3rd November: Joseph Tainter

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November 7, 2014 at 13:52 #15349

3rd November: Joseph Tainter. Here is where you post your written seminar exams.

November 10, 2014 at 09:51 #15357

Tainter analysis Nick.

1. Although I think Tainter’s theory is very useful and holds some truth in general I think it is missing out in some parts in the sense that it can’t explains everything (whichof course is impossible), but also has a quite pessimistic view on sustainablity.

One of the parts that is not considered enough in this theory is the need for growth (or as far as I have been able to read the theory). Many of the ancient examples used, such as the Roman empire, had a thirst to keep growing, and become unsustainable. Many of today collapses are similar to this, corporations grow to big to be transparent, and become too complex which inevitably ruins them. Sustainabilty is not about growth, it is about being responsible. When man makes innovations to be environmentally sound, most of do not care about how this will expands one power. Though some economic factors weigh in, everyone today is faced by the fact that we HAVE to live more ecological, and it is not as much of a choice. So even if the innovations aren’t that live-changing as before, we see the need to keep making them.

Another part is globalisation, Tainter’s theory seems to see the world as a large amount of different societies, but not the world as one society. When talking about this, we often enter the discussion as if this is going to happen in the far away future, but do not keep in mind that it could be happening right now. I think we have update our system of complexities, and have been able to outsources causes of collapse to the periphery of the world. A good example is AIDS or Ebola right now. Take Ebola, isolated in Western Africa, potentially dangereous to everyone, since medication is not good enough yet. Though our system is so complex, trans-national organization have problems getting the disease under control since it is in three different countries, with a wide variety of cultural differences and many of the populations lacks basic hygienic education or means to do so. Shortly put; it is very hard for the developed world to help the undeveloped countries (or want to). However, when one case of Ebola comes to Europe comes to US, immediatly it is possibly to get experimental treatment, and we are qute capable of detaining the disease with a good survival rate. This kind of development show that some complexities (such as experimental or to expensive drugs) are outsourced to only some parts of our globalised world, and therefore not threathening the entire society

November 12, 2014 at 15:40 #15416

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.

November 12, 2014 at 16:49 #15417
Sarah Rodrigue-Allouche

Sarah’s reflection

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.

November 12, 2014 at 18:28 #15418

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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G0R09YzyuCI. Accessed on November 12th 2014.

November 12, 2014 at 18:50 #15419

Question 2
I belive calling increased complexity “human nature” to be wrong. Whatever is human nature often turns out later to merely be a form of social construction. Anything from gender stereotypes to economic systems, all are social constructions.
Though what I am prepared to admit is that the civilisations Tainter investigate all share just that – they are civilisations. It could be that civilisation, as we generally think of it, has common traits no matter where they occur or when. It could be said, I believe, that the very definition of civilisation is a centralisation of power and wealth in combination with an accentuated center-peripheri economic system. That is, an economic system where the distance between those with power and wealth and those without increase socially, geographically and culturally, as well as a system where the ecological load of the economic system is displaced far from those who most benefit from it. The very term, civilisation, is derived partly from the latin word civitas – city – which itself is could be defined as an area so highly populated that its citizens (latin: civis) are depending on imports of materials and energy for sustenance. In other words, civilisation has something to do with cities, with urbanisation, and cities are dependend on imports, in other words distancing between production and consumption, to use a modern nomenclature.
With centralisation comes the idea of seperatedness, between higher and lower classes and more broadly between human beings and (the rest of) nature. This is a fertile soil in with ideologies, sciences and religions can grow that poses humanity and/or the elite as the rightful exploiters of the environment and of lower classes.
Is this unavoidably human nature? No. But it is a powerful and, as Tainter points out, quite a successful social construction. Are there cases where complexity (coupled with centralisation, urbanisation, distancing from nature, etcetera) has not been the “natural” development of societies? Yes. I would argue that probably the vast majority of cultures and social systems humanity has created throughout 200 000 years of homo sapiens’ history has been quite at ease with themselves as part of, not master of, the rest of the planet and its peoples. Tainter hints at this too when he talks about how little technological development there was for millenia prior to to the advent of civilisation. Most of these cultures, however, did not leave much, or even anything, for archeologists to find, which leads to a classic case of scientific bias: We might think civilisations were much more common and important because it is they that leave traces for us today to find.
Does all this mean that humanity is by nature immoral and “evil”? Of course not. But it does pose some serious ethical concerns regarding our current economic, cultural and social systems, which too is based on the same structures as for instance the Roman Empire. The question should rather be: can civilisation ever be moral? I belive so, to some degree. It does not, by necessity, have to be the case that center and periphery is in a user-used relationship, it does not have to be the case that those with power are expoiting the powerless. Some might argue that it is a slippery slope, that once cities are starting to form and demanding imports, creating social stratification and environmental costs beyond the imidiate vicinity, civilisation is by definition unsustainable. Derrick Jensen is one such “civilisation critic”, or “anarcho-primitivist”. But I disagree with that for two reasons. One is that we really do not have much of a choice right now, concidering the number of people in the world and the current unequality as well as environmental load. Secondly, the world is not black and white, and whenever someone says it is, I’m suspicious. Civilisation can’t be only “good” or “evil” – it can also be everything in between. One way of being somewhere in between is to constantly and critically ask and reflect on what kind of energy and social structures the current complexity needs in order to function. Today, that energy is fossil which leads to vast environmental destruction, and enormous risks for far more species than humanity. We could start there by realising that that is simply unacceptable.
Humanity is not evil. Just stupid. Sometimes.

November 13, 2014 at 18:22 #15429

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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rS3ldLZ_kYE).

November 13, 2014 at 21:19 #15430

Reply to Ellen’s reflections on Tainter
I think that Ellen has a rational and interesting reflection on Tainter’s theory and discusses the issues of sustainability and the human nature for the development of a society very clear. Her description of the result of human activity in systems or states from the “helicopter perspective” is very good as it demonstrates the extent to which societies have expanded their organization. Tainter describes many former states and cultures that have collapsed, but only one at a time. Today the interaction and communication between different societies is extremely fast spreading and efficient. Cyberspace is used by powerful NGOs or corporations, but people in power, or experts in other positions with authority to decide how to act, could have changed the character and progress of the scheme a collapse will have today compared with historical time. A society with a low grade of complexity, let’s say in a developing country in Africa, might have a huge impact on not just one single state in the Western world, if it collapses. We are so dependent on specific minerals, as just one example, to be able to function in the society we have created. This connectedness and dependence on states of different stages in complexity building did not exist historically.
I agree fully with Ellen that Homo sapiens is not evil, but he/she has not reach (by evolution) the mental capacity to foresee the effect of its own inventions. Primarily, not for the long term perspective, but even less in the short run, as we cannot wait to reflect and consider for better alternatives. I still believe that science and technological is the best way to prevent collapse of the society, for environmental reasons like the climate change. But, very important, given there is a high level of transparency to involve and engage the civic society.
Ellen’s discussion of sustainability and people’s value is suggestive. What does Tainter mean with sustainability? An economically sustainable society with markets to support the complexity of the society, or is it an advanced technological state with scientific solutions? If so, who decides what is “good for the society and how to support the chosen system/politic/technology so that it doesn’t collapse? In my view, for a state to be sustainable, it must be integrated in the whole society, including human and economic values as well as practical technical solutions with focus on the environment and its resources, which are essential for our survival.

November 14, 2014 at 05:02 #15431
Sarah Rodrigue-Allouche

Reply to Markus by Sarah
Thank you Markus for a really interesting reflection. I tend to agree with what you advance: increasing complexity is definitely not necessarily part of human nature. Actually, funnily enough Tainter does not discuss at all the many societies that did not develop complexity over the centuries. Many hunter-gatherers tribes have thrived for centuries, and they did not need to develop complexity. I guess the major milestone that triggered advanced complexity was the agricultural revolution. With extra food, storage became possible and thus new functions in society, new roles for people to play, roles that did not imply food production or hunting-gathering. This was the great trigger of complexity. So I guess, it’s all a matter of the environment we are in. If the environment we live in does not enable us to accumulate extra-food, then complexity might never develop.
I do agree with Markus that human nature is not evil. People sometimes get caught up in a system and end up doing things that they did not want to do at first. Again Stanley Milgram’s experiments of the 1960s are a good illustration of this (just like Kenneth Worthy was pointing out in his book “Invisible Nature”).
Furthermore, I read with great interest Michael’s reflection and found his critics of Tainter’s definitions inspiring. Tainter makes a lot of assumptions, and assumptions make bad conclusions! Also, it seems he assumes that we should sustain our current civilization the way it is, but wait – who said that? I would rather agree with Markus that we could envision a new kind of civilization, one which would not imply exploitation or slavery. Our modern civilization supposedly based on human rights is a champion in the field of slavery and undoubtedly calls for questioning.

November 14, 2014 at 11:41 #15447

Reply on Marcus by Ellen 2014-11-14

Marcus, yours and my reflection are quite similar I think, only expressed in different ways. I also regard “Human nature” a social construction which differs from time to time. You problematize on what a civilization is. Maybe a certain “human nature” often occurs within the conditions of civilization that will say if civilization is the same in time and space. I agree in your attempt towards a definition of the concept civilization: the reasoning on center and peripheries, power relations and spatial as well as psychological division amongst people, human and nature. Still in the distance, there are networks of interdependence within the organization of a civilization but often hierarchical.

In the past and in the present (as you also mention Marcus) there are many examples of humans not living in civilizations and cities. Much depends on focus, interests and physical findings. In the Libby Robin seminar we talked about history as non-linear. This is something to keep in mind when discussing civilization: we, human beings can go in and out of different systems, cultures and social organization. Nothing is set. This is an inspiring thought. I don´t view civilization as an agent which can be moral or not, but we humans within it are moral agents. We can change path for the civilization trough it´s systems such as politics. Therefor I choose to share your positive outlook of what a civilization can be. I also wrote in my text that we can call human stupid, but today we have something we never have had before in the past and that is intelligent technology which can help us to estimate the future, this trough research such as Tainters. We have the possibility to count on different future scenarios and alter the future we are heading, but we have to do it together with a shared goal. This is maybe also what you mean when you write we have no options right now but to live in civilization due to the highly populated earth and environmental load? We have to do it together and not as separated unities.

January 8, 2015 at 14:09 #15930

Comment on Ellen’s reflection

I think you are right, Ellen: yours and my reflections are similar. But you add one more important aspect, I think, and that is criticizing Tainter’s definition of sustainability. I never got around to doing that.

For an anthropologist, Tainter is surprisingly “scientifically cold” in how he chooses to define sustainability. He calls other definitions “fuzzy”, meant of course to be derogatory, but I believe it is in the fuzzyness that a lot of the most important aspects of sustainability can be found, just like you imply. Qualitative interpretations and goals with sustainability are found here, in the fuzzyness, not in the actually rather stupid assumption that what the sustainability movement is about is to simply maintain current state of affairs. I call it stupid because it misses the point, and because, as a scholar of great knowledge of the development of societies, it is surprising that Tainter would choose to use such a rigid definition. In large part, from the very early days of Rachel Carsen and “Limits to growth” (1972), the aim of what could be refered to as the sustainability movement has, at least in my opinion, been trying to change the “cultural system” of our complex society by criticizing dogma like scientific farming and economic growth. How many scholars and writers within the field of sustainability have not argued and worked on system change rather than swapping components?

Maybe Tainter is not the one to blame, though. He simply went to the most stringent, and therefore most easy-to-work-with definition. Maybe the fault lies in the very use of the word sustainability? Do we really want to sustain our society, or change it?

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