I’ve just finished Joseph A. Tainter’s “The Collapse of Complex Societies”. It is a truly remarkable book—very academic, but fascinating, rigorous and very, very important. It is a powerful counterpoint to Robert Wright’s “Nonzero”, which I wrote about recently. What follows are some thoughts that derive from Tainter’s writing.
This is the single most “radical” piece of writing I have done, and for that reason I would certainly enjoy your feedback—my intent is not to provoke or alarm, but rather to follow a line of reasoning to what appears (to me) to be the logical conclusion. What follows may eventually grow into a Chapter 10 of A Theory of Power.
This whole thing starts off very simply, with as close as one can get to a “Law” of economics: When you’re hungry, you first pick the low-hanging fruit. Put another way, when faced with an ongoing problem to which there are multiple solutions, you pick the easiest solutions first. First you pick the low-hanging fruit. When hunger returns, you drag out the ladder and start picking ever more difficult to reach fruit. Simple.
In economics, this phenomenon is known as the law of diminishing marginal return. Here’s a graph from Tainter:
Initial solutions to a problem provide a high marginal return (marginal meaning the amount of extra benefit that each extra amount of investment provides). When you’re picking the low-hanging fruit, the effort required to get a single fruit is low—so the marginal return on your investment is relatively high. As depicted in the graph, the effort required for each additional fruit gets a bit greater each time—the slope of the marginal return decreases. Eventually, after you’ve taken out your ladder, and removed all the easy-to-find fruit from all the trees in the entire orchard, the amount of effort required to find one more fruit will eventually equal the reward of finding that fruit (say calories invested for calories returned). This is point B2-C2 in the graph. Marginal return is now zero. Any further effort in searching for fruit is actually costing you more than it returns—a negative marginal return.
Stepping back from our orchard for a moment, we can view social organization as an investment in complexity (structure, stratification, specialization, exchange, administration, etc.) that provides a return to the investors by meeting their needs (along Maslow’s hierarchy, perhaps). The return on investment follows the same marginal return curve as in our orchard example above. Initial investments in complexity return quite well, while later investments provide minimal—or even negative—marginal return. How much benefit (compared to cost) do 100 extra government bureaucrats provide?? In modern society, diminishing marginal returns are evident in education, agriculture, energy and resource extraction, technology R&D and other critical areas. I won’t go in to all the detail here, but Tainter provides an excellent analysis of the diminishing marginal returns for societal investments in both ancient incidents of collapse (Roman, Mayan, Chacoan, etc.) as well as the modern societal investments mentioned.
But despite the declining marginal returns, society is not capable of reducing expenditure, or even reducing the growth in expenditure. I discuss this at length in A Theory of Power, but the basic fact is that society is—at its very root—an evolutionary development that uses a continual increase in complexity to address social needs—and to ensure its own survival. So, as societies continue to invest more and more in social complexity at lower and lower marginal rates of return, they become more and more inefficient until eventually they are no longer capable of withstanding even commonplace stresses. They collapse.
This may seem too deterministic—after all, it suggests that all societies will eventually collapse. While that may cause our inherent sense of hubris to perk up for a moment, we should remember that this equation fits our data quite well—every civilization that has ever existed has, in fact, collapsed. Our present global civilization is, or course, the sole exception. A look back at the contemporary chroniclers of history shows that every “great” civilization thinks that they are somehow different, that history will not repeat with them—and their hubris is shared with gusto by members of the present global civilization.
Of course, as discrete empires and societies grow ever more cumbersome they do not always collapse in the spectacular fashion of the Western Roman Empire. If they exist in a “peer-polity” situation—that is, they are surrounded by competitors of similar levels of complexity—then they will tend to be conquered and absorbed. It is only in the case of a power vacuum—like the Chacoans or Western Romans—that we witness such a spectacular loss of complexity. In the “modern” world, we have not witnessed such a collapse as we exist in a global peer-polity continuum. When the Spanish empire grew too cumbersome the British were there to take over, and the mantel has since passed on to America, with the EU, China and others waiting eagerly in the wings. In the modern world there can no longer be an isolated collapse—our next experience with this will be global.
In fact, the modern civilization continuum has existed for so long without a global collapse because we have managed to tap new energy sources—coal, then oil—each with a higher energy surplus than the last. This has buoyed the marginal return curve temporarily with each discovery, but has not changed the fundamental dynamics of collapse.
Perhaps we should take a step back and look at collapse in general. Our psychological investment in the “goodness” of “high-civilization” leads to the commonly held conclusion that collapse is bad—and that to advocate it would be irrational. But from a purely economic point of view, collapse actually increases the overall benefit that social complexity provides to society for their level of investment. It makes economic sense. In the graph above, C3-B1 and C1-B1 provide the same benefit to society—but for dramatically different support burdens required to maintain their respective levels of complexity. C1-B1 is a much more desirable location for a society than C3-B1, so collapse from C3-B1 to C1-B1 is actually a good thing. With the growing burden of today’s global society, the global inequality and injustice that seems to grow daily, collapse is beginning to make economic sense. In fact, an entire philosophical movement, Primitivism, has sprung up dedicated to convincing the world that a “C1-B1”, hamlet society is in fact a far better place.
Despite the growing logic of collapse, in today’s peer-polity world that option does not exist except on a global scale. Today we have 3 options:
1. Continue business as usual, accepting declining marginal returns on investments in complexity (and very soon declining overall returns) until an eventual, inevitable collapse occurs globally. Continuation of present patterns will continue the escalating environmental damage, and will continue to grow the human population, with population levels in increasing excess of the support capacity of a post-collapse Earth (i.e. more people will die in the collapse).
2. Locate a new, more efficient energy source to subsidize marginal returns on our investments in complexity. This does not mean discover more oil or invent better clean coal technology—these, along with solar or wind power still provide lower marginal returns than oil in the heyday of cheap Saudi oil. Only the development of super-efficient fusion power seems to provide the ability to delay the decline of marginal returns any appreciable amount, and this will still serve to only delay and exacerbate the eventual return to option #1.
3. Precipitate a global collapse now in order to reap the economic benefits of this action while minimizing the costs of the collapse that will continue to increase with the complexity and population of our global civilization. When combined with a strategy to replace hierarchy with rhizome, as outlined in A Theory of Power, Chapter 9, this may even represent a long-term sustainable strategy.
Whoa. Am I seriously suggesting the triggering of a global collapse? For the moment I’m just suggesting that we explore the idea. If, after deliberation, we accept the totality of the three options as outlined above, then triggering collapse stands as the only responsible choice. It is—admittedly—a choice that is so far outside the realm of consideration of most people (who are strongly invested in the Myth of the West) that they will never take it seriously. But critically, it does not necessarily require their consent…
These may seem like the ramblings of a madman. But in the late Western Roman Empire, there is a fact that is simply not taught today because it is too far outside our tolerance for things that run counter to the Myth of the West: The citizens of Rome wanted to end the Empire, to dissolve its cumbersome structure, but could not reverse its pre-programmed course. Many—perhaps most—welcomed the invading barbarians with open arms.
So should collapse be triggered now, or should we wait as long as possible? If we accept the inevitability of collapse, then it should be triggered as soon as possible, as the cost of implementing a collapse strategy is continually growing…
Throughout history, when collapse has occurred, it has been a blessing. The mainstream continues to cling to the beliefs that collapse will be a terrible loss, and that it is not inevitable. Even with all of our cultural brain-washing, do we really have so much hubris as to hold on to the tired mantra that “this time, in our civilization, things will be different”?