The Collapse of Complex Societies

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

Check Price Now


Anthropology Archaeology Currently Reading Economics History Non Fiction Nonfiction Science Sociology To Read

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

Bud Hewlett

This is a very academic study by an archaeologist; mostly arcane and dull except for chapters 4 & 5. Tainter's thesis, after reviewing many ancient and more recent civilizations, is that complexity brings worthwhile advantages only up to the point where the marginal benefits begin to decline with respect to the added costs and inevitable inefficiencies. His major example is the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. This was very interesting and scary because of the parallels to the 21st century US. This volume is out of print and my severely marked up copy was expensive; on balance not a good investment.


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.

Edward Waverley

Yggdrasil says:7. The Collapse of Complex Societies — Joseph Tainter* The Social Contract — Robert Ardrey* The Turner Diaries – William Pierce* Paul Revere’s Ride — David Hackett Fischer* Civil War II: The Coming Breakup Of America — Thomas Chittum* The Prince — Niccolo Machiavelli


This is a short, dense, book about a difficult subject. 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:1. Major civilizations tend to experience an early period of rapid growth through the 'low hanging fruit' of available territory, resources, etc. When 2. This growth inevitably leads to specialization, stratification, and complexity which initially serves growth3. The civilization plateau's and the structure established to help it grow becomes a part of society.4. 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.5. 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 has 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, and some other more unusual information, like crop yields, colonial administrations, and so on. 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 summarizing the work of people like Gibbon, Toynbee, Spengler, and others he essentially dismisses with a wave of his hand. But as C.S. 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 through collapses would have agreed with him. Imagine living in Western Europe ca. 550 AD and thinking, "Boy, I sure am glad for the fall of Rome. Of course, our ramshackle village could be overrun, destroyed, and our people pillaged who knows when by some Goth, Ostrogoth, 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."To augment Chesterton's oft quoted phrase, "If civilization is worth doing, it's worth doing badly."


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.

Void lon iXaarii

Now THIS is a fantastic book! Normally I am a bit skeptical of the analysis of historians as they seem to often have soft logic, often recurring to very subjective values or opinions, and telling long and boring stories about concepts such as heroism, some small details, series of random eveniments and such things, which are all good and great, but seem to me to have little explanatory power... NOT THIS BOOK though! I was delighted to see the author picking a large spectrum of historical events in the treatment of hist subject, trying to pick common and logical similarities and differences that would allow one to form a bigger picture! I was delighted that he found through his research evidence of some things i have long partially suspected and that he is quite mercilessly critical of theories which ascribe collapse of certain societies to invasions, moral weakness, natural events or resource depletions, even though often the same civilization had not that long ago proven more than resilient and able to deal with relatively bigger invasions, resource shocks or series of coincidences. Instead his analysis of Mayan, Roman, Cacoan civilizations (and others, but these mainly) lead him to arrive at a bigger theory, that seems to explain much better and analytically all of the cases and even cases which are given unsatisfactory answers by other historians leading them to say obscure stuff such as "this great civilization disappeared suddenly and without reason".The explanation, he finds has to do with society's investment in complexity: in the initial stages people get great advantages from investments in society & complexity, security, protection, organization, safety against random but recurring events, however as they grow societies reach levels so complex that additional investments in complexity produce diminishing returns, until they reach a point where it pays for them to go back to lower levels of complexity. I also love that unlike most authors he does not have this super negative view of these collapses that one often encounters, and far from threating them as failures to adapt realizes that they are in fact great successes in adapting, even though the adaptation might be in a direction that many dislike. He identifies many of our biases, including the biases of historians and culture people to see these collapses as negative events even though they might have been positive steps for the actual real people living then then there: living in an advanced complex world we only see values in such complex things, and historians/archeologists/art collectors/philosophers feel value only in the works of complex civilizations, as they are grand and imposing and well kept, even if they were produced at the edge of the precipice, at great social and human costs and in inefficient ways. Of the many fantastic examples in the book one of the most interesting is the fall of the roman empire in the 4-5th centuries when a traditional historian might say that roman provinces fell under barbarian conquest the author brings forth evidence that many of the peasants, long exhausted by the roman bureaucratic parasitic aparatus not only became apathetic towards the roman empire but actually invited the barbarians to conquer them as their lives would improve with lower taxes for the same or better levels of protection. Indeed they were to be proven right in time as for the centuries to come these decentralized units were better able to protect at much smaller costs. I find such historical examples very interesting and relevant in our age when centralization and bureaucratization has become such a huge taxing burden on the back of society. This and the many historical examples of what has in the past happened to the freedom/money/wealth of the peoples who's governments have constantly expanded, first naturally and then by growing deeper and deeper into debt should be an eye opening view into the past for things that are probably going to happen again and again... well, at least as long as humans remain humans :P Brilliant book! I warmly recommend it to anybody who's willing to learn from the experiences of our grand-grand-grand-grand-grand... fathers


Ok, done!Tainter's work is an opus. How could it be otherwise with a title like that? Yet, it lives up to the title: aiming and broadly succeeding to argue the causes for collapse. 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: it's not a political position paper, though it could be.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. ...and critically, you can't go back.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: the farmer eventually looks at a JET powered tractor, (plows 20% faster, but uses 3x the gas) & thinks, "no thanks." There IS a valid issue of "measurement delays" though. Maybe when you're a city planner contemplating a bridge too far it's not obvious that it's total cost/value is a losing proposition. 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. A famous "cappuccino" speech (by Greenspan) trumpets the hyper-complicated chain of products that enables something as wonderful and only SEEMINGLY simple as a cappuccino: where'd the ore for the selenium cobalt in the magnets in the electric motor that ground the beans come from? If our system is interdependent (and surely it is for is not the efficiency derived substantially from specialization that interdependence allows?) then perhaps because of fragility it cannot regress to a simpler time. 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: it's not o.k. with us if people die. But that's what will happen because, as we expand our capability (e.g. the green revolution that fed Asia), we respond by literally eating up that excess capacity. 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-70 corridor during ski season. 50% less crowds? No, the crowds will respond, said the analysis, and it'll just be 50% more people skiing, with the same traffic jam as ever. I believe it! 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. In Skinner's Walden II they lived a life of ease founded upon 30% more efficient work habits. Why then don't I live a life of ease with (the US average) 10kW at my disposal? That's the equivalent of a dozen horses, working for me 24/7. 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" is the mouths to feed, and it's the inertia you need to make instability possible. 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?) is that maybe the famous hidden "negative externalities" provide the extra lag in measurement that could trip us over the self limiting point of diminishing returns and into an unsustainable vicious cycle of collapse. 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.About a year later, a gloomy note from Thomas Edsall of NYT opining that America's had her run, and will be next. Hope he's wrong.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!" (I expect there's a great business in Cassandrasim, but the rewards are fleeting.)

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.


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.

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.

Steve Greenleaf

While on a trip to Peru I decided to tackle Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies. I learned of this book from Thomas Homer-Dixon’s excellent The Upside of Down. Since we were once again headed to see some ruins, I thought this an appropriate time to approach this book, although in the case of the Incas, we can easily identify Guns, Germs, and Steel (and perhaps horses) as the proximate causes of collapse. But other cases, like the Maya, the Western Roman Empire, and Easter Island, are among those situations that do not provide easy explanations. Tainter reviews virtually all of the prevailing theories. He identifies the prevailing theory in popular thinking and among some historians (Toynbee, for instance) as “mystical” explanations, a poor choice of words to my mind. Toynbee, following a long pedigree, thinks in terms of biological analogies, with birth, youth, maturity, decline, and death the pattern for “civilizations” as well as individuals. This, Tainter argues, provides a false and rather misleading or unhelpful analogy. The other theory, of “decadence”, seems more literary and moral than causative. So what is Tainter’s alternative? Declining marginal returns on complexity (complexity being a term of art in this instance). In short, he bases his theory upon a fundamental economic law (if you will suffer the dubious term here). His analysis and application of his theory to the Western Roman Empire argues that it was not barbarians, Christians, or plagues that brought down Rome, but a limitation on the value of complexity. He applies a similar analysis to the Mayans and to the Chaco Canyon civilization in North America. If he’s right, and I think that he makes a very strong argument (but see Peter Turchin’s War and Peace and War for an excellent competing theory), it has to be taken quite seriously, and if he’s right, then we have to think very carefully about our current predicament. Can we innovate our way out of the inevitable decline of petroleum? Can we get out from under excessive demands for complexity?


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.

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.


Spectacular, but very academic. Reviews why societies like Rome and the Maya collapsed and presents a broad theory that when oversimplified, amounts to diminishing returns to the point of not being able to maintain the infrastructure that a society depends upon.


Very good: much better than Jared Diamond's _Collapse_, and much more convincing than Spengler or Toynbee.It was also deeply disturbing - the Ik amazed me in chapter 1, and the statistics in chapter 4 were extremely dismal and tie in far too well to Cowen's _The Great Stagnation_ and Murray's _Human Accomplishment_. There are a great many datapoints suggesting that diminishing marginal returns to modern tech/science began sometime in the late 1800s/early 1900s...

Share your thoughts

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *