No 117 Posted by fw, February 10, 2011
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:
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”.