The Collapse of Complex Societies, a book written in Corrales more than 30 years ago, may be the perfect tome for contemplative pandemic reading. Caught up in an all-encompassing, crushing, arguably inescapable downward spiral, our personal and even institutional relationships seem to be unravelling. It’s not a stretch to link the need to “make American great again” to a perception of societal disintegration.
A lengthy article in The New York Times Magazine’s November 8 issue focuses on Joe Tainter’s 1988 book published by Cambridge University Press. He was living here in the mid-1980s with his wife Bon Bagley when he began the book now regarded as “the seminal text in the study of societal collapse.”
Tainter is now a professor in Utah State University’s Department of Environment and Society. Pre-pandemic, he has returned to Corrales intermittently as opportunities arise. From 1975 to 1978, he was an assistant professor at the University of New Mexico, and then an archaeologist with the U.S. Forest Service 1978-1994.
The New York Time Magazine article by Ben Ehrenreich, titled “Why Societies Fall Apart,” starts with, “When I first spoke with Joseph Tainter in early May, he and I and nearly everyone else had reason to be worried. A few days earlier, the official tally of COVID-19 infections in the United States had climbed above one million, unemployment claims had topped 30 million and the United Nations had warned that the planet was facing ‘multiple famines of biblical proportions.’”
But the article tries to comply with Tainter’s insistence that he no longer be pigeon-holed as a collapse expertise, but instead a scholar of societal sustainability. Contacted by Corrales Comment November 11, shortly after the magazine article appeared, Tainter explained, “The Collapse book’s level of exposure has been pretty constant since publication in 1988. There soon will be six foreign language editions (five currently, another in January). I do a few interviews each year. There has been some uptick of interest since the virus hit, but usually I tell people who ask for interviews that epidemiology is outside my expertise.”
Tainter added: “The collapse research pointed clearly to shifting to work on issues in sustainability, which I’ve been doing for some time. The consistent focus throughout my career has been complexity, especially how complexity evolves in societies as a benefit/cost function. That was the core idea in the Collapse book, and I have found that it clarifies issues we have today. My new areas of research are energy and innovation.”
The professor said before the pandemic hit, he typically gave up to four guest lectures a year, mostly overseas. “My talks are mostly to academic groups, but also to some non-academic groups and to a couple of international audiences of journalists.”
The New York Times Magazine article explains that his interest in the topic began during his research and documentation for the Forest Service about proposed mining and logging in the Cibola National Forest around Mount Taylor. That cultural resource survey included links to the long-vanished civilization centered in Chaco Canyon to the north.
Tainter’s work is cited many times by Jared Diamond in his New York Times bestseller list book Collapse: How Societies Choose To Fail or Succeed, published in 2005. While Tainter’s book focuses primarily on China’s Western Chou empire, Egypt’s Old Kingdom, the Hittite Empire, the Western Roman Empire and the Lowland Classic Maya civilization, Diamond’s purview has those and adds the Vikings in Greenland and even certain “modern societies.”
Central to Tainter’s premise is that societies’ collapse occur when, for a variety of causes, they reach a point of rapidly declining marginal returns on their investments in problem-solving capacity. That continues to be key to his ongoing research these days at Utah State University, as he explained in his email to Corrales Comment.
“I worked with a petroleum engineer to produce a book on the Gulf oil spill. My part was energy in society. The crucial energy issue isn't how much oil is left. It is what we call EROI —energy return on investment. That’s not monetary investment, it is energy invested to get energy back.
“In 1940 we produced oil and gas at an EROI of 100:1. That’s how we fought World War II. That figure is now down to 15:1, and the trend is irreversible. When it reaches 8:1 we would go off what is called the energy cliff —at that point, the energy profit of producing energy declines rapidly. As EROI declines, the complexity of producing energy increases. We once got oil just by putting a pipe in the ground. It now takes complex technology like the Deepwater Horizon platform. Then of course there is the problem of climate change, but you know about that.” Even though the cost-benefit problems with fossil fuel production are shown to be dire, Tainter points out, it has been proposed that innovation will save the day. But he contends the same problem arises.
“Technological optimists assert that as long as we have unfettered markets, resources don’t matter. Scarcity will prompt technological innovation, as long as there is a profit to be made. I’ve been skeptical about this.
“The technological optimists make an assumption of which they are unaware: it is that the productivity of innovation remains constant. What are the consequences if that isn’t true? Scientific research grows complex and costly over time. Research was once done by lone wolf researchers like Charles Darwin. Now most research is done by interdisciplinary teams, who work in large institutions backed up by administrative staff, assistants, janitors, etc. The cost of research has gone up.
“So I teamed up with a couple of colleagues to try to study how the productivity (return on investment) of innovation has changed. We have a database of over three million patents in our study, starting in 1974. We found that it is taking more and more scientists to achieve an innovation that warrants a patent. This amounts to higher costs per patent. Conversely, the productivity of innovation (measured as patents per inventor) is declining. From 1974 on the productivity of our system of innovation declined by over 20 percent.
“As this trend continues, and it will, at some point later in this century our system of innovation will become very different. This raises questions about whether innovation can bail us out forever, or whether the societal value of innovation has limits.”
In the Times magazine article last month, the author points out “The current pandemic has already given many of us a taste of what happens when a society fails to meet the challenges that face it, when the factions that rule over it tend solely to their own problems.
“The climate crisis, as it continues to unfold, will give us additional opportunities to panic and to grieve. Some institutions are certainly collapsing right now.…” The author lays out Tainter’s explanation of the devolving process. “As the benefits of ever-increasing complexity —the loot shipped home by the Roman armies or the gentler agricultural symbiosis of the San Juan Basin— begin to dwindle, Tainter writes, societies ‘become vulnerable to collapse.’ Stresses that otherwise would be manageable —natural disasters, popular uprisings, epidemics— become insuperable. Around 1130, a severe half-century-long drought hit the desert Southwest, coinciding with Chaco Canyon’s decline. Other scholars blame the drought for the abandonment, but for Tainter, it was the final blow in a descent that had already become inevitable. Chacoan civilization had survived extended dry spells before. Why was this one decisive?”
Tainter’s answer: complexity. According to Ehrenreich, “Only complexity, Tainter argues, provides an explanation that applies in evey instance of collapse. We go about our lives, addressing problems as they arise. Complexity builds and builds, usually incrementally, without anyone noticing how brittle it has all become. Then some little push arrives, and the society begins to fracture.
“The result is a ‘rapid, significant loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity.’ In human terms, that means central governments disintegrating and empires fracturing into ‘small, petty states,’ often in conflict with one another. Trade routes seize up, and cities are abandoned. Literacy falls off, technological knowledge is lost and populations decline sharply. ‘The world,’ Tainter writes, ‘perceptibly shrinks and over the horizon lies the unknown.’”