Thursday, August 05, 2010

The collapse of civilisations (part one)

A courier article, based on my original Tainter review

Pretty much every civilisation that has ever existed has come to an end (we can argue about China another time). Our civilisation will be no different. There has, as you might expect, been a fair bit of academic research into why this is the case. What I'd like to do in the next few articles is describe how this collapse might be understood, first in general terms with a book review; then thinking more locally, in terms of the UK and Mersea itself; finally thinking about what sort of response we might make.

The seminal work in this field is 'The Collapse of Complex Civilisations' by Joseph Tainter. Tainter's work was originally published in 1988 and has the feel of a work which is establishing a new field of study. Tainter is concerned to explore what 'collapse' means, when applied to a society; how collapse happens; and, in the conclusion, to draw some possible lessons for our present situation. The first chapter is a swift survey of eighteen historical examples of collapsed societies around the world, from the Harappans to the Hohokams. This serves to introduce the field that Tainter wishes to study, and also indicates the absence of rigorous empirical investigation. This is the cue for Tainter to begin his systematic analysis. He outlines what is meant by 'collapse', describing it as "a matter of rapid substantial decline in an established level of complexity. A society that has collapsed is suddenly smaller, less differentiated and heterogeneous, and characterised by fewer specialised parts..." Then in chapter three, Tainter surveys the explanations commonly given for why a particular society collapses, finding them all more or less deficient, and saving an especial scorn for 'mystical explanations' (eg Spengler or Toynbee), about which he writes: "Mystical explanations fail totally to account scientifically for collapse. They are crippled by reliance on a biological growth analogy, by value judgements, and by explanation by reference to intangibles." In the course of this chapter he also gives a resounding declaration of the benefit of excluding value-judgements: "A scholar trained in anthropology learns early on that such valuations are scientifically inadmissible, detrimental to the cause of understanding, intellectually indefensible, and simply unfair".

Tainter then takes the best existing explanation for collapse (economic) and proceeds to develop a hypothesis to explain why complex societies might suddenly shift from a more complex to a less complex state. His thesis can be concisely stated: increasing complexity gives rise to diminishing marginal returns on investment; when those returns become negative, the society has a progressively diminishing capacity to withstand stress, and is vulnerable to collapse.

Essentially at point C3 there is no benefit from the increase of complexity (C3-C1) - hence the collapse from C3 to C1.

This thesis is built upon four working assumptions:
- human societies are problem-solving organisations;
- 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 often reaches a point of declining marginal returns.

What happens is that, as a complex society initially develops, there is a very high return on investment in complexity - the resources made available through that adoption of complexity are far higher than are used up through the complex organisation itself. However, over time, the 'low hanging fruit' are used up, and for every increase in complexity there is a lower and lower resource return until there comes a point where simply maintaining the existing complexity has a negative impact upon available resources - in other words, the resources are more efficiently deployed through a less complex system.

Tainter gives a number of different specific and small-scale examples where this decline in marginal returns applies, for example in terms of the return on research and development investment, or medical research, but his next chapter applies the theory to understanding three different examples of collapse. The most telling example, to my mind, was that of the farmers in the latter stages of the Western Roman Empire, who were taxed more and more heavily in order to maintain the apparatus of the Roman state, and who eventually welcomed the barbarian invasions as a release from what had become Roman oppression. A Roman structure of high complexity had been viable for as long as there were increasing resources made available - and this was accomplished through conquest. However, once the limits of conquest were reached (either with the German tribes, whose relative poverty made their conquest uneconomic, or through coming up against another Empire strong enough to resist Rome, eg the Parthian) then that model of development became untenable. The accumulated resources available to Rome were drawn down, its capacity to absorb shocks to the system was eroded, and thus the collapse of that form of complexity became a matter of time. As Tainter writes, "Once a complex society enters the stage of declining marginal returns, collapse becomes a mathematical likelihood, requiring little more than sufficient passage of time to make probable an insurmountable calamity". As a complex society enters into this terminal phase, the advantages to retreating to a previously existing level of complexity become more and more obvious, and local communities start to shift their allegiance: "...a society reaches a state where the benefits available for a level of investment are no higher than those available for some lower level...Complexity at such a point is decidedly not advantageous, and the society is in danger of collapse from decomposition or external threat".

Next time, I'll start to link these generalities with the specifics that we face in England generally, and on Mersea in particular.


  1. Sam
    Have you ever read Fischer on price revolutions? Very interesting economic and social history touching on collapse.

  2. Are you sure the 'UK' had a civilisation in the first place? As far as I can tell, the existing system was built on Tudor (and earlier) gangsterism. SDR

  3. I think its helpful to keep in mind that civilizations collapse but not civilization itself. Humans are made for complex interactions. The person by himself is barely able to survive. Hence the marginal benefit for added complexity almost always exceeds the marginal cost for humanity as a whole.

    Consider for example the 'collapse of Rome'. Yes the Western European farmers bulked at paying for Rome's civilization and welcomed the invasion of the barbarians. What happened to complexity in Europe after Rome though?

    In terms of religion complexity only increased. The Christian religion brought with it theology and new structures of international authority that were unheard of in pagan times. Consider the great summits that debated such things as the nature of the Trinity. Is there any precedent for such serious theological inquiry during Rome's Pagan era?

    In terms of politics Europe history became less soap opera (Caesar, Anthony and Cleopatra) and more sociology. Authority became more structured and more diverse with both nobility and Church sharing authority in complex ways.

    I would put forth the idea that Rome's 'collapse' is bemoaned not so much because it was an end of Western civilization but an end of an easy way for historians to understand civilisation as a grand melodrama of 'great men' who changed history by being either brilliant, cruel, insane or some combination of all of the above. Rome for all its size was simply not as complex as what came after it and Rome couldn't survive not because it was too complex for the modern world but because it simply wasn't complicated enough. It was a rather simple system where authority depended on a never ending influx of bounty from defeated realms abroad. When places to conquer ran out, Europe had to find ways to develop a working society that generated its own income rather than snatch it from wealthy neighbors. A system where the entire gov't could be overturned in a year because some general became popular after a great victory or because some Emperor went mad was hardly complicated enough to meet such a task.


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