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

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.

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.


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...

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

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.

Carl Brush

Dr. Joseph Tainter’s study of the archeological evidence and literature concerning the disintegration of great societies is a bit like studying earthquakes. You know they’ve happened. You know what happens when they happen. Yet, you can’t predict when or even how they happen. Actually we’re a bit better off when it comes to the big shakes because at least we can do some prep--beef up the building codes, keep some survival materials in the garage to keep life going till the infrastructure reboots. But if your whole support system disappears, whether gradually or suddenly, how do you get ready for that? It isn’t the purpose of The Collapse of Complex Societies here to deal with those matters, but it’s hard to keep them from your mind as Tainter meticulously traces the causes and effects of the disappearance of a number of the world’s great empires. He devotes the first hundred pages or so to an exhaustive review of collapse literature. We all know about Gibbon, of course, but there are legions more who have explored the why’s and wherefore’s of all this. The theories range from invasions to disease to meteors to morality. Tainter looks at them all and pronounces them all incomplete (e.g., invasion) or ridiculous (e.g., morality.) He offers instead a semi-mathematical model for describing how collapses come about. It’s based on a pretty straightforward cost-benefit analysis. Folks stay in the empire (or complex society) for as long as the profits outweigh the losses. If the empire provides such a sufficient supply of items as defense, security, food, and coercion, people as individuals and communities stick with it. If not, the society collapses into its component parts. That is, for example, if a collection of communities were separate agricultural units before the empire, they will likely return to that state when the empire dissolves. It seems like a great theory, and I buy into Tainter’s claim that it accounts for all variables in a way that none of the other theories do. In that sense, The Collapse of Complex Societies seems like a valuable contribution to the study. Too bad it was completed before the collapse of the Soviet Union. I would think that made a terrific modern example of what he was talking about. He’s probably written about it elsewhere. As it is, his main examples--Rome, Mayans, Chacoan, Anasazi--make convincing ancient case studies. The problem seems to be that it’s hard to determine, even in hindsight, what straw (or straws) breaks the camel’s back. Some societies seem to survive long droughts, for example, others to collapse. Other societies bear huge tax burdens for long periods of time, some don’t. So, although the theory accounts for all variables, it is unable describe or predict the relative influence of single variables or of various combinations. He uses the word “probably” and phrases such as “It seems as if” when it comes to pinning down exact causes. Or so it seems to me. Interesting as the book is, I do have to offer a caveat. Psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists seem to have a penchant for poor writing. Tainter hasn’t escaped. One of the main sins is passive voice. He never says “Tom hit the ball” when he can say “The ball was hit by Tom.” Example: “Aspects of Mayan sociopolitical organization have been discussed previously. This is a topic that crosscut all other facets of the Maya, but can be briefly isolated to characterize its nature.” Why not “Mayan sociopolitical organization crosscuts all other facets of the Maya”? Or maybe it’s just an old English teacher grousing. Then there is the apparently endemic need to invent silly new names for commonplace events. Maybe to sound scientific? I don’t know. Building towns, for example, becomes “settlement nucleation” in the hands of the Archeologist. Grating. But for all of that a good book and a very worthwhile read. Warning, though. Once you’re aware of these signs, you can see them all around you, and paranoia comes a-creeping.


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.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.)


All my work around preparing for the impacts of peak oil and global weirding have done wonders for my somewhat dark sense of humor. I caught myself reading about various collapsed civilizations like I was reading about a game this past weekend. The book does have a rather clinical flow to it, that isn't a criticism but it is important to note, or at least important to me, that a book as a certain feel to it before picking it up. There are some pretty clear parallels between the current state of the United States and various collapsed civilizations, specifically about resource depletion and in inadequate response to circumstance. This isn't to say that I'm expecting a feudal system in the US sometime next week, but I am expecting things to be a bit more exciting then they should otherwise be.

Aaron Arnold

This is a tough book to summarize, both because it's so dense and well-sourced it reminds me of grad school, and because it tackles a bunch of big, abstract questions, like what makes societies fail. What does it mean for societies to fail? Here Tainter analyzes many of the ways that groups of people can completely fail to maintain the complicated but fragile webs of interaction that separate us from animals (trade, governance, food production, resource extraction), with examples from the Mayans, Romans, Hittites, Babylonians, and many more. His basic thesis is that human societies are really problem-solving organizations (e.g. the wheel reduces travel time, agriculture reduces vulnerability to famine, steam power increases mechanical capability, sewer systems reduce plagues), and civilization is nothing more than overlapping layers of complex problem-solving networks, skills, and technologies. At low complexity, adding more layers of doers, thinkers, and paper-shufflers makes society more productive and everyone better off, but each additional layer takes energy, and eventually you run into the law of diminishing marginal returns, meaning that after a certain point society becomes paralyzed under the weight of its own corporate and governmental bureaucracies and can no longer adapt to changing conditions like resource shortage, environmental change, economic shifts, or external threats. The implications for modern society are many and thought-provoking. I really can't do this book justice in terms of its scope and analysis, but if you liked Jared Diamond's works (Collapse cites this a bunch), check this out pronto.

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