Reply To: 3rd November: Joseph Tainter

Author Replies # Posted on November 12, 2014 at 15:40

Joseph Tainter, ”The collapse of complex society”

Ellen Lindblom
Question 2: “If it is “human nature” to increase complexity in societies, a complexity that seems to have to be payed through inequitable and environmentally destructive means, are then human being by our very nature “unethical” or “evil”?”

To start with I think this question draws assumptions about “human nature” from an issue on another scale than “human nature” exists on (if that makes sense). First of all: To talk about “human nature” is difficult per see. Does human nature even exist as consistent core of all human beings trough time, space and culture, and how do we know if “human nature” does exist and if it does what it is “human nature”? My immediate answer to the question above is, no. I don´t think humans are unethical and evil because we during some circumstances, in organizational interaction, strive for complexity that deplete resources and suppresses other species and human beings.
If I go back to Tainter and his theories on; complex societies, diminishing returns and collapse “as a rapid simplification of a society”. I view it as large systems with individuals within it, unable to overlook the whole. Tainter also mentions in the lecture that seemingly good or ethical decisions in the moment can have severe and bad consequences for the long run. Thus the individuals, the human beings are not bad guys; they are acting within in a bad system. Maybe we can say then, that humans are stupid with limited minds that cannot grasp the impact of the processes they have created, but it does not make the human unethical or evil. There are also societies or communities which not strive for complexity such as nomads and hunters and gatherers.
One aspect Tainter brings up that is relevant for the development of his theories are the “The great divide”, the distinction between a state and all other societies. My point is systems such as “states”, does not have conscious minds, but the larger the system the harder it will be to have a helicopter perspective on impacts and effects of the systems. It will be harder to estimate consequences of actions and to repair damage of a sever action in a massive organism of actions. This is also the core of Tainters complexity theory, together with the metabolism of this large system. Just because human beings sometimes together in interactions bring these unconscious organisms to exist, what we call civilization, does not make us unethical beings. It is beyond our individual minds reach.
Tainter argues that “A civilization is the cultural system of a complex society” and complexity rise and fall with civilization. (P.41.). Hence we can say collapse is loss of a particular cultural system that is not sustainable.
In the lecture on Youtube, Tainter defines sustainability as sustaining a desirable state or condition. It is sustaining what people value and it emerges from people’s values. Sustainability is the science of continuity, he says. What Tainter does not touch up on in his definition of sustainability, is what the question above is all about. What if people’s desires are not sustainable in other aspects? For instance other species which have no voice and acclaimed value? I don’t know the answer to this but I think Tainter takes a simple way out of this question and maybe what he calls “fussy” definitions of sustainability also have something good to it? Such definitions of sustainability, which also take the environment in regard.
I think Tainter´s theories on complexity and collapse are highly thought trough and tested. I went to his lecture this January and he is really serious about his models and testing and I am really impressed by his tests on the contemporary society on inventions, investment and returns, but that is another topic.