Friday, September 10, 2010

The collapse of complex societies: Joseph Tainter

Joseph Tainter wrote the classic text on societal collapse, called The Collapse of Complex Societies in 1988. Tainter is an archeologist who wanted to answer the question why human history has been characterised by ever-increasing social complexity punctuated locally by periods of rapid shifts back towards greater simplicity (i.e. collapse). His answer is simple yet profound: societies become more complex to solve their problems, yet investments in increasing complexity yield declining marginal returns, until the increasing marginal costs of greater complexity becomes enough of a liability that collapse (shifting to a simpler society) becomes the best way of solving the problem. That is, there is point where greater investment in complexity actually makes things worse.

In this interview, Tainter applies his theory to perhaps the best known societal collapse in history: the Western Roman Empire. And then to the most complex society in history: ours. Compelling listening; God has made no promises of civilisational survival.
Sam Norton has written a very useful summary and review of the book here.

4 comments:

Sam Norton said...

Have you seen this?: http://campfire.theoildrum.com/node/6942

byron smith said...

No, I hadn't - thanks!

For future reference, here are the six converging budget holes that Tainter identifies in the US (none of which contribute directly to economic growth, but are all required merely to maintain the status quo):

• Funding the retirement of baby boom generation
• Increasing healthcare costs
• Replacing infrastructure
• Repairing environmental damage
• New energy sources
• Likelihood of continuing high military costs

Any one of these the US should be able to afford to pay for. Yet these are each very high societal costs, all coming together in next twenty or thirty years, at a time of declining energy per capita and declining innovation.

byron smith said...

Infrastructure costs in the US.

byron smith said...

Here is a good example of the idea of diminishing marginal return on investments in complexity (pharmaceuticals).