Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Collapse of Complex Societies

I’ve been reading Joseph Tainter’s 1988 classic, The Collapse of Complex Societies.  In it he refutes a number of historic reasons that societies collapse (characterized by a sudden reduction in social/political organization and typically population crash—think Rome, the Mayans, and the Chaco people of America’s southwest).  The hypothesis he develops is that the marginal cost of maintaining a complex society increases to the point where individuals are paying taxes but not getting anything back.  Or, more generally, the benefits to individuals from paying the costs to maintain an increasingly complex society are reduced. 
He gives a number of examples.  Compelling ones have to do with the benefits we get from biomedical research (the cost of creating Penicillin was less than $20,000, but think about how much our society has spent trying to cure ‘cancer’—have we succeeded?), energy (now that we’re past peak oil means that the costs of obtaining oil increases while the amount of oil extracted per dollar decreases), or more generally the insight that the easy problems (whether social or otherwise) are relatively inexpensive to solve, but the more complex ones require a lot more effort to solve. 
In the end he cautions that the inter-connectedness of our current global civilization may provide some buffering against collapse (if a country fails, it may be bailed out by the banks of other countries), and it's more common for leaders and systems to change rather than society collapsing.  He highlights that a key characteristic of a true collapse is the presence of a power vacuum.
All that said, I kept thinking of all of the things for which we’re experiencing increased marginal costs… military expenditures, biomedical discoveries, energy resources, precious metals and other natural resources, pollution control, education, etc. 
If he’s right, and I encourage you to read this relatively short but compelling book, we’re at somewhat of a crossroad.  We can either simplify our lives and societies, bet that technology will solve our energy problems (much complexity can be maintained by having sufficient energy), or try to bolster our international connections to prevent power vacuums.
I worry that the energy required to keep our complex civilization running will eventually be too costly to sustain our civilization. Complexity requires work to maintain and is not always the best outcome for individuals who are paying those prices.  Societies change over time when benefits from complexity disappear. 
The rub is that when societies do collapse, they’re often followed by dark ages.
Ponder this over your next meal.

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