Start › Forums › Courses › Current Debates and Themes in Global Environmental History › 3rd November: Joseph Tainter
|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”
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.
|November 12, 2014 at 16:49 #15417|
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.
|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|
|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
|November 14, 2014 at 05:02 #15431|
Reply to Markus by Sarah
|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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