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The Collapse of Complex Societies (1988)

by Joseph A. Tainter

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635937,280 (4.07)2
Any explanation of political collapse carries lessons not just for the study of ancient societies, but for the members of all complex societies in both the present and future. Dr Tainter describes nearly two dozen cases of collapse and reviews more than 2000 years of explanations. He then develops a new and far-reaching theory that accounts for collapse among diverse kinds of societies, evaluating his model and clarifying the processes of disintegration by detailed studies of the Roman, Mayan and Chacoan collapses.… (more)
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Showing 1-5 of 8 (next | show all)
Diminishing marginal returns lead to collapse when there is power vacuum because parts of the society are less motivated to support the system rather than detach from it or even sabotage it.
It's a believable idea. But it's hard for me to grasp the reasons for the inevitability of diminishing marginal returns.
Tainter explains that people grasp for the lower hanging fruit first so what's left after that is harder to get fruit - so you move from high marginal return to lower marginal return. But as a general metaphor for all kinds of processes it's hard to swallow.
- Oil companies develop easier to get oil wells first.
- Education provides general knowledge first which has a higher marginal return than specialized knowledge because it can be applied to more situations.
- Scientists discover easier knowledge first.
- Socio-political structure of a society is less complex first.

I can sense that there is truth to these examples. Over time those processes do seem to become more complicated and brittle. But i also feel like there could be counter examples. What about the notion of critical mass or breakthroughs? Like when you move from coal to oil, isn't there a big spike in marginal utility? I don't know. Perhaps Tainter accounts for such local spikes and talks more about the big picture where the trend is for diminishing.

Besides this complication with diminishing returns I learned a lot from this book. A glimpse into how and why societies are born and collapse. ( )
  rubyman | Feb 21, 2024 |
paperback
  SueJBeard | Feb 14, 2023 |
This is a tough book to summarize, both because it's so dense and well-sourced it reminds me of grad school, and because it tackles a bunch of big, abstract questions, like what makes societies fail. What does it mean for societies to fail? Here Tainter analyzes many of the ways that groups of people can completely fail to maintain the complicated but fragile webs of interaction that separate us from animals (trade, governance, food production, resource extraction), with examples from the Mayans, Romans, Hittites, Babylonians, and many more. His basic thesis is that human societies are really problem-solving organizations (e.g. the wheel reduces travel time, agriculture reduces vulnerability to famine, steam power increases mechanical capability, sewer systems reduce plagues), and civilization is nothing more than overlapping layers of complex problem-solving networks, skills, and technologies. At low complexity, adding more layers of doers, thinkers, and paper-shufflers makes society more productive and everyone better off, but each additional layer takes energy, and eventually you run into the law of diminishing marginal returns, meaning that after a certain point society becomes paralyzed under the weight of its own corporate and governmental bureaucracies and can no longer adapt to changing conditions like resource shortage, environmental change, economic shifts, or external threats. The implications for modern society are many and thought-provoking. I really can't do this book justice in terms of its scope and analysis, but if you liked Jared Diamond's works (Collapse cites this a bunch), check this out pronto. ( )
  aaronarnold | May 11, 2021 |
A really detailed analysis of the reasons for the collapse of complex societies. For my own purposes, as a general reader, perhaps it is a bit too detailed in places (lots of references to other people's work, for example). It felt a bit like reading someone's PhD submission, to be honest.

Having said that, it was very interesting to see the intersection of archaeology with economics that Tainter presents in this work and I particularly enjoyed the last chapter where he looks at the implications of his findings for the complex societies we inhabit today.
However much we like to think of ourselves as something special in world history, in fact industrial societies are subject to the same principles that caused earlier societies to collapse.
Collapse, if and when it comes again, will this time be global.
Another aspect I appreciated was the way Tainter takes earlier writers to task for assuming that civilisations are automatically A Good Thing and for coming up with completely unjustifiable reasons for their decay.

Tainter urges us to identify another source of energy to avoid the inevitable problems that will be associated with the exhaustion of fossil fuels and inexorable growth of the human population. ( )
  AJBraithwaite | Aug 14, 2017 |
Very good, but not as good as Guns, Germs, Steel ( )
  PaulRx04 | Apr 15, 2016 |
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Any explanation of political collapse carries lessons not just for the study of ancient societies, but for the members of all complex societies in both the present and future. Dr Tainter describes nearly two dozen cases of collapse and reviews more than 2000 years of explanations. He then develops a new and far-reaching theory that accounts for collapse among diverse kinds of societies, evaluating his model and clarifying the processes of disintegration by detailed studies of the Roman, Mayan and Chacoan collapses.

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