184 – Societal Complexity and Collapse
Guest: Joseph Tainter Host: Markus Voelter Shownoter: Jochen Spalding
Joseph Tainter, our guest in this episode, is an anthropologist and historian. In 1988 he wrote a book called The Collapse of Complex Societies in which he argues that societies inevitably increase their inherent complexity, and, if and when the complexity becomes too “expensive” (diminishing returns), a society will collapse. In this episode, Joe explains his rationale and provides historic examples for collapse. We then discuss his theory relative today’s world, concluding with a not alltogether positive outlook.
Todays guest: Joseph Tainter | Podcast recommendation: Aircrew Interview | Survey | Please send feedback to email@example.com | Listener meeting! Follow Omegatau on Twitter and Facebook for more information.
As Always The Guest Introduces Himself00:05:12
Joseph Tainter on Youtube | University of California, Berkeley
Definiton of Complexity in Scocieties00:06:29
Phases of Complexity Development and Definition of Collapse00:15:27
Societal collapse | Roman Empire | The History of Rome Podcast | List of Roman wars and battles | Classic Maya collapse | Chinese Revolution | Cuban Revolution | Arab Spring | Transaction cost | Taxes in the Roman Empire
Is Collapse a good or a bad thing and do we make progress after it happened in the long run?00:32:37
About Today's Societies00:38:45
"Will we use our knowledge?" | EROI Energy return of investment | Deborah Strumsky | José Lobo | Just-in-Time Manufacturing and Logistics | Jared Diamond (The myths of Easter Island – Jared Diamond responds) | Easter Islands | "People think short term and locally" | Herbert Simon | Collapse in Mesopotamia
Just listened to #184. Loved it. Very thought provoking. Really enjoy your interviews.
Thx Greg :-)
Awesome episode, very thought provoking and insigthful. I already filled out the listener survey, but after listening to this I’d like to add “society, history and other random topics” to my wishlist of topics :)
Thanks :) Pure history isn’t my thing … I was always bored by it. But topics around some societal issues are certainly in scope. And random stuff as well :-)
I think, the problem is not we are not thinking in long term.
The problem is understanding long term consequences and we cannot understand them. Even if we belive we understand them, there is always knowledege we do not know we don’t know.
Understanding long term consequences means to predict the future in long term. If that is possible, we are not considering a complexe system – it’s a simple system.
It’s like John Galsworthy said: We can predict everything, except the future.
IMHO, what you suggest certainly plays a role. But I think there is also (phsychological, experiment-based) evidence that trading off near-term gains for long-term sustainability is not a person’s strongest ability.
Another great topic. I’ve been a student of the history of “Western civ” my whole life therefore have been very obviously aware of these cycles of colapse and never fully formulated complexity in and of itself as being the underlying cause. Lots of food for thought for sure. It’s wonderful that the topic remain so varied thank you!
@Mano: “[experiments showing that] trading off near-term gains for long-term sustainability is not a person’s strongest ability.”
Depends on the viewpoint. The experiments I have seen always tested on either guaranteed long-term outcomes or had an well-known probability for the long-term outcome. However, in real life you can never be certain about the future nor about the probability. Near-term also gives competitors less time to steal your advantage and you can be more sure to be alive to see it.
All of this also applies to societies. Therefore it is rational to prefer near-term gains.
Just my two cents.
What you describe, about the uncertainty, is the kind of experiments I was referring to. But either way, we’re not good at “investing” into the future. And it is harder, the more uncertainly we know about the future benefits.
Interesting as usual and I learned a lot. But I was waiting the whole episode for the obvious question on the possible (some say likely) collapse of Europe…
I didn’t ask this because I am pretty sure what happens in Europe wouldn’t be considered a collapse by Tainter. Also, I ran out of time :-)
Very interesting, Markus. Not my usual area of interest but there were some very thought-provoking issues raised. When I get time I will listen to it again and count how many times Joseph mentioned ‘energy’. He has raised my awareness of just how dependent on energy we are.
Yes, indeed. I also didn’t expect that he would emphasize “energy” that much. But it’s obviously important to drive our “complexity”.
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Thanks for the informative interview. I would like to suggest another guest who specializes in climate collapse. His name is Dane Wigington and he has a website http:/www.geoengineeringwatch.org
He has studied weather and climate modification around the world and the impact on our planet’s biosphere and ecosystems.
Thanks, I will check it out.
As usual Markus an excellent interview and a great off meme topic that broke up the usual science and tech theme of OT. Such diversions are always welcome when balanced against a lot of stuff like the Geminii program.
Thanks, glad you liked it :-)
The discussed topic of the complexity of societal systems, locality of decision making and undecidability of the problem to predict long term outcomes reminded me very much about the Gödel’s incompleteness theorems. I wonder if there was an attempt at taking a mathematical/computational approach to look at/research the discussed topic…
Thank you Marcus and Joseph for a insightful discussion.
I don’t know ….
Wow! An unusual topic for omega tau but I think it worked. It was technical and interesting and made a nice break from the usual science and technology. As long as episodes like this remain the exception, I think it’s good to have something slightly different from tone to time.
Much food for thought, in this episode, thanks! I hope anyone & particularly the interviewee is still reading this ;-)
What about the desire to “live a simpler life”? We’re seeing that all around, aren’t we? People investing more time into gardening, handcrafting, and similar skills, which were much more common just a few generations ago (in the west). Much of that (to me) seems very individualised, based on individual worries (i.e. about too much stress at work). However, since there certainly are also extreme versions, like hoarding food & building a bunker in the backyard (“preppers”, right?), what role might such desires play, when they become socialised (“Salon-fähig”)?
In terms of Mr. Tainter’s explanations for societal collapse, could they be catalysts and turn into self-fulfilling prophecies? How big a factor in the onset of societal collapse could the diminishing believe in the sustainability of the complex society be?
Thanks for the episode! Very interesting. I think it would be great if you could do an episode on the effects of increasing complexity in software architectures and software development. How increasing complexity in an evolving software design can end up reaching a critical point where it is too hard to solve any new problems.
I try to stay away from the classical software topics, as there are many other podcasts on this topic. I will do an episode on my own work on languages, because many people requested it — languages are one way to help with complexity :-)
Once more, a very interesting episode. I was surprised about the focus on cheap (fossile) energy, but at the end, it is clear what has driven our development the last 200 years. Really time for a change now. It will still take some decades, but the first steps need to be done.
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I’m listening to older episodes I missed previously at random. Great thought provoking episode!
A little bit depressing, as predicted. Good I had #259 to brighten the mood ;-)
Yes, your podcast are getting re-listened!