Design for the Century | Reading Discussion & Presentation – The Collapse of Complex Societies, Tainter

The Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph A. Tainter

Dystopian Futures

This week, our assigned reading was one very long and interesting excerpt from a book on the collapse of complex societies. I will quickly summarize the text, then explore major ideas, seeking to pull out common themes with past readings, and arts and cultural sources. I hope to set a foundation for a critical discussion of why complex societies have collapsed, the differences between these societies and our own, the potential for collapse of our own society, and how we as designers can prevent, mitigate, accelerate or stagnate that potential.

Joseph A. Tainter

Joseph Tainter was born in 1949 and later studied anthropology at UC Berkeley and Northwestern University, where he received his Ph.D. He currently is a Professor at Utah State University. While Tainter has written or edited several articles, his best-known work is The Collapse of Complex Societies, written in 1988 (so a pretty old book!).

The Collapse of Complex Societies

This book is unique because it braids together a range of disciplines (architecture, history, anthropology) to study the multifaceted nature of societal collapse. Tainter points out that while collapse is primarily a sociopolitical function, it has ripples that permeate several other disciplines and can best be studied by skimming them to unite different perspectives into a cohesive model.

According to Wikipedia, Tainter’s primary argument in this piece (and others leading up to it – see his acknowledgments) is that

“…sustainability or collapse of societies follow from the success or failure of problem-solving institutions and that societies collapse when their investments in social complexity and their ‘energy subsidies’ reach a point of diminishing marginal returns.”

In short, if the institutions (e.g. governments, corporations) that solve problems for our society, like infrastructure, transportation, food production, fail to deliver these essential functions to us, we start to get less bang for our buck from being part of that society and things start to go downhill from there (diminishing marginal returns just means for the same input, you hit a point where your output starts decreasing/diminishing).

For our reading, we only explored the beginning of this book, Chapter 1: Introduction to Collapse and Chapter 2: The Nature of Complex Societies.

These chapters serve to set the stage for his larger in-depth discussion throughout the book where he goes on to explore “the study of collapse” through a variety of narratives, framing his discussion by looking at different proposed theories/reasons behind collapse and using different civilizations to highlight his points.

  • Resource Depletion
  • Catastrophes
  • Insufficient Response to Circumstances
  • Other Complex Societies
  • Intruders
  • Conflict/contradictions/mismanagement
  • Social Dysfunction
  • Chance concatenation of events
  • Economic Explanations

Finally in his conclusion he returns to his point about understanding collapse using the lens  of the marginal productivity of increasing complexity and eventual diminishing marginal returns to explain collapsed societies.

Summary of the Excerpt

In chapter 1 Tainter explains why we find collapse so fascinating and what collapse is. He defines a few features of collapse, stating that “A society has collapsed when it displays a rapid, significant loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity”, that it must have been somewhat complex or developing that way, that it must happen rapidly, and that it can happy to any type of society.

He then goes through a long list of past civilizations from the Romans to the Mayans and discusses their rise and fall, trying to pull out some common reasons.

Chapter 2

In chapter 2 he discusses how complex societies develop – in order to better understand why the fall – and uses an anthropological model of the evolution of leadership from the “Big Man” to “Chiefs” to “The State”.

He later discusses two prevailing schools of thought regarding the study of the evolution of complex societies Conflict and Integration. Conflict theory states that “the state emerged out of the needs and desires of individuals and subgroups of society…” and that “…the governing institutions of the states were developed as acoercive mechanism to resolve intrasocietal conflicts arising out of economic stratification.” So the state is big and bad and evil and controlling .

Integrationist or Functionalist theory suggests “…complexity, stratification, and the state arose, not out of the ambitions of individuals or subgroups, but out of the needs of society”.

While he self-admittedly leans towards Integration theories, he then goes on to debunk both sides, more ferociously attacking Conflict theories.

Major Themes & Parallels Across Readings & Other Works

Tainter made a very good point when he explained why the collapsed societies are such an underlying current of books/academia/music/movies/TV/games etc.  He quotes Ortega who says:

“The possibility that a civilization should die doubles our own mortality.”

We are so obsessed with the idea that civilization can die because we are obsessed by the idea that we can die. Just like us, civilizations are fragile and impermanent. This is a hard pill to swallow, given that one of the only mitigations of our own inevitable death is our ability to leave an indelible mark (whether by offspring or accomplishment) that should persist into the future. The idea that the future is uncertain and impermanent at the species level fills us with dread that we may truly and utterly be forgotten.

This reminded me of a quote in one of our readings by Frederic Jameson “Progress Versus Utopia; or, Can We Imagine the Future?”. In this piece he explores the idea of “progress” against the backdrop of history and the idea of the discovery of the Symbolic as “a symptom of narrative fantasies rooted in a dissociation of the private and the public, the subject and the object, the personal and the political, which has characterized the social life of capitalism”. (sounds like diminishing marginal returns to me….) The quote relates to confirming the priority of “fantasy” in theory and praxis (namely science fiction since it is from a volume of science fiction studies).

“The task of such analysis should then be to detect and to reveal – behind such written traces of the political unconscious as the narrative texts of high or mass culture, but also behind those other symptoms or traces which are opinion, ideology, and even philosophical systems – the outlines of some deeper and vaster narrative movement in which the groups of a given collectivity at a certain historical conjecture anxiously interrogate their fate, and explore it with hope or dread.”

I think this makes an interesting point in relation to Tainter’s pieces. It would seem that modern society is very concerned with collapse, so what is the larger narrative that permeates our culture and causes this to pop up so often in popular media?

Nick Land would argue that this narrative is an accelerating techno capital singularity that started in the renaissance and is reaching its endgame today. Land also points out the untethering of religion from this mix as we feel that we have moved beyond the judgement of god, similar to Tainter’s argument about leaders need for legitimacy through supernatural figureheads diminishing after the machinery is laid in place.

Vinge would support this view, arguing in “Technological Singularity” that we are hurtling towards an inevitable technological singularity and that fear of this dilemma exists at the cultural level as “fantasy”, bubbling up first through the writing of science fiction writers, but spreading to permeate other areas of culture as well.

Narratives of Societal Collapse in Modern Culture

So let’s look at some pieces that explore these fears in-depth. I argue that we are IMMENSELY concerned with our own imminent destruction through a variety potential scenarios.

Isaac Asimov – Foundation Trilogy

This was never a real movie, I think, but I liked the voiceover with text from the book. Particularly relevant, his symptoms of the inevitable collapse.

“The fall of empire, gentleman, is a massive thing however, and not easily fought. It is dictated by a:

  • Rise in bureaucracy
  • Receding initiative
  • Freezing of Caste
  • Damming of Curiosity”

In Foundation a genius Harry Seldon – arguably the designer of the future, uses complex mathematical formulas based on “metadata” of humanity, and predicted a way to not stop the collapse, but reduce the inevitable “dark ages” afterwards.

Movies & TV

Montage of Disasters/World Collapse in Modern Films

Top 10 Post apocalyptic Video Games

Top 10 Post apocalyptic TV Shows

Top 10 Movie Apocalypses

Top 10 Post apocalyptic Video Anime


SOMETHING ABOUT THE COLLAPSE OF ART & LANGUAGE, 2013 © 2014 Ryan McGinness / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Albrecht Dürer’s The Apocalypse of St John. Photograph: Corbis
Isaac Cordal – Part of Cement Eclipse Series. These pieces reflect our own decline,” says Cordal. “We live immersed in the collapse of a system that needs change.”


Wrapping Up – Questions for Discussion

  1. “Of all the changes that the twentieth century has brought, none goes deeper than the disappearance of that unquestioning faith in the future and the absolute value of our civilization which was the dominant note of the nineteenth century (Dawson, 1956).”  What about the 21st century? How has this faith changed? Has new technologies had an impact on this change? How so?

  2. Tainter theorizes that today’s complex societies are an anomaly, which requires constant legitimization and reinforcement. What are some examples of legitimization and reinforcement at the local, national, and global level?
  3. Tainter explores two major conflicting theories of the evolution of complex societies, specifically of the modern state. Which do you think is more correct? Why do you think so? What examples can you draw on from history that support your claim?

Just as a Reminder!

  • Conflict Theory states “the state emerged out of the needs and desires of individuals and subgroups of society…” and that “…the governing institutions of the sates were developed as coercive mechanism to resolve intrasocietal conflicts arising out of economic stratification.”
  • Integrationist Theory states that “…complexity, stratification, and the state arose, not out of the ambitions of individuals or subgroups, but out of the needs of society”.

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