Joseph Tainter: The Collapse of Complex Societies (Book Review)



Given the ongoing decay of our institutions and their utter failure to address the climate crisis it is not far fetched to ask whether we are headed for some kind of societal collapse. A highly relevant book is Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies, published in 1988. I had two key takeaways from reading it.

First, there are way more examples of complex societies collapsing than I was aware of. I was of course familiar with the collapse of the Roman Empire and was also aware of Mayas in the Yucatan (having visited there) but Tainter provides at least a dozen examples, including several societies that I had never heard of before. He also rightfully points out that complexity so far is the historical exception and widespread complexity (meaning the world being dominated by complex societies is a particularly recent phenomenon). So the takeaway here is in part that we really aren’t very deep into the current complexity phase and that the past track record over longer time periods isn’t exactly encouraging.

Second, Tainter proposes a very simple and general mechanism leading to collapse: declining marginal returns to complexity. Over time the benefits of complexity diminish and its costs increase. When that happens societies become prone to collapse from (a) having not enough reserves to deal with shocks and/or (b) parts of society that are bearing a disproportionate share of the cost of complexity resisting. He then analyzes the role of this mechanism in three collapses in some (Read more...)