Sunday, December 8, 2013

Joseph Tainter: 'The Collapse of Complex Societies', Part One

Preface: This is not a mere a summary of Tainter’s work. I add my own examples and interpretations. I do this especially at the end, where I suggest some straight-forward solutions with which Tainter may not agree.

Joseph Tainter is an anthropologist and historian who teaches at Utah State University. In 1988, he published an important and disturbing book, The Collapse of Complex Societies. Since then, he has amplified his thesis, making it even more compelling two and a half decades later. In this essay, I review a brilliant lecture he gave at Northwestern University on December 10, 2010. This lecture can be accessed on You Tube at 'Collapse of Complex Societies by Dr. Joseph Tainter'

1. Thesis:

Tainter brings to mind another doomsday prophet - Jared Diamond. That UCLA geographer’s thesis is well-known: In his 2005 book How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed , he proposes a neo-Malthusian analogy between the collapse of the Easter Islands and the possible imminent collapse of humanity.
Tainter is similarly apocalyptic. However, his thesis is more interesting. Diamond’s “Easter Island scenario” is basically an academic version of what “green” people have been worrying about for at least fifty years, and Malthusians for over two hundred years.

On the other hand, Tainter, presents a sophisticated sociological analysis which suggests that the root of societal collapse is located in the inexorable nature of social evolution. As a sociologist and a history buff, I found it mesmerizing.

As a society grows and evolves, it becomes more complex. In time, the level of complexity becomes unsustainable, and society begins to decline, ending up in collapse.
Tainter uses the words “collapse” and “simplification” synonymously.
The increasing complexity manifests itself in a growing bureaucracy.
The cost of increased complexity is twofold: (1) greater expenditures of money and energy and (2) increased annoyance/discomfort/pain.
Increased complexity does solve problems, but over time it provides diminishing returns. Growing complexity requires more and more energy. This is the Energy-Complexity Spiral.

2. Rome: The Prototype:

Tainter focuses on Ancient Rome to make his point: For several centuries, Rome was able to sustain its growing complexity through an extremely successful “loot and pillage” strategy. Rome subjugated various peoples and appropriated the surplus resources which those peoples had accumulated. All these resources were the product of converted solar energy. That is, they consisted of built-up minerals (precious metals, etc.) and of human energy/labor (slaves, soldiers and other annexed populations). In 167 B.C. Rome conquered Macedonia, in 130 B.C. it took over Pergamon, in 63 B.C. Pompey occupied Syria, shortly thereafter Caesar subdued Gaul, and the list goes on.

However, there is a limit to the loot and pillage strategy. Expanding empires run out of areas to conquer. Furthermore, the administration of the acquired resources, territories and populations demands more and more energy. Military operations and armies must be increased, particularly very expensive components such as cavalry.

The author shows how the Romans attempted to deal with the fiscal ramifications of growing complexity: For several centuries, (approximately from the 3rd century B.C. to the 3rd century A.D.) the Empire’s primary currency was a silver coin called the Denarius. Also in use were coins with a partial gold content. For a long time, these coins were an extremely reliable and stable measure of value, with a uniform 99% silver content for the Denarius. However, in time, the government was only able to finance the growing cost of empire by debasing its currency. That is, by reducing the coins’ silver and gold content and relying on inflation.

Costs began to skyrocket in the 60s A.D. , with the Parthian War and the great Roman fire during Nero’s reign (64 A.D.). By the 3rd century, the bureaucratic and military costs had become exorbitant. Between 235 and 284, the empire suffered chronic invasions and civil wars. It was split for the first time into a Western and an Eastern segment.

Emperors such as Diocletian (284-305) and Constantine (306-337) tried to cope through reforms that increased complexity and bureaucracy.
Provinces were subdivided.
The number of capital cities multiplied. Besides Rome, parts of the empire were now ruled and administered from such cities as Constantinople, Trier, Milan and Ravenna.
The size of the army doubled.
Diocletian tried to freeze prices.
Laws proliferated.
Occupations became mandatorily hereditary.
Taxes (on a largely farming economy) rose to one third of gross yields, which amounted to 100% of surplus, leaving the population essentially at subsistence level.
Income and wealth became polarized, as the rich were able to avoid taxes, but the poor could not. Debts skyrocketed and society ate up its principal.
Growing Poverty and plague caused population decline and labor shortage. Peasants abandoned their lands and sold their children into slavery. The size of cities declined. By the time of its final collapse, Rome’s population had gone from a million and a half to 30,000. Coinage became lighter, the currency was debased and hyper-inflation set in. In the end, money disappeared and was replaced by a barter economy.

3. Other examples, and Contemporary Analogies:

Societal collapse due to unsustainable complexity has occurred frequently throughout history. Tainter’s examples, include the collapse of Minoan civilization in Crete during the 14th century B.C., that of Mycenae in Greece in the 11th century B.C., the Western Zhou Dynasty in China in 771 B.C. and the Mayans in Guatemala, during the 9th century A.D.

Today, many analogies suggest themselves, in the form of ASPECTS of modern life. Tainter mentions Homeland Security and military technology: Our effort to develop a full-proof response to terrorism , devotes extravagant amounts of resources and complicates our lives to the point of diminishing returns, unbearable discomfort and eventual bankruptcy.

Here is my own list of systems that are becoming unsustainably complex, resulting in chaos rather than problem-solving, loss rather than gain:

(1) the federal Affordable Care Act website, and possibly the entire ACA system itself.
(2) Mineral extraction, which has proceeded from land drilling and mining to off-shore drilling and now to horizontal fracking.
(3) Intelligence gathering by the likes of the NSA, which collects so much data that they become unwieldy, searching for needles in haystacks.
(4) The Internet: For example, Google searches are becoming increasingly meaningless, as any entry can produce millions of unrelated results.
(5) Criminal justice and the entire juridical system, which produces dozens of thousands of new laws every year.
(6) Globalization, which integrates the world into a system whose interrelationships are unknown and uncontrollable.

All these examples have this in common: They appear to offer short-term solutions to current problems (energy shortage, threat of terrorism, whathaveyou), but in time they create unsustainable cost and complexity (= chaos).

Here are some compelling similarities between what happened in ancient Rome and what is happening today:
(1) the enormous increase in debt, as advanced societies eat up their principal.
(2) The inexorable rise in taxes, whereby the rich avoid taxes, but the poor cannot.
(3)The polarization of income and wealth.
(4) The proliferation of laws.
(5) the growing ineffectiveness of bureaucracy.
(6) Currency debasement.
 (7) Growing racial and cultural diversity, and the disappearance of a distinct identity (To be continued)
leave comment here

© Tom Kando 2013