Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Collapse of Complexity

Joseph Tainter's The Collapse of Complex Societies wasn't an easy read, so I didn't read it all, just most of it and enough to understand his conclusions and implications for today's situation. You can read it for free at the link provided above, or get a fairly detailed synopsis at unz.com.  Tainter's key insight is this. The marginal returns to ever increasing complexity are diminishing, hardly arguable. This inevitably leads to complexity that is unsustainable.  When an inevitable set of stressors hit the complex society when at a point of diminishing returns, it becomes more rationale for it decompose into simpler sub-components, because the society becomes incapable of maintaining its complexity.  Tainter reviews various theories of collapse and 11 examples in history. He summarizes:
  1. Human societies are problem-solving organizations;
  2. Sociopolitical systems require energy for their maintenance;
  3. Increased complexity carries with it increased costs per capita; and
  4. Investment in sociopolitical complexity as problem-solving response often reaches a point of declining marginal returns.
His summary of the collapse of the western Roman Empire is illustrative of his mode of analysis.
The fall of Rome was not due to barbarians, for the Empire was economically, organizationally, and militarily stronger than its besiegers. And it was not due to internal weaknesses, for the Empire remained essentially intact for a period of several hundred years. Rome's collapse was due to the excessive costs imposed on an agricultural population to maintain a far-flung empire in a hostile environment. 
In general, unless a complex society finds new sources of energy or more efficient forms of organizing themselves, they eventually arrive at the point where an inevitable stressor will cause societal collapse to a simpler more efficient means of delivering sustenance.

From the Unz.com review:

Inevitably there comes a time when “continued investment in complexity as a problem solving strategy yields a declining marginal return” (C1,B1 to C2,B2). Tensions, adversity and dissatisfaction build up, resulting in ideological strife (e.g. between growth and no-growth). The system “scans” for solutions or alternatives to collapse, be it new religions in Roman times or more R&D, green technologies or singularitarianism today. If this process is successful, the system receives an energy subsidy (like England got with coal), and the process continues; otherwise, it passes the peak and starts descending into outright “output failure” as benefits fall while costs soar.
Tainter distinguishes the manner of collapse among two primary alternatives, "peer polity" and "isolated, dominant states." In today's globalist system, there is no such thing as an isolated dominant state.  This was already clear to Tainter already in the mid-1980s.
Peer polities then tend to undergo long periods of upwardly-spiraling competitive costs, and downward marginal returns. This is terminated finally by domination of one and acquisition of a new energy subsidy (as in Republican Rome and Warring States China), or by mutual collapse (as among the Mycenaeans and the Maya). Collapse, if and when it comes again, will this time be global. No longer can any individual nation collapse. World civilization will disintegrate as a whole. Competitors who evolve as peers collapse in like manner. 

One might think that unilateral economic "undevelopment" might be the solution to this challenge of complexity. However, since power follows economics, any nation that unilaterally wrecks its economy, say with a green new deal or other nonsense, risks being dominated by other global powers. The "scanning" behavior behind the "Green New Deal" is as ancient as the Roman experimentation with all sorts of new religions towards the end of their empire.

I used to dislike protectionism and isolationism, thinking that they inhibited the world wide growth of wealth.  Even before COVID19, in applying Nassim Taleb's concept of anti-fragility, I began to think that Isolationism and protectionism were rationale responses to the risks from a global economy.  By underestimating fat tailed risks, such as pandemics, our economic system becomes too fragile and complex to withstand stressors.  America is uniquely situated to survive a global collapse because federalism gives a head start on the localism that would inevitably result. (Remembering from Tainter that collapse is a rationale decomposition into smaller polities.) As Nassim Taleb points out localism is anti-fragile; I believe Tainter's work dovetails nicely with Taleb's insight that catastrophes seem more frequent than theory suggests (or at least as theory is applied by mainstream economists today).

Additionally, the scanning behavior for alternative energy sources is a worthy goal. We just shouldn't destroy our wealth for it.  Additionally, taking a look at nuclear power seems worthwhile. For the time being, the industrial capacity available from fossil fuels overwhelms the benefit of the alternatives, as we continue to find more efficient ways to extract.  Clearly that won't last forever, but it keeps lasting longer than anyone seems able to predict.

Some Fears

The elites will seize (ever more) power and enforce globalist policies, robbing us of the ability to position our country to survive a global crisis through localism.  Elites benefit from complexity; even Tainter acknowledges this. The push for mass immigration, essentially the abolishment of the nation-state is in their interest as it supplies ever more labor to produce surplus for them to keep power. (There, I used a Marxist argument against a Marxist policy.)

China is particularly vulnerable to collapse because their infrastructure was built poorly, they have a poor demographic outlook, and nasty pollution. My fear is that they will start a war to seize resources to stave off collapse and maintain the support of the population.  Tainter discusses the key point that all governments must maintain legitimacy through bread and circuses, suppression, or unity against external threats.  China has some current short term advantages that they may wish to exploit before their demographic curve works against them.  They are surrounded by wealthy neighbors, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea, distant from their chief ally, the United States. Tainter points out the Roman conquest of Macedonia in 176 B.C. yielded a booty so rich as to allow the elimination of all taxes on Roman citizens, to provide an historical example.

I recommend Tainter's book for it's key conclusions.  The academic examples are excellent, but don't feel guilty just skipping to conclusions after reading an example or two.

1 comment:

  1. Well done!

    Hmm. I'll need a blog post to respond to your thoughtful essay. Pondering one now.