Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Collapse, part 2

Courier article, also based on my Tainter review

In my last column I briefly reviewed a book by Joseph Tainter on the collapse of civilisations. His principal argument is that societies collapse into lower levels of complexity as a direct result of decreasing marginal returns on investment. In other words, there comes a point when investing more resources into maintaining the status quo actually makes the situation worse, not better. How far Tainter is correct in this thesis is something that professionals in his field can take forward. My interest is with the implications for our present crisis, for it seems unarguable that our existing society has entered the realm of diminishing returns on investment (seen most clearly through peak oil – the Deepwater Horizon disaster can stand as the symbol for that).

Here are some thoughts about the implications of Tainter's argument, including why I come away from studying it with a sense of optimism.

To begin with, there is a trade off between efficiency and resilience; that is, the most efficient forms of complexity are the most susceptible to a sudden collapse. In contrast, those that are less efficient have deeper levels of resilience. This can actually be seen with regard to the collapse of the USSR in the 1990's, the most recent example of a civilisational collapse. As the Soviet state was incredibly inefficient, most citizens had actually developed ways of coping without the central state, especially with regard to growing their own food. This meant that they were well placed to cope with the withdrawal of central state services when the collapse came.

Secondly, armed with Tainter's insights, the theme of diminishing returns on complexity appears to explain much of contemporary politics. In the UK for example we have over the last ten years or so seen a significant increase in the resources made available from the centre for various purposes, eg health care. Sadly, much of that new investment has gone towards increasing the level of central control, and has failed in every respect. The new coalition government's emphasis upon the 'Big Society' is, I would say, simply a recognition that the central government can no longer afford to exercise such direct control.

Thirdly, a large part of the 'green' critique of our contemporary society chimes strongly with Tainter's emphases. Underlying the idea that constant growth of the economy is a dangerous delusion is an entire vision called 'permaculture', or, sustainability. In other words, the idea is that a particular arrangement of human habits and lifestyles can be maintained over the long term, in a harmonious balance with the natural environment which supports such lifestyles. Lifestyles which take too much out of the environment are unsustainable – in other words, they will come to an end, they will collapse. What Tainter provides is a way of analysing our present activities that helps to indicate whether they are sustainable in the long run, or not.

Tainter writes that "Collapse, if and when it comes again, will be global. No longer can any individual nation collapse. World civilisation will disintegrate as a whole." It seems unarguable to me that our present form of industrial civilisation will collapse; what is not clear to me is whether it makes sense to equate 'industrial civilisation' with 'technically advanced and humane civilisation'. In particular there seems no reason why it should not be possible to shift to a 'steady-state' type of economy, which is precisely what the green movement is advocating.

The crucial point is that I do not see our existing levels of complexity as inherently desirable, rather the opposite. When the Western Roman Empire collapsed it came about after a long period of the centre increasing taxation on the periphery – the Roman elite taxing the farmers in order to sustain their own lifestyles. As might be predicted, this simply resulted in a decrease in agricultural production and the seeds of rebellion. Just as the late-Roman farmers found it in their interest to let the central structures collapse, so too might the majority of the industrialised nations find it in their interest to let the gigantic state structures, built up through the twentieth century, collapse in turn. (What future the EU?)

So why have I come away from Tainter with an optimistic outlook? The answer is that Tainter makes plain that the collapse of complexity is not necessarily a universal bane. On the contrary, whilst those most closely invested in the centralised structures do badly in a collapse, it is quite possible that the majority of a community will benefit, not least because for a long time leading up to a collapse the maintenance of the status quo had exacted an increasing burden upon ordinary citizens, through the increase of taxes and the restrictions on human freedom. The removal of a particular level of human complexity does not, of itself, lead to depopulation. It seems quite possible that the twenty-first century future will be local, resilient and humane, and without an over-bearing state recklessly absorbing and wasting scarce resources that prospect seems very attractive. Of course, getting to that point will likely be very scary...

In my next column, I'll be narrowing down the focus even more to talk about what these things might mean for Mersea.


  1. I'm liking this series. Though would it have been worth mentioning that the population of western europe declined by something like 50% in the centuries after the collapse of the western empire? Or that Tainter links increasing agricultural intensification with political complexity? The question of whether they can be decoupled is a critical one, but not a straightforward one.

  2. I'm trying not to be too scary! I also have an approximate 800 word limit...

  3. Fair enough. Too scary = ignored. Not scary enough = ignored. It's a tough rope to walk. You're plenty scary on your blog. ;-)


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