Citizen Action Monitor

Can Joseph Tainter save us from ourselves? Pt 1/7: The future ain’t what it used to be

No 117 Posted by fw, February 10, 2011

Roberto Savio

Roberto Savio

When a brilliant scholar develops a new and far-reaching theory that could save present and future diverse societies from catastrophic collapse, then maybe, just maybe, we should sit up and take notice. U.S. anthropologist/historian, Dr Joseph Tainter, has done just that. And made his findings available, for all to read, in his book, The Collapse of Complex Societies, (Cambridge University Press, 1990 paperback, 264-pages).

No intellectual slouch, Dr Tainter firmly grounded his theory in the analysis of more than 2000 years of evidence of almost two dozen cases of collapsed societies, including detailed studies of the Roman, Mayan, and Chacoan civilizations.

Fortunately for us, Dr Tainter presented the key concepts and arguments of his collapse thesis in a 1996, 11-page paper, Complexity, Problem Solving, and Sustainable Societies.

Reading Tainter’s paper for the first time, just a few days ago, was an epiphantic experience: “Tainter’s Paradox”, that’s what I call this awakening. More about that later. In a series of posts, of which this is the first, we’ll see what we can make of Tainter’s 1996 paper and other related presentations.

The future ain’t what it used to be

Jumping right in at the deep end of the paper – his Conclusions — Tainter’s historical / anthropological studies reveal three outcomes to long-term changes in the way societies (and institutions) go about solving emergent problems:

  1. Collapse: One often-discussed path is cultural and economic simplicity and lower energy costs. This could come about through the “crash” that many fear — a genuine collapse over a period of one or two generations, with much violence, starvation, and loss of population. (Tainter defines collapse as a rapid simplification, the loss of an established level of social, political, or economic complexity).
  2. Resiliency through simplification or “soft landing”: The “soft landing” that many people hope for — a voluntary change to solar energy and green fuels, energy-conserving technologies, and less overall consumption. This is a Utopian alternative that . . . will come about only if severe, prolonged hardship in industrial nations makes it attractive and if economic growth and consumerism can be removed from the realm of ideology.
  3. Continuity based on growing complexity and increasing energy subsidies: This is the more likely option — a future of greater investments in problem solving, increasing overall complexity, and greater use of energy. This option is driven by the material comforts it provides, by vested interests, by lack of alternatives, and by our conviction that it is good. If the trajectory of problem solving that humanity has followed for much of the last 12,000 years should continue, it is the path that we are likely to take in the near future.

At first glance, the Continuity, or, as I call it, the “Business as Usual” path looks pretty good. But hold on a minute. If this is the path that humanity has followed for the last 12,000 years, and you look at the mess we humans have got ourselves into . . . Maybe Continuity ain’t such a good path to the future after all.

Resiliency through simplification might be a better alternative. But Tainter’s “severe, prolonged hardship” caveat makes one pause for reflection — How severe? How prolonged? It appears that large doses of suffering, self-sacrifice, and much lower standard of living are inevitable.

Tainter argues that to avoid future collapses, or “severe, prolonged hardship”, contemporary societies need new strategies to mitigate or control social and cultural complexity — hence the title of this series of posts — Can Joseph Tainter save us from ourselves?

Here’s a video teaser of what’s to come in future posts in this series —

A 2:42-minute YouTube video titled, The Collapse of complex civilizations, narrated by Joseph Tainter. If he can explain collapse in under 3 minutes, then surely he can save civilization. That’s faster than  it took me to grasp that “the solution is the problem“. And that, dear reader, is what I call “Tainter’s Paradox”.

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This entry was posted on February 10, 2011 by in climate change red flag warning, information counterpower, sustainability and tagged , , .
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