The Collapse of Complex Societies

ISBN: 052138673X
ISBN 13: 9780521386739
By: Joseph A. Tainter

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About this book

Twenty-four examples of societal collapse help develop a new theory to account for their breakdown. Detailed studies of the Roman, Mayan and Cacoan collapses clarify the processes of disintegration.

Reader's Thoughts

Muhammad al-Khwarizmi

Repetitive but full of good info. The gist is that societies that collapse encounter diminishing and ultimately negative marginal returns to activities to maintain their "homeorhesis", so to speak. What I especially took away is that it is not merely the destruction of the biophysical bases of a civilization that causes collapse—although this can easily be a major contributing factor—but the failure of the civilization to respond adequately to this challenge somehow.

John Kaufmann

Tainter's main theme is a "big idea." Societal responses to the problems and challenges it faces leads to increased complexity is structure. New problems demand more complex solutions, until eventually the society becomes too complex and requires too many resources to maintain and it begins to disintegrate. Tainter provides numerous historical examples, ranging from Rome to Easter Island. The message is rather pessimistic, describing the process as almost inevitable. It may be a hard truth to accept, but I think we (individually and collectively) should familiarize ourselves with it so we can figure out whether it's relevant to us as well as how best to respond. The one note of hope is that some can avoid collapse by voluntarily downscaling and simplfying before it's too late. I might have rated this book five-stars, but it is not an easy read - Tainter is an academic, and the style reflects it.


I was doing some research on Peter Heather, author of the nonfiction book I'm currently reading (Aug 2010), and came across a Wikipedia page on "the decline of the Roman Empire" where Tainter's book was mentioned. The premise sounded intriguing so on the shelf it goes.


Pretty good. Geared towards archaeologists, but with effort you can get through it and understand most of it. Resets your understanding on how frequent collapse is (more than you think) and the various reasons why it happens and may be inevitable.

Ken Baumann

Feats like the work shown in this book—the radical simplification of a complex range of data in service of scientific understanding, of true causal connection—make me shake my head at the capacity of a human head. This is some straight scholarly dope. Pure orthodox empiricism. This is the best explanation for societal collapse ever published. And beyond that, it's a sad & hopeful account of modernity, in its failings—we may not be able to voluntarily "go back" to a radically simpler social organization (hunter/gatherer style), so we now have to focus on replacing oil as our lifeblood to gain a bit more purchase on the current megaspoiled quality of life (in industrialized countries). Another niceish/newish thing: because most of the world is hopping along in the potato sack race of increasing complexity, collapse is sort of impossible for one of us because of glorious/horrible organizations like the IMF, or up & coming power centers/lenders like China. That: when we do collapse, we all go down together.But that's okay, too: complex societies are just a momentary blip in human history. There's no need to fear what came before it. Forage, dance, tell stories: if it ain't broke, don't fix it.


This is rather a dry read, but the information itself is interesting. The major points I took from it:1. According to Tainter, collapse occurs as a result of declining returns on investment into further social complexity. As presented this seems to be inevitable, particularly where more than one society is involved (i.e. increasing complexity will eventually lead to diminished returns; not increasing complexity would just result in being taken over by some other society). Marginal productivity can be raised (at least temporarily) with the injection of a new energy source. (See also Note at bottom).2. Collapse is not necessarily bad - it could even be an improvement for certain portions of the population, in particular those that have the opportunity/ability to produce primary food resources.3. For societies that have developed as interacting sets of 'peer polities' or 'clusters', to the extent that domination is to be avoided, investment in organizational complexity must be maintained at a level comparable to one's competitors, even if marginal returns become unfavorable. (So you can basically be in a situation worse than collapse.)4. Following from (3), collapse is simply not possible in this situation unless all members of the cluster collapse at once. (Otherwise any failure of one will simply lead to an expansion of another, and no major loss of complexity results).5. In ancient societies the solution to declining marginal returns was to capture additional energy resources through territorial expansion (energy resources being based in agriculture). In a world that: a) runs on stored energy reserves (fossil fuels); and b) is full (i.e., filled with complex societies), this isn't a feasible solution. (At least in anything more than the very short term, and even that is questionable). A new, more abundant energy source is necessary if a declining standard of living and future global collapse are to be averted.---Note: Tainter also mentions new technological innovations as a potential method of increasing marginal returns in Ch. 4, but also shows that decreasing return on investment for R&D, suggesting this is not a viable solution for contemporary society. Seems to me the two issues are related - technological innovation is required if we are to acquire/be able to use a new, abundant energy source.

Arjun Narayan

I'm fairly obsessed with civilizational collapse and this is an excellent treatment of the subject matter. So it goes without saying that I'm predisposed to love this book.However, I think the real value in this book is with respect to organizational collapse. This should be on every MBA's reading list. This is the best and most approachable treatment of how organizations creep in complexity until they are so brittle the only acceptable way forward is collapse.


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 means 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 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 of human existence. Civilization is more the exception than the rule.So the crux of Tainter's argument is 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. 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. The result is a decline in public works/investments, the loss of centralized control and influence, and the loss of the periphery regions of the society (and not always a peaceful or gradual process). Eventually the society will "decline" to a level of lower complexity: more local control, less public works, etc.To Tainter the story of a complex society is a race against the resource clock. To maintain and expand complexity (which is a good strategy when new resources are low investment accessible) a society must continue to increase the amount of resources available to it to support classes that do not contribute to resource expansion. Just to maintain the status quo new resources are needed and when they are not available the center of the complex society begins to crumble.I really enjoyed this book because of the unique perspective Tainter presents in explaining the collapse of complex societies. The examples he provides are quite illustrative and can provide guidance to the challenges we face today. I'm not going to lie, this book majorly bummed me out, but I'd rather we had this perspective and a chance to avoid past mistakes than blindly blunder into the same fate that has befallen many past societies.


Tainter is very methodical, and erudite, and I believe this is one of two books which helped society recognize that nothing is guaranteed. We are not the center of the historical universe, and increasing social complexity is not a foregone conclusion -- or even inherently good.The way perspectives on history, our present, and our future have changed in the last 20 years is surely due to this book in some part. It's conventional wisdom today that things fall apart, and that it's not something that only happens to other peoples in other times or places.The most striking conclusion Tainter reaches is not only that collapse is not a freak calamity, but that it is in fact not caused by a failure to adapt. Rather, he proposes it is really an "economizing process" -- that is, a perfectly rational result for a society too out of balance with the common good, and placing far more demands on its participants than it gives back.

Dave Peticolas

A thorough analysis of alternate theories of societal collapse is followed by a presentation of the author's own theory, with examples drawn from past collapses including the Roman Empire and the Mayan Empire. The book is at its best during the initial analysis of other theories, which come under rigorous scrutiny. Particularly entertaining are the author's evisceration of "mystical" explanations (the people lost their vigor!).The theory of collapse presented is centered around the notion of declining marginal returns on investment in complexity. Essentially, the author posits that societies become vulnerable to collapse when the returns on societal complexity decline or turn negative. And that in fact such "collapses", rather than always being a disaster from the point of view of the people involved, represent a rational response to a situation where complexity is no longer providing returns that justify its costs, thus making a switch to a simpler society a better choice economically.It's an intriguing theory and the author uses four separate historical collapses to support it. Although a purely economic perspective on collapses surely leaves out important contributors to collapse, it nevertheless seems to shed significant light on the phenomenon.The author also touches on the possibility that modern societies may collapse and largely dismisses it. The reason is simple: there are too many complex societies for any one to collapse, since another neighboring society would simply take over in resulting power vacuum. Perhaps!


I wanted to read this after Clay Shirky made a reference to it in a blog post drawing parallels between complex societies and complex businesses. I got more than I bargained for. But in the end it was worth the effort. This is a short book but quite difficult to follow if you are not used to the subject matter (as in my case). However the author does an excellent job of making this a fairly self-contained book.


This book seems to be the workhorse of the industrial-collapse intellectual set (Jared Diamond,Derrick Jensen,John Michael Greer, etc). It is a fairly straightforward, academic entry in the anthropological search for a grand theory to explain collapse. It is in this way a sort of counterpart to Earle and Johnson's The Evolution of Human Societies: From Foraging Group to Agrarian State, which advanced explanations for increases in social compexity and integration. Tainter begins by swiftly and often mercilessly batting aside all available explanations for collapse in the market at his time. (This perceived paucity seems to be his inspiration for the book.) These are, for the most part, very nicely done and quickly key in to the major flaws each theory has as an explanatory device. This clarity is extremely gratifying and I wish more thinkers would drink from Tainter's cup, so to speak. However, this incisiveness may come at the expense of nuanced, cautious, and case-specific history: Tainter is very much set on finding a 'global theory,' which can explain the recurring phenomenon of collapse found in any given place. He has no patience for theories that are overly dependent on the specific nature of each case, a trait that many historians and anthropologists would take issue with (cf. Questioning Collapse: Human Resilience, Ecological Vulnerability, and the Aftermath of Empire).After dispensing handily with the crowd of existing theories, Tainter offers his own suggestion: diminishing marginal returns (DMR). That is, any given strategy of social organization has large initial benefits that are easily obtained - this is why the transition occurs in the first place (as in Earle and Johnson). As time goes on, the most easily obtained benefits become the status quo, or are exhausted, or demand increases, forcing ever-higher costs to maintain the same level of growth/maintain stasis. This theory is handy in its versatility - it can apply to whatever the most fundamental resource of a society is, from soil nutrition to fisheries to information flow to technical development to oil. It works in tribal and chiefdom societies as well as state and industrial ones. It is so versatile, in fact, that I'm almost uncomfortable with it: based on the definitions offered in Earle and Johnson, and by Tainter himself, collapse is essentially synonymous with the cheapest strategy when costs of complexity begin to exceed benefits. DMR theory is thus uncomfortably tautological. As noted above, Tainter critiques other theories for being too parochial. His theory is so abstract and general, that in every application Tainter must call back the theories he eschewed and ask them to fill in the specifics of his theory, as subordinates to it.Tainter has nothing positive to say about the modern global situation. He concludes that, since the collapse of any one state would only result in its incorporation into a competitor, all the states must collapse at once if collapse does occur. He also sees no way out - with no new territory to conquer and no new energy subsidy to replace oil, the industrial lifestyle will outlive its value and be replaced by a more adaptive organization at some point (he wisely declines to say when he thinks this will happen). As an aside, John Michael Greer premises The Long Descent: A User's Guide to the End of the Industrial Age on the idea that, by Tainter's requirement that collapse occurs "within a few decades," collapse is rare. Instead, societies tend to decline over a period of a century or more. This is a strange oversight in Tainter's book, since most of the examples of "collapse" he uses don't fit his own definition.


This was a quite interesting book. He makes a convincing case of societal collapse occurring because marginal costs of maintaining the system become too high compared to benefits. Interestingly competition with others may tie states to a competition that avoids collapse (for the time being) since collapse is not possible if another organized state is there to take over. This is of course the situation we have today. Declining marginal benefits are still there and to sustain a complex system requires an external energy subsidy. This was far deeper and nuanced thinking that the standard shallow storyline.

George Haun

Although this is a challenging read, Tainter's thesis is simple and very believable. I found his scathing critiques of others' work very amusing and his systematic analysis effective. It would have been nice if he had performed a couple more case studies.


It's been a while since I've read this, but I just saw a Goodreads friend add it to his to-read shelf and realized I'd never placed it on my own shelves here. I remember finding Tainter's argument compelling, though the prose is sometimes dry (at least, that's how I remember it--I read it in 2003.

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