Archeologist Joseph Tainter’s book The Collapse of Complex Societies has done much to shape my thinking about our contemporary predictament. Issue 20 of Volume Magazine carried an interview I did with Tainter earlier this year but since the interview had to be cut down to fit the graphic design required by Volume, I thought I should post it online in its entirety.
KV: In your book you argue that civilizational collapse, as it took place in ancient societies such as the Chou Dynasty in China, the Indus Valley, Mesopotamia, and Ancient Rome is “a rapid, significant loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity.” Could you elaborate on what you mean by complexity and why it leads to collapse?
JT: I approach complexity from the perspective of an anthropologist. In our field one of the oldest questions is how and why human societies evolved from relatively simple and undifferentiated to complex and highly differentiated. Complexity in the framework I use consists of two components: structural differentiation and organization. Structural differentiation refers to the development of new categories of social roles, institutions, information, settlements, occupations, technologies, etc. Organization is how those are constrained so that they behave to form a system. If everydone does as they please there is no organization, and structural elements cannot form a system. Organization limits and channels behavior. So increasing complexity consists of increasing differentiation of structure combined with increasing organization. With a collapse, an established level of complexity is quickly lost.
KV: So as civilizations develop, you conclude, they differentiate—for example, by creating highly specialized social roles—and build greater and greater levels of organization that require higher investment of energy to maintain. Eventually the marginal returns on investment decline and civilizations either figure out how to deal with that situation or collapse. You note that from the perspective of humans as a species and hominadae as a family, complexity is quite unusual. Most of our existence has been in small settlements or nomadic groups that have relatively little differentiation and low levels of complexity.
Today we are living in the most complex society that has ever existed, yet we’ve avoided collapse thus far. Why is that?
JT: Diminishing returns to complexity are probably inevitable, but collapse doesn’t necessarily follow. Collapses are actually not that common. There are several ways to cope with diminishing returns to complexity. One is to find energy subsidies to pay for the process. That is what we have done with fossil fuels. And it is a big part of why a future crisis in fossil fuels is the most important thing we should be worrying about.
KV: All but a few geologists suggest that a decline in fossil fuel extraction is inevitable. In 1998 Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah said "The oil boom is over and will not return… All of us must get used to a different lifestyle." Are we doomed?
JT: The critical point is when we reach peak oil. This is the point where 50% of recoverable reserves have been extracted. At this point, production might be kept level for a few years with heroic efforts, but soon production will start to decline. And every year after that there will be less oil available than the year before. One of the challenges with peak oil is that you know you’ve passed it only in hindsight. So there is naturally controversy about how close it is. Some analysts think we have passed it already, but the effect is masked by the economic downturn. How badly peak oil affects us depends on how quickly we bring alternative energy production systems into place. If we delay too long, the party will be over. This is a real danger. Developing new energy sources is the most important thing we can do.
KV: What about technological innovation? The spread of digital technology, the Internet, and mobile technology contributed to the economic recovery during the last fifteen years. There has been a bit of talk about innovating our way out of this recession too, for example through urban computing, green architecture, or investment in new kinds of infrastructure. Is such optimism in technological solutions warranted? Are there pitfalls to it? Are there other means by which we can avoid collapse?
JT: Short answer: It’s complicated. Long answer: Technological-innovation-as-savior is part of our cosmology. It is a fundamental part of our beliefs, so frequently we don’t think about it rationally. Relying on technological innovation to find some solution is what I call a faith-based approach to the future. There are two things about technological innovation that concern me. The first is that, like other endeavors, research grows complex and costly and can reach diminishing returns. This is covered in the Collapse book so I won’t elaborate here. The second problem is what is known as the Jevons Paradox. William Stanley Jevons, a 19th century British economist, pointed out that in the long run technological innovations aimed as at using less of a resource actually lead to even more of the resource being used. His example was coal, but the principle applies across the board. As technological innovation leads to economy in using a resource, people respond to the lower cost by using even more. I conclude from this that technological innovations can offer only short-term advantages. They quickly become outdated, then the next round of innovations may be harder to achieve.
KV: Beyond outright collapse, is it possible to have partial collapses of complexity? Given that I go to see my parents in Lithuania frequently, I am fascinated by the ruins of the Soviet Empire. This wasn’t an outright collapse, but certainly a major level of social organization was shed.
JT: The term “collapse” has, of course, many colloquial meanings, and often it is applied to the demise of political entities. For academic purposes I prefer to use it to mean a rapid, substantial loss of complexity. With the end of the Soviet Union there was certainly some reduction in complexity, coming mainly in the form of a diminishing of organizational control. But this was not comparable with the loss of complexity in western Europe at the end of the Western Roman Empire. So the end of the Soviet Union may have been like other collapses in some ways, but it was not similar in scale.
KV: Similarly, I wonder about the role complexity played in this recession. If the popular sentiment was—until quite recently—that all of our access to information turned financial decision into a very rational enterprise, this turned out to be utterly false. One of the key problems with the financial instruments such as tranches and collateralized debt obligations is that they were simply too difficult for most people, even the MBAs, to understand. Is this recession an attempt of the system to get rid of toxic complexity?
JT: Keep in mind that complexity emerges to solve problems. In regard to the economic crisis, part of the problem was insufficient complexity. Remember that complexity includes both differentiation of structure and increase in organization. The financial business had over the last few years innovated new structures—new fiscal products such as derivatives. This was not met by an increase in organization, which would have involved regulation and government oversight. The problem emerged because the financial system (involving both the private and public sectors) was not complex enough. Now it appears that the government will add the organization, but of course too late in regard to the current crisis.
KV: Yes, of course, you’re right. Corporations strove to create deregulated business environments and yet all that seems to have backfired.
Let me bring up one more example: I recently edited a book exploring the fate of infrastructure in Los Angeles, although it could really have been any major city in any developed country. Our conclusion was that the sort of infrastructure that we built in the early 20th century—think of Wililam Mulholland constructing the Los Angeles aqueduct to carry water down two hundred, twenty-there miles from the Owens River or the city’s freeways—is a thing of the past. As individuals became more concerned with their property values and quality of life, they also became more adept at defending them. Homeowner’s organizations, neighborhood groups, and ad hoc alliances of community residents are incredibly good at making sure that infrastructural interventions will not impact them and displace such projects or forestall their construction. At the same time, public agencies have also become keen experts at defending their turf. Infrastructure, we observed, follows a curve of diminishing returns. Adding another lane to an overcrowded city freeway, for example, would cost a tremendous amount of money—likely a billion dollars a mile—and cause massive disruption, but would only alleviate congestion for a few years. As semi-autonomous systems interfere with each other, layers of complexity form that can be very hard to get adequate returns from.
JT: Public involvement in governmental decision-making generates what I call an escalation dynamic. It is a like an arms race, but of course usually non-lethal. As public groups become successful at contesting government decisions, government agencies must get better at formulating and defending those decisions. This drives up costs. In the U.S. Forest Service (where I once worked and saw this process in operation) this came to be called “analysis paralysis.” Then, as the government gets better at defending decisions, public groups must themselves become better at contesting decisions. They also must raise money for lawyers and specialists. The cost of both formulating and challenging decisions is driven upward in a spiral.
Adding an extra lane to a freeway does, of course, put one in the realm of diminishing returns. But I realized long ago that such projects are not only about transportation. They are equally about politics, interest groups, and employment. The decisions will therefore not necessarily be economically rational.
KV: Modern architects believed that architecture would be able to solve society’s problems by creating more powerful systems of organization to get rid of malfunctioning, older ones. In the 1960s and 1970s, all this changed. Architects began to find ways to value complexity and congestion. In his 1966 book Complexity and Contradiction, Robert Venturi all but defined the future trajectory of the field by suggesting that complexity should be embraced by architects living in a complex culture. In other words, he called for architects to abandon the modernist idea of forcing a simple building to hold a complex program and complicated physical plant. Instead, Venturi advocated complex buildings that would acknowledge the contradictions inherent in highly organized life to the extent that they even anticipated their own failures. Meanwhile in his 1978 Delirious New York, Rem Koolhaas suggested that congestion was what made cities vital. If these books animated much of architectural thought into the last decade,
it strikes me that we are now in a time of over-complexity and over-congestion, a period in which complexity is getting away from us. Whether its trying to get a new subway built in New York, a high speed rail line built between San Francisco and Los Angeles, managing my insurance policy or just getting my universal remote to work, the levels of complexity we’ve built appear to be spiraling out of control. And then of course there’s peak oil looming. It’s not clear to me what we do in such a situation. Do you have any thoughts on this?
JT: Congestion does not necessarily equal complexity (in my conception). Congestion may mean a lack of complexity (insufficient organization). The irony of complexity is that it simplifies. That is, elaboration of structure and organization simplifies and channels behavior. Isn’t this was Le Corbusier was trying to accomplish? Le Corbusier wanted to design complex systems—systems that were highly structured and organized. The trouble is that in the human realm you can’t design a truly complex system from the top down. The Soviets tried that, as did the Brazilians with Brasilia.
A few years ago I was asked to talk at TTI Vanguard, a group that sponsors quarterly workshops on cutting-edge issues in information technology. The topic was “The Challenge of Complexity.” The first talk was by a computer professor at UCLA who was originally from New York. He used Holland Tunnel to illustrate network congestion, implying that it had a problem of complexity. When a stoplight was added at Holland Tunnel, traffic throughput improved. When it came my turn to talk I pointed out that the problem of Holland Tunnel was insufficient complexity—that is, insufficient organization. The stoplight increased organization, simplyfying the system and making it function better.
KV: I was struck by how in Collapse you suggest that collapse was actually preferable for many of the people who experienced it.
JT: Western European peasants saw their taxes drop and probably saw more of their children survive. But times became more violent and less certain. In the Maya area, perhaps 1,000,000 people died around the time of the Maya collapse. It’s a matter of perspective. For those who survive, life may be better. But usually it is not better for the elites.
KV: How do we survive this period of diminishing returns and crisis? As a civilization and as individuals? How do we live with crisis?
JT: I am often asked questions like this, and I am less optimistic now that I once was. Certainly we need new energy sources or the future will be very unpleasant. But new energy creates its own problems, which in time we will have to address. We can foresee this with nuclear energy and its waste. Even so-called "green" energy sources will be environmentally damaging. All of our adaptations are short term. They solve immediate problems but set the stage for future problems. Eric Sevareid once said "The chief source of problems is solutions." He was right, but that does not mean that we forego solutions. I like to use an athletic metaphor to think about sustainability. It is possible to lose—to become unsustainable and collapse. But the converse does not hold. There is no point at which we have "won"—become sustainable forever. Success consists of staying in the game.