Monday, September 15, 2008

Review: The Collapse of Complex Societies, by Joseph Tainter

The End of the World As We Know It...

Published by: Cambridge University Press
Genre: Archaeology/Social Science
Publication Date: 1988
Page Count: 260 pages (paperback)
ISBN: 0 521 38673 X

What causes societies to collapse? There are a myriad of theories: resource depletion, high taxes, environmental degradation, moral flaws in the citizens of the society, natural disasters such as earthquakes or volcanos, and more. In The Collapse of Complex Societies, Joseph Tainter argues that none of these is an adequate explanation.

Tainter is not a flake or a doomsayer. He is an archaeologist, and The Collapse of Complex Societies is aimed at academic audiences. It's often used as a textbook for anthropology classes. And he does not believe our society is on the brink of collapse.

After reading his book, I'm not sure I agree with him. According to Tainter's research, everything from spiking oil prices to failing public schools to the increasingly bitter political divide may be signs of impending collapse.

The Collapse of Complex Societies provides terrific insight into the reasons complex societies arise...and why they collapse. It also provides some hints about what it might be like if our own society collapses, based on what happened when other complex societies collapsed.

Tainter claims that the proper basis for understanding complex societies is an economic one. The basic premise:

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.

4. Investment in complexity as a problem-solving response often reaches a point of declining marginal returns.

So, in his view, complex societies arise as efficient solutions to problems. At first, relatively little investment in complexity yields great benefits. But eventually, diminishing returns kicks in, and greater and greater investment produces less and less benefit. Finally, the point is reached where investment in complexity can no longer yield any increase in benefits. Collapse becomes increasingly probable. At that point, a crisis the society easily weathered earlier in its history - a military loss, drought, resource depletion, etc. - is enough to cause collapse.

Why do marginal yields always decline? That is, why is it that we always get less and less return on greater and greater investment? Because the lowest fruit is picked first. The most accessible oil is pumped first. Teaching someone to read is cheap and has great benefits; getting them a PhD is expensive, and provides far fewer benefits for the cost. The most arable land is farmed first; expanding farms to less ideal territory will provide lower yields for the cost.

It is possible for a society to avoid collapse, by getting control of a new source of energy, either by technical innovation or by conquest. Eventually, however, it becomes impossible to keep doing this, because of declining marginal returns on whichever strategy you are pursuing (whether conquest, like the Romans, or technological innovation, like the Maya).

Tainter argues that we are already facing declining marginal returns, and provides numerous examples. Among them:

Agriculture: To increase world food production by 34 percent (between 1951 and 1966), it took a 63% increase in money spent on tractors, a 146% increase in money spent on nitrate fertilizers, and a 300% increase in money spend on pesticides. To get another 34% would take even more money.

Medicine: Despite the fact that we are spending more money on health care and medical research than ever, the American lifespan is not increasing much. The easy fixes - vitamins, vaccines, sanitation, etc. - have already been done. Now, we are struggling just to keep lifespan from decreasing (due to new challenges like AIDS).

Science: Most of the great work of science was done years, even centuries ago. Many of the greatest contributions to science were made by people without formal training. But the day is past when monks growing peas or people flying kites in the rain can make significant contributions to science. The general knowledge, which provided the greatest benefits, is already known. The specialist knowledge remaining to be discovered requires expensive education, for relatively little return. Something like 90% of all the scientists who have ever lived on earth are alive right now, yet technological innovation is slowing.

Oil: In 1950, one barrel of oil's worth of energy could get you 100 barrels in return. Now, it's more like 1:10 in the U.S., 1:30 for Middle East oil shipped here. That sort of decline applies to most resources: coal, copper, natural gas, etc.

R&D: Technology has saves us in the past; can it save us again? Probably not. Analysis shows that an increase in spending on R&D of 4.2% yields an improvement of only 2%. At that rate, even if every one of us becomes a scientist or engineer, we'll be losing ground.

Government: Increasing complexity means increasing bureaucracy, and all the expenses that entails. Generally, it means higher taxes. At first, the benefits of complexity - roads, schools, defense, public works - are so great that people don't mind paying taxes. But as complexity increases, taxes rise, and the local benefit decreases. The government must spend resources on enforcing compliance. Generally, the tipping point is about 20% - which we're past.

Does Tainter think we are facing imminent collapse? No. There's a fifth concept, to add to the four above:

5. Collapse occurs, and can only occur, in a power vacuum.

Even when a society is past the point of diminishing returns - when economically, they'd be better off not investing in more complexity - there is a situation where they cannot collapse. That is when there is a group of societies, of similar complexity, in competition with each other. No one can collapse, because if they do, they'll be taken over by a neighbor. Collapse, when it comes, will be a group affair. No one can collapse unless they all collapse at once. (Which is what happened to the Maya.)

That is the reason Europe did not collapse long ago, and that is the reason the next collapse will be a global one. A "powerdown" is impossible in the current political climate.

Tainter's discussion of past collapses was fascinating, and I couldn't help wondering if they might be hints of our own future. Complex societies ensure their existence by two methods: legitimization, and coercion.

Legitimization can involve nonmaterial elements (the emperor is a god, democracy is the best way of government). But no society can continue to survive unless it provides actual material benefits. The people must be shown that their taxes are benefitting them more than they are hurting. So, even while Rome was going bankrupt, they kept increasing the public dole. They had to, to maintain their legitimacy. Eventually, one out of three people was on the dole.

Coercion is another method, but it, too, is expensive. Higher and higher taxes are demanded, with greater and greater punishments for not paying. The state may control where you can live, what your occupation is, what you can say. People get more rebellious, and more resources must be allocated to social control. The wealthier areas that can make it on their own may try to pull away; the government won't let them, because it needs their production.

It's likely, as vital resources such as petroleum, water, even food, run out, our governments will use both methods. Taxes will rise, and so will handouts to the poor. We'll lose freedoms, as the government cracks down.

Given that possible vision of the future, collapse seems almost preferable. Indeed, Tainter argues that collapse is not necessarily catastrophe. Complex societies are a relatively new development in human history. They are what is unnatural, so collapse would be returning to a more natural state. And research shows that collapse does in fact yield benefits. Smaller kingdoms were more effective at repelling barbarian invasions than the Roman empire. Nutrition was better after the Mayan collapse than it was before.

The drawback, of course, is the huge population drop that accompanies collapse. An 80%-90% loss is not unusual. While in the old days, those extra people may have simply migrated somewhere else, that's not possible in today's world.

So what will happen if our society collapses? Some key points, taking the past as a guide:

Real Estate: Though survivalist types think salvation is a homestead in the country, that wasn't the case for Rome, or for the Maya. In both cases, people moved near the cities in the decades before the collapse. Taxes grew so high in Rome that many farmers simply abandoned their land. It was easier to get food in the cities than on the farms that grew it. Many laws passed involved ways to tax abandoned land. Eventually, Rome passed laws ordering that the sons of farmer be farmers themselves...then had to spend more resources on enforcing those laws.

Less is known about the Maya, but they, too clustered closer to the cities as the end approached. Likely this was because isolated farms and villages were vulnerable to raids. Too many people, not enough food, and no way out leads to only one outcome: warfare.

Population Growth: Societies that collapsed often suffered a leveling of population growth before the collapse; some even had decreases in population. This was seen as a serious social problem for the government, since it needed new citizens to provide labor and pay taxes. In Rome, laws were passed setting up state orphanages and offering tax incentives for having kids. Among the Maya, women were favored over men. While male skeletons grew stunted and diseased as collapse approached, the female skeletons remained as large and healthy as ever. Neighboring societies of the time honored reproducing women, and the evidence suggests the Maya did as well, feeding the females at the expense of the males.

I can't help but be reminded of that politician in Japan, who suggested cutting off social security benefits to women who don't have at least one child, or Pat Buchanan, who wants to end abortion and birth control, in part because it will increase the number of taxpayers.

Currency debasement: Collapsing societies tend to suffer from massive inflation. Even though the government knows it shouldn't just print more money, it can't resist when pushed into a corner. You have to pay the army and the civil servants. This is a way of pushing debts into the future, much as our deficits do. Because, as Tainter says, "the future can't protest."

Who suffers: The wealthy suffered last when Rome collapsed. First the poor suffered, then the middle class, and only at the end, the wealthy. But it was the opposite when the Maya collapsed. The elite disappeared, and only the peasants remained. In some areas, there are signs the remaining population tried to continue the rituals and building that had gone before, but simply did not have the knowledge. Those who did were obviously gone.

After the collapse: Sometimes a society recovers, but often, it never again reaches the complexity it once had. The Maya did not maintain their irrigation systems or raised beds. Either the land was too exhausted to make it worthwhile, or they had no inclination to go back to the way they were, once it was proven unfeasible.

Another point from the book that I found interesting and possibly relevant: scanning behavior.

When a society is facing diminishing returns, something Tainter calls "scanning behavior" appears. People become dissatisfied; ideological strife intensifies. The entire society starts looking around for a better way. Segments of society may adopt foreign ideologies or ways of life. Some of these may be perceived as subversive, while others are the height of fashion. Taxes rise, as the government invests more in R&D, trying to find a better way.

Once a society reaches the point where investments in complexity no longer pay off at all, scanning behavior may cease altogether. The government enforces strict behavioral controls, in hopes of increasing efficiency. And they can no longer afford R&D.

I'm not sure if I find Tainter's book encouraging or not. One the one hand, he suggests that a soft landing is more likely than a sudden dieoff; the collapses he studied took place over decades. On the other hand, the years leading up to collapse tend to be very unpleasant, with brutal government control, high taxes, conscription, anarchy, banditry, widespread malnutrition, etc. Tainter expects that before collapse, we will be pouring a huge percentage of our GDP into R&D, trying to find a technology that will save us. That means the standard of living will fall, since there will be less to spend on other things.

But maybe engineering will be a growth industry, at least for few decades...

Related Link:

Complexity, Problem-Solving, and Sustainable Societies

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