Archeologist Joseph Tainter’s book The Collapse of Complex Societies has done much to shape my thinking about our contemporary predictament. Issue 20 of Volume Magazine carried an interview I did with Tainter earlier this year but since the interview had to be cut down to fit the graphic design required by Volume, I thought I should post it online in its entirety.
Kazys Vernelis: In your book you argue that civilizational collapse, as it took place in ancient societies such as the Chou Dynasty in China, the Indus Valley, Mesopotamia, and Ancient Rome is “a rapid, significant loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity.” Could you elaborate on what you mean by complexity and why it leads to collapse?
Joseph Tainter: I approach complexity from the perspective of an anthropologist. In our field one of the oldest questions is how and why human societies evolved from relatively simple and undifferentiated to complex and highly differentiated. Complexity in the framework I use consists of two components: structural differentiation and organization. Structural differentiation refers to the development of new categories of social roles, institutions, information, settlements, occupations, technologies, etc. Organization is how those are constrained so that they behave to form a system. If everydone does as they please there is no organization, and structural elements cannot form a system. Organization limits and channels behavior. So increasing complexity consists of increasing differentiation of structure combined with increasing organization. With a collapse, an established level of complexity is quickly lost.
KV: So as civilizations develop, you conclude, they differentiate—for example, by creating highly specialized social roles—and build greater and greater levels of organization that require higher investment of energy to maintain. Eventually the marginal returns on investment decline and civilizations either figure out how to deal with that situation or collapse. You note that from the perspective of humans as a species and hominadae as a family, complexity is quite unusual. Most of our existence has been in small settlements or nomadic groups that have relatively little differentiation and low levels of complexity.
Today we are living in the most complex society that has ever existed, yet we’ve avoided collapse thus far. Why is that?
JT: Diminishing returns to complexity are probably inevitable, but collapse doesn’t necessarily follow. Collapses are actually not that common. There are several ways to cope with diminishing returns to complexity. One is to find energy subsidies to pay for the process. That is what we have done with fossil fuels. And it is a big part of why a future crisis in fossil fuels is the most important thing we should be worrying about.
KV: All but a few geologists suggest that a decline in fossil fuel extraction is inevitable. In 1998 Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah said “The oil boom is over and will not return… All of us must get used to a different lifestyle.” Are we doomed?
JT: The critical point is when we reach peak oil. This is the point where 50% of recoverable reserves have been extracted. At this point, production might be kept level for a few years with heroic efforts, but soon production will start to decline. And every year after that there will be less oil available than the year before. One of the challenges with peak oil is that you know you’ve passed it only in hindsight. So there is naturally controversy about how close it is. Some analysts think we have passed it already, but the effect is masked by the economic downturn. How badly peak oil affects us depends on how quickly we bring alternative energy production systems into place. If we delay too long, the party will be over. This is a real danger. Developing new energy sources is the most important thing we can do.
KV: What about technological innovation? The spread of digital technology, the Internet, and mobile technology contributed to the economic recovery during the last fifteen years. There has been a bit of talk about innovating our way out of this recession too, for example through urban computing, green architecture, or investment in new kinds of infrastructure. Is such optimism in technological solutions warranted? Are there pitfalls to it? Are there other means by which we can avoid collapse?
JT: Short answer: It’s complicated. Long answer: Technological-innovation-as-savior is part of our cosmology. It is a fundamental part of our beliefs, so frequently we don’t think about it rationally. Relying on technological innovation to find some solution is what I call a faith-based approach to the future. There are two things about technological innovation that concern me. The first is that, like other endeavors, research grows complex and costly and can reach diminishing returns. This is covered in the Collapse book so I won’t elaborate here. The second problem is what is known as the Jevons Paradox. William Stanley Jevons, a 19th century British economist, pointed out that in the long run technological innovations aimed as at using less of a resource actually lead to even more of the resource being used. His example was coal, but the principle applies across the board. As technological innovation leads to economy in using a resource, people respond to the lower cost by using even more. I conclude from this that technological innovations can offer only short-term advantages. They quickly become outdated, then the next round of innovations may be harder to achieve.
KV: Beyond outright collapse, is it possible to have partial collapses of complexity? Given that I go to see my parents in Lithuania frequently, I am fascinated by the ruins of the Soviet Empire. This wasn’t an outright collapse, but certainly a major level of social organization was shed.
JT: The term “collapse” has, of course, many colloquial meanings, and often it is applied to the demise of political entities. For academic purposes I prefer to use it to mean a rapid, substantial loss of complexity. With the end of the Soviet Union there was certainly some reduction in complexity, coming mainly in the form of a diminishing of organizational control. But this was not comparable with the loss of complexity in western Europe at the end of the Western Roman Empire. So the end of the Soviet Union may have been like other collapses in some ways, but it was not similar in scale.