Collapse made simple?

I spotted two deer in my back yard the day before yesterday, well after dawn. They must have been hungry because of the bitter cold weather and persistent snow pack, so they must not have felt too shy about being down in suburbia that late in the morning. A couple years ago this sight would have filled me with amazement, but now I just accept them as part of the normal backyard fauna. Deer were always in the area, but why do they jump the fence into my yard now? Not sure, but I feel it has a lot to do with there being no more dogs in the yard. No dogs, no dog piles, no dog smells. My household is a simpler place now (no dog), the yard is a simpler place, and the deer like it.

Onondaga Lake now has a flock of winter eagles. It’s funny to watch everyone falling all over themselves to take credit now (the Center of Excellence is responsible? really?) but one big reason is that now that industry and population have left the area, the lake has gotten a lot cleaner. As Syracuse becomes simpler, the natural world has more room to breathe. At least in these examples, the collapse of complexity has quickly become accepted, and even brings joy and wonder.

What if the complexity of our Western civilization isn’t limitless? What if increased scientific research and development can’t produce enough breakthroughs to maintain our current lifestyles, without taxing our actual resources to a point where we lose more advantage than we gain? What if all the really useful, best bang-for-the-buck inventions have been created already? And what if not everything gets worse for the common people when a society starts to “go downhill”? These are some of the eyebrow-raising conclusions of archaeologist Joseph Tainter, who set out to create a comprehensive theory of why powerful civilizations have a tendency to disappear from history, in his study The Collapse of Complex Societies, a book published about 20 years ago.

Tainter’s book is more interesting for its examination of what complex societies are, rather than what sort of moral decadence and environmental mismanagement results in their downfall. He doesn’t think those simplistic “causes” get at the roots of the phenomenon (the sort of proposed causes that Jared Diamond explored in his recent book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed). His theories are also fully scalable — they offer an explanation not only of the rise and fall of great empires such as Rome or the Maya, but also can be applied to states, cities, tribes, even individual family units. Tainter instead looks at why complex societies come to evolve in the first place (to solve problems), and at how a society’s investment in complexity at first solves those problems, then may result in declining returns. He also shows (in a way that would make no one from the Center of Excellence happy) that R&D produces less and less valuable discoveries (per amount of energy spent on research) the longer it goes on.

Sounds rather depressing, but Tainter also looks on the bright side: as imperial Rome declined, for instance, there is evidence that the health and nutrition of the common people improved because they were now politically free to shift to patterns of farming and trade that locally made sense. Tainter is a scientist, and so doesn’t pad his observations with any political or social agenda — and in so doing, he leaves plenty of room for speculation about how humans have been able throughout history to adjust to the sometimes tumultuous collapse of great societies.

Adjusting can be hard. The unfortunate thing about the deer visitors to my yard is that while they’re mostly harmless in winter, in summer they keep coming back and eating everything. So far, my strategy has been to leave them alone in winter, and hurl my watering can toward them in summer. So not everything about collapse is physically or spiritually uplifting. But clearly, no such collapses ever doomed the human race as a whole — and history has not, to this date, ended, even though the process of collapse must have felt like the end of the world to people who were near the power centers of these great past civilizations.

This blog often focuses on New York State issues, and although New York is today considered to be just an administrative division absorbed into a greater empire (the United States, or whatever global corporate hegemonies exist), I have found Tainter’s framework useful to apply to thinking about the “Empire State,” its complexities and current problems. (It’s the sort of book I find myself going back to in the same way I often quote Walter Brueggemann’s Prophetic Imagination — and oddly the two books don’t seem incompatible… although both can sometimes be unsettling.)

If it sounds interesting to you — and you aren’t intimidated by productivity charts and exhaustive details about the history of Roman currency and Mayan architecture — I definitely recommend it. (A preview of the book can be found at Google Books; another blogger reviews the book here.)

Gee… I’m so fun to be around today!

4 Replies to “Collapse made simple?”

  1. I just ordered the book. Thanks for the description…fascinating.

    As I read the Bald Eagle story, warmer water generated by purifying human wastes melts ice, creates suitable wintering habitat for eagles, and the eagles “return”. But are still eating contaminated fish. But we’re drinking soda with mercury in it (a recent study showed that maybe 50% of all high-fructose corn syrup contains mercury)…

    I suspect that Oren Lyons might see the Eagles as bearing a more foreboding message.

  2. Haha, that’s been my experience in talking about this sort of thinking. It runs counter to modern belief in technology and “innovation” as the solution to the troubles not coincidentally caused by yesterday’s technology and innovation. Wendell Berry writes about how these types of solutions often create new maladies of ever-increasing scale, using agriculture as a lense to reveal the flaws in this industrial/technological perception of innovation.

    As for the mercury in soda (or pop or other depending on your geography), this is a good summary:

  3. quote: “So far, my strategy has been to leave them alone in winter, and hurl my watering can toward them in summer.”

    i’m going to try that with my kids.

    – sean

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