Citizen Action Monitor

Can Joseph Tainter save us from ourselves? Pt 4/7: Why societies become complex. How complexity triggers collapse

No 120 Posted by fw, February 17, 2011

Roberto Savio

Roberto Savio

In Part 3, How complex societies can remain sustainable, Dr Tainter explains how societal problem solving evolves along a path of increasing complexity, higher costs and declining marginal returns, threatening sustainability. He concludes that the only way a society can remain sustainable, while striving to find practical solutions to societal problems, is to increase its effective per capita supply of energy, either by increasing the physical availability of energy or by technical, political, or economic innovations that neutralize or lower the energy costs of its standard of living. Remember this, it’s important.

Complexity is a key concept of Tainter’s paper. In the first three posts of this series, I’ve been selecting passages in a non-linear manner from his original paper, Complexity, Problem Solving, and Sustainable Societies, focusing on his key teachings, skirting around his lengthy definitive explanations of his key concept – ‘complexity’.

Can’t postpone the inevitable any longer. Unfortunately, there’s no way to make Tainter’s discussion of complexity sexy. It is what it is – brilliant scholarship.

~ Why societies become complex. And how increasing complexity can lead to collapse ~

Complexity explained — (In Tainter’s words and my subheadings)

Two defining elements of a complex system or society — structural differentiation and organizational integration and control

The evolution of social complexity concerns the change from societies that were small with few distinctions other than those based in biology — age and sex — to societies that have two defining characteristics: 1) in their structural differentiation — i.e. are large in size, diversified and highly specialized in structure and function/behavior, e.g., in the number and distinctiveness of its parts, the variety of specialized social roles that it incorporates, and the number of distinct social personalities present; and 2)  in their increasing organizational integration and control of behavior, required to bind the parts together into a coherent, functioning whole.

To illustrate, hunter-gatherer societies contain no more than a few dozen distinct social personalities, while modern European censuses recognize 10,000 to 20,000 unique occupational roles, and post-industrial societies may contain overall more than 1,000,000 different kinds of social personalities.

Three examples of systems that are NOT complex

  • The 2008 financial crisis was not due to a failure of a complex system. Yes, there was considerable structural differentiation, but the failure was a function of a lack of regulation and organization in that human behavior was not channelled into safer avenues;
  • Although the U.S. military landed over 500,000 different types of artifacts at Casablanca in World War 2, which represented great differentiation in structure, the cargo was not organized, causing enormous sorting and distribution delays. Therefore, it was not a complex system;
  • While the 2,008 drummers performing at the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics were highly organized (they were all the same), there was virtually no structural differentiation — they were all dressed and behaved the same way (they were all the same). Therefore, they were not part of a complex system.

Complexity does not mean ‘complicated’. Complexity simplifies.

Complexity does not mean ‘complicated’. Paradoxically, complexity simplifies.  The elaboration of structure and organization simplifies and channels human behaviour. This is the essence of complexity; it ensures that systems function effectively and efficiently.

Simple societies, based on human labor, required small amounts of energy per capita to be self-sustaining

For over 99% of the history of humanity we lived as low-density foragers or farmers in egalitarian communities of no more than a few dozen persons. Such a cultural system, based primarily on human labor, can generate only about 1/20 horsepower per capita per year. From this base of undifferentiated societies requiring small amounts of energy, the development of complex cultural systems was unlikely.

More complex societies, correspondingly, require more biological, mechanical or chemical energy to be self-sustaining

  • In the world of cultural complexity there is, to use a colloquial expression, no free lunch. More complex societies are costlier to maintain than simpler ones and require higher support levels per capita.
  • A society that is more complex has more sub-groups and social roles, more networks among groups and individuals, more horizontal and vertical controls, higher flow of information, greater centralization of information, more specialization, and greater interdependence of parts.
  • Increasing any of these dimensions requires biological, mechanical, or chemical energy. In the days before fossil fuel subsidies, increasing the complexity of a society usually meant that the majority of its population had to work harder.

Common misconceptions about complexity

  • One of the most common misconceptions is complexity increases simply because people invent things.
  • Human societies have an intrinsic tendency to increase in complexity contrary to what is often assumed. There are real reasons not to increase in complexity simply because it costs and people had to work harder. Humans appear to be complexity averse, preferring simplicity over complexity. Many aspects of human behavior appear to be complexity averse. The so-called “complexity of modern life” is a regular complaint in popular discourse. Some of the public discontent with government stems from the fact that government adds complexity to people’s lives.

But if we are complexity averse, why do human societies become more complex?

  • Complexity has always been inhibited by the burdens of time and energy that it imposes, and by complexity aversion (which is no doubt related to cost). Thus, explaining why human societies have become increasingly complex presents more of a challenge than is customarily thought.
  • The reason why complexity increases is that, most of the time, it works.
  • Complexity is a problem solving strategy that emerges under conditions of compelling need or perceived benefit.
  • Throughout history, the stresses and challenges that human populations have faced have often been resolved by developing more complex technologies (e.g. geoengineering), adding new positions or social roles (ombudsman), developing new kinds of institutions (e.g. think tanks), or conducting new kinds of activities (e.g. social networking). This is illustrated by how we’ve responded to the terrorist threat: we’ve increased complexity and we pay for it with our tax dollars, the products we buy and annoyance (airport delays)

Complexity development performs an economic function, levying costs and yielding benefits

  • The development of complexity is thus an economic process: complexity levies costs and yields benefits. It is an investment, and it gives a variable return.
  • Complexity can be both beneficial and detrimental. As simple and cost-effective solutions are exhausted, humans are forced to develop solutions that are more complex and costly, which effectively change the cost/benefit ratio of complexity.
  • This, in turn, produces diminishing returns, which can impact on the future of societies over a long time period. Paradoxically, solutions are the problem.

The energy-complexity spiral

  • Higher complexity forces societies to acquire more energy to subsidize the added complexity
  • From the age of the Industrial Revolution through to the present day, fossil fuels have subsidized societal problem solving, adding complexity
  • The result is the energy-complexity spiral. They tend to be intertwined and to go either up together or down together. In fact, they have to go up together or down together. You can’t have one without the other. You can’t have complexity without energy, and if you have energy you are going to have complexity.
  • Increased societal expenditures on complexity may reach a point where the innovations yield diminishing or even negative returns, consuming more energy than they produce.

The graph of diminishing returns to increasing complexity explained

  • As a society increases in complexity, it expands investment in such things as resource production, information processing, administration, and defense.
  • The benefit/cost curve for these expenditures may at first increase favorably, as the most simple, general, and inexpensive solutions are adopted (a phase not shown on this chart).
  • Yet as a society encounters new stresses, and inexpensive solutions no longer suffice, its evolution proceeds in a more costly direction.
  • Ultimately a growing society reaches a point where continued investment in complexity yields higher returns, but at a declining marginal rate.
  • At a point such as B1, C1 on this chart a society has entered the phase where it starts to become vulnerable to collapse.


Two things that make a society collapse at the point at which the returns from continued investment in complexity are higher but at a declining marginal rate – depleted reserves and social disaffection

  • Two things make a society liable to collapse at this point. First, new emergencies impinge on a people who are investing in a strategy that yields less and less marginal return. As such a society becomes economically weakened it has fewer reserves with which to counter major adversities. A crisis that the society might have survived in its earlier days now becomes insurmountable.
  • Second, diminishing returns make complexity less attractive and breed disaffection. As taxes and other costs rise and there are fewer benefits at the local level, more and more people are attracted by the idea of being independent. The society “decomposes” as people pursue their immediate needs rather than the long-term goals of the leadership.

When returns cross into negative territory (intersection of B1-C3), the society is “extremely vulnerable to collapse

  • As such a society evolves along the marginal return curve beyond B2, C2, it crosses a continuum of points, such as B1, C3, where costs are increasing, but the benefits have actually declined to those previously available at a lower level of complexity. This is a realm of negative returns to investment in complexity.
  • A society in this condition is extremely vulnerable to collapse.

The history of cultural complexity is the history of human problem solving

  • This argument, developed and tested to explain why societies collapse, is also an account of historical trends in the economics of problem solving.
  • The history of cultural complexity is the history of human problem solving. In many sectors of investment, such as resource production, technology, competition, political organization, and research, complexity is increased by a continual need to solve problems.
  • As easier solutions are exhausted, problem solving moves inexorably to greater complexity, higher costs, and diminishing returns. This need not lead to collapse, but it is important to understand the conditions under which it might.

To illustrate these conditions, Tainter reviews three examples of increasing complexity and costliness in problem solving: the collapse of the Roman Empire, the development of industrialism, and trends in contemporary science.

The collapse of the Roman Empire is presented in Parts 2 and 3 of this series. The development of industrialization is presented in Part 5 as an example of how economic growth was subsidized by the exploitation of new energy sources.

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