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Olduvai III: Catacylsm
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How Do You Know When Society Is About to Fall Apart?

How Do You Know When Society Is About to Fall Apart?

Meet the scholars who study civilizational collapse.

When I first spoke with Joseph Tainter in early May, he and I and nearly everyone else had reason to be worried. A few days earlier, the official tally of Covid-19 infections in the United States had climbed above one million, unemployment claims had topped 30 million and the United Nations had warned that the planet was facing “multiple famines of biblical proportions.” George Floyd was still alive, and the protests spurred by his killing had not yet swept the nation, but a different kind of protest, led by white men armed with heavy weaponry, had taken over the Michigan State Legislature building. The president of the United States had appeared to suggest treating the coronavirus with disinfectant injections. Utah, where Tainter lives — he teaches at Utah State — was reopening its gyms, restaurants and hair salons that very day.

The chaos was considerable, but Tainter seemed calm. He walked me through the arguments of the book that made his reputation, “The Collapse of Complex Societies,” which has for years been the seminal text in the study of societal collapse, an academic subdiscipline that arguably was born with its publication in 1988. “Civilizations are fragile, impermanent things,” Tainter writes. Nearly every one that has ever existed has also ceased to exist, yet “understanding disintegration has remained a distinctly minor concern in the social sciences.” It is only a mild overstatement to suggest that before Tainter, collapse was simply not a thing.

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Connected and vulnerable: Climate change, trade wars and the networked world

Connected and vulnerable: Climate change, trade wars and the networked world

The increasing connectedness of the global economic system has long been touted as the path to greater prosperity and peaceful relations among nations and their peoples. There’s just one hitch: Complex systems have more points of failure and also hidden risks that only surface when something goes wrong.

For example, our dependence on cheap shipping to move commodities and finished goods has resulted in a system vulnerable to environmental disruption, particularly climate change, and to rising political and military tensions.

The extreme drought in Germany last summer, the warmest ever recorded in the country, has resulted in such low water in the Rhine River that shipping has been greatly curtailed. Ships can only be loaded lightly so as to avoid running aground. Consequently, many more barges and other vessels have been pressed into service to carry the lighter but more numerous loads along the river. This has driven up the cost of shipping considerably. In addition, fuel tankers have not been able to reach some river ports resulting in scattered fuel shortages. Some industrial installations along the river have had to reduce operations.

The natural inhabitants of the river have also suffered as die-offs of fish and other marine life have spread along the river.

A world away trade tensions between China and the United States are resulting in an unexpected threat to the preparedness of the U.S. military. The neoliberal program of free trade embraced by one U.S. president after another regardless of party has resulted in curious vulnerabilities for the military.

Because of the hollowing out of American manufacturing—as much of it migrated to China’s low-cost labor market—the military can no longer fulfill certain needs from U.S. or even European manufacturers. Instead, the only place to source certain supplies is China, a country many now consider a potential military adversary of the United States.

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Old Age and Societal Decline

People grow old and die. Civilizations eventually fail. For centuries amateur philosophers have used the former as a metaphor for the latter, leading to a few useful insights and just as many misleading generalizations. The comparison becomes more immediately interesting as our own civilization stumbles blindly toward collapse. While not the cheeriest of subjects, it’s worth exploring.

A metaphor is not an explanation.

First, it’s important to point out that serious contemporary researchers studying the phenomenon of societal collapse generally find little or no explanatory value in the metaphorical link with individual human mortality.

The reasons for individual decline and death have to do with genetics, disease, nutrition, and personal history (including accidents and habits such as smoking). We are all genetically programmed to age and die, though lifespans differ greatly.

Reasons for societal decline appear to have little or nothing to do with genetics. Some complex societies have failed due to invasion by foreign marauders (and sometimes the diseases they brought); others have succumbed to resource depletion, unforeseeable natural catastrophe, or class conflict. Anthropologist Joseph Tainter proposed what is perhaps the best general theory of collapse in his 1988 book The Collapse of Complex Societies, which argued that the development of societal complexity is a problem-solving strategy that’s subject to diminishing marginal returns. Once a civilization’s return on investment in complexity goes negative, that civilization becomes vulnerable to stresses of all sorts that it previously could have withstood.

There is a superficial similarity between individual aging, on one hand, and societal vulnerability once returns on investments in complexity have gone negative, on the other. In both cases, what would otherwise be survivable becomes deadly—whether it’s a fall on an uneven sidewalk or a barbarian invasion. But this similarity doesn’t provide explanatory value in either case. No physician or historian will be able to do her job better by use of the metaphor.

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What Problems Are We Solving by Increasing Complexity?

What Problems Are We Solving by Increasing Complexity?

The incremental increase in systemic complexity is rarely if ever recognized as a problem that additional complexity can’t solve.
The Collapse of Complex Societies fame has observed that societies increase complexity to solve pressing problems that cannot be resolved with existing solutions.
What is complexity in this context? More organization, more layers of management, higher levels of specialization, an expansion of roles and differentiated areas of expertise, more channels of communication, more feedback loops, and an increase in the quantity and types of communication.
All of which consumes more energy and more treasure, not just to build the infrastructure of this increased complexity but to train the staff and maintain the higher costs going forward.
Which raises the obvious question: how does increasing cost solve anything? Doesn’t increasing the cost of a system create the problems resulting from taking money from some other source to pay the higher costs?
There are several different answers to this question.
1. The problem that must be solved is an existential threat to the society, and therefore cost is no longer an issue. World War II offers a historical example of an existential threat requiring a vast expansion of complexity and cost.
The upside of this dynamic is the problem is resolved relatively decisively by either victory or defeat. The downside is the vast sums borrowed to fund the war effort must be paid, or at least the interest must be paid–or the enormous debts must be renounced, crippling trust and the credit system.
2. The gains reaped by increasing complexity more than offset the higher costs. Amazon seems to offer a commercial example of this dynamic. By investing heavily in complex technology, Amazon has created financial incentives for consumers to shop online and have their purchases delivered to their door.

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Joseph Tainter: The Collapse Of Complex Societies

Joseph Tainter: The Collapse Of Complex Societies

What history predicts about our future prospects
By popular demand, we welcome Joseph Tainter, USU professor and author of The Collapse Of Complex Societies (free book download here).

Dr. Tainter sees many of the same unsustainable risks the PeakProsperity.com audience focuses on — an overleveraged economy, declining net energy per capita, and depleting key resources.

He argues that the sustainability or collapse of a society follows from the success or failure of its problem-solving institutions. His work shows that societies collapse when their investments in social complexity and their energy subsidies reach a point of diminishing marginal returns. From Tainter’s perspective, we are likely already past the tipping point towards collapse but just don’t know it yet:

Sustainability requires that people have the ability and the inclination to think broadly in terms of time and space. In other words, to think broadly in a geographical sense about the world around them, as well as the state of the world as a whole. And also, to think broadly in time in terms of the near and distant future and what resources will be available to our children and our grandchildren and our great grandchildren.

One of the major problems in sustainability and in this whole question of resources and collapse is that we did not evolve as a species to have this ability to think broadly in time and space. Instead, our ancestors who lived as hunter-gatherers never confronted any challenges that required them to think beyond their locality and the near term(…)

We have developed the most complex society humanity has ever known. And we have maintained it up to this point. I have argued that technological innovation and other kinds of innovation evolve like any other aspect of complexity. The investments in research and development grow increasingly complex and reach diminishing returns.

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The Archdruid Report: Dark Age America: Involuntary Simplicity

The Archdruid Report: Dark Age America: Involuntary Simplicity.

The political transformations that have occupied the last four posts in this sequence can also be traced in detail in the economic sphere. A strong case could be made, in fact, that the economic dimension is the more important of the two, and the political struggles that pit the elites of a faliing civilization against the proto-warlords of the nascent dark age reflect deeper shifts in the economic sphere. Whether or not that’s the case—and in some sense, it’s simply a difference in emphasis—the economics of decline and fall need to be understood in order to make sense of the trajectory ahead of us.


One of the more useful ways of understanding that trajectory was traced out some years ago by Joseph Tainter in his book The Collapse of Complex Societies. While I’ve taken issue with some of the details of Tainter’s analysis in my own work, the general model of collapse he offers was also a core inspiration for the theory of catabolic collapse that provides the  basic structure for this series of posts, so I don’t think it’s out of place to summarize his theory briefly here.
Tainter begins with the law of diminishing returns: the rule, applicable to an astonishingly broad range of human affairs, that the more you invest—in any sense—in any one project, the smaller the additional return is on each unit of additional investment. The point at which this starts to take effect is called the point of diminishing returns. Off past that point is a far more threatening landmark, the point of zero marginal return: the point, that is, when additional investment costs as much as the benefit it yields. Beyond that lies the territory of negative returns, where further investment yields less than it costs, and the gap grows wider with each additional increment.
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Olduvai IV: Courage
In progress...

Olduvai II: Exodus
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