Reply To: 3rd November: Joseph Tainter

Author Replies # Posted on November 12, 2014 at 18:28

Reflection on Joseph Tainter (2012): Collapse of Complex Societies

Questions 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”?

First of all I don’t think that the assignment question must be criticized itself: the way Joseph Tainter is presenting the conditions and dynamics of civilizational collapses lets one easily think “are we stupid or what?!”. In this reflection I won’t answer if humans are by our nature “unethical” or “evil” but ask the question from another angle: what is the “human nature” in Joseph Tainter’s theory and analysis?

The concepts that Tainter introduces in his work are as large as the societies he is studying: they are broad and not very distinctive. At least I got sometimes carried away by so many mentions of the words “complexity”, “sustainability”, “problems”, “solutions”, “society”, “collapse”. But I think his main argument can be summarized as followed: complexity grows because it is useful in solving problems. As every activity in society has a cost – in terms of money, time, energy or even annoyance – it has an economic function and thus costs and benefits. Changes in the benefit/cost ratio of complexity can mean different futures for societies: it can lead to collapse or sustainability (Tainter 2012: 00:14ff.). More importantly, Tainter diagnoses a so-called energy-complexity spiral: an increase in complexity always requires an increase in energy while an increase in more available energy creates more complexity in society (Tainter 2012: 00:14). They are in other words coupled phenomena in society in history according to the author.

It is hard to prove the correlations Tainter is suggesting throughout his lecture without being a very knowledgable historians on the comparison of fallen civilizations. What appears easier is to ask for Tainter’s ontological assumptions which includes what humans strive for, by what they are driven and how easy this could be changed. By being traditionally scientific in his lecture Tainter is not very open about his assumptions of the human condition. But interestingly, they become evident in the conclusive discussion at the end of video.

When asked about Joseph Tainter’s definition of sustainability he replies that he follows an understanding he found in the Oxford English Dictionary: “maintaining something in a desired state or condition” (01:10). Tainter adds that this stems from people’s values, some aspect of their current way of life (id.). In the following Tainter is asked several times about his opinion about the possibility and the desirability of a steady-state economy in order to prevent collapse – something which he agrees in the first place and disagrees in the second one. He also postulates that most people “out there” do not have a broad view of civilizational problems (01:37) and that these problems don’t get solved by being poor unless people drastically change the material quality of wealth they are willing to accept (01:25). He continues that his approach to sustainability entails that most people will choose to sustain their accustomed way of live – and that the question is how to sustain that in the face of problems. Finally this requires more and more resources which is a historical reality (01:26).

What can be detected here is a completely steady image of human desires and behaviour: the widespread consumerist lifestyle of industrial societies is a reality as are the values on which it is based. More importantly Tainter does not mention that these materialist values and behaviour have ever changed or could change at some point – which makes them nothing but ahistorical. Furthermore Tainter does not distinguish between different values and behaviour within “our” societies: activities do not differ according to class or social status, there are only “households”. These flaws might be the result of Tainter’s macro perspective which does not allow to compare between the fine changes below the surface of presentable facts.

This becomes highly problematic in particularly one regard: a certain image of human is projected back into history and ahead into future – which diminishes any space to think about different ways of thinking, valuing and practicing as an individual, group or society. The past, the present and the future become nothing but different versions of the same story: the collapse of complex societies. And this neither constructive nor really exciting. Historical work should be very aware of the ontological assumptions it is based on, especially about the image of human. If it is a common trait that people tend to draw lessons from history, it should empower them – and that’s something Joseph Tainter can not offer with his lecture.

Tainter, Joseph (2012): Collapse of Complex Societies. Lecture. URL: Accessed on November 12th 2014.