Article Review

How Do You Know When Society Is About to Fall Apart?

November 9, 2020

Ideas

Societies appear as a coordinated response to problems. To respond effectively to problems, they develop specialized roles, institutional structures and specialized relations. And it is the very response that enables societies to grow also enables them to collapse. There are two considerations that exposes them to risk: complexity and efficiency

For one, because this increase in complexity creates surfaces to new risks. Second, there is a diminishing returns on the amount of resources a society can deploy.

Their collapse speak to the fact that, collectively, they are not able to fix problems as fast as they appear.

This economic approach to the rise and fall of societies makes sense when there is the “other”. Rome fell because their neighbors came knocking.

In our case, our society is materially different and profoundly interconnected: There is no “other” to take over and “somewhere else” to go after. Collapse in complexity, efficiency and scale shows what are the [[Limits of Growth]]

Summary

Civilizations are fragile, impermanent things

Tainter’s argument rests on two proposals. The first is that human societies develop complexity.

The first is that human societies develop complexity, i.e. specialized roles and the institutional structures that coordinate them, in order to solve problems.

Eventually, societies we would recognize as similar to our own would emerge, “large, heterogeneous, internally differentiated, class structured, controlled societies in which the resources that sustain life are not equally available to all.” Something more than the threat of violence would be necessary to hold them together, a delicate balance of symbolic and material benefits that Tainter calls “legitimacy”, the maintenance of which would itself require ever more complex structures, which would become ever less flexible, and more vulnerable, the more they piled up.

His second proposal is based on an idea borrowed from the classical economists of the 18th century. Social complexity, he argues, is inevitably subject to diminishing marginal returns.

Stresses that otherwise would be manageable — natural disasters, popular uprisings, epidemics — become insuperable.

The result is a “rapid, significant loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity.”

“The world today is full,” Tainter writes. Complex societies occupy every inhabitable region of the planet. There is no escaping. This also means, he writes, that collapse, “if and when it comes again, will this time be global.” Our fates are interlinked. “No longer can any individual nation collapse. World civilization will disintegrate as a whole.”

“As resources committed to benefits decline,” Tainter wrote in 1988, “resources committed to control must increase.”

When I asked him if he saw the recent protests in these terms, Tainter pointed again to the Romans, caught in the trap of devoting a larger and larger share of their empire’s resources to defense even as it ceaselessly expanded, chasing ever-more-distant enemies, until one day, they showed up at the city gates.

Complexity is “insidious,” in Tainter’s words. It grows by small steps, each of which seems reasonable at the time.” And then the world starts to fall apart, and you wonder how you got there.

Part of the issue may be that Tainter’s understanding of societies as problem-solving entities can obscure as much as it reveals. Plantation slavery arose in order to solve a problem faced by the white landowning class: The production of agricultural commodities like sugar and cotton requires a great deal of backbreaking labor. That problem, however, has nothing to do with the problems of the people they enslaved. Which of them counts as “society”?

If societies are not in fact unitary, problem-solving entities but heaving contradictions and sites of constant struggle, then their existence is not an all-or-nothing game. Collapse appears not as an ending, but a reality that some have already suffered — in the hold of a slave ship, say, or on a long, forced march from their ancestral lands to reservations faraway — and survived.

Highlight

Civilizations are fragile, impermanent things

Why, after all, would we worry about sustaining a civilization if we weren’t convinced that it might crumble?

He writes with disarming composure about the factors that have led to the disintegration of empires and the abandonment of cities and about the mechanism that, in his view, makes it nearly certain that all states that rise will one day fall.

Many of the academics studying collapse are, like Tainter, archaeologists by training. Others are historians, social scientists, complexity scholars or physical scientists who have turned their attention to the dynamics shaping the broadest scope of human history.

Tainter’s argument rests on two proposals. The first is that human societies develop complexity.

All history since then has been “characterized by a seemingly inexorable trend toward higher levels of complexity, specialization and sociopolitical control.”

A “chiefly apparatus” — authority and a nascent bureaucratic hierarchy — emerged to allocate resources.

States developed, and with them a ruling class that took up the tasks of governing: “the power to draft for war or work, levy and collect taxes and decree and enforce laws.”

Eventually, societies we would recognize as similar to our own would emerge, “large, heterogeneous, internally differentiated, class structured, controlled societies in which the resources that sustain life are not equally available to all.” Something more than the threat of violence would be necessary to hold them together, a delicate balance of symbolic and material benefits that Tainter calls “legitimacy”, the maintenance of which would itself require ever more complex structures, which would become ever less flexible, and more vulnerable, the more they piled up.

His second proposal is based on an idea borrowed from the classical economists of the 18th century. Social complexity, he argues, is inevitably subject to diminishing marginal returns.

Stresses that otherwise would be manageable — natural disasters, popular uprisings, epidemics — become insuperable.

The result is a “rapid, significant loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity.”

“The world,” Tainter writes, “perceptibly shrinks, and over the horizon lies the unknown.”

Scholars of collapse tend to fall into two loose camps. The first, dominated by Tainter, looks for grand narratives and one-size-fits-all explanations. The second is more interested in the particulars of the societies they study.

Without the possibility of dispersal, or of real structural change to more equitably distribute resources, “at some point the whole thing blows. It has to.”

In [[Peter Turchin]] case the key is the loss of “social resilience,” a society’s ability to cooperate and act collectively for common goals.

Late Bronze Age societies across Europe and western Asia crumbled under a concatenation of stresses, including natural disasters — earthquakes and drought — famine, political strife, mass migration and the closure of trade routes. On their own, none of those factors would have been capable of causing such widespread disintegration, but together they formed a “perfect storm” capable of toppling multiple societies all at once. Today, Cline says, “we have almost all the same symptoms that were there in the Bronze Age, but we’ve got one more”: pandemic

“The world today is full,” Tainter writes. Complex societies occupy every inhabitable region of the planet. There is no escaping. This also means, he writes, that collapse, “if and when it comes again, will this time be global.” Our fates are interlinked. “No longer can any individual nation collapse. World civilization will disintegrate as a whole.”

The coronavirus pandemic, Tainter says, “raises the overall cost, clearly, of being the society that we are.” When factories in China closed, just-in-time delivery faltered. As Tainter puts it, products “were not manufactured just in time, they were not shipped just in time and they were not available where needed just in time.”

Arms races, he observes, presented a “classic example” of spiraling complexity that provides “no tangible benefit for much of the population” and “usually no competitive advantage” either.

“As resources committed to benefits decline,” Tainter wrote in 1988, “resources committed to control must increase.”

When I asked him if he saw the recent protests in these terms, Tainter pointed again to the Romans, caught in the trap of devoting a larger and larger share of their empire’s resources to defense even as it ceaselessly expanded, chasing ever-more-distant enemies, until one day, they showed up at the city gates.

The overall picture drawn by Tainter’s work is a tragic one. It is our very creativity, our extraordinary ability as a species to organize ourselves to solve problems collectively, that leads us into a trap from which there is no escaping.

Complexity is “insidious,” in Tainter’s words. It grows by small steps, each of which seems reasonable at the time.” And then the world starts to fall apart, and you wonder how you got there.

Whatever problems those 686 billionaires may have, they are not the same as those of the 23 million who are hungry.

Part of the issue may be that Tainter’s understanding of societies as problem-solving entities can obscure as much as it reveals. Plantation slavery arose in order to solve a problem faced by the white landowning class: The production of agricultural commodities like sugar and cotton requires a great deal of backbreaking labor. That problem, however, has nothing to do with the problems of the people they enslaved. Which of them counts as “society”?

Insisting that they should not be allowed to blur together puts not only “society” but also collapse into a different sort of focus.

If societies are not in fact unitary, problem-solving entities but heaving contradictions and sites of constant struggle, then their existence is not an all-or-nothing game. Collapse appears not as an ending, but a reality that some have already suffered — in the hold of a slave ship, say, or on a long, forced march from their ancestral lands to reservations faraway — and survived.

Some institutions are certainly collapsing right now, Wilcox says, but “collapses happen all the time.” This is not to diminish the suffering they cause or the rage they should occasion, only to suggest that the real danger comes from imagining that we can keep living the way we always have, and that the past is any more stable than the present.