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The Collapse Of Complex Societies

Hubris in the West today means we think that we’re so advanced we can escape the collapse of complex societies. Our recent history has cemented an air of invincibility.

But if you look closely, all the signs are present that the empire is far more vulnerable than we think. So is our societal decline preordained or will we be the first civilisation to cheat the inevitable?

Host, Ross Ashcroft met up with Anthropologist and Historian, Joseph Tainter, to discuss.


In his book, The Collapse of Complex Societies, originally published in 1988, Joseph Tainter argues that complex societies routinely experience collapse but do so without ever succumbing to a single-event catastrophe. Tainter’s central thesis is that the benefits accrued as a result of investments by states’ in social and political complexity invariably reach a point where they begin to decline.

To develop a general explanation, Tainter draws on the concept from economics, that of ‘marginal return on investment’. As expenditure and investment are increased, the marginal productivity – the output that results from extra investment – will eventually decline to nothing.

Tainter cites the declining effectiveness of R&D and an increasing participation in education as sophisticated examples of this process. As populations are increasingly seen to not benefit from additional costs, complexity will correspondingly be perceived as a burden and sections of society will resist, or attempt to break away.

Contemporary relevance

The relevance of Tainter’s ideas in 2021 are self-evident, particularly in relation to societies having to comes to terms with increasing supply chain fragility within a complex economic system underpinned by neoliberalism.

“I tell my students that two of the things that concern me the most are just-in-time delivery in our economic system and lack of warehousing or stockpiling of the things that we essentially need”, says Tainter.

Such a profit-maximizing system is unable to cope with societal shocks because the buffers ordinarily intended to prevent them are bled at every juncture through the extraction of rent.

“It’s a classic case”, says Tainter, “of taking short-term gains at the price of long-term fragility. What’s generally not understood”, adds Tainter, “is that complex societies have what we might call a metabolic cost which, today, is paid for through fossil fuels. But when there is a situation where the economic flows begin to break down or become disrupted, particularly when it comes to something like the supplies of petroleum, then prices go up, costs go up, and the economy is harmed. And we see that happening now, at least in the United States.”

Tainter is not surprised that the kind of shortages described have led to inflation but doesn’t envisage that this will have an effect on the propensity for short-term societal collapse. Rather, Tainter argues that, historically, such collapses have been symptomatic of societies reaching a point in their development where complexity was no longer economically feasible.

Complex societies and economies are dependent on the economic feasibility of the energy systems needed to maintain them.

Tainter says that fossil fuel consumption at the current rate, given the problems of climate change, is unsustainable.


The anthropologist and historian argues that fracking has given us a reprieve and an opportunity to continue on the transitional path to alternative forms of energy but notes that such a transition is not without problems:

“One problem that I see, is how do you rapidly increase energy production in, let’s say, a solar energy economy or a hydrogen energy economy if there’s an immediate crisis? Our energy return on investment is decreasing and that trend is irreversible. This has been one of my major concerns about the future of our society.”

Tainter continues:

“The other concern I have is about the productivity of our system of innovation which is actually declining in its productivity since the early 1970s. It’s actually costing more and more to achieve great innovations which is a trend that can’t continue forever.”

Tainter suggests that the reason for this is that innovation hubs have become festooned with bureaucracy and layers of management. He says that the extent to which complexity emerges from economic opportunity in the form of diversification and proliferation of different kinds of goods and services that companies offer to the public, are part and parcel of how complex systems operate.


Complexity also has costs attached to it with respect to the kinds of diminishing economic-energy production ratio returns outlined above. Future production that’s increasingly reliant on renewable resources to produce renewable energy at the per capita rate populations enjoy today is an unfeasible proposition for those countries with small land areas.

Tainter explains:

“It takes a lot of land area to produce the amount of energy per capita that we’ve been used to today. There’s one estimate that if England, Scotland and Wales had to rely entirely on renewable energy to produce the energy per capita that is enjoyed today, it would take all the land area of England, Scotland and Wales. In other words, completely renewable energy is not possible for England, Scotland and Wales.”

“The two keys to a sustainable society are energy and innovation and in both areas, I think that over the next several decades there are reasons for concern.”

Historically, the Roman Empire is widely regarded to be the landmark for collapsing societies. In such a society where agriculture comprised 90 percent of its economy, it was not possible to raise enough taxes to pay for something like the Roman army as crises mounted and more and more enemies appeared on the frontiers.

Ultimately, the Roman Empire reached the point where it couldn’t sustain itself. The people of Rome were constantly being distracted by a succession of gladiatorial events which were intended to quell unrest among the citizenry in much the same way that the public today in the United States are distracted by sports.

Tainter posits that a collapse today, given the economic flows, would be similarly catastrophic. He says that whilst this outcome is possible, a more likely scenario looking through the end of this century, is a transition to an energy system that is actually less productive overall in a context where our ability to innovate our way out of these problems is declining.

Steady-State Economy?

“What I speculate about with my students”, says Tainter, “is whether we are heading for what’s sometimes called a Steady-State Economy, and if so is that desirable? Is an economy without economic growth desirable? I don’t know that that’s what we’re headed for. But when I look at the trends in energy and innovation, I see it as a distinct possibility.”

Tainter adds:

“I used to think that innovation was the key to seeing us through this. I’m no longer sure that it is. I like to say that we are a species that muddles through. That’s all we’ve ever done and I think all we ever will do. I’m not sure that we can actually plan the future in any precise way.”

Tainter acknowledges that our greatest strength is adaptability:

“Other than cockroaches, we’re the most adaptable species on earth. We will muddle through. But I don’t know if we will muddle through with the same standard of living that we have today.”

Coasting into the future

Tainter is optimistic that society will be able to coast for decades into the future on the basis of technology that has been invented up to this point.

“Innovation”, says Trainer, “is taking things that already exist and combining them in new ways. You can see that clearly, for example, in the automobile industry where automobiles have essentially become rolling computers. So I think that for the next several decades, we are going to see a lot of combinations of things that already exist. But at the same time, we’re going to be seeing avenues of innovation that industries and government agencies are simply going to drop because they are no longer productive.”

Tainter posits that if people can make a living and generate profits by putting different elements of a different supply chain together in order to come up with a new value-added model, they should be encouraged to do so:

“One of the things I teach my students is that humans did not evolve to think broadly in the long-term. As a species, we’d simply never encountered conditions where there was natural selection for the ability to think broadly in terms of space and long-term, so naturally, we don’t. Only a few individuals do and these are the individuals who we hope will invent the future.”

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