The Collapse of Complex Societies (Book Review)

“The world is changed, I feel it in the water, I feel it in the earth, I smell it in the air; much that once was is lost, for none now live who remember it.”  So begins Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of Lord of the Rings.

Collapse is in the air, I can feel it in the water, I feel it in the earth, I smell it in the air.  It’s not a recent notion.  There has been a proliferation of works over the last century, and today we see a proliferation of post-apocalyptic writings and films.  Three great works of collapse appeared during and soon after World War I and its aftermath, the Great Depression:

  • Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West, 1918
  • Pitirim Sorokin, Social and Cultural Dynamics, four volumes, 1937-1941
  • Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History, 12 volumes (!), spanning 1934-61.

There are a number of takes on the matter, among which are James Burnham’s Suicide of the West, Julius Evola’s Men Among the Ruins,  René Guénon’s The Crisis of the Modern World, Romano Guardini’s The End of the Modern World.  Lord Kenneth Clark’s BBC television series Civilisation explores the history of the West through art and ends with a grim outlook.  I also will at another time look at John Carroll’s The Wreck of Western Culture, another art-based look at the West.  All say essentially the same thing:  collapse is in the air.

By collapse I, and all these authors, don’t mean where you look out the window and one day everything is in ruins, such as would be after an earthquake.  I believe World War I was the beginning of the end, a catastrophe which began a long decline, which we are now 100 years into.  It’s not a matter of “someday it’s going to collapse”, it’s “we are 100 years into collapse; how much more, what is next?”

This review deals with Joseph A. Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies (Cambridge University Press; first published in 1988 but in its 24th printing as of 2013), an academic study which is a little bit different.  Tainter, an anthropologist and historian, defines collapse as “a sudden, pronounced loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity.”  He reviews a number of civilizations which have collapsed and disappeared, and summarizes the reasons for collapse offered by so many:

  • Resource depletion
  • New resources
  • Catastrophes
  • Insufficient response to circumstances
  • Other complex societies
  • Intruders
  • Conflict/contradictions/mismanagement
  • Social dysfunction
  • Mystical factors
  • Chance concatenation of events
  • Economic explanations

His survey is useful in that most of us have embraced one as our favorite.  Tainter points out that each challenge has been successfully met by many societies, so each one by itself is not a “civilization killer.”

The difference in Tainter’s approach is that he offers a theory that accounts for any and all such challenges to a complex society.  He begins with the idea that, as a society faces a challenge (from the above list or something new), it meets that challenge or fails.  When it meets the challenge, the solution adds complexity to the society.  Complexity doesn’t just happen, it is a problem-solving strategy.  That complexity, however, yields benefits beyond the cost of that complexity.  There is a marginal return.

A complex society will start collapsing when, faced with challenges, the implemented solutions stop yielding benefits  beyond the cost of the solution; in sum, when a society’s solutions hit the point of diminishing returns.  It’s a basic economic concept applied to a society, not in terms of money, but in general terms of inputs and outputs.

A good example is the cost-benefit of a university education.  Once it was a great benefit to educate some people at the university level; can anyone truly say it’s a benefit today to send everyone to university so they can work at Starbuck’s?  It’s a staggering increase in cost for less and less return.  Thus we find ourselves in a situation where we are well past the point of diminishing returns.

A society does not have infinite resources to pour into infinite solutions; at some point the only solution is to unwind to a less complex state where the return is about the same, or just fall apart to due extreme pressure.  But a complex society usually won’t do that voluntarily, it is usually imposed by external circumstances.  Things will be unwound or brought to ruin, one way or another.

Tainter explores his theory in three case studies:  the Western Roman Empire, the Mayans, and the Chacoans.   The Dark Ages that followed the collapse of the Western Roman Empire show a long, slow process of unwinding and ruin.

Tainter summarizes by saying:

“A complex society that has collapsed is suddenly smaller, simpler, less stratified, and less socially differentiated.  Specialization decreases and there is less centralized control.  The flow of information drops, people trade and interact less, and there is overall lower coordination among individuals and groups.  Economic activity drops to a commensurate level, while the arts and literature experience such a quantitative decline that a dark age often ensues.  Population levels tend to drop, and for those who are left the known world shrinks.”

and closes with,

“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.  If civilization collapses again, it will be from failure to take advantage of the current reprieve [the power vacuum caused by the collapse of the USSR], a reprieve paradoxically both detrimental and essential to our anticipated future.”

I see us as locked into slow collapse.  We are beset by problems without clear solutions, and where there are clear solutions, there is no political will and ability to make them happen.  We are in a situation where natural constraints will force the unwinding or ruin.  It’s an opportunity, to be sure; there is much that is decadent and destructive that will be jettisoned.  Much about our current ways will be discredited as failure.  That is not all bad.  Much good will be lost.  Much good was preserved in the Dark Ages.

The thing I really liked about the book is that now I can see the evolution of complexity in all areas of life, and I wonder about the good it’s going to do.  Is it worth it?  Are we going to get anything out of this?  Are we going to maintain the complexity for its own sake (see:  bureaucracy)?  Is there a way to unwind and get equal output?  Remember:  complexity is a problem-solving strategy.  Apply complexity wisely.

While it’s an academic book, it’s not that long (200 pages), it’s readable, and the subject is fascinating.


The Second Coming

William Butler Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?


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