Jared Diamond, in his book, Collapse, posits the notion that the various societies that bit the dust did so because they used up all the available local resources. Like, I wonder what the guy was thinking as he chopped down the last fricking tree on Easter Island? “Looks like we’ll have to take a run to Home Depot to pick up some more wood.”
Joseph A. Tainter, anthropologist and historian, has a different idea. For Tainter, it is a matter of diminishing returns. Expending more and more and getting less and less in return. More money, more energy, more labor force resources.
He says that complexity in societies is not a matter of evolution. All communities are not destined to become complex unities. In fact, he believes that complexity in societal structure is really an anomaly. For a kabillion years, humanites lived in small groups – tribes, clans, simple communities really. And then civilization happened. Everything got more and more complicated. You know how that goes Just think of your local homeowners Association. See what I mean?
A point comes when the governments have to start doing more and more to please the governed, but there is less and less in the return. Often states just go conquer other states, and ta-da! instant revenue, instant labor in the form of slaves, more territory for farming. Yahoo! But the more they do that, it starts to be difficult to oversee these more and more distant lands, the cost of transporting all those goodies gets to be not worth it, and now you have a lot more people under the rule who are pissing and moaning and demanding stuff. It can get old. So what happens is as the government starts paying less attention to the farther districts, the farther districts stop pretending to be good citizens, stop sending in their taxes, and basically say F* you, try and make me. Well, the cost and effort and manpower to ‘make’ them quickly becomes not cost efficient. Then the rot starts moving in closer and closer.
Tainter says that collapse happens quickly. First the outer boroughs are sloughed off, the government cuts down dramatically on expenditures, becomes smaller, stops building monumental things, bennies to the populace become smaller and smaller — bread and circuses become some flour and street theater, and all that eventually stops, everything starts to contract, until at some point, the society has reduced itself to a workable doable size. At that point, the citizenry moves elsewhere to find work or land for agriculture, and the central core is left with not enough population to regrow, and eventually the rest just dwindles away.
This process can be helped along by natural disasters, such as extremely long droughts, volcanic action, earthquakes, floods, and by encroaching polities looking to expand. He says that the encroaching entities are always less complex because they really have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Additionally, a society based on the charisma of one individual can decline on the death of that individual.
This is an academic work, scholarly and well researched. It is readable and extremely interesting. He discusses something like 30 societies of all stripes, and uses three in detail to demonstrate his position: the Roman Empire, the Mayan civilization, and the Chacoan civilization in the American southwest.
It is easy to grasp his premise, and to decide on your own if you agree with it or now. It was written in 1988 and is considered a seminal work in its field.
- ROI – Return on Investment