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Collapsing Upwards
Jeremy Faludi, 24 Feb 05


Jared Diamond’s new book Collapsehas joined the ranks of Joseph Tainter’s book The Collapse of Complex Societies as a seminal work on why civilizations fall apart. But what can these works tell us, if we don’t want to be doomed? The traditional assumption is a luddite one: the only way to avoid collapse is to scale back to earlier ways of living. But what if there are other options? A close look at the causes of societal collapse, and what “collapse” really means, can be eye-opening.

Joseph Tainter decided that a “complex society” is one that has many social divisions (both vertical and horizontal), a significant amount of energy devoted to administration & communication rather than primary resource development (such as farming or manufacturing), and a mostly centralized government (among other characteristics). Every society gets more complex over time, “in order to solve problems”. These problems include, as one reviewer summarized it, “1. Depletion of vital resources, 2. Discovery of brand new resources, 3. Catastrophes, 4. Insufficient response to circumstances, 5. Competition from other complex societies, 6. Intruders, 7. Class conflict, societal contradictions, elite mismanagement/misbehavior, 8. Social dysfunction, 9. Mystical, 10. Chance concatenation of bad things.” In successful societies, each of these problems can be overcome by some solution, which leads to an increase of complexity, and increases in complexity mean more administrative overhead and centralization. However, eventually the law of diminishing returns kicks in, and at some point the administrative overhead required for the society’s complexity level becomes so much of a burden that the society is less able to cope with problems. When a sufficiently big problem hits a sufficiently overburdened society, the society “collapses”. This means that it is taken over by invading societies, or splits to smaller societies with less overhead (usually also with much smaller total population and less intensive resource use).

Jared Diamond has his own ideas of what causes collapse, though they largely overlap with Tainter’s: In a nutshell, Diamond’s factors are: Ecosystem change (both by human-inflicted damage and non-human-inflicted changes in climate), the same as Tainter’s number-one stresser; the society’s relations with neighbors (both hostile neighbors and friendly neighbors), again like Tainter pointing out that a society which is far more wealthy than its neighbors, has too many enemies, or weak friends, is a prime target for collapse; and Daiamond distills Tainter’s collection of class conflict and elite mismanagement into the degree of separation between the society’s decision-makers and the consequences of their policies. As he said in an interview, “in societies where the elites do not suffer from the consequences of their decisions, but can insulate themselves, the elite are more likely to pursue their short-term interests, even though that may be bad for the long-term interests of the society...”

Assuming these are good models of societal collapse, what can we do to avoid it? (and forget the so-called Decline of the American Empire, let’s think about industrial society in general.) Obviously making our societies less resource-intensive is top on the list for both Tainter and Diamond. Creating more balanced relations with other societies is also clearly high on the list, which means having allies that are many and prosperous--a good argument for international development and non-exploitive relations with less-industrialized nations. Having well-governed societies is also important, and Diamond has hit on a keen insight about having a close connection between rulers/upper classes and decision consequences/common life. Tainter’s description of administrative/communication overhead as being the ultimate cause of collapse is one of the most useful insights, and one that we can increasingly deal with technologically, which has not been an option for past civilizations.

Beyond this, what if collapse is inevitable? And what if it’s not really a bad thing after all?

Tainter’s definition of a “complex” society is a centralized one with large administrative classes; one form of “collapse” is decentralization that dissolves social stratification and removes socio-economic overhead. This trend is already active in business and manufacturing, particularly in high-tech industries and streamlined production/distribution of commodity goods. The Internet and other technologies are starting to decentralize and streamline politics as well--the impact has been miniscule so far, but in another few decades it could be significant. Culture is much more anarchic and classless than it has ever been in Western history, with postmodernists coining terms like “no-brow” to refer to arts that cannot be described as “high-brow” or “low-brow”.

Collapse also usually means population shrinkage, but as Europe is showing us now, that shrinkage can happen gently and by choice, rather than by plagues and wars. Voluntary-simplicity movements are another shadow of collapse, as they result in people reducing their resource use and complexity of life, but they do so by choice rather than by need as people in collapsing societies do.

Finally, collapse means a society is no longer wealthier or more powerful than other surrounding societies. This also does not have to happen as a result of the dominant society falling apart, it can also mean that the other societies have been raised up to its level.

Avoiding societal collapse turns out to use roughly the same strategies as pursuing the soft-path collapse described above. And as it happens, these strategies are ones we’re already talking about constantly on Worldchanging. We have the tools, we just need to work on the implementation.

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Lots of great food for thought. One thing that distinguishes us from prior civilizations, as you point out, is that we have truly new technology, media, and global connections. We are unprecedented in terms of world history.

On the other hand, you are stringing together several premises as a way to form an argument, without necesarily backing up those premises.

Does streamlined production of commodity goods apply to civilizations? Couldn't the processes involved be considered simply technology, requiring maintenance, thus ultimately supporting Tainter?

The Internet decentralizes media and thought, you could view it as a complicated system of worldwide telepathy. Food, Clothing and Shelter still get delivered primarily via an intricate structure of petroleum transportation - that is as susceptible to collapse as ever.

I think any controlled collapse would require effort and foresight. I see that on this site, but I don't see it in the world at large.

Posted by: monkeygrinder on 24 Feb 05

Great piece, Jer!

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 25 Feb 05



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