Joseph Tainter on Anthropological Complexity

Keynote talk (in 7 parts) delivered to the 2010 International Conference on Sustainability: Energy, Economy, and Environment organized by Local Future.

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.

Tainter argues that societies collapse when their investments in social complexity reach a point of diminishing marginal returns. According to Tainter, societies become more complex as they try to solve problems. Social complexity can include differentiated social and economic roles, reliance on symbolic and abstract communication, and the existence of a class of information producers and analysts who are not involved in primary resource production. Such complexity requires a substantial "energy" subsidy (meaning resources, or other forms of wealth). When a society confronts a "problem," such as a shortage of or difficulty in gaining access to energy, it tends to create new layers of bureaucracy, infrastructure, or social class to address the challenge. Eventually, this cost grows so great that any new challenges such as invasions and crop failures cannot be solved by the acquisition of more territory. At that point, the empire fragments into smaller units. Source:


fCh said...

For a look at the Eastern Roman Empire, I suggest Edward N. Luttwak 's talk about his book "The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire."

It becomes obvious that in his advocating a simplification of the state, Tainter may well be a simply minded libertarian, the precise type of ignorance the Byzantines worked hard against.  Or he's just a manipulator of history.  The idea of the Byzantines had not been about simplicity, on the contrary, and also about not exhausting yourself with the remaking of the world outside your borders.   

Luttwak, born and raised outside the comfort of the American ignorance of some next door power, has an extra sense for the subtleties of life, which is not natural by any means.

Anonymous said...

the three pillars of the byzantine civilization, in luttwak's version, were:

1) the ancient greek culture
2) the roman institutions
3) unequivocal religiosity

as far as the foreign strategy went, it was based on intelligence and pitting one adversary against the other with the idea of self-preservation. war came only as necessity, their regular army being very effective, yet costly to train and deploy.