Review: The Collapse of Complex Societies

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Collapse ComplexUtterly brilliant work of genius, joins Allott’s Health of Nations

August 9, 2007

Joseph Tainter

This is an utterly brilliant stunning work of genius. It begins with a comprehensive review of what appears to be every work in English relative to the topic being considered. The author has done a phenomenal job of both dissecting and then discussed the varied authors contributing to each of the following lists explanations for prior collapse of civilizations (from page 42):

1) Depletion or cessation of a vital resource
2) The establishment of a new resource base
3) The occurrence of some insurmountable catatrosphe
4) Insufficient response to circumstance
5) Other complex societies
6) Intruders
7) Class conflict, societal contradictions, elite mismanagement or misbehavior
8) Social dysfunction
9) Mystical factors
10) Chance concatenation of events
11) Economic factors

This book is exceptionally well organized, well presented, and well spoken. The complex discussion is delivered in easy to read and absorb constructs. After a review and elegant dismissal of all of the prevailing theories, the author leads us into his approach by positing the collapse of civiliazations as resulting from the collapse of the larger systemic process for processing information to effect the increasingly complicated system of systems. In the author’s words, at some point the cost of micro-managing a complex system is so high, and yields such poor returns on investment, that the natural and beneficial response of the whole is to collapse into more readily sustainable and resilience smaller parts.

I am reminded of Charles Perrow’s Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies, in which he discusses how simple systems have single points of failure easy to diagnose and correct; sophisticated systems have multiple points of failure that interact in largely unforeseen ways and are very difficult to diagnose and correct; and the finally, Earth and Humanity, a system of systems so complex that “Intelligent Design” is failing us, and a natural Darwinian selection is kicking in.

For America to have 27 robust secessionist movements and a plethora of “Home Rule” regimes springing up local levels, while the Bush-Cheney regime runs the nation into bankruptcy with their elective war in Iraq that has cost half a trillion dollars that could have been better used to restore our failing infrastructure and our failed schools, tells us all we need to know: the federal government has collapsed, and the Republic as a whole is next absent draconian public engagement and mandated electoral reform prior to 2008.

The author concludes that “complexity is a problem-solving strategy” and that when it fails to solve the high-level threats or challenges, then the society collapses so that smaller and more resilient parts might be more innovative and adaptive, and hence survive better without the burden of inept “guidance” from above.

In the context of this book, the 27 secessionist movements in America are clearly what the author calls “resistance” to the now unaffordable higher costs and lower results of the federal mismanagement of the nation, best depicted by the grotesquely inept and even inhuman lack of effectiveness with respect to New Orleans and the Katrina hurricane.

There are gems throughout the work, which joins that of Philip Allott, also of Cambridge, who in his The Health of Nations: Society and Law beyond the State suggested that the Treaty of Westphalia was a huge mistake, and we should have elevated and recognized peoples instead of sovereign states, as the latter have been too easily corrupted into aided the global elite to loot every commonwealth. A few that I noted:

Military expenditures and arms races suck the health out of nations. See my review of The Domestic Bases of Grand Strategy (Cornell Studies in Security Affairs), a book in which one author discusses the consequences of allowing the military to dominate what passes for strategy in the budget, while the politicians pander to domestic interests bereft of any grasp of international reality, and the intellectuals posit solutions that have no political, military, or overall holistic integration of all the sources of national power over time and space. The books on War Is a Racket: The Anti-War Classic by America’s Most Decorated General, Two Other Anti=Interventionist Tracts, and Photographs from the Horror of It and The Folly of War: American Foreign Policy, 1898-2005 are mounting in influence today.

The author notes that the physics of time and space make an extended dominance of distant cultures and places impossible when relying solely on the force of arms. I am of course reminding of Jonathan Schell’s The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People as well as Derek Leebaert’s The Fifty-Year Wound: How America’s Cold War Victory Has Shaped Our World.

The author notes that no strategy can be considered viable that steals from the future to support the present. This observation is in perfect harmony will all that has been done by Herman Daly in Ecological Economics: Principles And Applications and Paul Hawkins in Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming, among other works.

Collapse is cultural, systemic, a collapse of process, not of any discrete event, institution, or location. The information processing becomes impossible for a complex system that does not adapt from an industrial-era model of command and control to an information era model of distributed localized resilience. I think of The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic (The American Empire Project) and The The Global Class War: How America’s Bipartisan Elite Lost Our Future – and What It Will Take to Win It Back on the one hand, and the varied books on the “wealth of knowledge,” wealth of networks.

Although others including myself in my US Institute of Peace paper on virtual diplomacy have expressed concern over the growing gap between people with power and people with knowledge, this author has provided us with what may well be the most erudite focused diagnosis of the coming collapse of the West, a lumbering industrial era mammoth whose small elite brain cannot compete with the sleeker Third World “tigers” that are using leap-ahead technologies to avoid our legacy of ashes.

In my view, the West can be saved only if America achieves electoral reform and restores the constitution, with a draconian reduction of federalism and the federal budget, while restoring to the states all of the powers not explicitly assigned to the three branches. Open Carry, Open Spectrum, all of the “opens” must prevail against the rule of secrecy and the use of scarcity to impoverish rather than enrich what should be “seven billion billionaires (forthcoming from Medard Gabel).”

This is a righteous book. I have loaded two images from my own earlier work (at my web site under the photo in Early Papers) and am now working on War and Peace in the Digital Era. This book here is Ref A.

Aug 9

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