Notes on “The Collapse of Complex Societies” (J. Tainter). 1. Introduction to Collapse. Intro! The sublime mystery of collapsed civilizations and dark portents. The Collapse of Complex Societies, though written by an archaeologist, will Dr. Tainter describes nearly two dozen cases of collapse and reviews more than. Collapse of Complex Societies has ratings and 91 reviews. Mark said: Ok, done!Tainter’s work is an opus. How could it be otherwise with a title lik.

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At no point, though, does he make any effort to actually address any such theory; he bootstraps his ssocieties into a conclusion, in essence treating Toynbee as no better than an Aztec priest tearing the hearts out of sacrificial victims to appease Huitzilopochtli and ensure the rising of the Sun. It is often assumed that the collapse of the western Roman Empire was a catastrophe for everyone involved. British Admiralty statistics His argument boils down to a few key points: We do nothing about it.

Lewis once pointed out, very few people are actually German economists. This is of course the situation we have today. Basically complexity becomes too costly and so collapse occurs. I also love that unlike most authors he does not have this docieties negative view of these collapses that one often encounters, and far from threating them as failures to adapt realizes that they are in fact great successes in adapting, even though the adaptation might be in a direction that many dislike.

Some of it goes into luxury, but lots goes into people too, and we are thereby committed to the additional technology.

He also sees no way out – with no new territory to conquer and no new energy subsidy to replace oil, the industrial lifestyle will outlive its value and be replaced by a more adaptive organization at some point he wisely declines to say when he thinks this will happen. Also I suppose I DO live a life of ease and luxury in comparison to a collaspe century Coloapse peasant with only one actual horse in his stable.

Yet, it lives up to the title: The alternative assumption — of idleness in the face of disaster — requires a leap of faith at which we may rightly hesitate.


He recognizes collapse when a society rapidly sheds a significant portion of its complexity. He seems fair and level-headed. Either they will be bailed out or invaded. He uses complexity as both a definitional marker for societies and as a yardstick for measuring their collapse.

The civilization plateau’s and the structure established to help it grow becomes a part of society. Apr 16, Peter rated it liked it Shelves: To try to understand a phenomenon, to try to get at its roots so that you can perhaps manipulate it in the future, to cure some forms of human blindness, a commendable motive. Intense, authoritarian efforts to maintain cohesion by Domitian and Constantine the Great only led to an ever greater strain on the population. The impacts of inflation devaluation and the plague are self-evident, but Tainter has only mentioned regulations once in his analysis section.

Such complexity requires a substantial “energy” subsidy meaning the consumption of resources, or other forms of wealth. But, since this is a narrow anthropological analysis, we are denied any substantial linking of that knowledge to history, of which Tainter seems under-informed at best. Tainter reviews virtually all of the prevailing theories.

Contentious material about living persons that is unsourced or poorly sourced must be removed immediatelyespecially if potentially libelous or harmful. Tainter blames the Roman government for overtaxing the peasants, and certainly taxes should have been relaxed during and after the plague, but the purpose of doing so would not be only to lessen the burden on the middle class his termbut also to restrain the amalgamation process that is so natural to wealth.

Mar 17, Nick Black marked it as warily-considering Recommends it for: I’m not going to lie, this book majorly bummed me out, but I’d rather we had this perspective and a chance to avoid past mistakes than blindly blunder into the same fate that has befallen many past societies. Tainter’s work here is a dissection of what it means for a society to ‘collapse’, and an attempt at a rigorous causal explanation for why that collapse happens. Social complexity can be recognized by numerous differentiated and specialised social and economic roles and many mechanisms through which they are coordinated, and by reliance on symbolic and abstract communication, and the existence of a class of information producers and analysts who are not involved in primary resource production.


The dogged empiricist rejects any explanation of collapse which is not graphable, but, oddly, does not abandon the use of judgment which this entails.

Similarly, he rejects as not wrong, but incoherent, the idea that civilized societies are superior to uncivilized societies. Return to Book Page.

The Collapse of Complex Societies – Joseph Tainter – Google Books

No trivia or quizzes yet. Not in a bad way either. Tainter’s main examples are Romans, the Maya and the Chacoans, a combination which seems to lean heavily towards relevance to the modern United States, Rome being the cultural predecessor and the other two societies being roughly geographical ones. Dazzlingly brilliant, readable, profoundly insightful, this is a must-read for anyone thinking about what societal collapse means and how it comes about.

It’s been a while since I read an actual textbook. But the need for a society to continually produce more than its inputs seems to be linked to this phenomenon in some way. All this is pretty obvious, actually, just prettied up with graphs and attempts at quantification. Paperbackpages. His explanation goes like this: When their borders reached a certain point, the costs of maintaining the empire taintfr the possible gains by further conquest.

Collapse of Complex Societies

After dispensing handily with the crowd of existing theories, Tainter offers his own suggestion: They reverted colapse taxation, debasing the currency, and turning to slavery, which ultimately weakened their society to barbarian incursion.

This is a strange oversight in Tainter’s book, since most of the examples of “collapse” he uses don’t fit his own definition. If you think we might be on our way to becoming a case study of collapse, read this work now. Arguably this make sense, for all past complex societies have been strongly hierarchical in nature.

We may listen to tunes on a reed flute rather than Bach, and die in our twenties, but at least our marginal returns on investing in complexity will be up!

Last modified: May 22, 2020