Collapse of Complex Societies

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= Joe's thesis boils down to this: Societies evolve greater organizational and technical complexity to solve social problems that arise due to external forces or population pressures or overuse of natural resources, etc., and at some point, the marginal beneficial returns (problems solved) begin to decline leading to lowered margins of error for dealing with possible catastrophic impacts. Societies collapse when increasing complexity no longer has a payoff and something else bad happens. [1]

Book: Collapse of Complex Societies. Joseph Tainter. Cambridge University Press, 1988

"The most elegant approach to social collapse and renewal" [2]


1. Clay Shirky:

"In 1988, Joseph Tainter wrote a chilling book called The Collapse of Complex Societies. Tainter looked at several societies that gradually arrived at a level of remarkable sophistication then suddenly collapsed: the Romans, the Lowlands Maya, the inhabitants of Chaco canyon. Every one of those groups had rich traditions, complex social structures, advanced technology, but despite their sophistication, they collapsed, impoverishing and scattering their citizens and leaving little but future archeological sites as evidence of previous greatness. Tainter asked himself whether there was some explanation common to these sudden dissolutions.

The answer he arrived at was that they hadn’t collapsed despite their cultural sophistication, they’d collapsed because of it. Subject to violent compression, Tainter’s story goes like this: a group of people, through a combination of social organization and environmental luck, finds itself with a surplus of resources. Managing this surplus makes society more complex—agriculture rewards mathematical skill, granaries require new forms of construction, and so on.

Early on, the marginal value of this complexity is positive—each additional bit of complexity more than pays for itself in improved output—but over time, the law of diminishing returns reduces the marginal value, until it disappears completely. At this point, any additional complexity is pure cost.

Tainter’s thesis is that when society’s elite members add one layer of bureaucracy or demand one tribute too many, they end up extracting all the value from their environment it is possible to extract and then some.

The ‘and then some’ is what causes the trouble. Complex societies collapse because, when some stress comes, those societies have become too inflexible to respond. In retrospect, this can seem mystifying. Why didn’t these societies just re-tool in less complex ways? The answer Tainter gives is the simplest one: When societies fail to respond to reduced circumstances through orderly downsizing, it isn’t because they don’t want to, it’s because they can’t.

In such systems, there is no way to make things a little bit simpler – the whole edifice becomes a huge, interlocking system not readily amenable to change. Tainter doesn’t regard the sudden decoherence of these societies as either a tragedy or a mistake—”[U]nder a situation of declining marginal returns collapse may be the most appropriate response”, to use his pitiless phrase. Furthermore, even when moderate adjustments could be made, they tend to be resisted, because any simplification discomfits elites.

When the value of complexity turns negative, a society plagued by an inability to react remains as complex as ever, right up to the moment where it becomes suddenly and dramatically simpler, which is to say right up to the moment of collapse. Collapse is simply the last remaining method of simplification." (

2. Yves Smith:

"His argument is straightforward: 1. Human societies are problem-solving organizations 2. Sociopolitical systems require energy for their maintenance 3. Increasing complexity carries with it increased cost per capita 4. Investment in sociopolitical complexity often reaches a point of declining marginal returns.” Here is a good overview:

“There are two general factors that combine to make a society vulnerable to collapse when investment in complexity begins to yield a declining marginal return. First, stress and perturbation are a constant feature of any complex society, always occurring somewhere in its territory. Such a society will have a developed an operating regulatory apparatus this is designed to deal with such things as localized agricultural failures, border conflicts, and unrest. Since such continuous, localized stress can be expected to recur with regularity, it can, to a degree, be anticipated and prepared for. Major, unexpected stress surges, however, will also occur given enough time, as such things as climactic changes and foreign incursions take place. To meet these major stresses, the society must have some kind of net reserve. This can take the form of excess productive capacities in agriculture, energy, or minerals, or hoarded surpluses from past production. Stress surges of great magnitude cannot be accommodated without such a reserve.”

“Yet a society experiencing declining marginal returns is investing even more heavily in a strategy that is yielding proportionately less. Excess productive capacity will at some point be used up, and accumulated surpluses allocated to current operating needs. There is, then, little or no surplus with which to counter major adversities. Unexpected stress surges must be dealt with out of the current operating budget, often ineffectually, and always to the detriment of the system as a whole. Even if the stress is successfully met, the society is weakened in the process, and made even more vulnerable to the next crisis. Once a complex society develops the vulnerabilities of declining marginal returns, collapse may merely require sufficient passage of time to render probable the occurrence of an insurmountable calamity.”

“Secondly, declining marginal returns make complexity a less attractive problem-solving strategy. When marginal returns decline, the advantages to complexity become ultimately no greater (for society as a whole) than those for less costly social forms. The marginal cost of evolution to a higher level of complexity, or of remaining at the present level, is high compared to the alternative of disintegration. Under such conditions, the option to decompose (that is, to sever the ties that link localized groups to a regional entity) become attractive to certain components of a complex society.”

“As marginal returns deteriorate, tax rates rise with less and less return to the local level. Irrigation systems go untended, bridges and roads are not kept up, and the frontier is not adequately defended. Many of the social units that comprise a complex society perceive increased advantage to a strategy of independence, and begin to pursue their own immediate goals rather than long-term goals of the hierarchy. Behavioral interdependence gives way to behavioral independence, requiring the hierarchy to allocate still more of a shrinking resource base to legitimation and/or control.” (


Matt Webb:

"States form for several reasons, one of which is external conflict or pressure; another is internal management. Fundamentally, though, Tainter casts the continued existence (or not) of a complex society as a economic decision by the population (or a privileged elite who can exert the necessary power): it is cheaper to have centralised complexity than have multiple simpler villages. The whole system essentially 'rolls downhill' into increasing order.

Collapse, in Tainter's view, only looks like collapse because we privilege the institutions of complexity: collapse is a sensible economic decision on the part of the people in the society, to refactor complexity into simple units, and do away with the cost of the managerial organisation. If building of monuments - capacitors of work capacity, essentially - stops, everyone is a little bit richer (though: no more pyramids)."


Models of Societal Response To Societal Collapse and Civilizational Decline

From the Wikipedia:

According to Joseph Tainter (1990), too many scholars offer facile explanations of societal collapse by assuming one or more of the following three models in the face of collapse:

  • The Dinosaur, a large-scale society in which resources are being depleted at an exponential rate, but nothing is done to rectify the problem because the ruling elite are unwilling or unable to adapt to those resources' reduced availability. In this type of society, rulers tend to oppose any solutions that diverge from their present course of action but favor intensification and commit an increasing number of resources to their present plans, projects, and social institutions.
  • The Runaway Train, a society whose continuing function depends on constant growth (cf. Frederick Jackson Turner's Frontier Thesis). This type of society, based almost exclusively on acquisition (such as pillaging or exploitation), cannot be sustained indefinitely. The Assyrian, Roman and Mongol Empires, for example, all fractured and collapsed when no new conquests could be achieved.
  • The House of Cards, a society that has grown to be so large and include so many complex social institutions that it is inherently unstable and prone to collapse. This type of society has been seen with particular frequency among Eastern Bloc and other communist nations, in which all social organizations are arms of the government or ruling party, such that the government must either stifle association wholesale (encouraging dissent and subversion) or exercise less authority than it asserts (undermining its legitimacy in the public eye).

By contrast, as Alexis de Tocqueville observed, when voluntary and private associations are allowed to flourish and gain legitimacy at an institutional level, they complement and often even supplant governmental functions. They provide a "safety valve" for dissent, assist with resource allocation, provide for social experimentation without the need for governmental coercion, and enable the public to maintain confidence in society as a whole, even during periods of governmental weakness.

Tainter's critique: Tainter argues that those models, though superficially useful, cannot severally or jointly account for all instances of societal collapse. Often, they are seen as interconnected occurrences that reinforce one another.

Tainter considers that social complexity is a recent and comparatively-anomalous occurrence, requiring constant support. He asserts that collapse is best understood by grasping four axioms. In his own words (p. 194):

  • human societies are problem-solving organizations;
  • sociopolitical systems require energy for their maintenance;
  • increased complexity carries with it increased costs per capita; and
  • investment in sociopolitical complexity as a problem-solving response reaches a point of declining marginal returns.

With those facts in mind, collapse can simply be understood as a loss of the energy needed to maintain social complexity. Collapse is thus the sudden loss of social complexity, stratification, internal and external communication and exchange, and productivity."



"The Collapse of Complex Societies provides terrific insight into the reasons complex societies arise...and why they collapse. It also provides some hints about what it might be like if our own society collapses, based on what happened when other complex societies collapsed.

The Collapse of Complex Societies Tainter claims that the proper basis for understanding complex societies is an economic one. The basic premise:

1. Human societies are problem-solving organizations.

2. Sociopolitical systems require energy for their maintenance.

3. Increased complexity carries with it increased costs per capita.

4. Investment in complexity as a problem-solving response often reaches a point of declining marginal returns.

So, in his view, complex societies arise as efficient solutions to problems. At first, relatively little investment in complexity yields great benefits. But eventually, diminishing returns kicks in, and greater and greater investment produces less and less benefit. Finally, the point is reached where investment in complexity can no longer yield any increase in benefits. Collapse becomes increasingly probable. At that point, a crisis the society easily weathered earlier in its history - a military loss, drought, resource depletion, etc. - is enough to cause collapse.

Why do marginal yields always decline? That is, why is it that we always get less and less return on greater and greater investment? Because the lowest fruit is picked first. The most accessible oil is pumped first. Teaching someone to read is cheap and has great benefits; getting them a PhD is expensive, and provides far fewer benefits for the cost. The most arable land is farmed first; expanding farms to less ideal territory will provide lower yields for the cost.

It is possible for a society to avoid collapse, by getting control of a new source of energy, either by technical innovation or by conquest. Eventually, however, it becomes impossible to keep doing this, because of declining marginal returns on whichever strategy you are pursuing (whether conquest, like the Romans, or technological innovation, like the Maya).

Tainter argues that we are already facing declining marginal returns, and provides numerous examples. Among them:

Agriculture: To increase world food production by 34 percent (between 1951 and 1966), it took a 63% increase in money spent on tractors, a 146% increase in money spent on nitrate fertilizers, and a 300% increase in money spend on pesticides. To get another 34% would take even more money.

Medicine: Despite the fact that we are spending more money on health care and medical research than ever, the American lifespan is not increasing much. The easy fixes - vitamins, vaccines, sanitation, etc. - have already been done. Now, we are struggling just to keep lifespan from decreasing (due to new challenges like AIDS).

Science: Most of the great work of science was done years, even centuries ago. Many of the greatest contributions to science were made by people without formal training. But the day is past when monks growing peas or people flying kites in the rain can make significant contributions to science. The general knowledge, which provided the greatest benefits, is already known. The specialist knowledge remaining to be discovered requires expensive education, for relatively little return. Something like 90% of all the scientists who have ever lived on earth are alive right now, yet technological innovation is slowing.

Oil: In 1950, one barrel of oil's worth of energy could get you 100 barrels in return. Now, it's more like 1:10 in the U.S., 1:30 for Middle East oil shipped here. That sort of decline applies to most resources: coal, copper, natural gas, etc.

R&D: Technology has saved us in the past; can it save us again? Probably not. Analysis shows that an increase in spending on R&D of 4.2% yields an improvement of only 2%. At that rate, even if every one of us becomes a scientist or engineer, we'll be losing ground.

Government: Increasing complexity means increasing bureaucracy, and all the expenses that entails. Generally, it means higher taxes. At first, the benefits of complexity - roads, schools, defense, public works - are so great that people don't mind paying taxes. But as complexity increases, taxes rise, and the local benefit decreases. The government must spend resources on enforcing compliance. Generally, the tipping point is about 20% - which we're past.

Does Tainter think we are facing imminent collapse? No. There's a fifth concept, to add to the four above:

5. Collapse occurs, and can only occur, in a power vacuum.

Even when a society is past the point of diminishing returns - when economically, they'd be better off not investing in more complexity - there is a situation where they cannot collapse. That is when there is a group of societies, of similar complexity, in competition with each other. No one can collapse, because if they do, they'll be taken over by a neighbor. Collapse, when it comes, will be a group affair. No one can collapse unless they all collapse at once. (Which is what happened to the Maya.)

That is the reason Europe did not collapse long ago, and that is the reason the next collapse will be a global one. A "powerdown" is impossible in the current political climate.

Tainter's discussion of past collapses was fascinating, and I couldn't help wondering if they might be hints of our own future. Complex societies ensure their existence by two methods: legitimization, and coercion.

Legitimization can involve nonmaterial elements (the emperor is a god, democracy is the best way of government). But no society can continue to survive unless it provides actual material benefits. The people must be shown that their taxes are benefitting them more than they are hurting. So, even while Rome was going bankrupt, they kept increasing the public dole. They had to, to maintain their legitimacy. Eventually, one out of three people was on the dole.

Coercion is another method, but it, too, is expensive. Higher and higher taxes are demanded, with greater and greater punishments for not paying. The state may control where you can live, what your occupation is, what you can say. People get more rebellious, and more resources must be allocated to social control. The wealthier areas that can make it on their own may try to pull away; the government won't let them, because it needs their production.

It's likely, as vital resources such as petroleum, water, even food, run out, our governments will use both methods. Taxes will rise, and so will handouts to the poor. We'll lose freedoms, as the government cracks down.

Given that possible vision of the future, collapse seems almost preferable. Indeed, Tainter argues that collapse is not necessarily catastrophe. Complex societies are a relatively new development in human history. They are what is unnatural, so collapse would be returning to a more natural state. And research shows that collapse does in fact yield benefits. Smaller kingdoms were more effective at repelling barbarian invasions than the Roman empire. Nutrition was better after the Mayan collapse than it was before.

The drawback, of course, is the huge population drop that accompanies collapse. An 80%-90% loss is not unusual. While in the old days, those extra people may have simply migrated somewhere else, that's not possible in today's world." (

Another review by John Robb, at