American scholar Dr. Joseph Tainter presents a very interesting theory on societies’ collapse. I appreciate his explanations of ancient societies’ collapse, notably the one about the Roman Empire. But although I do agree with Tainter’s arguments, I do not necessarily agree with his conclusions.
In his 1988 book, Tainter writes: “Collapse if and when it comes again, will this time be global. No longer can any individual nation collapse. World civilization will disintegrate as a whole.”. I agree with Tainter that today collapse would be global, because our modern society is built on global interdependence. Today, more often than not, global means local. Precisely for this reason, I don’t think that reaching sustainability would require a larger utilization of resources or a new source of energy. Tainter writes, “In ancient societies, the solution to declining marginal returns was to capture a new energy subsidy. In economic systems activated largely by agriculture and human labor and solar energy, this was accomplished by territorial expansion.” But I believe that today we reached a point where we cannot envision taking more than what we have already been taking. In 1988, Tainter wrote that collapse was not an immediate threat but I guess it is today, we cannot deny it. To me, the only possible source of energy to promote a sustainable future is the use of human power. It just feels like we’ve already been stealing so much to sustain our current technology. Capitalism has already been over-exploiting global resources to be given a second chance on the ground of innovation. “A new energy subsidy is necessary if a declining standard of living and a future collapse are to be averted, a more abundant form of energy might not reverse the declining marginal return on investment in complexity but it would make it more possible to finance that investment”, writes Tainter. But honestly, what energy subsidy is he thinking about? Doesn’t it feel like we have already been abusing energy sources way too much?
I can’t help but think of Alf Hornborg who in “Global Ecology and Unequal Exchange: Fetishism in a Zero Sum World” astutely argued that all the technology we currently use in modern societies relies on stolen time and resources. Technology enables us to save time and space at the expense of other people’ time and space. And this can no longer last. It is vowed to self-destruction.
We all know too well that fossil fuels will not last more than twenty years. Resources are getting much scarcer, but the problem is that this time they are scarcer on a global scale, and there is no real energy alternative solution. Even solar panels and wind turbines imply a higher depletion of resources. I don’t think innovation will lead us out of our current ecological crisis, simply because I don’t buy in scientific optimism.
To me, capitalism is indeed meant to collapse. And I do believe that getting back to a simpler society aiming at self-sufficiency is the solution. I believe in small-scale farms for local consumption, and local energy sources including more human power. I don’t think that we’ll get out of our current crisis without radical simplification. Complexity might be problem solving, but in our current situation, it is the whole system that we have to change. Instead of adding more complexity in order to enable its survival, I would advocate to tear it down and get back to a simpler way of living, a more “primitive” human society if we are to survive as a species on this planet.