Articles about the Stages of Collapse

Complexity, Problem Solving, and Sustainable Societies

1996. Joseph A. Tainter

from GETTING DOWN TO EARTH: Practical Applications of Ecological Economics, Island Press, 1996; ISBN 1-55963-503-7

OVERVIEW   Historical knowledge is essential to practical applications of ecological economics. Systems of problem solving develop greater complexity and higher costs over long periods. In time such systems either require increasing energy subsidies or they collapse. Diminishing returns to complexity in problem solving limited the abilities of earlier societies to respond sustainably to challenges, and will shape contemporary responses to global change. To confront this dilemma we must understand both the role of energy in sustaining problem solving, and our historical position in systems of increasing complexity.

INTRODUCTION In our quest to understand sustainability we have rushed to comprehend such factors as energy transformations, biophysical constraints, and environmental deterioration, as well as the human characteristics that drive production and consumption, and the assumptions of neoclassical economics. As our knowledge of these matters increases, practical applications of ecological economics are emerging. Yet amidst these advances something important is missing. Any human problem is but a moment of reaction to prior events and processes. Historical patterns develop over generations or even centuries. Rarely will the experience of a lifetime disclose fully the origin of an event or a process. Employment levels in natural resource production, for example, may respond to a capital investment cycle with a lag time of several decades (Watt 1992). The factors that cause societies to collapse take centuries to develop (Tainter 1988). To design policies for today and the future we need to understand social and economic processes at all temporal scales, and comprehend where we are in historical patterns. Historical knowledge is essential to sustainability (Tainter 1995a). No program to enhance sustainability can be considered practical if it does not incorporate such fundamental knowledge.

In this era of global environmental change we face what may be humanity’s greatest crisis. The cluster of transformations labeled global change dwarfs all previous experiences in its speed. in the geographical scale of its consequences, and in the numbers of people who will be affected (Norgaard 1994). Yet many times past human populations faced extraordinary challenges, and the difference between their problems and ours is only one of degree. One might expect that in a rational, problem-solving society, we would eagerly seek to understand historical experiences. In actuality, our approaches to education and our impatience for innovation have made us averse to historical knowledge (Tainter 1995a). In ignorance, policy makers tend to look for the causes of events only in the recent past (Watt 1992). As a result, while we have a greater opportunity than the people of any previous era to understand the long-term reasons for our problems, that opportunity is largely ignored. Not only do we not know where we are in history, most of our citizens and policy makers are not aware that we ought to.

A recurring constraint faced by previous societies has been complexity in problem solving. It is a constraint that is usually unrecognized in contemporary economic analyses. For the past 12,000 years human societies have seemed almost inexorably to grow more complex. For the most part this has been successful: complexity confers advantages, and one of the reasons for our success as a species has been our ability to ‘Increase rapidly the complexity of our behavior (Tainter 1992, 1995b). Yet complexity can also be detrimental to sustainability. Since our approach to resolving our problems has been to develop the most complex society and economy of human history, it is important to understand how previous societies fared when they pursued analogous strategies. In this chapter I will discuss the factors that caused previous societies to collapse, the economics of complexity in problem solving, and some implications of historical patterns for our efforts at problem solving today. This discussion indicates that part of our response to global change must be to understand the long-term evolution of problem-solving systems.

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Tainter’s law: where is the physics?

March 27, 2011. Ugo Bardi.

Joseph Tainter has written a fascinating interpretation of the collapse of human civilisations in his book “The Collapse of Complex Societies” (1988) (see also his 1996 paper) Collapse is a common event: it is the stuff history books are made of. The mighty empires of the past; from Sumeria to the Soviet Union, have all collapsed at some point. Yet, we don’t seem to be able to understand the reasons why collapse is so common.

In his book, Tainter examines previous studies and lists at least eleven causes (or “concauses”) of collapse that have been proposed by historians. Resource depletion, catastrophes, intruders, social conflict, and others. But is there a single cause of collapse? Or are there several? Tainter looks for a single, common root of the problem and finds it in what he calls “the decreasing returns of complexity”.

Bardi proposes a model that can be viewed here: “Physics of Collapse

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