Sunday, 15 January 2017

The Collapse of Complex Societies, Part 1

In a few weeks I'll be starting a series of posts called Political Realities: Collapse Step by Step, looking into how the collapse of industrial society is likely to proceed. The title is a reference to a series of posts I did a while back, entitled A Political Fantasy which looked at what could be done to improve our situation if the political will existed. In the upcoming series I'll be looking at what is going to happen instead. Before I get there, though, I'll be doing reviews of a few books that will help us understand some features of this collapse.

In this post and the next one, we'll be looking at Dr. Joseph Tainter's Collapse of Complex Societies. It was published in 1988, and is a classic among us kollapsniks.

In his first chapter, Tainter tells us that collapse is a political process and that a society has collapsed when it displays a rapid, significant loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity. He goes on to describe the following characteristics of a collapsed society:

  • a lower degree of stratification and social differentiation
  • less economic and occupational specialization of individuals, groups and territories
  • less centralized control; that is, less regulation and integration of diverse economic and political groups by elites
  • less behavioral control and regulation
  • less investment in the epiphenomena of complexity, those elements that define the concept of "civilization": monumental architecture, artistic and literary achievements and the like
  • less flow of information between individuals, between political and economic groups and between a center and its periphery
  • less sharing, trading and redistribution of resources
  • less overall coordination and organization of individual and groups
  • a smaller territory integrated within a single political unit

I have a few points to add to that list:

  • collapse is always political because the entity which is collapsing (a complex society) is essentially political
  • "rapid" is a relative term—if you are living through events that will later be seen as happening rapidly, it will probably seem to you like it is taking forever.
  • as a collapse is happening, very few people see it as such. What at the time are optimistically seen as temporary setbacks are later clearly seen as stages of collapse.
  • when a society is in collapse, efforts to prevent changes to less complex forms may do more harm than good and gracefully accepting the inevitable may be beneficial. Later on in the book Tainter shows us why this is so.

He goes on to look at collapses in history. I think he may have been trying to establish how common a process it is, for the benefit of those less familiar with the subject. He makes a few remarks about the collapse of modern empires like the Spanish, French and British, in which the home administration did not collapse—a notable difference from the empires of the past. Writing in 1988, of course, he was just a little early to include the collapse of the Soviet Union.

He finishes this chapter with a look at the characteristics of collapsed societies. As one would expect, with collapse comes a breakdown of authority and central control and the services provided at that level. The populace is left to get by as best they can and organize themselves at the local level, with much less long distance trade and communication. There is typically a marked rapid reduction in population size and density, because people flee and/or the death rate comes to exceed the birth rate. One might assume that the death rate increases, but if we look at the case of the Soviet Union, it is interesting that the birth rate actually went down significantly during the collapse.

Given all this, it is small wonder that collapse is feared by so many people today. Whether collapse is universally a catastrophe is considered in the concluding chapter of the book.

The second chapter considers the nature of complex societies. What follows is my impression of what Tainter has to say; apologies to him if I have misunderstood or added much that is my own.

At one end of the spectrum we have hunter gatherer societies, at the other our modern global industrial society.

The small hunter gatherer band is the archetypal un-complex society. This is not to say that considerable effort isn't spent in organizing and co-ordinating the endeavours of its members, but rather that at this scale it can all be done with nothing more than native human abilities. No administrative organization or written records, for instance.

Tainter describes several theories of how more complex societies got started. The one that makes the most sense to me is "Managerial": as we move to larger and more technologically advanced societies, the number of people involved and the differentiated and interconnected nature of their activities is such that an administrative organization must created in order to manage the whole thing.

There are two others that are referenced latter in sections of the book that I want to quote, so I'll include them here, conflict theory and integrationist theory:

In essence, conflict theory asserts that the state emerged out of the needs and desires of individuals and subgroups of a society. The state, in this view, is based on divided interests, on domination and exploitation, on coercion, and is primarily a stage for power struggles.

Integrations theories suggest that complexity and stratification arose because of stresses impinging on human populations and were positive responses to those stresses. Complexity then serves population-wide needs, rather than responding to the selfish ambitions of a few.

It seems that leadership is essential in complex societies and establishing the legitimacy of that leadership is a significant challenge. People accept leadership because they see that it brings them advantages or because they are coerced into doing so. Both strategies are expensive and this is the basis states and politics.

The third chapter looks at the study of collapse and the various factors to which scholars have attributed collapse. Tainter looks at 11 major explanations of collapse and finds them wanting in a variety of ways, offering the following summary at the end of the chapter:

  1. Resource depletion. Dealing with resource depletion is a common activity of complex societies and may be one of the thing that they do best. Where this is not the case, research has to focus on the characteristics of the society that prevent an appropriate response, rather than the exclusively on the characteristics of the depleted resource.
  2. New resources. This theme has some attraction of integration theorists, but none to conflict theorists. Its usefulness is mainly restricted to simpler societies.
  3. Catastrophes. Complex societies regularly provide for catastrophes, and routinely experience them without collapsing. If the society cannot absorb a catastrophe, then in many cases characteristics of the society will be of greater interest, obviating the catastrophe explanation.
  4. Insufficient response to circumstances. The assumptions made in this theme about the nature of complex societies—that they are inherently fragile, or static, or incapable of shifting direction—simply cannot be supported. Where complex societies may display such characteristics, that is a matter to be explained.
  5. Other complex societies. Major cases, such as the Roman one, cannot be accounted for by this theme. Conflict between states more often leads to cycles of expansion and contraction than to collapse.
  6. Intruders. The overthrow of a dominant state by a weaker one is an event to be explained, not an explanation in itself. Empirically, intruders are often difficult to detect archeologically where they have be postulated. It is difficult to understand why barbarians would destroy a civilization if it was worth invading in the first place.
  7. Conflict/contradictions/mismanagement. The capacity to control labor and allocate resources is intrinsic and necessary in complex societies. Collapse cannot be explained by factors so vital to survival, at least not without raising many more questions than are answered. Elite mismanagement and self-aggrandizement, to the extent that these are detrimental to the survival of a society are matters to be explained. Exploitation and misadministrations are normal, regular aspects of complex societies, and by themselves cannot account for... collapse. Peasants rarely revolt except when allied with other social strata, and their rebellions are not typically aimed at collapse.
  8. Social dysfunction. These explanations offer neither sources of strain nor causal mechanisms that can be analyzed in any objective way.
  9. Mystical. Mystical explanations fail totally to account scientifically for collapse. They are crippled by reliance on a biological growth analogy, by value judgments and by reference to intangibles.
  10. Chance concatenation of events. This theme provides no basis for generalization. Collapse is not well explained by reference to random factors.
  11. Economic explanations. These are structurally and logically superior to the others, at least as these others have been formulated to date. They identify characteristics of societies that make them liable to collapse, specify controlling mechanisms and indicate causal chains between controlling mechanisms and observed outcome. While economic explanations are not universally accepted in the social and historical sciences, such scenarios remedy the logical deficiencies of the other approaches. Existing economic models often suffer from incomplete forays into political and social explanations, but this is not an intrinsic flaw. The major drawback to economic explanations, for present purposes, is to develop an explanatory framework that is globally applicable.
With the exception of mystical explanations, which are without scientific merit, none of these explanatory themes fails entirely. Indeed, the economic theme comes close to success—in logic, if not in specifics—but does not go quite far enough. Except for mystical explanations, these approaches are not necessarily wrong or misguided. They are simply inadequate as presently formulated.... A general explanation of collapse should be able to take what is best in these themes and incorporate it. It should provide a framework under which these explanatory themes can be subsumed, so that one can account for what is worthwhile in each. A general explanation should make these themes clearer in application than each would be standing alone.

In Chapter 4, Tainter develops that explanation.

It will be no surprise to my readers that this explanation involves energy. While Tainter doesn't mention it, the ideas of "dissipative systems" and "dissipative structures" are useful here. Wikipedia defines a dissipative system as a thermodynamically open system which is operating out of, and often far from, thermodynamic equilibrium in an environment with which it exchanges energy and matter. It goes on to define a dissipative structure as a dissipative system that has a dynamical régime that is in some sense in a reproducible steady state.

Living organisms (including human beings) and ecologies are dissipative structures. So are human societies. All these structures maintain themselves by taking in energy and giving off waste heat. That "reproducible steady state" is not a matter of equilibrium, indeed it is definitely not is an sort of "balance", and if the supply of energy falls below the appropriate level, that state cannot be maintained and death and dissolution follow. On the other hand if a surplus of energy is available, these systems can grow and become more complex.

Indeed, my definition of politics is "the means by which a society decides what it will do with surplus energy".

Hunter gatherers, when faced with a windfall of surplus energy (usually in the form of food), often simply choose to accumulate a larger reserve of body fat, enjoy more leisure time and make sure more of their offspring survived to adulthood. This lifestyle worked very well for a couple of million years, during which time we spread to all the continents except Antarctica, and began to fill them up.

It seems to me that the problem which initially (and often since then) drove the adoption of complexity was this growing human population and the need for an increasing the food supply. It started out with the simplest forms of agriculture, which required more work and more organization than hunting and gathering, but returned a higher and more predictable yield of food on a smaller area of land. Remember, before the invention of heat engines, societies ran largely on muscle power, so food was the most important form of energy.

The important things that Tainter would have us understand is that each additional layer of complexity requires an additional amount of energy to support it. And further, that each additional investments in complexity give us lower returns, eventually reaching the point where more complexity actually makes things worse. This is called the law of "decreasing marginal productivity" and it is illustrated in this diagram, Tainter's Figure 19.

The horizontal axis represents the "Level of Complexity" and the vertical axis represents the "Benefits of Complexity". The shape of the curve gives us "decreasing marginal productivity." From the origin up to point B1C1 increases in the level of complexity yield very favorable increases in benefits. After B1C1, further investments in complexity still increase benefits, but by a smaller amount. For a similar investment today we get less improvement in benefits than we did yesterday and tomorrow is even worse. At point B2C2 additional complexity brings no benefits and at great deal is being spent just to maintain the status quo. If we go further to the right, adding complexity actually makes things worse. Note than at point B1C3, the benefits of all that added complexity are just the same as at the much less complex point B1C1. A move back to point B1C1 would be beneficial if it could be done without causing too much damage. The difficulty is that the very fabric of society is based on complexity, and at point B1C3, quite a lot of complexity. To switch back to point B1C1, much of that complexity would have to be dismantled or abandoned and replaced with something simpler—a process which, by definition, may be indistinguishable from collapse.

Human societies are problem solving organizations and our first choice as a problem solving technique is to add complexity. This often comes in the form of technology, which never makes things simpler, even though the added complexity may be hidden somewhere out of sight in the organization.

The horizontal axis of Fig. 19 can also be seen as representing energy used to maintain complexity, and the vertical axis as the energy gained by adding complexity. Initially, adding complexity yields enough extra energy to support that new level of complexity and enough surplus to support using further complexity to solve further problems.

Nothing succeeds like success and human societies tend to become like Christopher Robin's friend Tigger, who could only climb up trees. To get him down, drastic action was required (some help from the narrator, rotating the book so poor Tigger could step off the tree onto the text and from there to the ground). Human societies often get caught in "progress traps" and the only solutions they can think of just make things worse. Problems arise, and eventually things get to the point where adding complexity doesn't solve them. Collapse often ensues.

This can be avoided by "extending the tree"—adding technologies that use energy more efficiently or by acquiring additional sources of energy. Traditionally, this was done by taking over more land to grow more crops. In the modern world, fossil fuels have provided a huge energy subsidy which has enabled our society to become ever more complex. But as Figure 20 shows, this offers only a temporary reprieve. As we move further to the right on the curve, we eventually reach another area of decreasing returns and have to confront once again the possibility of collapse.

In any case, societies which find themselves on a downward sloping part of the curve are very vulnerable to collapse.

First, as the marginal return on investment in complexity declines, a society invests every more heavily in a strategy that yields proportionally less. Excess productive capacity and accumulated surpluses may be allocated to current operating needs. When major stress surges (major adversities) arise there is little or no reserve with which they may be countered. Stress surges must be dealt with out of the current operating budget. This often proves ineffectual. Where it does not, the society may be economically weakened and made more vulnerable to the next crisis....

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.

Tainter wraps up Chapter 4 by commenting that historically, the need for more energy was frequently met by conquering more land and this could provide only a temporary respite from declining marginal productivity. This tendency in particular resulted in a situation where collapse, when it did occur, affected a wider territorial sphere in a more devastating manner than might have otherwise been the case.

Next time, I'll wrap up this book review, covering Chapters 5 and 6 of The Collapse of Complex Societies.


Mark said...

Nice writing. The other thing that I've wrestled with, and Tainter does too, is whether societies make "choices"? Clearly there are political and economic decisions that are made, but I wonder if civilization is always a one-way path. The "decisions" and "choices" are always highly constrained by the fact that you cannot undo what you've created. He does offer some historic evidence of societies that simplified, but he's very pessimistic about that being used as a "sustainable" option in our own future. He admonishes his audiences that collapse should be avoided at all costs. Thus, I would assume he means we should kick the can down the road for as long as we can...

Including myself, I feel we hold Tainter and people like him to a higher standard. We want answers about our own future, but he is just a historian.

Tainter frustrates many conservationist and sustainability crowds. It's not the message we want to hear. Here's a piece that was written about simplifying. I appreciate the sentiment, but I don't agree with it:

Irv Mills said...

Thanks, Mark.
Whether societies make choices is a good question. I'd like to think so, but it is looking more and more like our society is going, as you say, to make decisions, but probably not the right ones.
And yes, Tainter is a historian and we shouldn't make to much of his comments about the future. In my next post, I was a little hard on him, I'll admit.
I don't think you can seriously address the issues of conservation and sustainability without being aware of the diminishing returns issue. We need to strive for simplicity, but inertia is carrying us towards more complexity.

Neoagrarian said...

Due to character limits, my windy comment has to be divided into 2 parts! Apologies!

Let’s take climate change – a suitably worthy existential dilemma:
Most of the “authoritative” public discourse we hear these days seems to assume, in however unspoken a manner, that climate change is merely some kind of engineering problem. The discourse is substantiated by facts, data, models, evidentiary prognostications about what may or is likely to happen if we do or do not do X, Y or Z. Most arguments are framed in terms of cold, hard facts. And that’s fine – we do need facts from time to time.

But the problem is, the entire narrative has come to be dominated as some kind of oversimplified, fact-driven mathematical formula. Climate Change is merely a “bug” in the system that we will “de-bug” through the usual triumphant means of more cleverness, ingenuity, innovation, and control. Nowhere within this airtight, mechanistic and falsely internally consistent dialogue are admitted other considerations, such as the empirical “reality” that Climate Change (or Overshoot generally) is fundamentally rooted in the realm of subjective values, collective beliefs (inter-subjective fictions that take on the appearance of reality – like currency) and core cultural assumptions that are proving to be ever more incongruent with the rules of life on Earth.
Few would be so naïve, in this present atmosphere of hard facts and supposedly cold “reality”, as to invoke considerations of ethics, morality, empathy, affection or loyalty as the basis of an argument for restraint. It just wouldn’t fly, and would likely be laughed out of the room.
And so we continue, setting the “best minds on earth” to tackle the problem. We deploy yet more and more technology to gather up increasingly vast quantities of data and evidence. We trust that our low earth orbit satellites, our ocean buoys & probes, our atmospheric monitors will measure within a hair’s breadth of precision and accuracy the ongoing signs and signals of our own annihilation.
In short, we trust completely that our science and technology and our masterful prowess will “optimize the outcome” and see to it that all ends well.

This is the delusional rot at the very centre of the Post-Enlightenment experiment in how to live well – and it is invariably excluded from the authorized conversation. Those satellites I mentioned above are both the inevitable artifacts & crowning achievements of a civilization too much given over to the rational, mechanistic, deterministic and exclusive modality of human thinking. It is a modality of thinking that always finds itself and its material outcomes in the midst of a sort of desperate arms race with circumstances.
And so within the convenient and circumscribed frame of “civilization”, Tainter is right: Civilization is a colossal, problem-solving heat engine whose only trajectory can be onward and forward, deploying what seems to have worked historically, despite Einstein’s admonitions about the nature of insanity!
In short, despite his respectable intelligence and insights, Tainter is hopelessly ensconced within the paradigm of thinking that is his cultural inheritance (and yours and mine, no doubt!). We can’t help it, can we? We are products of a historical anomaly in the human condition. And this anomaly has become a kind of emergent superorganism unto itself. It defies the terms and conditions of what we construe as our “agency”. It’s the genie that got out of the bottle, and refuses to return.

Irv Mills said...

Hi Neoagrarian, thanks for the kind things you had to say at the start of your comment. I though I should let you know that I received both halves of your comment via email, but only the second half is to be found here on the blog. My experience is that the comments function in Blogger is a little shaky, so this sort of thing isn't too much of a surprise.
Have you read the second half of my review of The Collapse of Complex Societies? It will give you a better idea of what I think of the book.
I should also ask if you have had a look at my blog beyond just this one post? The start of the tag line is "A reality based approach", which may give you some hint as to what I am about here. But I make it quite clear that I am very much in favour of the rational, mechanistic and deterministic, but also pretty keen on ethics, morality, empathy, affection or loyalty.
My take is that the "Business As Usual" people, the "establishment" if you will, are selling a brand of pseudoscience that is just as destructive as the sort of pseudoscience being pedalled by those who are against the establishment. They (the BAU folks) just do a better job of dressing it up and have convinced even those who oppose them that what they are selling is "real science". I don't buy into either of these loads of crap. I'm not quite sure where you stand...
But if you'd like to get a clearer idea of what I am talking abut, ave a look at my series of blog posts entitled "Business as Usual, Crunchiness and Woo. There are five posts, the first one is to be found at:

Neoagrarian said...

Thanks for your thoughtful response, Irv. I was a little worried about the comment glitch and feared that half my comment disappeared into the ether! I have read other parts of your blog, and will take the time to reflectively peruse the posts you suggest.
I should state outright that I am not "against" science: I am merely dubious as to its current claims (and perceived status) of being the final arbiter of all that is "true". Like any artifact of human culture (religion, economic theory) it is subject to being warped and twisted to conform to subjective human agendas - power structures, ideologies and the like.
When I was a young gaffer I earned an undergraduate degree in science - biotech/biochem. I was naive and impressionable at the time. As I've grown older and witnessed some of the less desirable effects that science has bequeathed upon us, I've developed a more critical and exploratory approach to evaluating science as a cultural artifact. You may disagree with this - and that's fine - but let's not kid ourselves: science is not "objective", any more than journalism is "objective". To the extent that it is undertaken by human beings, it is, in the final analysis, subjective. We are subjective - and dare I say quite fallibe in our limited reasoning. Wisdom and humility dictate that we should proceed with caution, assuming unintended consequences.

I leave you with a gift: three books which have aided my own efforts in the pursuit of some clarity regarding the role of science in our particular culture:
The Blind Spot: Science & The Crisis of Uncertainty - W. Byers

The Natural Alien: Humankind And Environment – Neil Evernden

Life Is A Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition – Wendell Berry

The Blind Spot: Science & The Crisis of Uncertainty - W. Byers

Thanks for writing, and I look forward to your further insights


Irv Mills said...

Neoagrarian, from where I am standing, science is not the final arbiter of anything. And it certainly has nothing to do with truth. I hear that complaint, though, from many misinformed people. Others complain that science doesn't provide any absolute truths, so they'll stick with religion. One way of the other, you jut can't satisfy them.
I wish I could find a good book which laid this out out so that people could understand it. Sean Carroll's The Big Picture, which I reviewed recently has a couple of chapters that do a fair job of describing what science really is and how it works, though that is not the part of the book that I reviewed. It's probably worth getting a copy of that book, though it doesn't focus on the sort of criticism of science that seems to interest you.
The truth that most people seem to be looking would consist of absolute and final answers to their questions. Science deals in facts and reasonable interpretations of them. The kind of knowledge it produces is provisional at best, always subject to revision when we get more accurate facts, or somebody comes up with a better idea of what they mean. Nothing absolute about it, though people do have trouble wrapping their heads around that point. I guess I can agree with you that science is "subjective", but it is the best tool be have for finding out about objective reality.

Or to come at it from a different direction, truth is "what other people want you to believe". Usually so they can "put one over one you", as my dear old dad used to say. And all too often these days, pseudoscience (bullshit dressed up as science) is used to pretty up these so-called truths, because science still has some sort of a reputation for accuracy. And that sort of thing has to be approached with a healthy does of skepticism. But so does everything, really.
Most of the criticism I hear of science is aimed at a straw man that has only a passing resemblance to science.

I am big on basing my opinions on facts. Obviously, inhuman affairs, you have to go beyond facts, but if your position isn't based on them, it is going to be pretty shaky.