problem of how societies succeed or fail in these terms is a revelation. It is so simple and so obvious. Anybody who has read anything about over-population, climate change or peak oil has met the concept of diminishing marginal returns. But who thought that this could be extended to the fate of civilisation?

Too often we become myopic about what is WRONG with the world: it is population, it is GM crops, it is nuclear power, it is empire, it is peak oil, it is climate change, yet all of these are simply symptoms of a wider malaise. It is inevitable that our civilisation should rise and fall if it is only based upon fossil fuels. Everything we do to try and mitigate the problems we cause, leads to more complexity not less. Just look at geo-engineering to fix climate change, GMOs to fix food supplies and Shale Oil to fix peak oil. None can give anything other than a temporary respite until we change direction completely.

What Tainter cannot give us is our sell-by-date. His theory has no power of prediction. It simply doesn’t know if there isn’t some new technology around the corner that can solve all our ills. As such the cornucopians need not feel threatened by Tainter’s work. Indeed it is something that we interpret in any way we see fit depending upon our personal ideology. Anyone convinced of our forthcoming collapse will see proof in these pages. Anybody thinking things will be just fine might see the same. They are both wrong.

What was plain to me was that Tainter’s observation shows us that whatever mitigation we take to move forward they have to be SIMPLER than the problem. SIMPLER means slower, it means smaller, it means more local. In short; I see Transition in these pages. Empires of bygone eras simply climbed up a hill only to fall off the cliff the other side. They knew no way back. They could not reverse what the perceived to be “progress”. John Michael Greer best summarised this as a dilemma in his book “The Long Descent“. (This is not the only place we see Tainter quoted, cited and poured over. Obviously there is Jared Diamond’s “Collapse” as well as Jonathan Porritt’s “Capitalism as if the World Mattered” which we reviewed back in 2007.)

Thus a higher level of technology may seem seductive, it might look like progress, it may seem “good”, but it might not be sustainable. But how do we decide what is sustainable? Is a photovoltaic panel good or bad? How about a wind turbine? We’ll stick our necks out and go with Jeremy Rifkin’s “The Third Industrial Revolution” on this. Any technology that is small-scale, dispersed and can be controlled locally is likely to give increasing marginal returns over any remote and centralised technology. Hence all the climate-change and economic arguments in the world cannot change the basic laws of thermodynamics: small, local and simple will survive. Just look at the Dinosaurs.

The Transition is a response to difficult times but it is a mistake to frame the problem as JUST Climate Change and Peak Oil. These are just symptoms of the bigger problem. If it wasn’t these two problems there would be other problems – take your pick. Hence we believe the Transition should grasp the big picture and see the heroic task of relocalisation as an utterly inevitable force of nature. If our civilisation is to progress it must abandon its very concept of what it thinks is “progress”. It must change path, it must change its technologies and it must change its expectations. Food supply chains should be much, much shorter than they are now. Local people will need to be in charge. Forget Fair-trade and social justice. This isn’t a fairy tale of some coming utopia. It is resisting the fate of the Roman Empire. Do we have the courage to take this new path? Greer thought not and I would agree with him. Our track record is poor regardless of Tainter’s observation about the overthrow of the kapu system in Hawaii by Kamehameha II:

“…ideologies, even entrenched ones, can be changed when necessary.”

So, what awaits us? Tainter defines “collapse” as:

“…a rapid, significant loss of an established level of socio-political complexity.”

Thus we can define Transition as controlled collapse. Tainter actually writes at length about our natural desire to avoid “collapse”. For him we should not see it as necessarily a BAD thing. It is something a society can CHOOSE to do. It can simply recede from threat to take a corrective action. This corrective action could be classed as “collapse” but it yields far better utility for the most number of people in comparison to an uncontrolled and catastrophic disintegration of society.

“Some anthropologists, for example, have suggested that drops in complexity within a level (such as state level) are not instances of collapse, merely ‘waxing and wanings of scale’.”

Maybe THAT should be the true definition of Transition: “the waning of scale”? Tainter continued:

“…it is almost necessary that collapse be viewed as a catastrophe. An end to the artistic and literary features of civilisation, and to the umbrella of service and protection that an administration provides, are seen a fearful events, truly paradise lost. […] Collapse is not a fall to some primordial chaos, but a return to the normal human condition of lower complexity.”

Complex societies (at least in history) always become more specialised before collapse:

“The reasons why investment in complexity yields a declining marginal return are: (a) increasing size of bureaucracies; (b) increasing specialisation of bureaucracies; (c) the cumulative nature of organisational solutions; (d) increasing taxation; (e) increasing costs of legitimising activities; and (f) increasing costs of internal and external defence.”

Tainter was really thinking of the Roman Empire when he wrote those words. In more modern times we would think the general consensus AGAINST big Government and Taxation would serve us well. Maybe it will. However the only advantages we have over the Roman Empire are our access to bountiful, cheap, fossil fuels, and our ability to create debt. The modern banking system was born a long time after Rome fell to the Barbarians. Ever since Governments figured out their banks could create money out of thin air they have been funding budget deficits with debt, NOT taxation.

Are we any cleverer than a Roman Emperor? Only marginally. In 2008 our debt mountain imploded and we will live with the consequences for decades to come. The barbarians were at the gates, so we printed money and debased the currency. Debasing the currency was the other favoured solution in Rome before collapse. That is why economics and the eradication of debt economics is so important to the Transition. (Somehow we feel vindicated by this!) It is also clear that large Governments are no particular solution to anything (we loved Tainter’s phrase “Compensation of elites rarely goes down.“!) so we can leave out “-isms” at the door. All we need is pragmatism.

At the end of Tainter’s seminal work he turns his attention to our current predicament. People around the world are expecting this civilisation to end. Sometime. Written in 1988 Tainter wrote:

“Many [have] become concerned with raising one’s own food, making one’s own clothing and building shelter. Magazines that focus on such subjects as organic gardening contain articles and advertisements extolling the virtues of a lifestyle that reduces one’s dependence on an ultimately unreliable industrial economy.”

Mea culpa. But…

“Certainly none can argue that industrialism will not someday have to deal with resource depletion and its own wastes. The major question is how far off that day is.”

Tainter briefly answers the claims of cornucopians that mankind will simply innovate its way out of every problem (he is dismissive) before turning his attention to environmentalists:

“In the contrary view, espoused by many environmental advocates, current well-being is bought at the expense of future generations. If we do allocate more resources to R&D, and are successful at stimulating further economic growth, this will, in the environmentalist view, lead only to faster depletion, hasten the inevitable crash, and make it worse when it comes. Implicit in such ideas is a call for economic underdevelopment, for a return to a simpler time of lower consumption and local self-sufficiency.”

Sound familiar? Scary isn’t it? It could have been written yesterday. 1988 was a quarter of a century ago. However, although Tainter dismisses the Cornucopian view he doesn’t believe that we will see the collapse of our industrial civilisation because all our Nations are joined up and there can be no vacuums of power. The reader would have to ask: If the lack of fossil fuels causes food prices to rise everywhere WHO will have the cheap food to feed the world? What about financial markets? They are like a pack of cards. A weakness in one single point causes the whole thing to come crashing down. We don’t have to speculate; we saw it happen in 2008. Somehow it is hard to be quite so optimistic as Tainter. In truth Tainter knew this as he swiftly adds:

“…mutual collapse. Collapse, if and when it comes, will this time be global. No longer can any individual nation collapse. World civilisation will disintegrate as a whole. Competitors who evolve as peers collapse in like manner.”

What is Tainter’s solution?

“In ancient societies the solution to declining marginal returns was to capture a new energy subsidy. In economic systems activated largely by agriculture, livestock and human labour (and ultimately by solar energy) this was accomplished by territorial expansion.”

Indeed the only thing stopping the Roman Empire from consuming the whole world was the costs of transport.

“In an economy that today is activated by stored energy reserves, and especially in a world that is full, this course is not feasible (nor was it ever permanently successful). The capital and technology available must be directed instead toward some new and more abundant source of energy. Technological innovation and increasing productivity can forestall declining marginal returns only so long. A new energy subsidy will at some point be essential.”

Tainter may not have been that familiar with the Laws of Thermodynamics but this is referring to a boundary that is not an economic one: any machine that becomes 100% efficient is one that consumes no energy and has no moving parts. It doesn’t exist. Everything tends to chaos, this is entropy.

“…up to the point where a new energy subsidy is in place, the standard of living that industrial societies have enjoyed will not grow so rapidly, and for some groups and nations may remain static or decline.”

This book closes with the following remark:

“However much we like to think of ourselves as something special in world history, in fact industrial societies are subject to the same principles that caused earlier societies to collapse. If civilisation collapses again, it will be from failure to take advantage of the current reprieve, a reprieve paradoxically both detrimental and essential to our anticipated future.”

It is almost spooky that something so profound, written 25 years ago, should remain so badly publicised. If it wasn’t for the fact that other authors kept referring to this book we would not have known of its existence. We can blame the publishers for failing to do this book the justice it deserves. Jared Diamond went on to make a TV program for National Geographic after he published “Collapse”. Who has heard of Tainter? Who in the Transition Movement has ever read “The Collapse of Complex Societies”?

Tainter’s theory is delightfully simple: civilisations collapse because they get too complicated and then run out of ideas as to how to maintain that complexity. This is a book we should all read. It is a book that deserves to be better known and promoted in the public sphere. It should be fully updated with lavish colour illustrations. It has never been more relevant. I have spent over five years seeking a meaning as to what the Transition represents. This book has gone further than anything before in putting the Transition into the context of the broad sweep of history. Before anyone starts out in Transition they need to get the BIG picture. It is in THIS book. Everyone should read it. Recommended.

About post-carbon-man

A passionate advocate of a peaceful transition to a sustainable political-economy, Mark hails from a working class farming background. Today he is a Company Director and Chairman of the Low Carbon Chilterns Co-operative. Whilst at University (Engineering Masters) he was active in Conservative Student politics but has had no affiliation since. He has travelled widely on business covering the USA, Europe, Middle East and Central Asian Republics. In 2007 Mark founded Post-Carbon-Living and a year later co-founded Transition Town High Wycombe. He lives with is wife & daughter in a home they retrofitted to be carbon-neutral. Today he blogs about surviving politics on a shrinking planet and is passionate in his rejection of Nationalism.


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