2309) [F]our concepts [...] lead to an understanding of collapse. These are:
human societies are problem-solving organizations;
sociopolitical systems require energy for their maintenance;
increased complexity carries with it increased costs per capita; and
investment in sociopolitical complexity as a problem-solving response often reaches a point of declining marginal returns.
The first three points may be thought of as the conceptual underpinnings of the fourth, which is the crucial element in the explanation.
A society increasing in complexity does so as a system. That is to say, as some of its interlinked parts are forced in a direction of growth, others must adjust accordingly. For example, if complexity increases to regulate regional subsistence production, investments must be made in hierarchy, in bureaucracy, and in agricultural facilities (such as irrigation networks). The expanding hierarchy requires still further agricultural output for its own needs, as well as increased investment in energy and minerals extraction. An expanded military is needed to protect the assets thus created, requiring in turn is own increased sphere of agricultural and other resources. As more and more resources are drained from the support population to maintain this system, an increased share must be allocated to legitimization or coercion. This increased complexity requires specialized administrators, who consume further shares of subsistence resources and wealth. To maintain the production capacity of the base population, further investment is made in agriculture, and so on.
The illustration could be expanded, tracing still further the interdependencies within such a growing system, but the point has been made: a society grows in complexity as a system. To be sure, there are instances where one sector of a society grows at the expense of others, but to be maintained as a cohesive whole, a social system can tolerate only certain limits to such conditions.
Thus it is possible to speak of sociocultural evolution by the encompassing term "complexity," meaning by this the interlinked growth of the several subsystems that comprise a society. This growth carries an associated energy cost, which before the development of fossil-fuel economies was largely met by human labor. Growth also yields an array of benefits, including administration of resource storage and distribution, investment in agricultural, energy, and mineral production, internal order and external defense defense, information processing, and public works. [...] [but,] at some point in the evolution of a society, continued investment in complexity as a problem solving strategy yields a declining marginal return. [...]
There are two general factors which combine to make a society vulnerable to collapse when investment in complexity begins to yield a marginal return. First, stress and perturbation are a constant feature of any complex society, always occurring somewhere in its territory. Such a society will have a developed and operating regulatory apparatus that is designed to deal with localized agricultural failures, border conflicts, and unrest. Since such continuous, localized stress can be expected to occur with regularity it can, to a degree, be anticipated and prepared for. Major, unexpected stress surges, however, will also occur given enough time, as such things as major climactic fluctuations and foreign incursions take place. To meet these major stresses the society must have some kind of net reserve. [...] Stress urges of great magnitude cannot be accommodated without such a reserve.
Yet a society experiencing declining marginal returns is investing ever more heavily in a strategy that is yielding proportionally less. Excess productive capacity will at some point be used up, and accumulated surpluses allocated to current operating needs. There is, then, little or no surplus with which to counter major adversities. Unexpected stress must be dealt with out of the current operating budget, often ineffectually, and always to the detriment of the system as a whole. Even if the stress is successfully met, the society is weakened in the process, and made even more vulnerable to the next crisis. Once a complex society develops the vulnerabilities of declining marginal returns, collapse may merely require sufficient passage of time to render probable the occurrence of an insurmountable calamity.
Secondly, declining marginal returns make complexity a less attractive problem-solving strategy. Where marginal returns decline, the advantages to complexity become ultimately no greater (for the society as a whole) than for less costly social forms. The marginal costs of evolution to a higher level of complexity, or of remaining as the present level, is high compared with the alternative of disintegration.
Under such conditions, the option to decompose (that is, to sever the ties that link localized groups to a regional entity) become attractive to certain components of a complex society [...] [which] perceive increased advantage to a strategy of independence, and begin to pursue their own immediate goals rather than the long-term goals of the hierarchy [...] requiring the hierarchy to allocate still more of a shrinking resource base to legitimization and/or control.
Thus [...] productive units across the economic spectrum increase resistance (passive or active) to the demands of the hierarchy, or overtly attempt to break away. Both the lower strata (the peasant producers of agricultural commodities) and upper ranking strata of wealthy merchants and nobility (who are often called upon to subsidize the cost of complexity) are vulnerable to such temptations. [...]
And so, societies faced with declining marginal returns for investment in complexity face a downward spiral from problems that seem insurmountable. Declining resources and rising marginal costs sap economic strength, so that services to the population cannot be sustained. As unrest grows among producers, increased resources from a dwindling supply must be allocated to legitimization and/or control. The economic sustaining base becomes weakened, and its members either actively or passively reduce their support for the polity. Reserve resources to meet unexpected stress surges are consumed for operating expenses. Ultimately, the society either disintegrates as localized entities break away, or is so weakened that is is topples militarily, often with very little resistance. In either case, sociopolitical organization is reduced to the level that can be sustained by local resources.
Joseph A. Tainter The Collapse of Complex Societies (1988)
2310) We can never do merely one thing.
Garrett Hardin "The Cybernetics of Competition: A Biologist's View of Society" in Modern Systems Research for the Behavioral Scientist (1968), Walter Buckley , ed. quoted by Joseph A. Tainter in The Collapse of Complex Societies (1988)
[Note: Tainter comments: "[Hardin's] point was that good intentions are virtually irrelevant in determining the results of altering a large, complex system. With the feedback relationships inherent in such a system, one can almost never appreciate the full consequences of any alteration. The same principle applies to misbehavior: elite mismanagement can only be partly responsible for the evolution of any complex society."]
2311) [T]here are major differences between the current and the ancient worlds that have important implications for collapse. One of these is that the world today is full. That is to say, it is filled with complex societies; these occupy every sector of the globe, except the most desolate. This is a new factor in human history. Complex societies as a whole are a recent and unusual aspect of human life. The current situation, where all societies are so oddly constituted, is unique. It was shown earlier [...] that ancient collapses occurred, and could only occur, in a power vacuum, where a complex society (or cluster of peer polities) was surrounded by less complex neighbors. There are no power vacuums left today. Every nation is linked to, and influenced by, the major powers, and most are strongly linked with one power bloc or the other. [...]
Collapse today is neither an option of an immediate threat. Any nation vulnerable enough to collapse will have to pursue one of three options: (1) absorption by a neighbor or some larger state; (2) economic support by a larger power, or by an international financing agency; or (3) payment by the support population of whatever costs are needed to continue complexity, however detrimental the marginal return. A nation today can no longer unilaterally collapse, for if any national government disintegrates its population and territory will be absorbed by some other. [...]
Joseph A. Tainter The Collapse of Complex Societies (1988)
2312) It is difficult to know whether world industrial society has yet reached the point where the marginal return for its overall pattern of investment has begun to decline. [...] Even is the point of diminishing returns to our present form of industrialism has not yet been reached, that point will inevitably arrive. [...] In a sense the lack of a power vacuum, and the resulting competitive spiral [between contemporary peer polities], have given the world a respite from what otherwise might have been an earlier confrontation with collapse. Here indeed is a paradox: a disastrous condition that all decry may force us to tolerate a situation of declining marginal returns long enough to achieve a temporary solution to it. [...] There are then notes of optimism and pessimism in the current situation. We are in a curious position where competitive interactions force a level on investment, and a declining marginal return, that might ultimately lead to collapse except that the competitor who collapses first will simply be dominated or absorbed by the survivor. A respite from the threat of collapse might be granted thereby, although we might find that we will not like to bear its costs. If collapse is not in the immediate future, that is not to say that the industrial standard of living is also reprieved. As marginal returns decline (a process ongoing even now) [...] the standard of living that industrial societies have enjoyed will not grow so rapidly, and for some groups and nations will remain static or decline. The political conflicts that this will cause [...] will create a dangerous world situation in the foreseeable future.
Joseph A. Tainter The Collapse of Complex Societies (1988)
Note: "3089/898" is the designation I've given to the project of posting all my collected quotes, excerpts and ideas (3089 of them) in the remaining days of the Bush administration (of which there were 898 left when I began). As of today, there are 357 days remaining in the administration of the worst American President ever.
hostile to science
lacking in empathy
lacking in public spirit
out of control
Thanks to: Breeze, Chuck, Ivan Raikov, Kaiju, Kathy, Roger, Shirley, S.M. Dixon
i've got a little list...
Steven Abrams (Kansas BofE)
Howard Fieldstead Ahmanson
Roger Ailes (FNC)
Alan Bonsell (Dover BofE)
Bill Buckingham (Dover BofE)
George W. Bush
Bruce Chapman (DI)
The Coors Family
William A. Dembski
Leonard Downie (WaPo)
John Gibson (FNC)
Fred Hiatt (WaPo)
James F. Inhofe
Philip E. Johnson
by Joel Pelletier
(click on image for more info)
Stephen C. Meyer (DI)
Judith Miller (ex-NYT)
Sun Myung Moon
Elspeth Reeve (TNR)
Martin Peretz (TNR)
Richard Mellon Scaife
Susan Schmidt (WaPo)
John Solomon (WaPo)
Richard Thompson (TMLC)
Bob Woodward (WaPo)
All the fine sites I've
Be sure to visit them all!!
Arthur C. Clarke
Daniel C. Dennett
Philip K. Dick
Stephen Jay Gould
"The Harder They Come"
Ursula K. LeGuin
The Marx Brothers
Michael C. Penta
Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
"The Red Shoes"
"Singin' in the Rain"
Talking Heads/David Byrne
Hunter S. Thompson
"2001: A Space Odyssey"
If you read unfutz at least once a week, without fail, your teeth will be whiter and your love life more satisfying.
If you read it daily, I will come to your house, kiss you on the forehead, bathe your feet, and cook pancakes for you, with yummy syrup and everything.
(You might want to keep a watch on me, though, just to avoid the syrup ending up on your feet and the pancakes on your forehead.)
Finally, on a more mundane level, since I don't believe that anyone actually reads this stuff, I make this offer: I'll give five bucks to the first person who contacts me and asks for it -- and, believe me, right now five bucks might as well be five hundred, so this is no trivial offer.