Collapse of Complex Societies

The collapse of complex societies of the past can inform […]

Post Author:

Climate State

Date Posted:

May 14, 2013

The collapse of complex societies of the past can inform the present on the risks of collapse. Dr. Joseph Tainter, author of the book The Collapse of Complex societies, and featured in Leonardo Dicaprio’s film The Eleventh Hour, details the factors that led to the collapse of past civilizations including the Roman Empire.

2010 International Conference on Sustainability: Energy, Economy, and Environment organized by Local Future nonprofit and directed by Aaron Wissner. http://localfuture.org

About the Author: Climate State

Profile photo ofadmin
Climate State covers the broad spectrum of climate change, and the solutions, since around 2011 with the focus on the sciences. Views expressed on this site or on social media are not necessarily the views by Climate State – we endorse data, facts, empirical evidence.

41 Comments

  1. kimxxxyyy August 6, 2012 at 11:23 pm - Reply

    the problem is there are to many, my life boat is being polluted with to
    much shit!

  2. Castorios August 14, 2012 at 11:03 pm - Reply

    very informative video, thanks for the upload !

  3. cikular January 5, 2013 at 1:52 pm - Reply

    Basic income is the aswer and solution for all troubles.

  4. artistoli March 20, 2013 at 7:07 pm - Reply

    Good grief, some of those students asking questions at the end are examples
    of why we are screwed. They ‘listened’ to the presentation but still have
    no grasp of what Dr Tainter is saying.

  5. ririri April 21, 2013 at 12:05 pm - Reply

    Would have made more sense if this was cast as “Collapse of Complex Systems”

  6. ClimateState May 5, 2013 at 8:35 pm - Reply

    Collapse of Complex Societies by Dr. Joseph Tainter

  7. MrDiceman9000 May 16, 2013 at 9:04 am - Reply

    In terms of “choosing to fail or succeed” an example I believe Jared
    Diamond uses in his book is the Hopi Indians as a successful society. Also,
    the sea faring peoples of northern greenland vs the greenland norse. The
    choice was adopting some of the food practices of the sea hunting indians
    vs attacking them and recording that they bleed. This was a choice that the
    greenland norse made. They consciously choose to have these locals as their
    enemies instead of learning from them.

  8. Edward Kirby June 26, 2013 at 4:48 am - Reply

    “Are all societies doomed to collapse” That *would* explain the Fermi
    Paradox.

  9. Andres Soolo July 9, 2013 at 2:12 pm - Reply

    Isn’t it just delightful to see a good lecture followed up by crackpot
    questions?

  10. 24kGoldenRocket July 11, 2013 at 6:40 pm - Reply

    Tell me the reason that Energy and Complexity are functionally intertwined.
    Please use your understanding of the Laws of Classical Physics in your
    answer. Please present your answer in an Aristotelian Logical Format with
    Two Premises and the Conclusion.. Do you have a grasp of what Dr. Tainter
    is saying? You listened to the presentation. Do you think broadly? Those
    people have a better grasp than most. The answer to my question deals with
    Thermodynamics. Specifically it deals with Entropy.

  11. orangedac July 20, 2013 at 11:33 pm - Reply

    An excellent lecture.

  12. CCGWebmaster July 31, 2013 at 6:14 am - Reply

    Great presentation – very thought provoking, raises serious long term questions about the future for human civilisation even setting aside the apparent inevitability of collapse for the current one (ie there will be more civilisations later). How can one predicate a civilisation on a long term sustainable basis without collapse becoming an inevitable outcome – not a simple question apparently.

  13. 0utc4st1985 August 11, 2013 at 2:21 am - Reply

    The key difference is that while Jared Diamond believes environmental
    problems caused the collapse of societies Tainter has made the case that
    the cause was economic, rooted in the structure of society itself.
    Honestly, Diamond’s work looks like more enviro fear mongering. The
    environmental problems he talks about had happened previously, yet the
    societies discussed didn’t collapse. Primitivism is tempting, but it’s a
    road to nowhere.

  14. Louis Calvez August 25, 2013 at 8:46 pm - Reply

    No mention of entropy? Hmm. The w.roman empire failed completely within two
    hundred years and it had an energy consumption of about one hundreth of
    ours? “Sustainability” is another human myth, as is “environmental
    protection” and “environmental remediation” by industry. Ecosystem
    sustainability has been subverted by human industry over and over again as
    a claim of man’s dominion over all living things. The time is near when
    humans reconnect with the program of ecosystem morality.

  15. nastymutant August 27, 2013 at 2:18 pm - Reply

    get your balls out

  16. Jim Dandy September 2, 2013 at 9:36 am - Reply

    its about control

  17. Wong Yu September 2, 2013 at 10:47 pm - Reply

    The problem: the system was/ is not set-up for efficiency or
    sustainability. In fact, the system was created by governments to be
    unstable and inefficient long-term in order to gain short term rewards. The
    politicians engage in vote buying through unsustainable government
    programs, regulation, restrictions, taxation, etc. that needlessly
    increases complexity within the economy and society. Meanwhile, governments
    also fail to fulfill its basic duties, because more complexity brings more
    power.

  18. jacopman September 18, 2013 at 8:27 pm - Reply

    While there are other alternative energy sources there is not one that is
    simple, portable and as varied in useage as oil…………..we don’t have
    a substitute for that is more of what he is implying…………wind and
    solar where just examples stated, not the be all to end all……

  19. ebedgert September 24, 2013 at 8:27 pm - Reply

    I find that MOST people don’t really grasp what Tainter is talking about,
    because in the end they are always looking for an “out” to this situation.
    There IS no “out,” it is like the frog who fell into the buttermilk pail…
    keep kicking, or die. Human civilization, and possibly life itself, is too
    complex to survive in a steady state. There have been and will be further
    collapses, and no amount of R&D will prevent the next collapse.

  20. Andreas Persson September 25, 2013 at 6:13 am - Reply

    Most important video on youtube!

  21. Alfred Mayer October 4, 2013 at 5:49 pm - Reply

    What I can say about the social complexity is that it bears no benefits. In
    the end it is an act of sidestepping problems on one side to face it later
    on the other side.

  22. kelm0x0 October 5, 2013 at 9:17 pm - Reply

    Power and complexity is actually the same thing

  23. Wong Yu October 5, 2013 at 9:20 pm - Reply

    Yes, it can be.

  24. kelm0x0 October 5, 2013 at 9:21 pm - Reply

    see : Red queen’s race

  25. jdirt2019 October 25, 2013 at 2:45 am - Reply

    check out “Sustainability 101: Exponential Growth – Arithmetic, Population
    and Energy (Full – Updated)”

  26. rx327prime October 31, 2013 at 6:31 am - Reply

    They are people who benefit from a complex system and who in fact try to
    make the system more complex, just because they can hide themselves into
    this system. More complex is the system, more hidden they are, they think.
    Internet is a simplification of our mutual information exchanges, which
    allow us to see those who are hidden.

  27. PESSOTTY TY November 2, 2013 at 9:48 pm - Reply

    instructive. Thank you

  28. Heavy Psych November 6, 2013 at 9:37 pm - Reply

    This should be taught in school for the future of our society

  29. Nualaboala December 3, 2013 at 4:24 pm - Reply

    I cannot stress how important this video and this guys work is. Anyone who
    is interested in society and the future will find this video very
    informative.

  30. Adrian Shmadrian December 9, 2013 at 8:51 pm - Reply

    This was a really insightful presentation, thank you.

  31. Frank Black December 10, 2013 at 7:18 am - Reply

    This was a very good presentation by Dr. Tainter after having read his book
    and that of Jared Diamond. However, he failed to mention the role of the
    immutable law of entropy in the collapse or mutation of complex systems. I
    cannot go into detail on this forum, but there was a book written by Jeremy
    Rifikin in 1980 by the name “Entropy – A New World View.” Simply, it
    answers a lot of the questions of why complex systems eventually collapse
    and new systems emerge.

  32. Juan Chevalier December 17, 2013 at 7:37 am - Reply

    starts out pretty good. problems. steady state is a myth. growth isn’t
    required. change is required. isn’t that clear? when we change our energy
    efficiency – America and cut its fossil fuel consumption by 80% – or 800
    billion dollars or more a year.

    that’ll save a trillion dollars a year, get rid of pollution and the
    illness that is causing globally. That’s *change* in human behavior.
    Rideshare, better cars, electric cars, LED lights. That’s happening.
    America is using less fossil fuel than ever. Growth in China’s standard of
    living doesn’t mean growth in consumption. It means better clothing, better
    transportation, better. not more.

    Collapse isn’t likely unless economic leaders continue to dream that more
    consumption is better. Sustainability is a contextual thing. Not converting
    the Earth into crap that is useless is how you address sustainable use of
    planetary resources.

    We convert uranium into the worst pollution on the planet, but weight. We
    convert fossil oil/gas into substances we can’t re-capture and re-use. That
    kind of insanity leads to collapse. However, we convert plants into energy
    we use to walk and talk and find ways to convert the output of humans or
    living things, into stuff that is re-useable.

    Productivity in innovation is all wrong in those slides. patent output does
    not equal improvement in efficiency, recovery and re-use of resources. And
    the last 2 years of innovation in alternative energy in those charts showed
    a massive uptick. Since GOP Congress cut funding, it may have returned
    downward.

    Patents are not very useful in highly innovative fields. They could be
    entirely useless in 2 years where innovation is high-speed. His chart on
    innovations in communications systems is entirely wrong. Communications
    speed, quality and lower price, lower energy consumption are exploding.

    Not a very good appraisal of innovation. Complexity? Nature is the most
    complex thing out there, our ability to create complex symbols to
    communicate what we know about it, to predict disasters and avoid them, is
    great.

    Humans overall, need to *change* patterns of behavior, not *grow*consumption.

  33. Dmitry Uchitel January 6, 2014 at 7:39 am - Reply

    The second last question after the talk is where our solutions may lie in:
    the facilitation of more long-term temporal ideas in the education system
    to begin a new generation of long-term thinkers, those that are curious
    enough to explore these kind of problems and apply their temporal
    knowledge. These problems that lead to societal collapse may be due to the
    way the educational system is designed and the fruit of that system isn’t
    geared towards thinking in more collectivistic manner that progresses
    through time and space. Tainter said that humans are generally not evolved
    to think on such a long-term scale. Maybe we need a conscious evolution, we
    have the right hardware (our brains) but we need to change and update the
    software (our ideas).

  34. 8DanielDag8 January 20, 2014 at 5:10 pm - Reply

    The growth in complexity seems to be a problem of Governments – having no
    direct cost benefit feedback.
    Unfortunately not only Governments grow in complexity, they also happen to
    prevent Business Cycle from occurring, keeping ‘too big to fail’ businesses
    shielded by interest rate manipulation or direct subsidies, in order to
    maintain status quo – employment etc.

    Maybe the solution is to shrink the Government and allow recessions in
    Business Cycle to clear the dead wood – companies which grow too complex
    for their own benefit.

    In centralized society the collapse is inevitable. But in diversified
    society the collapses can be just local, concerning few companies or
    regions and therefore mild.

  35. AlexBoerger.com January 29, 2014 at 10:56 am - Reply

    ▶ Collapse of Complex Societies by Dr. Joseph Tainter – YouTube

  36. Alfred Mayer January 30, 2014 at 6:37 am - Reply

    Steady state economy is the only version of economy that can be sustained
    for the lifetime of the human race. Growth can not be maintained in a
    finite environment. Like it or not.

  37. pr0tect0r7 March 22, 2014 at 7:18 am - Reply

    I agree with much of what he says, except for the idea that innovation
    cannot save us, and that the cost of innovation increases exponentially.
    One of the main reasons our innovation is stagnant is the fact that
    copyrights were only supposed to last no more than 4 years to keep the free
    flow of new ideas to innovate society. Disney came in and spent lots of
    money when its first cartoon steamboat willie came out, to extend
    copyrights for years, and even years more since that time. Innovation
    doesn’t cost us, corruption does. One of the saddest inflictions on the
    people of America, and the people of the world, are our strict copyright
    laws that hinder progress and slow innovation and free thought. If these
    were never in place we could likely be a hundred years more advanced than
    we are today.

  38. zPOINTz May 20, 2014 at 8:51 pm - Reply

    “Everything that can be invented has been invented.”

    Charles H. Duell – Commissioner of US patent office in 1899

  39. jodistrict June 2, 2014 at 4:30 am - Reply

    In a lecture on complexity, how could he have missed the Internet?

  40. KibyNykraft June 5, 2014 at 8:37 pm - Reply

    Although it scares a lot of people to having to accept it, everything can
    be explained in and by physics theory.
    More complexity is the same as more disorder. I’ll explain.

    More and more scientists today start to realize this and there have also
    been scientific reports published on it. Biology is chemistry, chemistry
    is physics, and society and culture and personal behaviour are heavily
    determined by genetic structures and the natural environment.

    Everything in culture, technology and biology together = The distribution
    of energy, meaning ‘processes describable in physics’ (wave patterns).

    As the ‘pressure’ on local energy effiency rises from the failures of the
    society and invention drive of the technology, the technology and
    organizational knowledge rise bit by bit. But with setbacks from time to
    time.

    Higher disorder is the default of the universe’s energy situation from the
    Big bang ,as every cubic inch of space has in average a ‘finite energy
    amount’, but scattered across a larger and larger area of space. For
    example this is explained in the laws of thermodynamics.
    The reason is probably that each cubic meter of space inflates from the
    expansion force of the dark energy.

    If you envision a growing tree from a seed (‘tree of life’ is btw a classic
    metaphor of the universe) : The seed has lower complexity than the tree
    but more order of matter. When the level of disorder reaches a certain
    point of development, death occurs. This will happen both with the universe
    and it happens with all organic structures. They cannot preserve energy
    for free as the dark energy scatters energy from within.

    As a result of the matter’s ‘automatic’ attempt to hold itself together
    (achieve equilibrium) the increasing complexity will be a result of higher
    disorder.

    In biology we see this effect not only as diversity of evolution but also
    as death.

    Transferred to economy it shows how centralized models of distribution
    (state or corp) have no chance in the long run to organize and distribute
    resources efficiently.

    The only way to solve it is technology together with an extreme way of
    using or preserving energy. Of course as tech gets more complex, the
    randomness of it also increases, as we know from theory of the challenges
    for developing quantum computers.

See also  High Stakes as International Climate Conference Begins #COP24

Leave a Reply

The Climate State Newsletter