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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Joseph Tainter, "The Collapse of Complex Societies"

I recently decided to re-read my all-time favourite books to see which ones have stood the test of time. I know that some of them have, since I've been re-reading them periodically for years. In any case, I've decided to post reviews of the best of them on The Spectacled Avenger, starting with this one.

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Joseph A. Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

This book has had a disproportionate effect on my thinking on just about everything, from politics to economics to history to art and architecture. A warning, though: it can make for inexpressibly discouraging reading. A few years ago I lent my copy to my friend Julian. I never got it back. After seeing it sitting outside in his backyard, its spine cracked open, its pages dog-eared and rain-soaked, my wife kindly purchased another copy for me.

In this masterpiece, Tainter, an anthropologist by profession (though his book is published in a series entitled New Studies in Archaeology), decides to embark on an ambitious intellectual mission, which is to formulate a general theory that will help to explain the collapse of complex societies. In this process, he develops what can only be described as a natural history (or perhaps the better term is natural pathology) of civilizations, one which seems depressingly inexorable.

Definition of “Complex Society”

Before doing so, Tainter must spend a few chapters rolling up his sleeves and getting down to theoretical brass tacks. First, he must decide what he means by “complexity”. He admits that there is much controversy here, and so any definition must be approximate only — as anyone familiar with the archaeological controversy surrounding the term “civilization” will know. For him, complex societies are “large, heterogeneous, internally differentiated, class-structured, controlled societies in which the resources that sustain life are not equally available to all” (p. 38). To this, he would also add a tendency towards administrative centralization. Furthermore, says Tainter, such societies are, in the context of the vast sweep of human history, an anomaly rather than the norm.

What is just as interesting, he characterizes the development of complexity as an exercise in progressive problem-solving: when a society is faced with a problem or threat, its tendency is to solve it by investing in complexity. For example, when the population of Rome grew, and the water of the Tiber river was becoming too polluted for human use, massive aqueducts were built to pipe water to the city across vast distances, a project which itself required a new bureaucracy to administer. Similarly, the Roman territorial expansion was made possible by — and at the same time necessitated — military conquest. An expanding population required an expanding resource base. When a new people was conquered, the Romans appropriated their accumulated surpluses, but once these had been spent, the new territories still had to be administered, necessitating an expanding bureaucracy and large standing armies, requiring a further expansion of the resource base, requiring new conquest and appropriation, and so on. What may begin as the solution to a problem, brings with it new problems that require solving.

Definition of “Collapse”

With the concept of a complex society in hand, we must move on to a working definition of what we mean by the “collapse” of such a society. For Tainter, put in its simplest terms, collapse represents a relatively rapid transition from a higher to a lower level of complexity. If the transition is long and drawn out, then it is not so much a collapse as a decline. Collapse proper occurs in the space of a few decades or less.

Tainter then goes on to canvas the various theories that have been offered to explain the collapses of various societies, varying from the plausible (resource depletion) to the plain woolly (mystical factors such as cultural debasement or loss of virtue). Marshalling a large array of historical examples of collapse, he points out the inadequacy of these rival theories to provide a general explanation of the phenomenon.

Tainter’s Thesis

Eventually, in chapter four, Tainter lays out his theory of collapse, which is based on the concept of diminishing marginal returns. Basically, collapse is the eventual result of diminishing marginal returns on investment in complexity. Each increase in societal complexity requires a greater investment of energy and resources, while the returns on such investment diminish. After some point, as more and more resources are eaten up simply in maintaining the current level of complexity, society has fewer resources left to deal with any new problems that inevitably arise. Collapse swiftly follows.

Tainter applies his theory to various historical examples of collapse and finds, predictably, that the theory has explanatory power. We can see this if we return to our Roman example. As Rome expands, her new territories lie ever further out from the administrative centre. This leads to what economists call increased transaction costs: communications from centre to periphery become lengthy and prone to inaccuracy, affecting administrative efficiency; whatever wealth new provinces produce must be carted across increasing distances, so that transportation costs eat into the spoils that would otherwise accrue to the imperial centre; an expanded imperial frontier means a greater land distance that must be protected, in addition to new cities that must be garrisoned. All of this requires ever greater taxation, to the point that it is no longer worthwhile to bother farming the land in many provinces. With abandonment of lands, the tax base shrinks at the same time that the need for revenue increases. Collapses ensues. Whereas early in her history the relatively backward (and less complex) city of Rome managed to conquer such heavyweights as Carthage and Macedonia, by the end, a large and unwieldy (and very complex) Roman Empire became incapable of adequately defending itself against the most motley and disorganized of barbarians. And this, despite the fact that its soldiers were better equipped, and its officers better trained, than they had ever been.

Does this sound uncomfortably familiar? The US was once able to defeat both Germany’s Third Reich and the Japanese Empire on two different fronts at the same time. She now seems incapable of prevailing over ragtag tribalists in the mountains of Afghanistan, despite spending as much on her military as the rest of the world’s nations combined spend on theirs. Indeed, the concluding chapter of Tainter’s book consists of projections for the future, which are not encouraging, to say the least.

Tainter’s Legacy

Although the book is twenty years old now, it maintains its relevance. For one thing, it has spawned a minor genre, the most prominent recent additions to which include Jarred Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Richard Wright’s A Short History of Progress, and Thomas Homer-Dixon’s The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization.

Recently, the magazine New Scientist (April 2, 2008) published a retrospective look at Tainter’s thesis (see http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg19826501.500-why-the-demise-of-civilisation-may-be-inevitable.html?full=true). After interviewing researchers in various disciplines, the consensus was that Tainter’s thesis still holds water, and if anything, is even more relevant now. Homer-Dixon, in a Globe and Mail op-ed piece entitled “Prepare Today for Tomorrow’s Breakdown” (May 14, 2006), praises Tainter’s theory despite a couple of gaps in it (which I believe Homer-Dixon could have filled in rather self-evidently if he had taken the time).

Tainter has done some interesting recent work on climate change as a contributing factor in the Roman collapse. Basically, the Roman expansion is correlated with a period of warmer temperatures called the “Roman Warm Period”. This enabled the Romans to expand into northern Europe, bringing with them Mediterranean agriculture. Huge, sprawling plantations of olives and grapes, essentially Roman agribusiness, worked by armies of slaves, replaced smaller-scale but more diversified native agriculture. Such diversification meant that if one crop failed, farmers had others to resort to for survival. Roman monoculture was not so resilient: when the Roman Warm Period ended, and cooler temperatures became the norm, disaster struck in many areas of the Western Roman Empire. You can read all about it in a paper he co-authored with Carole L. Crumley: “Climate, Complexity, and Problem Solving in the Roman Empire,” in Robert Costanza et al. (eds.), Sustainability or Collapse? An Integrated History and Future of People on Earth (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007).

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