In the video below anthropologist and historian Dr. Joseph Tainter, author of the classic study The Collapse of Complex Societies (1988), details some of the factors which led to the collapse of previous human civilizations. The video is from a 2010 International Conference on Sustainability: Energy, Economy, and Environment.
Tainter’s collapse research was pivotal for me as a young anthropology grad student attempting to get some sense of the sweep and complexity of historical human societies. I think he focuses too much on the economic dynamics and not nearly enough on the ecological processes underpinning politics and economic decisions, but it is an interesting and detailed study. I think any serious discussion has to start with Tainter’s survey and analysis, as it has guided a lot of subsequent research in the field.
According to Tainter, societies become more complex as they try to solve problems. Social complexity can be recognized by numerous differentiated and specialised social and economic roles and many mechanisms through which they are coordinated, and by reliance on symbolic and abstract communication, and the existence of a class of information producers and analysts who are not involved in primary resource production. Such complexity requires a substantial “energy” subsidy (meaning the consumption of resources, or other forms of wealth).
When a society confronts a “problem,” such as a shortage of energy, or difficulty in gaining access to it, it tends to create new layers of bureaucracy, infrastructure, or social class to address the challenge. Tainter, who first identifies seventeen examples of rapid collapse of societies, applies his model to three case studies: The Western Roman Empire, the Maya civilization, and the Chaco culture.
It is often assumed that the collapse of the western Roman Empire was a catastrophe for everyone involved. Tainter points out that it can be seen as a very rational preference of individuals at the time, many of whom were actually better off. Tainter notes that in the west, local populations in many cases greeted the barbarians as liberators.
Of note, Tainter discusses why modern global civilization will collapse in a relatively novel way, as the surrounding pockets of pre-exiting complex societies will absorb a collapsed region, or rush in to reinstate some older set of social and technological relations.
I think this is WRONG. At least partially. Planetary warming and subsequent ecological is moving into conditions that will limit the ability of sub-societies and sub-structural power relations to adapt and absorb the functions of collapsing systems. The catastrophe will be too extensive and intensive for most types of larger organizations to reterritorialize. Fragmentation, massive depopulation, and speciation are our future.