Biography[ edit ] Tainter studied anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley and Northwestern University , where he received his Ph. Tainter has written and edited many articles and monographs. His arguably best-known work, The Collapse of Complex Societies , examines the collapse of Maya and Chacoan civilizations,  and of the Western Roman Empire , in terms of network theory , energy economics and complexity theory. Tainter argues that sustainability or collapse of societies follow from the success or failure of problem-solving institutions  and that societies collapse when their investments in social complexity and their "energy subsidies" reach a point of diminishing marginal returns. He recognizes collapse when a society involuntarily sheds a significant portion of its complexity. Social complexity can be recognized by numerous differentiated and specialised social and economic roles and many mechanisms through which they are coordinated, and by reliance on symbolic and abstract communication, and the existence of a class of information producers and analysts who are not involved in primary resource production.
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How could it be otherwise with a title like that? Yet, it lives up to the title: aiming and broadly succeeding to argue the causes for collapse. Tainter says diminishing returns eventually trap civilization in a no-win Ok, done!
Tainter says diminishing returns eventually trap civilization in a no-win situation. The idea of diminishing returns well explored meaning that more fertilizer, internet, railroads and regulations produce more food per man-hour invested, but only to a point. Eventually the return on investment tapers to nothing, and then further effort would actually COST energy, blood and treasure.
Surely there will someday be one road too many, if not already! If our system is interdependent and surely it is for is not the efficiency derived substantially from specialization that interdependence allows?
There is no retrenchment possible; removing a keystone will bring it all down, and every stone is a keystone. Not in a bad way either. Some of it goes into luxury, but lots goes into people too, and we are thereby committed to the additional technology. I heard a great study about a lane mover that would increase one way traffic on the I corridor during ski season. I believe it! So the change becomes not really an improvement, but instead a permanent commitment to additional infrastructure, additional complexity.
The answer is that we use it up. Also I suppose I DO live a life of ease and luxury in comparison to a 19th century Russian peasant with only one actual horse in his stable. Anyway, Tainter does talk about this obliquely at one point. Consumption of all the slack technology provides leads to an irrevocable commitment to complexity and interdependency.
One more last thought how many "last thoughts" is one allowed? Of course bringing oil into it pulls Jared Diamond to mind. What if this graduates from trend to generally accepted fact? What if the ideal response is to regress to einkorn and yields drop by half?
Collapse of Complex Societies
History offers insight into this question. Civilizational breakdown is a recurring historical process. Looking at how it has happened before can help us understand what causes it, the forms it may take, and how far away from it we may be. The model works this way. Since at least the advent of agriculture, people have responded to challenges and sought to improve their condition. One form this takes is through social cooperation and the division of labor, an approach that leads to more complex forms of economy, society, and politics. In the abstract, complexity means higher levels of heterogeneity, as opposed to uniformity.
Collapse of Complex Societies – Borzoi Edition