Part of New Studies in Archaeology. Author: Joseph Tainter. Date Published: March ; availability: Available; format: Paperback; isbn: Collapse of Complex Societies has ratings and 91 reviews. Mark said: Ok, done!Tainter’s work is an opus. How could it be otherwise with a title lik. Political disintegration is a persistent feature of world history. The Collapse of Complex Societies, though written by an archaeologist, will therefore strike a chord.

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Thanks for telling us about the problem. Return to Book Page. Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph A. Noseph examples of societal collapse help develop a new theory to account for their breakdown. Detailed studies of the Roman, Mayan collwpse Cacoan collapses clarify the processes of disintegration. Paperbackpages. To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

To ask other readers questions about Collapse of Complex Societiesplease sign fhe. Be the first to ask a question about Collapse of Complex Societies. Lists with This Talnter. Feb 03, Mark rated it it was amazing. Tainter’s work is an opus. How could it be otherwise with a title like that? Yet, it lives up to the title: It’s a little ponderous to read, because it is documented and reasoned like a thesis. This is a historical analysis, with applicability to our age that’s noted only lightly along the way: Tainter says diminishing returns eventually trap civilization in a no-win s Ok, done!

Joseph Tainter

Tainter says diminishing returns eventually trap civilization in a no-win situation. The idea of diminishing returns well explored meaning that more fertilizer, internet, railroads and regulations produce more food per man-hour invested, but only to a point. Eventually the return on investment tapers to nothing, and then further effort would actually COST energy, blood and treasure.

I don’t think he successfully argues why we can’t step back from that precipice, why for instance the diminishing returns aren’t their own regulator, moreso because the broad curve of lost benefit implies a smooth hilltop, not a cliff My precipice description makes Tainter’s point, but it seems inaccurate to describe the actual dynamics.

It seems pretty simple negative feedback: Surely there will someday be one road too many, if not already! Another possibility I’m trying to cinch down the last loose knot on his thesis, you see is that the complexity is a house of cards.

If twinter system is interdependent and surely it is for is not the efficiency derived substantially compkex specialization that interdependence allows? There is no retrenchment possible; removing a keystone will bring it all down, and every stone is a keystone. A final idea I’ll offer is that we become addicted. Not in a bad way either. We are addicted in that we want to support our population: But that’s what will happen because, as we expand our capability e.

Some of it goes into luxury, but lots goes into people too, and we are thereby committed to the additional technology. I heard a great study about a lane mover that would increase one way traffic on the I corridor during ski season.

We invent an improvement and then gobble up it’s benefit instead of banking it away against lean times. So the change becomes not really an improvement, but instead a permanent commitment to additional infrastructure, additional complexity.


Collapse of Complex Societies

Why then don’t I live a life of ease with the US average 10kW at my disposal? The answer is that we use it up. Also I suppose I DO live a life of ease and luxury in comparison to a 19th century Russian peasant with only one actual horse in his stable.

Anyway, Tainter does talk about this obliquely at one point. Re-reading my review a year later, both Tainter’s analysis and mine leave me uncomfortable, unsatisfied. Trying to be succinct, I don’t think it’s about diminishing returns, but about slack and momentum. Consumption of all the slack technology provides leads to an irrevocable commitment to complexity and interdependency.

Commitment means you can’t retrench to simpler technology in a bad year because the greater efficiency has become the new minimum baseline. Now you’re in danger of actual collapse.

One more last thought how many “last thoughts” is one allowed? The farmer buying the fast tractor doesn’t see the oil cost in it’s impact on fertilizer cost, or food prices in poor countries, or something similar, so he makes what is for him the right Local decision, but Globally, it is the wrong one.

Of course bringing oil into it pulls Jared Diamond to mind. Only soil, Diamond’s favorite limited resource, could be more apt. Here’s a link to some comparison between this book and Diamond’s Collapse. And later still, the latest foodie trend here in Boulder is to disparage the humble wheat stalk, it’s multifarious chromosome threatening our digestion. What if this graduates from trend to generally accepted fact?

What if the ideal response is to regress to einkorn and yields drop by half? Just in case society does collapse, I’ll document the fall here, so at least at the end I can say “I told ya so! View all 8 comments. May 16, Dave rated it really liked it.

This is a short, dense, book about a difficult subject.

Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph A. Tainter

Tainter does a good job with his argument, which I admit even I though I disagree with it in part. His argument boils down to a few key points: Major civilizations tend to experience an early period of rapid growth through the ‘low hanging fruit’ of available territory, resources, etc.

This growth inevitably leads to specialization, stratification, and complexity which initially serves growth 3. The civilization plateau’s and the This is a short, dense, book about a difficult subject.

The civilization plateau’s and the structure established to help it grow becomes a part of society. When the ‘low hanging fruit’ disappears, further expansion be it territorial, trade oriented becomes less and less profitable, and eventually starts to work against the civilization. Finally, the complex structure begins to a positive drain on the civilization as it has to spend more and more to get less and less.

But now we depend on the structure, which societiez become brittle, and like a house of cards, easy to knock over. Tainter supports his theory well from civilizations across time, and uses very obvious info, like territory, joeeph some other more unusual information, like crop yields, colonial administrations, and so txinter.

No doubt there are many lessons for economists here. But — while his book is valuable, it has big holes. In his quest for absolute objectivity, he rejects all value-judgment theories of collapse. If you can’t measure it, it’s not useful. A civilizations beliefs, or our interpretation of those beliefs are not ‘objective’ and so have nothing to contribute to the study of collapse. So, after joxeph the work of people like Gibbon, Toynbee, Spengler, and others he essentially dismisses with a wave of his hand.


Lewis once pointed out, very few people are actually German economists. Any study of history must involve people, which will involve more than economic exchanges. This over-emphasizing of economics shows up in what is actually a thought provoking idea.

What happens after collapse, he argues, may actually be beneficial to society, because it removes a great deal of inefficiency that the old system labored under. Collapse, might be the cleansing forest fires of history, events to almost welcome. This sounds good on paper, but no actual human being who lived complez collapses would have agreed with him.

Imagine living in Western Europe ca.

Of course, our ramshackle village could be overrun, destroyed, and our people pillaged who knows when by some Goth, Ckmplex, Visigoth, Vandal, Hun, or some other kind of Goth I have forgotten about. But I’ll take that any day over the economic inefficiency of the late Roman Empire. Nov 29, Mike rated it it was amazing Shelves: First off, this is more like a long academic paper than a book.

Tainter has a thesis whereby he attempts to explain the collapse of all complex societies quite a tall order of business and goes about this by establishing a lot of background information and existing theory review in the first part of the book. I am by no societie an archeologist professional or amateur but was able to make my way through this part, picking most of what Tainter was trying to communicate.

I’d say to give the early First off, this is more like a long academic paper than a book. I’d say to give the early sections a shot because they do form the basis for his later arguments. Sort of scary in retrospect how many complex, seemingly stable societies basically evaporated over the course of only a few generations and that civilization as we know it has a relatively short existence compared to the totality soceities human existence.

Civilization is more the exception than the rule. So the crux of Tainter’s argument socketies that the development of a complex society is predicated on the explotation of low hanging resources. The investment to acquire these resources is at first easily outwighed by their benefits. complfx

This allows for the support of specialized roles that do not necessarily contribute to the sustainability of the society aristocrats, priest castes, etc. Subsequent resource extraction be it in the form of new mines, new agricultural lands, or new conquests have a lower return on energy invested generating a smaller surplus to sustain the complex society.

Eventually a society will reach a point where existing resources or potential new resources cannot maintain the level of complexity the society currently has. Eventually the society will “decline” to a level of lower complexity: