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The Collapse of Complex Societies (New Studies in Archaeology) (Englisch) Taschenbuch – 29. März 1990

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'Tainter's model accommodates all levels of complexity and all kinds of evidence. It deserves to be widely read.' Antiquity

'Tainter's is an attractive and compelling thesis, of a genre which is nearly extinct among domestic historians.' History Today

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Any explanation of political collapse carries lessons not just for the study of ancient societies, but for the members of all complex societies in both the present and future. Dr Tainter describes nearly two dozen cases of collapse and reviews more than 2000 years of explanations. He then develops a new and far-reaching theory.

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Format: Taschenbuch
While lots of authors look for a simplistic "single cause" of collapse (that another reviewer seems to have bought into!) Tainter's view is a lot more global. Single causes? Maybe...but they all have a common element: declining marginal return for additional effort. That's the underlying issue that sparked massive protest at the WTO meetings in Seattle. Folks are working harder and harder just to stay even. If Y2K'ers don't understand that our marginal rate of return has headed south, they're missing Tainter's point.
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Format: Taschenbuch
Yourdon recommends Joseph Tainter's book, _The Collapse of Complex Societies_ (1988).
From a Y2K perspective, after a quick skim, not sure it is worth reading unless you are really interested in detailed history and economics. This book does not attempt to describe the collapses or provide especially helpful info in our context, I think.
The author IS rather proud of himself, though, as he beats up on many other theories of how civilizations collapse (e.g., Roman, Mayan). Other authors have proposed causes such as:
1. Depletion of vital resources, 2. Discovery of brand new resources, 3. Catastrophes, 4. Insufficient response to circumstances, 5. Competition from other complex societies, 6. Intruders, 7. Class conflict, societal contradictions, elite mismanagement/misbehavior, 8. Social dysfunction, 9. Mystical, 10. Chance concatenation of bad things
He says the cause is not these things, but instead, the fact that the society had achieved a level of complexity such that the economic overhead for maintaining the bureaucracy, etc was so great that the society was weakened. Then, when items like 1-10 occur, the society is less able to handle it.
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HASH(0x9472cf24) von 5 Sternen Fascinating and deeply disturbing 29. Mai 2004
Von Chris Stolz - Veröffentlicht auf Amazon.com
Format: Taschenbuch
Tainter's project here is to articulate his grand unifying theory to explain the strange and disturbing fact that every complex civilisation the world has ever seen has collapsed.

Tainter first elegantly disposes of the usual theories of social decline (disappearance of natural resources, invasions of barbarians, etc). He then lays out his theory of decline: as societies become more complex, the costs of meeting new challenges increase, until there comes a point where extra resources devoted to meeting new challenges produce diminihsing and then negative returns. At this point, societies become less complex (they collapse into smaller societies). For Tainter, social problems are always (ultimately) a problem of recruiting enough energy to "fuel" the increasing social complexity which is necessary to solve ever-newer problems.

Complexity, writes Tainter, describes a variety of characteristics in a number of societies. SOm aspects of complexity include many differentiated social roles, a large class of administrators not involved in the production of primary resources, energy devoted to different kinds of communication, centralised government, etc. Societies become more complex in order to solve problems. Complexity, for Tainter, is quantifiable. Where, for example, the Cherokee natives of the U.S. had about 5,000 cultural artifacts (things ranging from recipes to tools to tents) which were integral to their culture, the Allied troops landing on the Normandy coast in 1944 had about 40,000.

Herein, however, lies the rub. Since, as Tainter writes, the "number of challenges with which the Universe can confront a society is, for practical purposes, infinite," complex societies need to keep on increasing their level of complexity in order to survive new challenges. Tainter's thesis is that these "investments in aditional complexity" produce fewer and fewer returns with time, until eventually society cannot muster enough energy to fuel complexity. At this point, society collapses.

Consider this example: A simple hunter-gatherer society with limited agriculture (i.e. garden plots) is faced with a problem, such as a seasonal drop in food production (or an invasion from its neighbours who have the same problem and are coming over for food). The bottom line is, this society faces an energy shortage. This society could respond to the food crisis by either voluntarily declining in numbers (die-off, and unlikely) or by increasing production. Most societies choose the latter. In order to increase production, this society will need to either expand territorially (invade somebody else)or increase agricultural production . In either case, this investment can pay off substantially in either increased access to already-produced food or increased food production.

But the hunter-gatheres of the above example incur costs as they try to solve their food-shortage problem. If they conquer their neighbours, they have to garrison those territories, thus raising the cost of government. If they start agriculture on a larger or more intense scale in their own territories, they have to create a new class of citizens to man the farms, distribute and store the grain, and guard it from animals and invaders. In either case, the increases in access to energy (food) are offset somewhat by the increased cost of social complexity.

But, as the society gets MORE complex to confront newer challenges, the returns on these increases in complexity diminish. Eventually, the costs of maintaining garrisons (as the Romans found) is so high that both home and occupied populations revolt, and welcome the invaders with their simpler way of life and their lower taxes. Or, agricultural challenges (a massive drought, or degradation of soils) are so great that the society cannot muster the energy reserves to deal with them.

Tainter's book examines the Mayan, Chacoan and Roman collapses in terms of his theory of diminishing marginal returns on investments in complexity. This is the fascinating part of the book; the disturbing sections are Chapter Four and the final chapter. In Chapter 4, Tainter musters a massive array of statistics that show that modern society has been facing diminishing returns on investments in complexity. There is a very simple reason for this: we solve the easiest problems first. Take oil, for example. In 1950, spending the energy equivalent of one barrel of oil in searching for more oil yielded 100 barrels in discovered oil. In 2004, the world's five largest energy companies found less oil energy than they expended in looking for that energy. The per-dollar return on R&D investment has dropped for fifty years. In education, additional investments in programs, technology etc. no longer produce increases in outcomes. In short, industrial society is looking at steadily fewer returns on its investments in both non-human and human capital.

When a new challenge comes, Tainter argues, society will eventually be unable to muster the necessary resources to deal with the crisis, and will revert-- in a painful and unhappy way-- to a much simpler way of life.

In his final chapter, Tainter describes the modern world's "arms race of complexity" and makes some uncomfortable suggestions about our own future. (...). In an age where, for example, the U.S. invasion of Iraq has yielded net negative returns on investment even for the invaders (where's that cheap oil?), and where additional investments in education and health care in industrialised countries make no significant increases in outcomes, the historical focus of Tainter's work starts to become eerily prescient.

The scary thing about this deeply thoughtful and thoroughly researched book is its contention that the future, for all our knowledge and technology, might be an awful lot like the past.
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HASH(0x93e90318) von 5 Sternen Scholarly but gripping 31. März 2006
Von Erik D. Curren - Veröffentlicht auf Amazon.com
Format: Taschenbuch
In contrast to Jered Diamond's "Collapse," this volume does not just focus on one theory of why societies collapse--depletion of natural resources--but presents in summary several different theories. In academic style, Tainter examines the pros and cons of each, offering a cornucopia of references that would be an invaluable source for future research.

While he sees some merit to most theories, one he holds in complete contempt, while another he tends to prefer. Tainter has no patience for "mystical" notions that societies collapse because their moral fiber has degenerated, a theory made famous by Gibbon, Spengler and Toynbee. What he does believe is that complex societies always at some point reach a stage where they become too complex, where the costs to citizens and elites alike begin to outweigh the benefits of keeping the society together. At that point, the society is vulnerable to breaking up.

This is what happened to the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century. The burden of inflation and taxes became so heavy on the populace that even the Italians began to yearn for "liberation" by barbarian tribes. And collapse is not always a bad thing: tribes like the Vandals actually governed their sections of the old empire more effectively.

So, what about us? Because of globalization, any collapse would affect all industrialized countries together. So, the US cannot collapse without either being taken over by a competitor or bringing everyone else down with us. Oil running out might be the end of our era of complexity, an anomaly in human history, but we still have time to make changes that could forestall collapse. Overall, a fresh view of history key to understanding the present.
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HASH(0x942958c4) von 5 Sternen Best explanation of the rise and fall of civilization 19. Juli 2008
Von Dirk J. Willard - Veröffentlicht auf Amazon.com
Format: Taschenbuch Verifizierter Kauf
What I found interesting about Joseph Tainter's treatise on civilizations is his application of economic theory to explain how they collapse. After a methodical review the two basic theories of why civilizations develop in the first place, the integration theory and the conflict theory, he launches into why he thinks economics is useful: it explains marginal returns.

In simple terms, societies are machines for solving social problems. As problems become more difficult, solutions become more complicated, eating into resources. Eventually, all societies are faced with marginal returns on their investment. Economics is a study of how supply meets demand and management of scarce resources.

Tainter begins by exploring the two concepts of civilization. Actually, it really does not matter whether you subscribe to the integration theory or the conflict theory. Economics helps explain complexity. Screw drivers exist because hammers weren't enough. Power drills were eventually developed and so on. Societies created such things as cash because lugging things around to exchange slowed commerce. Eventually, monetary policies developed to both explain transactions and allow regulation and taxation. Taxation pays for society.

Here is where the two theories on civilization diverge. Integration theory proposes that societies become more complex because of a growth in people's wants and needs. Conflict theory says that societies exist because an upper class wants to control the output of society to further their own comfort and avarice. Personally, I agree with Tainter that neither theory works, although many societies I've read about, including our own can lean in one of these directions or another. Tainter agrees that economic theory cannot explain everything. After all, society and people have a rational and irrational half. For example, he explains how the taxation of citizens in the later Roman Empire became so unbearable that citizens frequently welcomed invading barbarians; miners in one central European province went over to the barbarians en-mass. Meanwhile, the rich in Rome fled to the countryside to avoid being conscripted into a failing series of governments. Peasants were encouraged to migrate to the cities, where they became a burden, because Roman governments deprived them of even subsistence --- all went to taxes.

Getting back to Tainter's approach with economic theory, he supports this theory very well. There are figures showing the declining returns on increased investments in agriculture, medicine, education, pollution control, nutrition and scientific research. Taken as a whole it is very impressive.

Unfortunately, I think the author relied too much on Rome as an example. Perhaps it was one he was extensively familiar or just a well-documented example. There are several examples of societies that have moderated their behavior and survived, at least long enough to be taken over by the current, predominant western culture: e.g., Japan. Faced with resource problems since the beginning they showed a remarkable ability to adapt without the widespread famines that seemed to plague the Chinese.

As for the current crisis that western civilization is experiencing now, Tainter provides a few clues but no concrete predictions. He believes that the civilization will adapt and survive. I believe that instead it will break down. Some countries will be abandoned to their fate while others, such as India and the European Union will strive to exist as separate entities long after the collapse of the United States and China. Tainter believes, while providing a few historical examples as proof, that societies existing together, like the European Union, cannot collapse because they are bonded together in competition. I, however, feel that as collapse becomes inevitable, worrying about what your neighbors will do becomes less important than worrying about your own survival.

Eventually, we in the US will climb out of the hole created by our demise but generations to come will wonder at our foolishness.

If this review helps, please add your vote.
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HASH(0x94b35504) von 5 Sternen No Longer a New Study - But Still Highly Relevant 24. Februar 2014
Von Nowhere Man - Veröffentlicht auf Amazon.com
Format: Taschenbuch
Many of the other reviews provide thorough summaries into Tainter's arguments, so I'll limit myself to my impressions of his key points. "Collapse of Complex Societies" seeks to establish, as a sort of universal law, a theory of diminishing marginal returns to complexity. In essence, what he means is that as societies become increasingly complex (in the number and structure of its institutions, the amount of energy and inputs they must use to maintain themselves), they progressively weaken their ability to respond to external pressures. Ultimately, societies cannot cope with accelerating complexity and ultimately revert back to simpler organizational modes of existence, which is how he terms, "collapse." Collapse, then, is a structural effect of the civilizational process itself and cannot, in his view, ultimately be avoided.

The book's strengths are two-fold: first, he jettisons any moralistic or value-laden explanation for why societies collapse (decadence, etc.) and, second, he argues that, while devastating, collapse may be a rational choice compared to unsustainable complexity. As this book was written 25 years ago, of course, his case studies - the Western Roman Empire, Mayan Civilization, and the Chacoan society of NW New Mexico - are based on literature that would now be considered out of date. More to the point: his examples of Mayan civilization and, especially, Chacoan society are quite speculative, so that his analysis really rests on Rome and, to a more limited extent, on central America. And, as he has established his theory on an essentially cost-benefit analysis of civilizational costs, any factor that is not economic can only be a symptom of collapse, not a root cause. In other words, this is a fairly strong economic deterministic model that is based on one real compelling case study (Rome), one fairly plausible example (Mayan society), and one whose evidentiary basis was really too thin to make more than simply educated guesses (Chacoan society).

As long, then, as you pair up Tainter's work with more recent studies like Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs and Steel," (1997), for example, this work has considerable value. Given the limitation of his source materials, he does make his theory of declining marginal returns persuasive; and other research has borne out many of his assertions. His economistic model is a bit dated (historians today would, I think, focus more on resource depletion) but is still unparalleled in showing how societies faces increasingly surmounting costs just to maintain themselves. Living in a country with a $17t national debt and a decaying infrastructure, Tainter's analysis of civilizational costs can, at times, be unnervingly prescient. While I would have preferred that his approach allow more scope for human agency - he believes that human action makes little difference once a society enters its terminal phase (but, how do you know, except through hindsight, when the fatal divide has been crossed?) - Tainter's work provides the most coherent understanding yet of how societies are, in essence, conundrums: that which gives them their initial strength is what, in the long run, does them in. His discussion of the fall of the Western Roman Empire from this perspective makes for especially engaging reading.

This is first and foremost an academic work and, for the causal reader, can be tough sledding at times. The meat of the book is in chapters 2, 4, and 5 - the first chapter is a rather overextended survey of different examples of collapse while the third is a literature review that will only be of interest to those who wish to delve into his bibliography. It would be great, if Tainter would revisit and update it, especially given how much it has influenced contemporary discussion on the sustainability of our own civilization. Still, it's an essential work and a good starting point for anyone interested in understanding how societies can unravel with astonishing rapidity.
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HASH(0x94b3569c) von 5 Sternen Looking Forward By Looking Back 16. Januar 2014
Von Mark Edward Bachmann - Veröffentlicht auf Amazon.com
Format: Taschenbuch Verifizierter Kauf
This is an interesting book. First published in the late 80's, it warrants renewed attention nowadays in light of all the end-of-the world hysterias currently emanating from concerns over economic turmoil, religious strife, nuclear terrorism, viral epidemics, and climate change. Even if most of us don't believe the worst is yet upon us, it's hard not to worry with so many books and movies out there depicting post-industrial societies where humans are left with their animal needs and violent proclivities, but none of the protections afforded by modern civilization.

Joseph Tainter, though, is no hysteric. He's a buttoned-down scholar without any apparent pre-conceived agenda and certainly no intent to sensationalize. He's actually a little boring, and casual readers expecting lurid thrills from this book are likely to put it down after the first few pages. Like other students of history over the years, he seems haunted by the fact that so many of the world's once-vibrant civilizations have vanished for no obvious reason. The tasks he's taken on to himself here are to (a) catalogue the major lost civilizations (b)summarize known facts surrounding their rise and fall (c) distill the academic literature regarding the causes of societal collapse down to a handful common theories, and (d) establish the framework for his own general theory. Since it's obvious from the start of the book that he's ultimately looking forward into dynamics that might one day lead to the demise of our own world, this book really grabs your attention once you begin to suspect he may know what he's talking about.

Tainter starts with a brief survey of eighteen vanished civilizations around the world which provide the substance for his study. His professional discipline is archeology, and several of his societies are ones, like the Minoans and the Chacoans, about which archeology tells us everything we know, since they left no written records. For others, like the ancient Romans and China's Western Chou Empire, he intrudes onto historians' turf because the written record provides a key part of the story. In fact, his most comprehensive and interesting discussion is of the Romans. I got the impression that he may have developed his animating insights for this book through his study of Rome, since he manner in which he imposes them on the sketchier cases sounds a bit vague to me in places.

Tainter is obviously not the first researcher to become fascinated by societal collapse. The phenomenon has spawned a whole genre of literature and a host of causal theories. He summarizes them all for us and groups them into eleven broad categories, including resource depletion, natural catastrophe, invasion, social dysfunction, random concatenation of events, and so forth. He points out that none of these are mutually exclusive and that all have something to offer. In the end, however, he pronounces the existing literature inadequate to the task of explaining how and why thriving civilizations eventually disappear. Hence the motivation for his study.

He does point to economic theories, one of the eleven groups, as the one probably richest in explanatory possibilities. And with that observation he lays the groundwork for his own theory, which is based in economics but is capable of subsuming elements associated with the other frameworks. In getting to his subject, Tainter generally avoids the term 'civilization'. He prefers instead the more precise phrase 'complex society', by which he means a social system entailing elaborate division of labor and supporting management hierarchies, government and a robust military. He refers to resources devoted to these functions as the society's "investment in complexity". He then explains the "rise" of a society as the period during which investment in complexity is growing and people are enjoying returns on it in the form of growing wealth, culture and security. Or at least enough people are enjoying these things that social and political stability prevail. Golden ages then can be seen as sweet spots in history during which the benefits from complexity are growing and incentivising more investment in it, triggering virtuous circles. However, such a dynamic is inherently self-limiting and eventually self-destructive.

Two phrases which Tainter borrows from economics are "marginal cost" and "marginal return". Eventually, the marginal returns from investment in complexity - meaning the returns currently available - inevitably level off and then decline, while the marginal costs stay the same or even increase. The only way central authorities can so on supporting such costs is through taxation or currency debasement, unsustainable measures in a system where benefits are perceived as declining. A system so weakened becomes vulnerable to popular revolt or invasion, or lacks the will and resources to overcome other disasters. Tainter describes, for example, how the "barbarians" who eventually overran the Roman Empire were in many cases welcomed and even assisted by the Empire's population, who increasingly saw themselves as benefitting little from Rome's "complexity", even as Rome's tax collectors became more predatory than ever.

Like the good scholar he is, Tainter is cautious in his approach to his subject and modest in the claims he makes for his conclusions. His theory is rather fatalistic and seems to regard a society's collapse as pre-determined by its rise. He is an unusually good writer and casts his points generally in short, declarative sentences that are easy to follow. His ideas, however, are not so simple, and require careful study to absorb fully. The book is short - only 216 pages - but it took me a long time to finish. I found it well worth the effort, and recommend it to others interested in this subject matter.
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