Citizen Action Monitor

Can Joseph Tainter save us from ourselves? Pt 2/7: “Historical knowledge is essential to sustainability”

No 118 Posted by fw, February 13, 2011

Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.” Edmund Burke

Roberto Savio

Roberto Savio

In Part 1, The future ain’t what it used to be, Dr Tainter’s theoretical model accounting for the collapse of complex societies does not auger well for current and future societies. He envisions three possible paths to the future, none of which are, to put it mildly, shock-free. And the path we’ll probably take — Business as Usual — is likely to make matters worse.

Tainter: Historical knowledge is essential to sustainability

In his Introduction to his 1996 paper, Complexity, Problem Solving, and Sustainable Societies, Tainter wrote:

In our quest to understand sustainability we have rushed to comprehend such factors as energy transformations, biophysical constraints, and environmental deterioration, as well as the human characteristics that drive production and consumption, and the assumptions of neoclassical economics. As our knowledge of these matters increases, practical applications of ecological economics are emerging. Yet amidst these advances something important is missing. Any human problem is but a moment of reaction to prior events and processes. Historical patterns develop over generations or even centuries. Rarely will the experience of a lifetime disclose fully the origin of an event or a process. Employment levels in natural resource production, for example, may respond to a capital investment cycle with a lag time of several decades. The factors that cause societies to collapse take centuries to develop. To design policies for today and the future we need to understand social and economic processes at all temporal scales, and comprehend where we are in historical patterns. Historical knowledge is essential to sustainability. No program to enhance sustainability can be considered practical if it does not incorporate such fundamental knowledge.

“Not only do we not know where we are in history, most of our citizens and policy makers are not aware that we ought to”

In this era of global environmental change we face what may be humanity’s greatest crisis. The cluster of transformations labeled global change dwarfs all previous experiences in its speed. in the geographical scale of its consequences, and in the numbers of people who will be affected. Yet many times past human populations faced extraordinary challenges, and the difference between their problems and ours is only one of degree. One might expect that in a rational, problem-solving society, we would eagerly seek to understand historical experiences. In actuality, our approaches to education and our impatience for innovation have made us averse to historical knowledge. In ignorance, policy makers tend to look for the causes of events only in the recent past. As a result, while we have a greater opportunity than the people of any previous era to understand the long-term reasons for our problems, that opportunity is largely ignored. Not only do we not know where we are in history, most of our citizens and policy makers are not aware that we ought to.

Anthropologist/historian Tainter finds vital lessons for the present in his studies of the past — lessons that might just save us from repeating devastating past failures.

The collapse of the Roman Empire

First, what is societal collapse? Tainter defines collapse variously in different papers, but most simply as: “a rapid societal simplification”. Post-collapse societies have less structural differentiation, are less well organized, and are often smaller in geographical and population size.

As noted in Part 1, Tainter’s theory of collapse is grounded in the scholarly anthropological/historical analysis of more than 2000 years of evidence of almost two dozen cases of collapsed complex societies, including the Western Roman Empire. Here’s Tainter’s abbreviated explanation of the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, as presented in his 1996 paper, Complexity, Problem Solving, and Sustainable Societies:

As a solar-energy based society which taxed heavily, the empire had little fiscal reserve. When confronted with military crises, Roman Emperors often had to respond by debasing the silver currency (see Figure 4.2) and trying to raise new funds. In the third century A.D. constant crises forced the emperors to double the size of the army and increase both the size and complexity of the government. To pay for this, masses of worthless coins were produced, supplies were commandeered from peasants, and the level of taxation was made even more oppressive (up to two-thirds of the net yield after payment of rent). Inflation devastated the economy. Lands and population were surveyed across the empire and assessed for taxes. Communities were held corporately liable for any unpaid amounts. While peasants went hungry or sold their children into slavery, massive fortifications were built, the size of the bureaucracy doubled, provincial administration was made more complex, large subsidies in gold were paid to Germanic tribes, and new imperial cities and courts were established. With rising taxes, marginal lands were abandoned and population declined. Peasants could no longer support large families. To avoid oppressive civic obligations, the wealthy fled from cities to establish self-sufficient rural estates. Ultimately, to escape taxation, peasants voluntarily entered into feudal relationships with these land holders. A few wealthy families came to own much of the land in the western empire, and were able to defy the imperial government. The empire came to sustain itself by consuming its capital resources; producing lands and peasant population. The Roman Empire provides history’s best-documented example of how increasing complexity to resolve problems leads to higher costs, diminishing returns, alienation of a support population, economic weakness, and collapse. In the end it could no longer afford to solve the problems of its own existence.

Figure 4.2. Debasement of the Roman silver currency, 0-269 A.D. The chart shows grams of silver per denarius (the basic silver coin) from 0 to 237 A.D., and per 1/2 denarius from 238-269 A.D.

As Tainter makes clear, the Roman Empire did not collapse because its leaders failed to take practical steps to resolve their problems. They did act. Why, then, did their interventions fail to prevent collapse? What lessons can we learn from their failures? How can complex societies solve their problems and yet remain sustainable?

These questions are explored in greater depth in Part 3.

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