Joseph Tainter: The Collapse Of Complex Societies

By popular demand, we welcome Joseph Tainter, USU professor and author of The Collapse Of Complex Societies (free book download here).

Dr. Tainter sees many of the same unsustainable risks the audience focuses on -- an overleveraged economy, declining net energy per capita, and depleting key resources.

He argues that the sustainability or collapse of a society follows from the success or failure of its problem-solving institutions. His work shows that societies collapse when their investments in social complexity and their energy subsidies reach a point of diminishing marginal returns. From Tainter's perspective, we are likely already past the tipping point towards collapse but just don’t know it yet:

Sustainability requires that people have the ability and the inclination to think broadly in terms of time and space. In other words, to think broadly in a geographical sense about the world around them, as well as the state of the world as a whole. And also, to think broadly in time in terms of the near and distant future and what resources will be available to our children and our grandchildren and our great grandchildren.

One of the major problems in sustainability and in this whole question of resources and collapse is that we did not evolve as a species to have this ability to think broadly in time and space. Instead, our ancestors who lived as hunter-gatherers never confronted any challenges that required them to think beyond their locality and the near term(...)

We have developed the most complex society humanity has ever known. And we have maintained it up to this point. I have argued that technological innovation and other kinds of innovation evolve like any other aspect of complexity. The investments in research and development grow increasingly complex and reach diminishing returns. We cannot forever continue to spend more and more on technological innovation when we’ve reached the point of diminishing returns, which I argue we have reached.

Our system of innovation is going to change very significantly over the next twenty to thirty to fifty years or so. By the end of the century, our system of innovation will not be anything like what we know today. It will have to be very different. And it’s likely that innovation is not going to be able to solve our problems as readily as it has done to this point.

The technological optimists have assumed that the productivity of innovation is either constant or increasing. And in fact, what I think my colleagues and I can show is that the productivity of innovation is actually decreasing. What that means is that we will not forever be able to solve resource problems through innovation(...)

And so individuals need to take responsibility for their own ignorance. As I said, our species did not evolve to think broadly in terms of time and space and if we’re going to maintain our way of life, people have to learn to do so. People have to take responsibility for knowing and understanding the predicament that we’re facing. I have argued over the last few years that we need to start teaching early school age children in K to 12 to think differently, to think broadly in terms of time and space – to think historically, to think long-term about the future, to think broadly about what’s going on in the world around us instead of the narrow way – the narrow, local way – that most people live and think. So I put responsibility on individuals to broaden their knowledge.

Click the play button below to listen to Chris' interview with Joseph Tainter (42m:44s).

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

The discussion of the increasing cost and diminishing return of innovation was powerful. Can we get a chart or two for that? I want that in my arsenal when talking with a techno Keynesian.

A longer term version of this:…

Talk of collapse of technological societies always brings to mind the L variable in the Drake equation. Years ago, when I read about the equation, numbers for L in the 125 year range were bandied about. It appears now that higher numbers are considered likely, or possible.
Given the current state of humanity and the fact that we aren’t yet intentionally sending signals into space, I wonder if the 125 year number isn’t optimistic, at least for Earth.

Drake Equation wrote:
Lifetime of such a civilization wherein it communicates its signals into space, L Michael Shermer estimated L as 420 years, based on the duration of sixty historical Earthly civilizations. Using 28 civilizations more recent than the Roman Empire, he calculates a figure of 304 years for "modern" civilizations. It could also be argued from Michael Shermer's results that the fall of most of these civilizations was followed by later civilizations that carried on the technologies, so it is doubtful that they are separate civilizations in the context of the Drake equation. In the expanded version, including reappearance number, this lack of specificity in defining single civilizations does not matter for the end result, since such a civilization turnover could be described as an increase in the reappearance number rather than increase in L, stating that a civilization reappears in the form of the succeeding cultures. Furthermore, since none could communicate over interstellar space, the method of comparing with historical civilizations could be regarded as invalid. David Grinspoon has argued that once a civilization has developed enough, it might overcome all threats to its survival. It will then last for an indefinite period of time, making the value for L potentially billions of years. If this is the case, then he proposes that the Milky Way galaxy may have been steadily accumulating advanced civilizations since it formed. He proposes that the last factor L be replaced with fIC · T, where fIC is the fraction of communicating civilizations become "immortal" (in the sense that they simply do not die out), and T representing the length of time during which this process has been going on. This has the advantage that T would be a relatively easy to discover number, as it would simply be some fraction of the age of the universe. It has also been hypothesized that once a civilization has learned of a more advanced one, its longevity could increase because it can learn from the experiences of the other. The astronomer Carl Sagan speculated that all of the terms, except for the lifetime of a civilization, are relatively high and the determining factor in whether there are large or small numbers of civilizations in the universe is the civilization lifetime, or in other words, the ability of technological civilizations to avoid self-destruction. In Sagan's case, the Drake equation was a strong motivating factor for his interest in environmental issues and his efforts to warn against the dangers of nuclear warfare.
A non sequitur and perhaps not relevant to humanity, but consider the energy necessary to send out a powerful signal in all directions. A civilization would have to capture a large portion of the energy output of their sun to power such a signal.

I am reminded of four rather powerful quotes from various readings I’ve done:
Joseph Tainter in The Collapse of Complex Societies:
However much we like to think of ourselves as something special in world history, in fact industrialized societies are subject to the same principles that caused earlier societies to collapse.
Jared Diamond in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed:
Those past collapses tended to follow somewhat similar courses constituting variation on a theme. Population growth forced people to adopt intensified measn of agricultural production…Unsustainable practices led to environmental damage…Consequences for society included food shortages, starvation, wars among too many people fighting for too few resources, and overthrows of governing elites by disillusioned masses. Eventually, population decreased through starvation, war, or disease and society lost some of the political, economic, and cultural complexity that it had developed at its peak.
Meadows et al. in Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update:
Sadly, we believe the world will experience overshoot and collapse in global resource use and emissions much the same way as the bubble–though on a much longer time scale. The growth phase will be welcomed and celebrated, even long after it has moved into unsustainable territory (this we know, because it has already happened). The collapse will arrive very suddenly, much to everyone’s surprise. And once it has lasted for some years, it will become increasingly obvious that the situtation before the collapse was totally unsustainable. After more years of decline, few will believe it will ever end. Few will believe that there once more will be abundant energy and sufficient wild fish.
Nassim Taleb in The Black Swan:
Almost everything in social life is produced by large shocks and jumps, all the while almost everything studied about social life focuses on the ‘normal’, particularly with ‘bell curve’ methods of inference that tell you close to nothing…[since] the bell curve ignores large deviations, cannot handle them, yet make us confident that we have tamed uncertainty.

  1. Fossil fuels are finite. 2. Our industrial society is totally reliant on fossil fuels. 3. Renewable and nuclear energy are totally reliant on fossil fuels for deployment. 4. We will burn though all our fossil fuels by the end of this Century.
    From these four axioms there can only be one outcome.
    Our energy descent, when it gathers speed, will be horrific. For example, here in the UK, how will we ‘manage’ the transition between our current carrying capacity of 65 million people (and rising) to our long term carrying capacity of about 20 million (4 people per hectare of arable land) in the space of 80 years?

…the collapse?
Many people have many opinions and ideas about it. Shelves full of books have been written, thousands of hours of podcasts recorded, innumerable posts here (and on like-minded sites) have been written.
None of them matter…until and unless we decide, personally, to step up and engage the “What comes after.”
Oh, it’s all going down. So stop arguing/worrying about that fact (how/when) or bargaining and denying. What are you going to do when that day comes? What about 2 months after (assuming you survive that long)?..
Leaving aside all the particularities of how/when/what/why and the doomporn of envisioning the many sorts of suffering and privation that (likely) will arrive – I’d bet a decent chunk of whatever money you like that 10 years post-crash, people will more or less be just as happy/unhappy and healthy/unhealthy as they are right now.
The older I get, the more it seems that people have very little sense of perspective. 10 years post-crash, they won’t yearn for their lost 401K or iPhones or online billpay. They’ll be too busy staying ahead of the survival curve. They’ll likely (if they’re still alive) be deeply immersed in some sort of community in which they have a meaningful role. They won’t be railing against the raw deal they got from history – born at the tail end of the golden age, enough to know it and miss it when it’s gone. People who can’t get over that won’t survive the first couple years post-crash.
Ten years out, very few IMO will mourn the internet, credit cards, McDonalds or American Idol. People will make jokes about Survivor, and cook and make music together. Talented storytellers will come back into a position of respect. Elders will be revered for the knowledge they possess (note to self: possess knowledge!) and for having survived the hard times and set their community up to do the same.
People who cotton onto the idea that human life, in its essentials, doesn’t change much regardless of the technological or philosophical window-dressing we pretty things up with? They oughta do just fine. Oh, we’ll be skinnier. Maybe our teeth will not be so pretty as they are now. We will spend much more of our time just surviving (ask a resident of St. Petersberg about life in the post-USSR in the 90s – that’s a good template IMO for what’s coming) and less of it being entertained into zombiedom.
Would you rather die at 60 or 70 in a candlelit hut surrounded by your community/kids/grandkids, or at 100 in a hospital, drugged beyond cognition, surrounded by expensive machinery and medical personnel who can hardly be blamed for not being personally invested in your outcome?
Since it doesn’t seem to me that collapse can be avoided, I’m over mooning on about some future in the stars for humanity. (For the record: I really wish we could get off this planet and go exploring as a species. It totally appeals to my yearning for the epic. But more and more it appears a pipe dream.)
I’m all about surviving with gratitude. Re-learning that we need each other. Re-learning that we’re so muc happier with each other. Remembering that we find our fulfillment not as individuals, but as members of a living, vibrant community. What the average energy consumption per capita is has nothing to do with that last sentence.
Start practicing needing other people. Start practicing being of use to other people. The give and take, inhalation and exhalation – that’s the life giving flow. It’s harder than you think…until you’ve done it for a while. Then it’s as natural as rain. Rain on!
VIVA – Sager

You cut right to the heart of it. Very inspiring. I’m thinking of showing it to my 15-year old daughter who is definitely aware of where we’re heading, and inclined to your perspective. My 12 year old (in her better moments) has a similar perspective. Perhaps a verbal, summary/discussion with her would work better.
Thank you.

…has become a pretty meaningless term, thanks Sager for putting some more texture around that. “Affluent societies” are certainly not the most happy. You might even say that once you get a certain distance from comfortably meeting your basic needs, there is an inverse relationship between wealth and happiness. Though it seems that affluent societies are hell bent on convincing everybody that they are the most happy, it seems wealth needs someone to stand on top of to get their feeling of “happiness”.
To answer the question about what topics need to be covered here, I would like to us stop beating the financial analysis drum to death and spend more time looking the explosion of responses to the crisis that are already occurring. The future is happening now in the cracks and crevices that are largely ignored.
I nearly choked on “hunter-gatherers never confronted any challenges that required them to think beyond their locality and the near term…”,

The 7th generation principal was so important to Native American cultures that it was codified in the Iroquois Great Law of Peace. To my knowledge, all Native American and indigenous tribes throughout the world embrace this teaching.
To the Lakota a generation was 100 years, not our modern 25. Short term thinking seems to me to be a peculiarly modern disease. We are continuing to ignore our ancestral wisdom to our great peril.
energy source, not a sync.

you mean not an energy sink

Nature is Complex and does pretty well. Humans’ problem is they are linear thinkers that do not build redundancy into systems. What happens if humans move to digital money (precious metals banned) and the system fails? Show me in Nature where centralization exists? Where is the center of reality?

I didn’t catch any mention of how a complex society would collapse when faced with an existential crisis like climate change.

In order for ‘people to take the responsibility for knowing and understanding the predicament that we’re facing’ it would be most beneficial to embrace the notion that education itself (the pursuit of knowledge and understanding) does not end upon receiving a degree from an institution of higher learning but is a lifetime endeavor.