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 Post subject: The Collapse of Complex Societies
PostPosted: Sun, 27 Sep 2009, 10:53 

Joined: Fri, 31 Jul 2009, 15:33
Posts: 665
Location: Holbrook, Horsham
I'm taking a break from active Transition work to, amongst other things, do some background reading.

The book "The Collapse of Complex Societies" has come to my attention. I wonder whether anyone has read it, or perhaps got a copy - it is rather expensive, being an academic, and probably a course study, book. It was published in 1988.

Here is an interesting review of it from the site (my thanks to the reviewer) - it seems a fascinating book. One does after all have to understand a problem before proposing workable solutions!

Its official bureaucracy is bad for you, 17 Oct 2007
By ISCA (England)

This book could have been written by and ecologist because the main thrust of it suggests, without ever saying so, that it is the energy flow through systems that give them their life and when that flow is stymied or cut off then those systems die.

The modern state so says Tainter is an anomaly, throughout the several thousand years of our history the common political unit was the small, autonomous community acting independently and largely self-sufficient.

In constrast complex societies such as states have a ruling authority which monopolises sovereignty and delegates power. The ruling class tends to be professional and is largely divorced from the bonds of kinship. The elite have the power to draft labour for war or work, levy taxes and enforce law, but it must be seen to be legitimately constituted. Legitimacy is a recurrent factor in the modern study of the nature of complex societies and is pertinent to understanding their collapse.

Establishing its legitimacy is the state's on going project.

After dispatching various other theories that explain why societies collapse 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.

An example of this last point is found in modern day medicine:
The declining productivity of medicine is due to the fact that the inexpensive diseases and ailments were conquered first (the basic research that led to penicillin costing no more than $20,000), so that those remaining are more difficult and costly to resolve. And as each increasingly expensive disease is conquered, the increment to average life expectancy becomes ever smaller.

More worryingly he cites an example from 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. And this is just one aspect of society this pattern says Tainter is repeated across all sections of the urban/Industrial comple.

Thus he goes onto to argue: The reasons why investment in complexity offer a declining marginal returen are

  1. increasing size of bureaucracies
  2. increasing specialisation of bureaucracies
  3. increasing costs of legitimising activities
  4. increasing taxation
  5. increasing costs of internal control and external defense
  6. the accumulative nature of organisational solutions.

So basically something that many of us had guessed your basic bureaucratic nightmare.

He says of Europe that because we have been peer polities for most of our history this explains why no collapse has occurred as yet, if one country were to collapse the others would swallow it up, he says that the next collapse will be a global one as we are all interrelated now.

I would just add that the book makes very short work of what Tainter calls mystical explanations of why communities fail, terms such as 'losing vigor', 'loss of virtue' that some contemporaries of collapsing societies have observed are dismissed as value laden statements which need be given no credence and that I find is the only hole in the book, you cant dismiss the quality of the relationships between individuals and say this has not bearing on society because society is more than just 'nuts and bolts' but social relations.

Ring any bells? :mrgreen:

I would just (without having read the book myself) add that an essential element of bureaucracy, namely it's ability to constrain, stifle and neuter the individual's ability to take responsibility for their own life, is also, I believe, a major cause behind poor intrasocietal relationships. But maybe such effects of bureaucracy weren't so evident 20 years (almost a generation) ago!

Also these comments:


The point that Tainter makes, quite correctly, in his book is that it is hard to see the fall of such a complex thing as an empire as due to a single cause. A complex entity should fall in a complex manner, and I think it is correct. In Tainter's view, societies always face crisis and challenges of various kinds. The answer to these crisis and challenges is to build up structures - say, bureaucratic or military - in response. Each time a crisis is faced and solved, society finds itself with an extra layer of complexity. Now, Tainter says, as complexity increases, the benefit of this extra complexity starts going down - he calls it "the marginal benefit of complexity". That is because complexity has a cost - it costs energy to maintain complex systems. As you keep increasing complexity, this benefit become negative. The cost of complexity overtakes its benefit. At some moment, the burden of these complex structures is so great that the whole society crashes down - it is collapse.

I think that Tainter has understood a fundamental point, here. Societies adapt to changes. Indeed, one characteristic of complex systems is of adapting to changing external conditions. It is called "homeostasis" and I tend to see it as the defining characteristic of a complex system (as opposed to simply complicated). So, in general, when you deal with complex systems, you should not think in terms of "cause and effect" but, rather, in terms of "forcing and feedback". A forcing is something that comes from outside the system. A feedback is how the system reacts to a forcing, usually attaining some kind of homeostasis. Homeostasis, is a fundamental concept in system dynamics. Something acts on something else, but also that something else reacts. It is feedback. It may be positive (reinforcing) or negative (damping) and we speak of "feedback loops" which normally stabilize systems - within limits, of course.


Also, homeostasis cannot contradict the principles of physics. It can only adapt to physical laws. Think of yourself swimming in the sea. Physics says that you should float, but you need to expend some energy to maintain a homeostatic condition in which your head stays above the water. Now, suppose that your feet get entangled with something heavy. Then, physics says that you should sink. Yet, you can expend more energy, swim harder, and still keep your head above the water - again it is homeostasis. But, if nothing changes, at some moment you'll run out of energy, you get tired and you can't keep homeostasis any more. At this point, physics takes over and you sink, and you drown. It is the typical behavior of complex systems. They can maintain homeostasis for a while, as long as they have resources to expend for this purpose.


From "Peak Civilization": The Fall of the Roman Empire

Advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket - George Orwell

 Post subject: Re: The Collapse of Complex Societies
PostPosted: Thu, 26 Nov 2009, 15:35 

Joined: Fri, 31 Jul 2009, 15:33
Posts: 665
Location: Holbrook, Horsham
Another review on of this book.

Allen B. Hundley (Mountain Home, AR) wrote:
To get an idea of the impact this book has had both among scholars and on the general public one has only to look at its publishing record. It was written by an academic for academics and published by a university press (Cambridge no less) yet it is now in its fourteenth printing since its initial release in 1988.

Tainter argues that human societies exist to solve problems. He looks at a score of societal collapses, focusing on three: Rome, the Maya, and the Chacoan Indians of the American Southwest. As these societies solved problems - food production, security, public works - they became increasingly complex. Complexity however carries with it overhead costs, e.g. administration, maintaining an army, tax collection, infrastructure maintenance, etc. As the society confronts new problems additional complexity is required to solve them. Eventually a point is reached where the overhead costs that are generated result in diminishing returns in terms of effectiveness. The society wastefully expends its resources trying to maintain its bloated condition until it finally collapses into smaller, simpler, more efficient units. (Does this sound like any contemporary societies we know?)

One of the powerful attractions of this book is that, although written by an academic for a scholarly audience, the author is fully aware of his theory's relevance to the future of our own society, comments upon which he reserves for the final chapter. While Tainter states explicitly (writing in 1988) that he does not believe the collapse of our civilization is imminent, in a remarkably candid passage he characterizes the survivalist movement in the U.S. (excluding the lunatic fringe element) as being a rational response to concerns about the viability of our current political system. The same goes for those in the self reliance, grow you own food movement. "The whole concern with collapse and self-sufficiency may itself be a significant social indicator, the expectable scanning behavior of a social system under stress..." (p.211).

Keep in mind that Tainter is writing before the first Gulf War, Y2K, 9-11 and before our current involvement in Iraq. New energy sources are the key, he says, to maintaining economic well-being. "A new energy subsidy is necessary if a declining standard of living and a future global collapse are to be averted." By subsidy he means the development of new forms of energy. This "development must be an item of the highest priority even if, as predicted, this requires reallocation of resources from other economic sectors." (p. 215).

Almost twenty years have passed since Tainter wrote those words. I leave it for you the reader of this review to judge the capability of our current political system to respond to such a grave and obvious crisis.

I have given this book 5 stars not because it is the final answer to the question of how civilizations or societies collapse but because it represents an important step along the way to that answer. As Jared Diamond correctly points out in his new "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed," complex societies would be expected to be the best at staving off collapse because they are by definition the most highly organized, with the best information, resource and administrative structures to deal with new challenges. Clearly other factors must be at work. Tainter however dismisses all previous theories of collapse, calling many of them `mystical'. Included in this latter group are many of the world's greatest thinkers from Plato and Polybius to Gibbon and Toynbee.

What Tainter really means is that their explanations are not quantifiable, therefore not scientific, and therefore unworthy of further consideration. This is a most unfortunate mistake. Insight is insight regardless of whether or not it is quantifiable. If a scientific approach to societal decision-making always worked Robert McNamara's faith in body count statistics should surely have resulted in a U.S. victory in Vietnam.

At one point Tainter states that individuals can never alter the course of world history, only powerful long-term societal forces. This flies in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, from the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae to Lee's bungling at Gettysburg, to Winston Churchill and Lord Dowding in the Battle of Britain. (See my review on the latter.) The fact that at critical junctures in history a handful of individuals have made a huge difference is extremely frustrating to those in the `social science' community. They would like to believe that with enough good statistics you can predict the future with precision. This has never been and likely never will be the case, a reality I came to terms with many years ago and the main reason I never completed my doctoral studies in `political science'.

Allowing that Tainter's complexity model really does have considerable explanatory power, the important question is can you have an advanced society that is immune to complexity's dangers? The answer in this reviewer's opinion is a qualified `yes' but such a society would have to be organized very differently with far less interdependence, and hence fragility, than anything we now know. If world events (terrorism, Iran, North Korea, etc.) continue along the track they have taken in recent years, we may soon, for better or worse, have the opportunity to find out.

I'm going to put this book on my list to Santa this year!

Advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket - George Orwell

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