Reply To: 3rd November: Joseph Tainter

Author Replies # Posted on November 13, 2014 at 18:22

I agree with Sarah that Joseph Tainter’s analysis of the breakdown of ancient societies can be trusted, but no his conclusions for our current modern civilization. It seems to be much easier to backcast from a collapse that has already happen than forecasting one. And if you ask me Tainter holds a very dangerous position as a renown historian if he takes people’s current values and behaviour as granted while claiming that nothing but slowing down of the process will be possible. Any politician or citizen listening to him will get the impression that we just have to find the right new energy form, develop the right new technology over and over again to save ourselves. This does not at all resemble the image of modern progress in which innovation should end at some point in a state of human freedom and satisfaction. If there is something wrong with this paradigm we should think of what is wrong with it and how to change it, instead of trying to find new ways to save the same promise for another year, decade or generation.

I think that is where Sarah and I go different ways in our conclusion: I agree with you that we should not hope for capitalism to change suddenly just because we reform some of its parts. People will and have to develop new ways of living because they have to adapt to new circumstances. But I do not believe that tearing down the current system will be necessary for that – or that we have to “wait” until it breaks down by itself. Nor do I think that everyone has to radically simplify her or his life in order to achieve self-sufficiency in smaller communities. Instead I would argue that a shift to a “sufficient” lifestyle could already be the solution: to ask for the “enough” of production and consumption, of work and leisure time. It’s about preferring the quality of goods and services, of freedoms and experiences over their quantity. That would entail more activities spend on repairing, renovating and reusing of materials but also the subsistential production of food, energy and textiles. At the same time more activities could be dedicated to recreation, be it sport, music, arts – and yes, fika. I rather advocate for such a vision than Sarah’s because I think this would find more support among most people. And because I assume that the satisfaction of human needs doesn’t require the material wealth we have right now: yes, a certain quantity is needed by everyone – but from a certain point it is the quality of things and experiences that matter. In this regard I am in strong opposition to Tainter who supposes that no modern being would ever agree on reducing it’s current material wealth. If we believe that everyone wants to live the dream of a middle-class US-american family (what Tainter apparently does) then, yes, we are doomed. But I don’t. Also because I can see so many examples around me that a completely new idea of the good life is emerging.

(And because I see scholars who connect their findings with such a vision: