Reflections: The Collapse of Complex Societies

In The Collapse of Complex Societies, author Joseph Tainter introduces his own framework for explaining how complex civilizations collapse, mainly seen through the lens ancient Maya, Western Rome, and the Chacoan society, along with other recurring examples such as Zhou China. Here, collapse is defined as the disintegration of a complexly organized society into simpler forms. Rome collapsed as a vast continental empire fragmented into feudal states with little contact with each other, ushering in the Dark Ages for Europe. But Napoleonic France did not collapse — the government did, but another one quickly replaced it, and French society itself did not reset to simpler times.

First, he refutes certain existing popular theories as inadequate.

The least robust one he labels Mystical, which argues that societies collapse because they exhibit some qualitative traits such as decadence or senility. This is a purely moralistic and subjective argument — every society exhibits the good and the bad concurrently; only propaganda argues otherwise. Revolutionary America rose embracing both liberty and slavery, and the fall of Byzantium was marked by both scheming eunuchs and brave last stands defending Constantinople.

Some theories assume a purely passive society at the whims of nature, such as Resource Depletion (collapse after a lack of resources), New Resources (discovery of new resources that makes a society less reliant on structure), Chance Concatenation of Events, and Catastrophes (that overwhelm the society). There, Tainter reminds us that society itself exists to deal with problems, and many do so quite adeptly. The Silk Route brought new resources to starving regions, Industrial England rapidly consumed its riches, and China’s first dynasties formed partially to control floods and build canals, weathering disaster after disaster.

The more convincing arguments deal with the inadequacies of societies. They include Insufficient Response to Circumstances, introduction of Other Complex Societies, Intruders, Conflicts / Contradictions / Mismanagement, Social Dysfunction, and what the author considers the best yet: Economic Explanations. But they all rely on specific circumstances for each example; none alone provides an adequate generalization applicable through all cases. Carthage was destroyed by Rome, Qing China by stagnation, and the Soviet Union by economic mismanagement. Each unhappy civilization, it seemed, was unhappy in its own way.

Tainter attempts to bridge all collapses under a common theme of the marginal productivity of sociopolitical change. Qualitative and quantitative aspects of social progress is seen through the lens of a common microeconomics concept — at early stages of a society, spending resources yields lots of benefits. But the amount of benefit diminishes with each successive quantity of input, until a society peaks, and subsequent investments are not worth their costs. Yet a society is constantly struggling against externalities the only way it knows, by investing in greater complexity. Once the costs outweigh the benefits, a society is no longer able to deal with externalities and collapse ensues.

There are several examples of this — in agriculture and resource production, initial investments in cultivation and extraction techniques yield much benefits that allow a society to prosper. The first oilfields spurred a global industrial boom. But they became harder to extract as new discoveries lie in difficult to extract Bakken Fields rather than Saudi ones. In information processing, discoveries of fundamental theories such as geometry and Newtonian physics yielded significant economic advantages, but discoveries today are much costlier and difficult to monetize. Mapping the night sky with merely our eyes allowed us to sail away from the shores, while sums spent into quantum physics have yet to yield meaningful economic benefits. The same with socialpolitical specialization — fundamental organizational structures allow a society to reap rewards of specialization. But further development becomes mindless bureaucracy. The British Royal Navy today has more officers, yet fewer capital ships, than in the colonial days.

The book’s biggest omission though is a framework to understand why the marginal productivity curve peak for societies. It treats human civilization as passive entities, spending every year running down the development clock, doomed to eventual collapse because the only thing it knows — building complexity — eventually turns into self-harm. But civilization is only passive from an impractically high level perspective. No individual civilization has a predetermined destiny. Every day, active participants interact with their environments and each other to determine the next step in an undeterministic trajectory. These participants and their decisions bend the marginal curve back and forth.

We see throughout history societies that can overcome disorganization and move from a state of near-collapse to a state of greater complexity. Sometimes Great Men step up to meet the challenges of the era. Tainter analyzed the final fall of the Western Roman Empire, but ignored its formation. Roman society was about to collapse along with its republic. The late republic was dependent on a complex hierarchy of political roles, often redundant in responsibilities, pursued by self-interested noble houses that sought power at the expense of the common good. Those classic virtues of Cincinnatus and Horatius were long forgotten. It could have easily collapsed into a civil war between the optimates and populares and every faction in between. Yet by pressing his inheritance and fighting the civil war in a disciplined manner, Octavian restructured a decaying republic into a dominant empire. Rather than collapsing, Rome expanded further, became wealthier, and found even more adversaries.

Sometimes other aspects of a society step up to augment parts of it that are creaking at the seams. American declinists love to compare their country to the Rome of Romulus Augustulus, citing decadence, cultural divisions, entrenched corporate interests, unserviceable debt, among a myriad of other problems. But they forget that America has faced plenty of worse challenges before, only to be saved by other redeeming qualities. A much more politically dysfunctional America after the Articles of Confederation was saved by the evangelical spirit of early statesmen determined to carry on the experiment. A much more culturally divided America at the outbreak of the Civil War was saved by the military-industrial capacity of the North. A much more corrupt America in the days of Tammany Hall, Grant, and Harding was repeatedly saved by a self-regulating ecosystem of a watchful press, balancing alternative branches of government, and the rejuvenating power of fair elections. The answers to solving each of those problems were not build more of what created to those problems, which would have yielded a drastically falling marginal productivity curve at greater cost per capita. Time and time again, American society found a way to move past those problems and become an even more complex and powerful nation. It avoided collapse repeatedly, even without the safeguards and tools available today to the world’s sole superpower.

Sometimes societies can also prematurely peak, incapable of fulfilling its true potential. The messy retreat of colonial powers left weak regimes in the Middle East and Africa that repeatedly collapsed despite the abundance of human capital and natural resources. Those societies could have easily found high returning investments by emulating the West.

The marginal productivity curve alone cannot serve as a universal framework for the collapse of societies if it constantly bends back and forth unpredictably. The flaw is not in Tainter’s framework, but in the pursuit of formulating a generalizing theory for all human societies across cultural, technological, demographic, geographic, ideological, and economic circumstances. It may be convenient for academics to see the world as displaying the same cyclical patterns, but it’s not useful to everyone else alive trying to move society forward. History ought to be judged on the near-term, through the collection of day-to-day activities by active participants. We ought to forecast America’s future not by the fate of Rome, but by the decisions made by the leaders and citizenry today — their motivations, quality of execution, and reactions to the results. History doesn’t determine where we go — we determine where history goes. Nothing is inevitable.