Civilization, Complexity and Collapse
All collapse explanations being written reference it and must account
for his powerful and elegant model of collapse if they want to advance
any theory at all:
Political disintegration is a persistent feature of world history. The
Collapse of Complex Societies, though written by an archaeologist, will
therefore strike a chord throughout the social sciences. Any
explanation of societal collapse carries lessons not just for the study
of ancient societies, but for the members of all such societies in both
the present and future. Dr. Tainter describes nearly two dozen cases of
collapse and reviews more than 2000 years of explanations. He then
develops a new and far-reaching theory that accounts for collapse among
diverse kinds of societies, evaluating his model and clarifying the
processes of disintegration by detailed studies of the Roman, Mayan and
He provides a short but concise summary of his collapse model in this 1996 essay:
COMPLEXITY, PROBLEM SOLVING, AND SUSTAINABLE SOCIETIES
central thesis of collapse features the theory that all social
organization is an effort to solve the problem of survival, and
whatever the solution derived, that solution faces problems of
sustainablility in the face of whatever resources it uses as part of
its solution. Hierarchy is a basic meme that evolved from the first
efforts to manage nature with agriculture. Hierarchy has the basic
features we find in all institutions in all complex societies.
Hierarchy is a basic feature in problem solving and by its very problem
solving nature it becomes a complexity in society. But the complexity
is dynamic, because the solutions a hierarchy comes to usually involve
the very creation of more problems to be solved.
The end result
of problem solving for any societal system as a whole is called a
"margin of return." Another formula for margin of return might be
expressed as "Energy Returned on Energy Invested" or "EROEI" because
all life forms depend on energy transformation, so the root force of
problem solving is always the need to support human life with energy.
There must be a positive margin of return on the energy expended.
Very briefly what happens is this, when humans first employed their basic memes of complexity to solve their survival problems, with the cultivation of plants about 12,000 years ago (note: cultivation is the root for the term culture), the early results of this experiment showed great promise. Hierarchy produced high margins of return on energy invested. But what did not get recognized at first was the costs that resulted in other problems that needed to be solved, and so more hierarchy with corresponding specialization was invented and more complexity resulted, and after awhile the complexity begins to absorb more energy while giving less in return. That, is the short version explanation to explain the upward, leveling and then downward curve on the graph below. At some point, the energy cost of complexity exceeds the energy benefits, and you get collapse.
It’s a fairly simple concept — if difficult to detail with all the parts fully explained. For a parallel comparison, imagine a corporation that begins to grow, and it becomes more complex in what it produces, where, and how. The result is it needs to expand it’s management systems to better direct it’s production. At some point if it doesn’t solve it’s increasing efficiency problems, the management begins to become so top heavy, it can cost more than the overworked, increasingly pressured to work for less workers can produce and so the company starts losing money, and goes bankrupt. Bankruptcy and collapse, same basic concept.
oil is also a measurement of this concept. Peak oil shows the same
graph curve, rising then falling: as the easy to harvest oil is removed
and it becomes less accessible and requires more energy expended to
harvest the oil, the graph falls from a peak to show a decreasing
margin of return. In other words, after the peak of margin energy
return is reached, the margin reduces, and the cost/benefits to society
increase/reduce. If societies depending on this source of energy do not
adjust, they face imminent collapse. That’s the theory.
the central arguments we are facing in the world is between the free
marketeers and the social managers. The free marketeers believe the
market contains the magic formula for adjustment, the social managers
believe humans need to plan.
Here is a kind of simple, graphic
visual image of collapse using the measurement involving margin of
return for level of complexity in societies that collapse:
Explanation of the graph from the above linked essay:
The development of complexity is thus an economic process: complexity levies costs and yields benefits. It is an investment, and it gives a variable return. Complexity can be both beneficial and detrimental. Its destructive potential is evident in historical cases where increased expenditures on socioeconomic complexity reached diminishing returns, and ultimately, in some instances, negative returns (Tainter 1988, 1994b). This outcome emerges from the normal economic process: simple, inexpensive solutions are adopted before more complex, expensive ones. Thus, as human populations have increased, hunting and gathering has given way to increasingly intensive agriculture, and to industrialized food production that consumes more energy than it produces (Clark and Haswell 1966; Cohen 1977; Hall et al. 1992). Minerals and energy production move consistently from easily accessible, inexpensively exploited reserves to ones that are costlier to find, extract, process, and distribute. Socioeconomic organization has evolved from egalitarian reciprocity, short-term leadership, and generalized roles to complex hierarchies with increasing specialization.
The graph in Figure 4.1 is based on these arguments. As a society increases in complexity, it expands investment in such things as resource production, information processing, administration, and defense. The benefit/cost curve for these expenditures may at first increase favorably, as the most simple, general, and inexpensive solutions are adopted (a phase not shown on this chart). Yet as a society encounters new stresses, and inexpensive solutions no longer suffice, its evolution proceeds in a more costly direction. Ultimately a growing society reaches a point where continued investment in complexity yields higher returns, but at a declining marginal rate. At a point such as B1, C1 on this chart a society has entered the phase where it starts to become vulnerable to collapse. 
Two things make a society liable to collapse at this point. First new emergencies impinge on a people who are investing in a strategy that yields less and less marginal return. As such a society becomes economically weakened it has fewer reserves with which to counter major adversities. A crisis that the society might have survived in its earlier days now becomes insurmountable.
Second, diminishing returns make complexity less attractive and breed disaffection. As taxes and other costs rise and there are fewer benefits at the local level, more and more people are attracted by the idea of being independent. The society "decomposes" as people pursue their immediate needs rather than the long-term goals of the leadership. 
As such a society evolves along the marginal return curve beyond B2, C2, it crosses a continuum of points, such as B1, C3, where costs are increasing, but the benefits have actually declined to those previously available at a lower level of complexity. This is a realm of negative returns to investment in complexity. A society at such a point would find that, upon collapsing, its return on investment in complexity would noticeably rise. A society in this condition is extremely vulnerable to collapse.
This argument, developed and tested to explain why societies collapse (Tainter 1988), is also an account of historical trends in the economics of problem solving. The history of cultural complexity is the history of human problem solving. In many sectors of investment, such as resource production, technology, competition, political organization, and research, complexity is increased by a continual need to solve problems. As easier solutions are exhausted, problem solving moves inexorably to greater complexity, higher costs, and diminishing returns. This need not lead to collapse, but it is important to understand the conditions under which it might. To illustrate these conditions it is useful to review three examples of increasing complexity and costliness in problem solving: the collapse of the Roman Empire, the development of industrialism, and trends in contemporary science.
Another study of collapse in progress:
The question I keep asking is, what role do we play in this? What is our voice? Can we hope to have leaders that can solve it, or should we do what most citizens did when the Roman superstructure began to collapse, they turned to their own immediate environment and back to their solar based solutions.
A friend of mine is turning to such solutions. She’s got involved in a network of rhizome like communities that are springing up called Transitional Towns. My own instincts go in that direction. But what ever we choose we must still keep in mind we are all part of a system, and as Gregory Bateson once said:
To want control is the pathology! Not that the person can get control, because of course you never do… Man is only a part of larger systems, and the part can never control the whole…