Complexity & Collapse
(An Interview With Joseph Tainter)

Dateline: 6 October 2014

This flow chart illustrates the amazing complexity of America's new health care system, also known as, Obamacare.
Click Here for more details

If you have read this blog for long you know that I often make the point that complexity (and dependency) leads to vulnerability. And vulnerability eventually leads to failure.

That being the case, I've long believed that our incredibly complex, interdependent, modern civilization will eventually collapse. That is, after all, what has happened to all complex civilizations throughout history. 

So it is that I found This Recent Interview with Professor Joseph Tainter at the McAlvany Weekly Commentary to be of great interest. I recommend it to you.

Joseph Tainter is an anthropologist and historian who has studied the collapse of various civilizations throughout history. He is author of the 1988 book, The Collapse of Complex Societies

I think Professor Tainter has a remarkably insightful understanding of how and why complex societies always eventually collapse. I think he is right on with his understandings of how our modern civilization will collapse. A few notes from the McAlvany interview:

—Complexity is the cause of societal collapse (Dr. Tainter does not think resource depletion will be the cause of collapse). Other factors certainly enter into the picture, but it is, essentially, complexity itself that leads to collapse.

—Complex societies become more complex as they work to solve problems that arise. Complexity happens slowly, incrementally, over a period of time.

—Collapse, defined as the loss of a complex way of life, happens relatively quickly.

—Our modern complex civilization is trapped in its complexity. There is no way to lessen complexity and avert collapse.

—Complex society is a historical anomaly. Civilizations throughout most of history have not been complex.

I hope you will take the time to listen to the whole interview. And maybe you'll come to the same conclusion I did

Our complex civilization may be trapped in complexity but we as individuals and families don't have to be. To the extent that we can, we who are wise to the lessons of history can simplify our way of life, lessen our dependencies on complex civilization, and learn to be more self reliant. 

It's the same old bottom line. I've been blogging about it here for the past nine years. The good news is that more and more people are seeing the connection between complexity and collapse, and they are being seriously proactive about it.


I'm on blogging break until the 15th.
See you then.


Anonymous said...

Interesting take on things. While complexity may not be an inherently bad thing - think of the complexity of interdependent lifeforms that lead to fertility in a handful of soil - there are limits. I'm reminded of David's song, Ps. 131:1 -2:

"O Lord, my heart is not lifted up;
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.
2 But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child is my soul within me."

Families and communities know themselves, and on a small scale, can typically work out their problems, even. Fallen man wants to build his Towers of Babel, making a name for himself, arrogantly usurping authority and dominion God has delegated to individuals, families, and communities. Governments, then, and their attendant bureaucracies, must grow ever more complex in order to attempt dealing with manifold issues.

Our founders, far from perfect, at least understood that government's authority and responsibilities must be kept very limited in order to avoid the tyranny that results from the government that becomes increasingly complex.

Anyway, thanks for this post; it's made me think!

Anonymous said...

We are much more complex than at any other time because of advancements in technology and such. Perhaps that is why society has not yet fallen? Are we pulling ourselves up by our ever thinning boot strings?
People who live simpler lives just seem to be happier.

In other news, Mr. Kimball here is a business you might enjoy hearing about.
It's a second generation dairy. A few of the kids/grands have quit "standard" jobs to come home to work on the farm. I love it.

Herrick Kimball said...

Thanks for the comments, and I will check out that link.

Lyle Stout said...

Just listened to the entire interview.
Reminds me of Barbara Tuchman's book, "The March of Folly."

Tucanae Services said...

Rather than complexity, I prefer the term opaqueness. Biological life is extremely complex both in form and scope and it works and has for centuries. But it does so because the interactions between the various lifeforms are following a very simple open ended rule -- eat or be eaten.

But our tax code? Its written down all thousands of pages of it. But it is opaque to the average tax payer due to the jargon, lack of clarity, etc. Same with the healthcare law.

When it is clear what the rights and obligations of the single individual are, society can be in balance with relatively little effort. But once the nuance of those bounds become opaque, it requires the hoards of specialists to divine them. And that is when the collapse begins.