Welcome to the age of diminishing returns

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Joseph Tainter: talking about collapse


Joseph Tainter speaks at the conference “Advances in Energy studies” in Barcelona, in October 2010.  Tainter is an outstanding presenter: he speaks slowly, clearly, and in a deep voice. Once you start listening to him, you are hooked; you can't miss a single world of what he says – not even if you don't like it. Indeed, at the end of the talk, we had someone from the back rows shouting, “some more optimism, please!” Understandable, perhaps, but it is said that a pessimist is someone who has had to listen to too many optimists.


At the end of his monumental study titled “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” Edward Gibbon discusses the question of whether what happened to the ancient empire could happen in modern times, that in the late 18th century, when Gibbon was writing. His answer is that it could not; new hordes of barbarians couldn't destroy the civilized world because of gunpowder, cannons, modern armies and the like.

It is clear that Gibbon saw the Roman collapse as mainly a military event:  the Romans were overwhelmed by one wave of Barbarians after the other. But, like many other historians before him, Gibbon chronicled events without normally interpreting them in the sense we give today to the term - that is finding social, economic or political reasons to explain what happened.

Gibbon, living in the thriving and expanding world of 18th century Britain, just couldn't see that there was much more in the Roman collapse than a simple military problem. It would take time for historians to see the collapse of the ancient world as something related to our own destiny. With collapse impending, or perhaps already started, we can start seeing that the Roman times are a foggy mirror of our times.

Joseph Tainter is the historian who, today, has grasped this relation better than anyone in the past. He is well known for his book “The Collapse of complex societies” (1988) and for the articles he has written on this subject. Here, I am summarizing the talk that Tainter gave at the "Advances in Energy studies”  conference in Barcelona, in October 2010. It was not the first time that I heard him speak and I had read his book (and more than once!). But every time you hear Tainter speak, you have this sensation that he is going deeper and deeper into the problem; that he can present more and more evidence of the relevance of the past for the present. History does not necessarily repeats itself, but when facing similar challenges, people of all ages will tend to react in the same way. That's the relevance that history has for us today and, in particular, the history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.

Tainter's main point is related to complexity. He does not exactly define the term, but it is clear from the context that he means all the economic, social, bureaucratic, and military structures that societies create. Complexity is the characteristics of what we call “civilization”. Tainter dismisses the view – that he calls the “progressivist” viewpoint – that complexity is the automatic result of the availability of resources; mainly energy. Correctly, he says that complexity creates resources just as resources create complexity. Tainter doesn't use the terminology of system dynamics, but if we see things within that framework, then we can say that complexity and resources are in a feedback relationship with each other. Resources allow the creation of more complex societal structures and these structures help exploiting resources faster and more efficiently.

In earlier works, such as in his 1988 book, Tainter dismissed also the idea that collapse, intended as a rapid reduction of complexity in a society, could be caused by resource depletion. He would define it as related only to the diminishing returns of progressively increasing complexity. In his talk in Barcelona, however, I think that I can interpret his view in terms closer to the “depletionist” viewpoint. In this sense, Tainter's point is that there is a strong relationship between resources and complexity. It is clear that complexity cannot exist without resources - not for a long time, at least. But the relationship is far from being linear: with resources diminishing, complexity does not decrease – on the contrary it keeps increasing. It is the result of the benefits that complexity gives: resource depletion can be counteracted by increasing complexity, but only up to a certain point and with ever-reducing returns. At some moment, returns become negative, society cannot support any longer its complex infrastructures and the result is collapse.

In his talk in Barcelona, Tainter gave the example of the Roman Empire during the 3rd century A.D. At that time, the Empire faced a serious military crisis: invasions of foreign peoples and internal civil wars. The crisis was solved by Diocletian by doubling the size of the army, increasing taxes and enlarging bureaucracy; overall it was a considerable increase in complexity. Transforming the Roman Empire into a sort of an early version of the Soviet Union was a solution – of a kind – that retarded collapse of a couple of centuries but that, in a certain way, made it unavoidable. The Roman Empire could not afford such a large army and, eventually, it destroyed itself in the attempt of maintaining it. Not unlike the modern Soviet Union.

According to Tainter, we are doing more or less the same. Perhaps our society is not so heavily military oriented as the Roman one, but we are reacting to the crisis much in the same way. Despite all the talk of “saving” or “conserving” resources, it is clear that our society is not doing anything like that. We strive, certainly, towards more efficiency, but the resources that are saved in some areas of the economy are used in some other areas. Being more efficient in extracting resources means that we are running out of resources faster. Being more efficient in using resources means that we are able to create more complex structures that use those resources faster. It is the so called “Jevons paradox” in its strongest form.

The Romans could never fully understand what was befalling on them and they went down kicking and screaming, always thinking that a few more legions could solve all the problems. That was also because they had no structures – research centers, universities or the like – that could alert them. We do have such structures and we have had good warnings since the time when “The Limits to Growth” was published, in 1972. But we also have structures built expressly to demonize and destroy those who bring warnings, we call them “media spin" or "media based consensus building". These structures have been efficiently used to play down the warnings we had from “The Limits to Growth” and are being used now to play down the warning about global warming that we are received from climate scientists. So, having computers is not a great advantage for us over the Romans. It seems that we are going their way.

You can read an excellent summary of Tainter's book "The Collapse of Complex Societies" written by Anatoli Karlin. Some (long) ruminations of mine about the fate of the Roman Empire can be found in this post on the oil drum, titled "peak civilization". You can find Tainter's slides for his 2010 Barcelona presentation at this link.
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14 comments:

  1. Tainter makes a convincing point that complexity often develops in response to real problems, and that it is therefore very hard to unwind. As energy use is tied to complexity, we can expect energy use to be hard to unwind. I see two ways out.

    First, since a great deal of complexity -- as Tainter himself argues -- is far from the best solution, an equivalent solution can be achieved with less complexity. Tainter may be pessimistic about the chances of this potential being realized, but let's not confuse his attitudes with the state space.

    Secondly, a great deal of complexity is a result of fragmentation, or people acting in ways that are detrimental to the whole. For instance, much of what is produced and sold is unhealthy and causes net problems; the complexity is a result of people solving their own problems at the expense of others. Removing this complexity would cause small problems and solve large ones. For instance, during WWII, dental and physical health improved for millions in many countries on rations; a few people lost their livelihood as a result. A decline in complexity resulted in a net decline in problems. Tainter lists "Continuing increases in the cost of health care" as a major future challenge; a severe drop in complexity could solve this.

    While Tainter mentions irrationality as a creeping cause for complexity, he does not spell out the logical consequence that a rationally targeted drop in complexity can provide a very significant net benefit.

    Again, Tainter may argue from historical precedent that this simply won't happen, but such pessimism is based on beliefs that history must repeat itself and not a scientific analysis of the inherent characteristics of complexity.

    In short, Tainter's argument confuses two very different forces: complexity and human irrationality. By linking complexity too firmly to real problem solving, even while he acknowledges that complexity grows quite independently of any contribution to real problems, he is misled into seeing the inevitable in the place of opportunity for change. This is not a profound historical analysis, just a modern version of predeterminism, or historical Calvinism.

    liontooth at cogweb net

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  2. Indeed, one of the problem with Tainter's view is that the concept of "complexity" is never exactly defined. Nor the reasons for the movement towards higher complexity are given. It is only an observation. In this sense, Tainter has the typical approach of the historian: he describes more than he interprets.

    Yet, I think there is a logic in Tainter's view and that it can be placed on a firm physical footing. It is the subject of a post I am preparing

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  3. How is Complexity different from Specialisation?

    As Adam Smith observed centuries ago, specialisation enables a pin factory to produce many more pins than individual pin-makers.

    One might observe that an individual worker in a pin factory needs the other workers to turn up for work, otherwise there is no production. How does he ensure this? Through enforceable contracts of employment.

    On the sales side, the worker needs a market, captive or free, for the money to roll in.

    I suggest that as long as there is a system of enforceable contracts, and a system of markets, complexity in a society will arise spontaneously, because of the benefits conferred by specialisation.

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  4. I think you are making a good point. We need to define terms better if we want Tainter's model to be useful. Specialization - i believe - is part of the process of complexification (if that is the correct point). But we need to go deeper in this matter. As I said, I am preparing a new post on this subject

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  5. Ugo:-

    Excellent post, nice blog.

    The biggest problem for Tainter is language and his refusal to complexify it.

    The English language does not have a word for what Tainter is talking about. "Complexity" is probably the best of bad choice options. I would suggest "Tainter-plexity" as a better word choice so as to avoid confusion with "complexity".

    Let me also suggest that Tainter-plexity has at least these two aspects: Specialization and Discourse Graphs between specialists.

    As we well understand in the Peak Oil community, not every specialist does, or can, talk to every other specialist. The petro-chemical physicist for example cannot communicate with hedge fund manager. The latter does not understand thermodynamics, EROI and other concepts of that sort. The former cannot express such concepts in the language framework of econo-babble (unscientific noises made by economists as a pretense for logical and rational discourse).

    Thus we have a matrix of Towers of Babel in our super-specialized civilization. It is not just the number of specialities that a Tainterplexified civilization spawns, it is also the breakdown of intelligent communications between the numerous specialties, the lack of peer-to-peer intelligible discourse.

    Another example of the phenomenon would be that of the O-ring specialist engineers not being able to directly and intelligently communicate with the mission control managers of the Challenger space shot. There is a communications hierarchy that evolves within a Tainter-plexified civilization. Geeks at the bottom of the social hierarchy graph do not talk to monarchs at the top and vise versa. That is the way the bounded discourses graphs develop as between the specialists.

    In other words, when Tainter-plexity is viewed from the perspective of fractured specialities and fractured communication pathways, we see how rational messaging fails to occur in the more Tainter-plexified society.

    Indeed it explains why members of the Peak Oil aware community cannot talk truth to power (to TPTB). They have about as much chance of getting their message through to mission control as does the Society for Preservation of Aliens at Area 51. The discourse graph connection is simply not there.

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  6. The issue - I believe - is not so much to talk to TPTB. I think they understand the problems - but they are doing their best to worsen them!

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  7. The issue is not so much [that of talking] to ...TPTB [The Powers To Be]. I think they understand the problems

    Ugo:-

    Well there is a first of many problems with Tainter-plexity. How do we truly know what is inside the heads of politicians (one form of specialists, one form of TPTB)? How do we know what they understand and what they don't understand? How do we know that they are knowingly worsening things?

    Politicians and engineer/scientists do not even speak the same language. It's the biblical Tower of Babel all over again.

    (By the way, your command of the English language is amazingly good. Did you grow up in the States?)

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  8. On topic of discourse disconnect between management "specialists" and engineering "specialists" consider this recent blog thread over at TOD:

    http://www.theoildrum.com/node/7646#comment-776262

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  9. SB, it is a complex story that of evaluating Tainter, of course. Even more complex is to understand what is in the heads of the powers. My impression is that Sturgeon's law holds with "them" as well. That is, 99% of everything is crap. I believe that most leaders do understand what the problems are, but are at a complete loss in understanding what to do. In other words, they do understand that - for instance - there is a problem with oil supply. Their answer, however, is along the line of "drill, baby, drill." That, of course, worsens the problem.

    And thanks for your praise of my English. I know it is not good. One reason I set up this blog is to get my English back to a decent level - too much blogging in Italian. I learned English in California, when I was post-doc in Berkeley; alas, long ago!

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  10. We are suffering from diminishing returns indeed, iphone? just a mini pc with a touchscreen interface, nothing really new there, yet commands a ever higher premium and the assembly process is more energy intensive than ever. Bin laden, trillions of dollars and millions of lives over ten years to kill one man for a crime that interpol could have handled?

    My solutions to diminishing returns are as follows.

    Copper to sterilise water - i dont have to pay for fossil fuel infrastructure to get clean water. I have water, i exist, irrespective of collapse.

    Oyster mushrooms for food - small tent, newspapers, plastic bags and some spawn. in a couple of months you should harvest 70% of the newspaper weight in mushrooms.

    Industrial hemp - it goes to show how corrupt complex societies are when a vast reserve of energy that could be tapped via the hemp plant is actively suppressed through legislation. How can oil be scarce when you could grow it across most of the northern hemisphere?

    good theory, but complex societies dont have to collapse if they access all available energy reserves without prejudice, and i would argue that complex societies dont necessarily need large amounts of energy - the native americans have a very deep and complex culture, just not energy intensive.

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  11. Interesting comment, Anonymous. But what are "oyster mushrooms"? Do they really eat newspaper?

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  12. yes they do; I grow them myself; trouble is, they are much more unpredictable than plants and grow in "flushes", so I don't base my survival on them.

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  13. I have two questions that almost always come up whenever I read or listen to Dr. Tainter:

    Does the ubiquitous computer (and its exponential growth a la "Moore's Law") nullify the issue of complexity in our modern society or make it worse?

    ..and...

    If a high degree of complexity is required for interplanetary, interstellar or even intergalactic travel, could this be the answer to Fermi's Paradox? That is, societal collapse prior to space colonization is inevitable. If all life in our universe is based on some degree of genetic complexity, that would mean that evolution is a universal law. Restated: if intelligent life arises on a distant planet somewhere, are they necessarily doomed? Before an intelligent species is smart enough to be a candidate for space travel, they must almost necessarily first harness fire, and fire (as we all know now) adds carbon to the atmosphere, beginning the climate change process we are going through now. Thus, it would seem: evolution + control of fire = ecocide.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fermi%27s_paradox

    Thanks,

    Edward

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    1. Edward, you should ask your questions directly to Tainter: joseph.tainter(thething)usu.edu

      Not easy questions, though.... On the Fermi paradox, you may wish to give a look to some musings of mine

      http://cassandralegacy.blogspot.de/2011/10/hubbert-hurdle-revisiting-fermi-paradox.html

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Who

Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)