The collapse of complex societies of the past can inform the present on the risks of collapse. Dr. Joseph Tainter, author of the book The Collapse of Complex societies, details the factors that led to the collapse of past civilizations including the Roman Empire.
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 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. 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. 1) identifies seventeen examples of rapid collapse of societies, applies his model to three case studies: The Western Roman Empire, the Maya civilization, and the Chaco culture.
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 theEmpire grew, the cost of maintaining communications, garrisons, civil government, etc. grew with it. 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.
We often assume 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.
This is part 1 of 7 of a keynote talk delivered to the 2010 International Conference on Sustainability: Energy, Economy, and Environment organized by Local Future nonprofit and directed by Aaron Wissner.
According to Tainter (1990), too many scholars offer facile explanations of societal collapse by assuming one or more of the following three models in the face of collapse: (Wikipedia)
- The Dinosaur, a large-scale society in which resources are being depleted at an exponential rate and yet nothing is done to rectify the problem because the ruling elite are unwilling or unable to adapt to those resources’ reduced availability: In this type of society, rulers tend to oppose any solutions that diverge from their present course of action. They will favour intensification and commit an increasing number of resources to their present plans, projects, and social institutions.
- The Runaway Train, a society whose continuing function depends on constant growth (cf.Frederick Jackson Turner‘s Frontier Thesis): This type of society, based almost exclusively on acquisition (e.g., pillage or exploitation), cannot be sustained indefinitely. The Assyrian and MongolEmpires, for example, both fractured and collapsed when no new conquests were forthcoming.
- Tainter argues that capitalism can be seen as an example of the Runaway Train model in that generally accepted accounting practices require publicly traded companies, along with many privately held ones, to exhibit growth as measured at some fixed interval (often three months). Moreover, the ethos of consumerism on the demand side and the practice of planned obsolescence on the supply side encourage the purchase of an ever-increasing number of goods and services even when resource extraction and food production are unsustainable if continued at current levels.
- The House of Cards, a society that has grown to be so large and include so many complex social institutions that it is inherently unstable and prone to collapse. This type of society has been seen with particular frequency among Eastern bloc and other communist nations, in which all social organizations are arms of the government or ruling party, such that the government must either stifle association wholesale (encouraging dissent and subversion) or exercise less authority than it asserts (undermining its legitimacy in the public eye).
- By contrast, as Alexis de Tocqueville observed, when voluntary and private associations are allowed to flourish and gain legitimacy at an institutional level, they complement and often even supplant governmental functions: They provide a “safety valve” for dissent, assist with resource allocation, provide for a for social experimentation without the need for governmental coercion, and enable the public to maintain confidence in society as a whole even during periods of governmental weakness.
Tainter argues that these models, though superficially useful, cannot severally or jointly account for all instances of societal collapse. Often they are seen as interconnected occurrences that reinforce each other. For example, the failure of Easter Island‘s leaders to remedy rapid ecological deterioration (“Dinosaur”) cannot be understood without reference to the other models above. The islanders, who erected large statues called moai as a form of religious reverence to their ancestors, used felled trees as rollers to transport them. Because the islanders firmly believed that their displays of reverence would lead to increased future prosperity, they had a deeply entrenched incentive to intensify moaiproduction (“Runaway Train”). Because Easter Island’s geographic isolation made its resources hard to replenish and made the balance of its overall ecosystem very delicate (“House of Cards”), deforestation led to soil erosion and insufficient resources to build boats for fishing or tools for hunting. Competition for dwindling resources resulted in warfare and many casualties (an additional “Runaway Train” iteration). Together these events led to the collapse of the civilization, but no single factor above provides an adequate account.
Mainstream interpretations of the history of Easter Island also include the slave raiders who abducted a large proportion of the population and epidemics that killed most of the survivors (see Easter Island History#Destruction of society and population.) Again, no single point explains the collapse; only a complex and integrated view can do so.
Tainter’s position is that social complexity is a recent and comparatively anomalous occurrence requiring constant support. He asserts that collapse is best understood by grasping four axioms. In his own words (p. 194):
- human societies are problem-solving organizations;
- sociopolitical systems require energy for their maintenance;
- increased complexity carries with it increased costs per capita; and
- investment in sociopolitical complexity as a problem-solving response reaches a point of declining marginal returns.
With these facts in mind, collapse can simply be understood as a loss of the energy needed to maintain social complexity. Collapse is thus the sudden loss of social complexity, stratification, internal and external communication and exchange, and productivity.