The implication is clear: civilizations are fragile, impermanent things.

This is the review of a book most of you will not read, The Collapse of Complex Societies . The Author, Joseph Tainter, is an academic and writes like one and it’s full of examples and histories of past societies.

Anyone who has studied history knows that societies/civilizations are born and eventually collapse. The collapse of societies have been analyzed individually but Tainter was interested in what those failures of complex societies had in common – he was looking for a unified theory of collapse. He evaluates several complex societies that failed and discovered they all had one thing in common – increasing complexity until there was a sudden simplification or collapse.

The first part of the book is dedicated to the discussion of 11 popular explanations for the collapse of societies.

  1. Resource depletion.
  2. New resources.
  3. Catastrophes.
  4. Insufficient response to circumstances.
  5. Other complex societies.
  6. Intruders
  7. Conflict/contradictions/mismanagement.
  8. Social dysfunction.
  9. Mystical.
  10. Chance concatenation of events.
  11. Economic explanations.

With the exception of “Mystical” Tainter thinks they all have some validity but come up short because they only look at one or two societies and don’t explain how some societies survive the same adversities. Tainter builds on the economic model for his unified collapse theory.

Human societies and political organizations, like all living systems, are maintained by a continuous flow of energy.

The real currency is energy and until the industrial revolution that energy was primarily grain and other foodstuffs to feed people. Today with think of energy as fuel to feed machines but a shortage of that fuel will ultimately result in a shortage of the historical energy.

When we discuss energy sources we have to look at the EROEI – energy return on energy invested. It takes energy to produce energy. As the process to recover energy becomes increasingly complex it takes more and more energy to produce it. When oil was first tapped the EROEI was 100 – for each barrel of oil spent you got 99 barrels you could use to make energy. Compare that to the Alberta tar sands that have an EROEI of 1.6. Ethanol from corn has an EROEI of less than 1 – it takes more energy to produce than you get back when it is used as a fuel. A nuclear power plant has to operate at near 100% for 15 years to produce the energy that was required to build the plant and process the fuel.

Could something similar apply to societal complexity? Is it possible that the benefits of complexity can reach a point where they no longer justify the expense? Tainter supplies four concepts to help answer the above questions:

  1. human societies are problem-solving organizations;
  2. sociopolitical systems require energy for their maintenance;
  3. increased complexity carries with it increased costs per capita; and
  4. investment in sociopolitical complexity as a problem-solving response often reaches a point of declining marginal returns.

To demonstrate his concept Tainter looks at three complex societies;

  1. Western Roman Empire
  2. Maya of the southern lowlands
  3. Chacoan Society of the American Southwest

Tainter makes this observation; substantial increased costs occurred late, shortly before collapse and were incurred by a population already weakened by a pattern of declining marginal returns. It was not a challenge that caused the collapse but a system that had been unproductively complex was unable to respond.

Tainter says that the only solution for over complexity is simplification but complex systems are unable to voluntarily simplify. Collapse is nothing more than involuntary simplification. He further states that collapse is “not a fall to some primordial chaos, but a return to the normal human condition of lower complexity…an economizing process” – it’s not a catastrophe. I would guess that the millions (billions)of people who are displaced or will die might disagree with that conclusion.

What we see today is a sociopolitical system that requires more and more resources to maintain but is unable to respond to challenges in a meaningful or productive way. Climate Change, Peak oil, peak water, peak soil and peak many other resources most of us wouldn’t recognize are the challenges.


Is this what collapse looks like?

Cross posted at Newshoggers

RON BEASLEY, Assistant Editor
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