The Simplification of Complex Societies

Posted: April 7th, 2010 by Militant Libertarian

from Global Guerrillas

If your interested in a very smart perspective on system collapse, please go read the anthropologist Joseph Tainter’s book, “The Collapse of Complex Societies” (I’ve been a big fan of his work for ages).  In the book, he makes the compelling case that complex societies are, at root, very successful problem solving systems.  If they weren’t, they would never have become complex in the first place.  Why?  Societies solve challenges by creating new rules and processes (new complexity) that are then added on to the existing system ad infinitum.  More successful outcomes = more complexity.

However, as noted above, problem solving comes at a cost.  Each solution leaves a residue, a layer of complexity that never goes away (laws, taxes, monopolies, treaties, etc.).  It builds up over time and saps the social system’s flexibility and efficiency.  Eventually, ever new layer of complexity extracts more in costs than it provides in benefit (solution).  At that point, according to Tainter’s analysis of ancient civilizations, the complex society collapses.

So, the question always is, why don’t these societies simplify themselves?  The problem is they can’t.  The techpundit Clay Shirky words this eloquently in a recent post on Tainter’s work called, “The Collapse of Complex Business Models“:

In such systems, there is no way to make things a little bit simpler – the whole edifice becomes a huge, interlocking system not readily amenable to change. Tainter doesn’t regard the sudden de-coherence of these societies as either a tragedy or a mistake—”[U]nder a situation of declining marginal returns collapse may be the most appropriate response”, to use his pitiless phrase. Furthermore, even when moderate adjustments could be made, they tend to be resisted, because any simplification discomfits elites. When the value of complexity turns negative, a society plagued by an inability to react remains as complex as ever, right up to the moment where it becomes suddenly and dramatically simpler, which is to say right up to the moment of collapse. Collapse is simply the last remaining method of simplification.

If this is true, then the question for all of us is:  is our global society an interlocking nightmare of complexity on the verge of trying to solve one crisis too many?  I believe it is. When is the last time that anything big got done without more negatives, tradeoffs, corruption, or unintended consequences than it was worth?

However, there may be another away around this trap.  A clue to how this is possible may be found in a recent example of a successful transition from one complex system for another.  That’s the transition of China from a decrepit Communist system into a fast growing Capitalist system.  It did this by growing an alternative at the periphery of the dying system, and those attempts at free enterprise grew a set of problem solving methods so quickly they are now dominant.  In contrast,  Russia and much of eastern Europe attempted wholesale change and emerged criminally deformed.

Of course, there are caveats to this example.  China did have a model that they could copy (the US and the global market system) and a way to integrate with that larger system as their efforts grew.  These efforts also had state sanction.  Regardless, it does indicate that it is indeed possible to radically remake a complex society from seemingly simple bottom up efforts.*

My belief is that networked resilient communities can replicate this strategy by growing at the periphery.  Given their potential for rapid problem solving, at nearly costless levels of complexity, it may be a short transition.

* However, hilariously, with this success China only jumped out of the fire and into the frying pan.


Comments (1)


  1. Donna says:

    Nobody seems to be getting the basic point of Tainter’s work, which is that the complexity of societies is powered by available energy subsidies. It’s not so much that oil is going to run out, but that the oil that remains will be too cost-ineffective to extract. Energy return on investment for solar and wind power won’t provide anywhere near enough energy to power the complex system as we know it today. Hence – unless a new, cost-effective energy subsidy is found – our current level of complexity must (and, if history is any guide, will) contract.

    China is in the exact same boat as we are, since there really is only one oil-based society around the globe now. It will all contract together at roughly the same time, although different places may adopt different collapse strategies.

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