Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Collapse of Complex Societies

I'm told that some people, those susceptible to morbid fascinations, delight in a delicious shiver of fear caused by reading horror stories. Not me. I take pains to steer clear of the horror genre. However, I confess my own fascination with a related genre: archaeology.

I just finished reading Joseph A. Tainter's 1988 shiver-inducing The Collapse of Complex Societies, a doleful tome with a surprise twist. Tainter starts with four foundational concepts in developing his thesis that societies become vulnerable to collapse as additional societal complexity produces less and less marginal benefit. He writes:

"Four concepts lead to understanding collapse, the first three of which are the underpinnings of the fourth. These are:

1. human societies are problem-solving organizations;
2. sociopolitical systems require energy for their maintenance;
3. increased complexity carries with it increased costs per capita; and
4. investment in sociopolitical complexity as a problem-solving response often reaches a point of declining marginal returns."

Tainter supports his thesis with examples of declining marginal returns (as observed in 1988) in agriculture and resource production, sociopolitical control and specialization, and medicine.

Oh, one could make the counter argument that recent advances in computing and communications continue to provide a lot of productivity bang for the research buck; but, all in all, Tainter seems to be on firm ground here. And Tainter's comments about sociopolitical organizations seemed especially apt:

"Sociopolitical organizations constantly encounter problems that require increased investment merely to preserve the status quo. This investment comes in such forms as increasing size of bureaucracies, increasing specialization of bureaucracies, cumulative organization solutions, increasing costs of legitimizing activities, and increasing costs of internal control and external defense. All of these must be borne by levying greater costs on the support population, often to no increased advantage. As the number and costliness of organization investments increase, the proportion of a society's budget available for investment in future economic growth must decline."

Very simply put, societies increase in complexity to solve ever more difficult problems, and this complexity becomes increasingly costly over time. At some point, the complexity produces nearly as many headaches as the problems it is intended to solve.

To illustrate his thesis, Tainter takes the reader through a careful analysis of the Roman Empire and its progression of declining marginal returns. Rome got off to a promising start in the third century B.C. There were many rich lands to conquer. But the early joys of pillaging led to the later aggravations of bureaucracy. As Tainter writes:

"Once the accumulated surpluses of conquered nations have been appropriated, a conqueror must thereafter incur costs to administer, garrison, and defend the province. And when the accumulated surpluses have been spent, this must be paid for out of yearly income. Costs rise and benefits decline. For a one-time infusion of wealth from each conquered province, Rome had to undertake administrative and military responsibilities that lasted centuries. For Rome, the costs of administering some provinces (such as Spain and Macedonia) exceeded their revenues. And although he was probably exaggerating, Cicero complained in 66 B.C. that, of all Roman conquests, only Asia yielded a surplus."

In the book's final chapter, Tainter summarized the two factors that make a society liable to collapse:

"First, as the marginal return on investment in complexity declines, a society invests ever more heavily in a strategy that yields proportionately less. Excess productive capacity and accumulated surpluses may be allocated to current operating needs."

"Secondly, declining marginal returns make complexity an overall less attractive strategy, so that parts of a society perceive increasing advantage to a policy of separation or disintegration. When the marginal cost of investment in complexity becomes noticeably too high, various segments increase passive or active resistance, or overtly attempt to break away."

Here, at the end the book, I expected Tainter to conclude with a jeremiad concerning America and its increasingly complex society. I expected the usual comparisons between America's current challenges and the Western Roman Empire's final throes. However, wily Professor Tainter fooled me. The first 213 pages of his book were just an elaborate, scholarly set up for three pages of surprise twist, starting with this zinger:

"Collapse today is neither an option nor an immediate threat. Any nation vulnerable to collapse will have to pursue one of three options: (1) absorption by a neighbor or some larger state; (2) economic support by a dominant power; or (3) payment by the support population of whatever costs are needed to continue complexity, however detrimental the marginal return. A nation today can no longer unilaterally collapse; for if any national government disintegrates, its population and territory will be absorbed by some other."

Tainter's punch line:

"Collapse, if and when it comes again, will this time be global. No longer can any individual nation collapse. World civilization will disintegrate as a whole. Competitors who evolve as peers collapse in like manner."

A slow-motion, universal collapse. Doomed nations, like exhausted prisoners on a chain gang, stumbling and dragging each other down.

Feel that shiver of fear?

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