The Collapse of Complex Societies

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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. Oil: In , one barrel of oil's worth of energy could get you barrels in return. Now, it's more like in the U. That sort of decline applies to most resources: coal, copper, natural gas, etc. Probably not. 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. Does Tainter think we are facing imminent collapse? There's a fifth concept, to add to the four above:.

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 of Complex Societies

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. While in the old days, those extra people may have simply migrated somewhere else, that's not possible in today's world. Jump to: navigation , search.

Cambridge University Press, "The most elegant approach to social collapse and renewal" [2] Summary 1. Yves Smith: "His argument is straightforward: 1. The basic premise: 1. Human societies are problem-solving organizations. Sociopolitical systems require energy for their maintenance. Increased complexity carries with it increased costs per capita.

There's a fifth concept, to add to the four above: 5. Collapse occurs, and can only occur, in a power vacuum. Categories : Books Governance. Navigation menu Personal tools Log in Request account. Namespaces Page Discussion. Views Read View source View history. However I would say that folk arts are every bit as good as "high" art, which gets defined as high only by the makers of it, after all. You'll never convince me Duchamp's urinal in a museum is vastly superior to an Appalachian woman's lovely quilt, sorry to say.

Some of what he said let me to think of England in the last hundred years. Here's a nation that has "collapsed" by choosing to stop being an empire and instead become a stable small state, a lower form. It didn't hurt them at all, and its citizens are in many ways better off than I am. Therefore collapse can be good, and it needn't be feared. Shelves: mudd-library , non-fiction , the-problem-of-civilization , environmental-history , school-reading , anthropology. This book seems to be the workhorse of the industrial-collapse intellectual set Jared Diamond , Derrick Jensen , John Michael Greer , etc.

It is a fairly straightforward, academic entry in the anthropological search for a grand theory to explain collapse. It is in this way a sort of counterpart to Earle and Johnson's The Evolution of Human Societies: From Foraging Group to Agrarian State , which advanced explanations for increases in social compexity and integration.

Tainter begins by swiftly and of This book seems to be the workhorse of the industrial-collapse intellectual set Jared Diamond , Derrick Jensen , John Michael Greer , etc. Tainter begins by swiftly and often mercilessly batting aside all available explanations for collapse in the market at his time. This perceived paucity seems to be his inspiration for the book. These are, for the most part, very nicely done and quickly key in to the major flaws each theory has as an explanatory device.

This clarity is extremely gratifying and I wish more thinkers would drink from Tainter's cup, so to speak. However, this incisiveness may come at the expense of nuanced, cautious, and case-specific history: Tainter is very much set on finding a 'global theory,' which can explain the recurring phenomenon of collapse found in any given place.

He has no patience for theories that are overly dependent on the specific nature of each case, a trait that many historians and anthropologists would take issue with cf. After dispensing handily with the crowd of existing theories, Tainter offers his own suggestion: diminishing marginal returns DMR. That is, any given strategy of social organization has large initial benefits that are easily obtained - this is why the transition occurs in the first place as in Earle and Johnson.

This theory is handy in its versatility - it can apply to whatever the most fundamental resource of a society is, from soil nutrition to fisheries to information flow to technical development to oil. It works in tribal and chiefdom societies as well as state and industrial ones. It is so versatile, in fact, that I'm almost uncomfortable with it: based on the definitions offered in Earle and Johnson, and by Tainter himself, collapse is essentially synonymous with the cheapest strategy when costs of complexity begin to exceed benefits. DMR theory is thus uncomfortably tautological. As noted above, Tainter critiques other theories for being too parochial.

His theory is so abstract and general, that in every application Tainter must call back the theories he eschewed and ask them to fill in the specifics of his theory, as subordinates to it. Tainter has nothing positive to say about the modern global situation. He concludes that, since the collapse of any one state would only result in its incorporation into a competitor, all the states must collapse at once if collapse does occur. He also sees no way out - with no new territory to conquer and no new energy subsidy to replace oil, the industrial lifestyle will outlive its value and be replaced by a more adaptive organization at some point he wisely declines to say when he thinks this will happen.

Instead, societies tend to decline over a period of a century or more. This is a strange oversight in Tainter's book, since most of the examples of "collapse" he uses don't fit his own definition. Jan 13, malachy rated it really liked it Shelves: archaeology , collapse. Tainter develops a diagram of collapse, a diagram that is applicable to any complex society, even perhaps to your reading group.


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Tainter thus also develops a diagram insofar as it is somewhat universal and objective, or at least it strives to be. There is no talk of "degeneracy" and "civilizations blooming like flowers" as is found in more poetic, albeit less scientific, texts. Some reviews have called the Tainter develops a diagram of collapse, a diagram that is applicable to any complex society, even perhaps to your reading group.

Some reviews have called the writing "dry," although the writing is what most capable people would call "clear. A short summary of the theory: a complex society is an assemblage that solves problems. Complexity increases as the number of parts, of specializations, of divisions of labor, or rather just general heterogeneity increases.

Tainter then extends the law of diminishing marginal returns to these groups, to these complex societies. At a certain point, the complex society assemblage ceases to receive a higher return of processed things for whatever energy flow is invested in it; and at this point, radical simplification, meaning a reduction in the heterogeneity, the stratification, and the specialization of the society, becomes economical and is able to be pursued. The final chapter, the summary and musings on our current predicament, struck me. Collapse doesn't happen to one society alone when in an arms-race, since collapsing then means to be annexed or wiped out rather than to economise.

The current world field can be seen as caught in an arms-race just as much as in when this book was first published, and what that entails, according to Tainter, is that a collapse in our current era would have to be global. While that's rather dour, the arms-race also provides a reprieve of sorts, where the opportunity to "break through" or rather to "accelerate the process" is a reality. If there was no China, no EU, no Russia, we could collapse into agricultural peace after the death of 6 billion or so people. Exit wouldn't even be an option in that scenario, yet the peculiar weirdness of the competitive spiral we're in could perhaps mean planetary-escape--or perhaps just renewable energy that's actually economical.

Anyways, I would try to end here by saying that "sadly we'll likely be stuck on this rock forever and society will collapse globally in a century or two," but it wouldn't be sad, or at least it needn't be. Who's to say hunting moss and cooking rocks won't be fun? Regardless, it's a good book, and if you're a doomer, you'll love it.

Mar 21, Steve Greenleaf rated it really liked it Shelves: human-sciences , hx. Since we were once again headed to see some ruins, I thought this an appropriate time to approach this book, although in the case of the Incas, we can easily identify Guns, Germs, and Steel and perhaps horses as the proximate causes of collapse. But other cases, like the Maya, the Western Roman Empire, and Easter Island, are among those situations that do not provide easy explanations. Tainter reviews virtually all of the prevailing theories. This, Tainter argues, provides a false and rather misleading or unhelpful analogy.

Declining marginal returns on complexity complexity being a term of art in this instance. In short, he bases his theory upon a fundamental economic law if you will suffer the dubious term here. His analysis and application of his theory to the Western Roman Empire argues that it was not barbarians, Christians, or plagues that brought down Rome, but a limitation on the value of complexity.

Can we innovate our way out of the inevitable decline of petroleum? Can we get out from under excessive demands for complexity? On a second reading, even better! A very thorough, careful analysis of phenomena that we have to take most seriously. Outstanding achievement. May 11, S rated it it was amazing Recommends it for: Hard-nosed humanists; social-economical historians. Shelves: favorites , disintegrations , after-today-before-tomorrow , order-and-disintegration.

What was useful to me: I. The work provides a concise list of common threats to any organized large-scale social entity. Tainter makes the terminological distinction between 'Civilizations' and 'Complex-Societies'. He does this in order avoid any value-laden connotations. What is interesting, however, is that by adopting the term "complex-society," he implies that the conceptual framework of the entity can apply to any organization that serves a social function, their sub-units, and larger sys What was useful to me: I.

What is interesting, however, is that by adopting the term "complex-society," he implies that the conceptual framework of the entity can apply to any organization that serves a social function, their sub-units, and larger systems composed thereby. In studying Tainter's work, one develops a teleological definition of the possibility of a "civilization. It develops insofar as it is beneficial to the majority of its members. It begins to dissolve when it no longer benefits the majority of its populace.

Tainter's conceptual framework seems, without further analysis, to be closely in-line with Quigley's theories of historical analysis. In both works, the focus is more material than it is cultural. Quigley, though, gave more credence to cultural developments; probably as a useful indicator of the ideological state of the majority.

A sizable portion of the text is dedicated to refuting "mystical" explanations of collapse. This is useful because it draws a very clear distinction between 'social criticism' and 'social science. All problem solving organizations are subject to cost-benefit analysis. Complex socieities fail when they cost more to the majority than they benefit their well-being. It's a general, simple, and terribly demystifying approach to social organizations. Quigley has his own list of consequence to institutions. Reform is the happiest.

Our current global situation is too interconnected for individual complex-societies to collapse in isolation. Either they will be bailed out or invaded. If a collapse happens, it can only be global and catastrophic on a scale previously unseen by humanity. Competing Peer Polities IX. The bibliography is astonishing. View all 3 comments. Apr 09, Jani-Petri rated it really liked it. This was a quite interesting book. He makes a convincing case of societal collapse occurring because marginal costs of maintaining the system become too high compared to benefits. Interestingly competition with others may tie states to a competition that avoids collapse for the time being since collapse is not possible if another organized state is there to take over.

This is of course the situation we have today. Declining marginal benefits are still there and to sustain a complex system requ This was a quite interesting book. Declining marginal benefits are still there and to sustain a complex system requires an external energy subsidy. This was far deeper and nuanced thinking that the standard shallow storyline.

May 19, DoctorM rated it really liked it Shelves: economics , favourites , science. A dry read, yes. But very much worth it. Tainter looks at how complex societies great powers, if you will collapse. And at what "collapse" means and at how the word has been misused. While Tainter can be a bit too Colin Renfrew in his use of quantification, his discussion of how complexity unravels and how increasing social complexity ultimately begins to yield lower and lower returns on social investment is fascinating.

Mar 17, Nick Black marked it as warily-considering Recommends it for: Natalie's immanentizing-the-eschaton shelf. Feb 21, Darnell rated it really liked it Shelves: non-fiction. It's been a while since I read an actual textbook. While it was a little dense in places, long on listing facts and short on broader theory, as a whole I enjoyed it. It had some useful thoughts, though I would have preferred to get theory from a less outdated source. Jan 24, Charles J rated it liked it. Joseph Tainter arrived in , with this book, to offer an alternative—namely, total economic determinism filtered through a framework of his own devising.

Not a very successful framework, to be sure, but at least one that provides some food for thought.


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Tainter is an anthropologist, so he views history though that prism. Moreover, "The Collapse of Complex Societies" is an academic monograph, so it has all the defects of that genre. Nobody would call the writing spicy, although there are flashes of humor. The author deliberately frequently summarizes and repeats, even though this is a short book, and he constantly cites other equally boring academics for minor points.

Thus, we learn a great deal about the state of anthropological and archaeological knowledge as of thirty years ago. But, since this is a narrow anthropological analysis, we are denied any substantial linking of that knowledge to history, of which Tainter seems under-informed at best. He has the soul of an economist trapped at the desk of an anthropologist. This is a minor strength and a major weakness of his book. It is a strength in that his hypothesis is somewhat testable, at least relative to a Toynbee-type analysis.

It is a weakness in that it leads to a materialist reductio ad absurdum. All cultures as culture are imprisoned in the iron framework that Tainter builds, subject to the inevitable pressure of econometrics. They are mere ephemera randomly associated with the purely material factors that are wholly determinative of the arc of every society in human history.

Here Tainter unveils the variable that explains everything for him—complexity. He uses complexity as both a definitional marker for societies and as a yardstick for measuring their collapse. This is unexceptional enough, in that it paints the definition with a broad enough brush that few would disagree. Nowhere, though, is complexity evaluated other than with respect to quantifiable variables—ones that, if they have not been quantified because of lack of data, could at least be quantified with the right data.

He paints the Ik, in Uganda, as an example of extreme collapse, alleging, for example, that children are abandoned by their mothers at age three and that sharing is nonexistent in the society. As with all fieldwork anthropological assessments that seem to contradict human nature, it appears that the researchers who drew this conclusion were fooled by their interlocutors, and it is now realized that Ik society is not nearly as dreadful as Tainter says—just like Margaret Mead was led around by the nose by her Samoan interlocutors while they laughed at her behind her back for being gullible.

In each summarized case, he briefly applies a few of his markers for collapse to a truncated history of the society, along with a short postscript about the society and geographical area, and concludes that most or all of his quantifiable markers characterize collapse, so his definition is correct. This is well trodden ground, from those like Francis Fukuyama who ascribe most development of complex societies to warfare to those with a more anarchist bent, like James C.

Scott, who view complex societies as a dubious blessing resulting from changes in food production. He boldly decides that both are partially right, and moves on, since, after all, what he cares about is complexity, not how we got there. Tainter proceeds to evaluate the study of collapse itself, with an eye to establishing himself as unique, and all predecessors as pretenders. He loathes any kind of non-quantifiable ranking that implies, for example, that sophisticated art, literary accomplishments, monumental architecture, or philosophy are characteristics of complex societies—that is, of civilizations.

Similarly, he rejects as not wrong, but incoherent, the idea that civilized societies are superior to uncivilized societies. For Tainter the economic determinist, superiority is only superior when it is measurable, using a scale of which he approves, and all other superiority is a value judgment, and hence anathema. Complexity calls these traditions into being, for such art and literature serve social and economic purposes and classes that exist only in complex settings. He evaluates, both in the abstract and by reference to one or more collapsed civilizations, and rejects, all of these theories, as either just wrong, or as insufficient and needing to be integrated into a more competent theory not yet advanced no prize for guessing whose theory that is.

Most of his focus, though, is on class conflict theories and mystical theories, both of which he attacks in scathing terms. On mystical theories, though, Tainter is less convincing. At no point, though, does he make any effort to actually address any such theory; he bootstraps his disgust into a conclusion, in essence treating Toynbee as no better than an Aztec priest tearing the hearts out of sacrificial victims to appease Huitzilopochtli and ensure the rising of the Sun.

A scholar trained in anthropology learns early on that such valuations are scientifically inadmissible, detrimental to the cause of understanding, intellectual indefensible, and simply unfair. Cultural relativity may be one of the most important contributions anthropology can make to the social and historical sciences, and to the public at large. But that does not mean that virtue arguments have nothing to offer. Any person with a deep knowledge of history which Tainter very evidently lacks knows that there is a tide in the affairs of men, that is purely qualitative yet is very real.

It is just not quantifiable. This is not to say that what Tainter offers is wrong, but it is most definitely incomplete. Virtue cannot be quantified, and if it can be quantified it is not virtue, but that does not mean that virtue, as well as other intangible cultural characteristics, do not exist and are not critically important for the growth and decline of a civilization, or for the globe itself. Kipling perhaps captured the role of moral virtues in civilizations best in "The Gods of the Copybook Headings" This is why purely economic theories for the Great Divergence are always miserably incomplete—they take no account of culture, which cannot be quantified, but is determinative of the course of a civilization.

All this is pretty obvious, actually, just prettied up with graphs and attempts at quantification. Some of it is overly pessimistic—Tainter talks about how investing in energy production already in offered sharply diminishing returns, but he neglects countervailing trends, such as the diminishing cost of light production quantified by William Nordhaus in the s. Tainter applies his diminishing marginal returns analysis broadly, to everything from agriculture to scientific progress.

Along with James C. Scott in "Against the Grain," Tainter thinks that the costs of a complex society may simply exceed its benefits to the people in that society, who will therefore be better off at a less complex level of organization. A collapsed society has not failed to adapt; it has taken the best path available. We may listen to tunes on a reed flute rather than Bach, and die in our twenties, but at least our marginal returns on investing in complexity will be up! He nods vaguely in this direction when answering the anticipated criticism that he does not take into account possible equilibria, but only vaguely.

Arguably this make sense, for all past complex societies have been strongly hierarchical in nature. However, there is a plausible argument that modern technology, as well as modern habits of thought, whatever their drawbacks may be, permit a society to be organized with dispersed problem solving by networks, which may, to some extent, be immune from diminishing returns. Finally, Tainter applies his model to today. He notes that the modern world is different, not in its possible non-hierarchical approach to complexity, but in that collapse can only occur in a power vacuum, where no competitor will move in immediately, and no such power vacuum exists in the modern world on any relevant scale.

While trying not to be pessimistic, he rejects the idea that technology will substitute for supposedly necessary investments in increased complexity, so ever less profitable investments will continue to be required even over the objections of the masses, and concludes that if and when modern society collapses, it will take longer, but be global, because no power vacuum exists—until it does, on a universal scale. Mar 09, Chris Chester rated it it was amazing Shelves: non-fiction , american-empire. With the global economy teetering on a shaky foundation and prepper-types everywhere heralding the end of global civilization as we know it, the nature and mechanism of the collapse of complex societies has rarely seemed as relevant as it does today.

Tainter's opus is a work of the sort that I have missed in my post-graduate world: a meticulously-researched assessment of existing theories — using a variety of primary and secondary sources — culminating in the assertion of a paradigm of his own. Hi With the global economy teetering on a shaky foundation and prepper-types everywhere heralding the end of global civilization as we know it, the nature and mechanism of the collapse of complex societies has rarely seemed as relevant as it does today.

His explanation goes like this: 1. Causal mechanisms that judge the underlying "character" or "vitality" of a civilization are dismissed out of hand as baseless moralizing. Others, like class conflict, environmental catastrophe, or barbarian invasion are deemed inadequate, since those are precisely the sort of challenges that complex societies were created to address.

It is the inability to deal with these "stress surges" that is responsible for collapse, not the surges themselves. Tainter uses the examples of the Romans, the Maya and the Chacoans to demonstrate how his theory plays out. While the conditions in all three are wildly different, the declining returns on sociopolitical complexity are implicated each time. For the Romans, the empire was essentially founded on conquest. They were able to finance their complex society by plundering their areas of conquest. When their borders reached a certain point, the costs of maintaining the empire exceeded the possible gains by further conquest.

They reverted to taxation, debasing the currency, and turning to slavery, which ultimately weakened their society to barbarian incursion. The Maya suffered under a kind of crisis of the commons. They were constrained geographically, which lead to competition between various political centers. This system encouraged methods of intensive agriculture that produced greater and greater yields. But faced with continued competition, there was upward pressure on population numbers.

But this increased population required greater agricultural efforts and eventually they reached a point at which they could not continue this upward spiral. The Chacoans of the American Southwest based their society on "energy averaging," where a confederation of local communities could feed into a larger system such that they would pay into it in times of surplus and take from it in times of need. But when more and more communities were added that were subject to the same stress surges like drought or invasion, the utility of the system declined.

In every case, when the advantages of maintaining a complex society dip below those to be gained by a breakup into smaller units, a civilization disintegrates. Full collapse, though, only occurs in the presence of a power vacuum. When there are warring polities declining marginal utility simply opens one up to conquest by one's neighbors. That's why collapse as it has historically occurred isn't really possible today. Linked as we are by globalization, if any one nation collapses, they'll just be bailed out and subsumed by another.

But obviously, without a new energy input, this state of affairs can't go forever. So when the modern, globalized economy goes down, it basically has to all go down together. What I like about Tainter is that he doesn't assume that complex societies are the ultimate good. He rejects outlooks that can't be backed by empirical evidence.

He takes ideas like Marxist conflict theory and includes them in his overall theory. He seems fair and level-headed. And ultimately, it's that that makes me look at his conclusions for modern society seriously. Jan 27, Mohammad rated it really liked it. According to Tainter's Collapse of Complex Societies, societies become more complex as they try to solve problems. Social complexity can be recognized by numerous differentiated and specialized 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.

Such complexity requires a substantial "energy" According to Tainter's Collapse of Complex Societies, societies become more complex as they try to solve problems. Such complexity requires a substantial "energy" subsidy meaning the consumption of resources, or other forms of wealth. When a society confronts a "problem," such as a shortage of energy, or difficulty in gaining access to it, it tends to create new layers of bureaucracy, infrastructure, or social class to address the challenge.

Tainter, who first ch. For example, as Roman agricultural output slowly declined and population increased, per-capita energy availability dropped. The Romans "solved" this problem by conquering their neighbours to appropriate their energy surpluses in concrete forms, as metals, grain, slaves, etc.

However, as the Empire grew, the cost of maintaining communications, garrisons, civil government, etc.

The Collapse of complex societies / Joseph A. Tainter

Eventually, this cost grew so great that any new challenges such as invasions and crop failures could not be solved by the acquisition of more territory. Intense, authoritarian efforts to maintain cohesion by Domitian and Constantine the Great only led to an ever greater strain on the population. The empire was split into two halves, of which the western soon fragmented into smaller units. The eastern half, being wealthier, was able to survive longer, and did not collapse but instead succumbed slowly and piecemeal, because unlike the western empire it had powerful neighbors able to take advantage of its weakness.

It is often assumed that the collapse of the western Roman Empire was a catastrophe for everyone involved. Tainter points out that it can be seen as a very rational preference of individuals at the time, many of whom were actually better off. Archeological evidence from human bones indicates that average nutrition actually improved after the collapse in many parts of the former Roman Empire.

Average individuals may have benefited because they no longer had to invest in the burdensome complexity of empire. Tainter notes that in the west, local populations in many cases greeted the barbarians as liberators. Feb 18, Ryan rated it really liked it Shelves: environment.

An excellent treatise that proposes a general theory on why many advanced civilizations throughout history eventually collapse, with very detailed treatment of Roman and Mayan collapses as case studies to support the hypothesis. Basically the argument can be summed up as declining marginal returns to societal complexity resulting in a natural economic solution of less complexity to restore balance. The advance of civilizations is a progression in organizational complexity as a solution to proble An excellent treatise that proposes a general theory on why many advanced civilizations throughout history eventually collapse, with very detailed treatment of Roman and Mayan collapses as case studies to support the hypothesis.

The advance of civilizations is a progression in organizational complexity as a solution to problems of resource acquisition and distribution as populations become increasingly concentrated. However, the marginal benefits of ever greater investments in such complexity declines beyond a certain point and eventually becomes less than the marginal investment needed, making the buildup of complexity pointless and even harmful to society. While academic in presentation it is well researched with many references to related works , the book remains accessible to a general audience interested in explanations of the numerous cases of the fall of civilizations in history.

The clincher comes at the final chapter when Tainter outlines the implications of his theory on our current industrial and global civilization. He ventures that there can be no further sudden collapses in any society or country in today's interconnected and full world where no power vacuum exists - any reduction, purposeful or otherwise, would instantly result in another advanced nation or power absorbing the entity into it's fold.

In a world of competing polities, it's damned if you do and damned if you don't. We have to keep investing in complexity even beyond declining returns just to maintain the status quo and not fall behind in economic or military stature, the alternative being demise and subjugation by others. This is a sobering conclusion indeed, akin to the tragedy of commons where mankind is guaranteed a race to the bottom as selfish individual decisions lead to negative outcomes for our species, a gloomy prospect for the future to be sure. Any collapse when it occurs can therefore only be global in scale as we collectively face the coming scarcity in resources even as greater costs are incurred to procure the dwindling supplies.

A reversal to simpler organizations, whether by will or not will certainly be painful, but it seems inevitable in our shrinking and overcrowded planet. Apr 12, Aaron Arnold rated it it was amazing Shelves: science , history , read-in , economics , favorites , politics. This is a tough book to summarize, both because it's so dense and well-sourced it reminds me of grad school, and because it tackles a bunch of big, abstract questions, like what makes societies fail. What does it mean for societies to fail?

The Collapse of Complex Societies - Dark Mountain

Here Tainter analyzes many of the ways that groups of people can completely fail to maintain the complicated but fragile webs of interaction that separate us from animals trade, governance, food production, resource extraction , with examples from the Mayans This is a tough book to summarize, both because it's so dense and well-sourced it reminds me of grad school, and because it tackles a bunch of big, abstract questions, like what makes societies fail. Here Tainter analyzes many of the ways that groups of people can completely fail to maintain the complicated but fragile webs of interaction that separate us from animals trade, governance, food production, resource extraction , with examples from the Mayans, Romans, Hittites, Babylonians, and many more.

His basic thesis is that human societies are really problem-solving organizations e. At low complexity, adding more layers of doers, thinkers, and paper-shufflers makes society more productive and everyone better off, but each additional layer takes energy, and eventually you run into the law of diminishing marginal returns, meaning that after a certain point society becomes paralyzed under the weight of its own corporate and governmental bureaucracies and can no longer adapt to changing conditions like resource shortage, environmental change, economic shifts, or external threats.

The implications for modern society are many and thought-provoking. I really can't do this book justice in terms of its scope and analysis, but if you liked Jared Diamond's works Collapse cites this a bunch , check this out pronto. Oct 04, J. Hushour rated it liked it. Book reviews are sometimes uncertain exercises and of questionable value, especially mine. I'll confess up front that I often review on the utility of the work at hand and its relation to me, me, ME!

Take this book. This is probably a fine academic work. Tainter certainly knows his shit, so to speak. There's a wealth of fun polemics and theory and new approaches and tours-de-force against established views of the reasons for the collapses investigated in Book reviews are sometimes uncertain exercises and of questionable value, especially mine. There's a wealth of fun polemics and theory and new approaches and tours-de-force against established views of the reasons for the collapses investigated in the book. What you don't get is what I selfishly expected: actual histories, and maybe even some comparative histories writ large, of a slew of societies that're touched on in the beginning.

These bits are neat, but this is only a small part of the book. Much is given over to exploring dominant views and paradigms and collapse and yes and so on and mhm. So, I wouldn't say this is for the layman. Or laywoman. That doesn't sound right. And again, it's not to say it isn't a fine specimen, it just wasn't very good.

To me. Me me ME! Apr 18, David rated it really liked it Shelves: This book is a rather dry read but it is very informative. Tainter seeks to develop a universal explanation for the collapse of complex societies. He provides a thorough overview of the many explanations offered by historians to explain the many frequent occurrences of societal collapse throughout history. He then discounts all of them as inadequate. He offers a framework for explaining collapse which he sums up in four concepts: 1 human societies are problem-solving organizations 2 sociopolitic This book is a rather dry read but it is very informative.

He offers a framework for explaining collapse which he sums up in four concepts: 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 sociopolitical complexity as a problem-solving response often reaches a point of declining marginal returns. Basically complexity becomes too costly and so collapse occurs. Tainter applies his framework to three well-known societal collapses to see how well it holds up: Western Roman Empire, Classical Maya, and Chaco Canyon.

These offer different levels of complexity and different sources of evidence to compare against each other. This was probably the most interesting part of the book. Aug 11, Alex rated it really liked it Shelves: history , ecology , sociology. Oct 28, John Carter McKnight rated it it was amazing.



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