Dr. Joseph Tainter’s study of the archeological evidence and literature concerning the disintegration of great societies is a bit like studying earthquakes. You know they’ve happened. You know what happens when they happen. Yet, you can’t predict when or even how they happen. Actually we’re a bit better off when it comes to the big shakes because at least we can do some prep–beef up the building codes, keep some survival materials in the garage to keep life going till the infrastructure reboots. But if your whole support system disappears, whether gradually or suddenly, how do you get ready for that?

It isn’t the purpose of The Collapse of Complex Societies here to deal with those matters, but it’s hard to keep them from your mind as Tainter meticulously traces the causes and effects of the disappearance of a number of the world’s great empires.

He devotes the first hundred pages or so to an exhaustive review of collapse literature. We all know about Gibbon, of course, but there are legions more who have explored the why’s and wherefore’s of all this. The theories range from invasions to disease to meteors to morality. Tainter looks at them all and  pronounces them all incomplete (e.g., invasion) or ridiculous (e.g., morality.)

He offers instead a semi-mathematical model for describing how collapses come about. It’s based on a pretty straightforward cost-benefit analysis. Folks stay in the empire (or complex society) for as long as the profits outweigh the losses. If the empire provides such a sufficient supply of items as defense, security, food, and coercion, people as individuals and communities stick with it. If not, the society collapses into its component parts. That is, for example, if a collection of communities were separate agricultural units before the empire, they will likely return to that state when the empire dissolves. It seems like a great theory, and I buy into Tainter’s claim that it accounts for all variables in a way that none of the other theories do. In that sense, The Collapse of Complex Societies seems like a valuable contribution to the study. Too bad it was completed before the collapse of the Soviet Union. I would think that made a terrific modern example of what he was talking about. He’s probably written about it elsewhere. As it is, his main examples–Rome, Mayans, Chacoan, Anasazi–make convincing ancient case studies.

The problem seems to be that it’s hard to determine, even in hindsight, what straw (or straws) breaks the camel’s back. Some societies seem to survive long droughts, for example, others to collapse. Other societies bear huge tax burdens for long periods of time, some don’t. So, although the theory accounts for all variables, it is unable describe or predict the relative influence of single variables or of various combinations. He uses the word “probably” and phrases such as “It seems as if” when it comes to pinning down exact causes. Or so it seems to me.

Interesting as the book is, I do have to offer a caveat. Psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists seem to have a penchant for poor writing. Tainter hasn’t escaped. One of the main sins is passive voice. He never says “Tom hit the ball” when he can say “The ball was hit by Tom.” Example: “Aspects of Mayan sociopolitical organization have been discussed previously. This is a topic that crosscut all other facets of the Maya, but can be briefly isolated to characterize its nature.”  Why not “Mayan sociopolitical organization crosscuts all other facets of the Maya”? Or maybe it’s just an old English teacher grousing.

Then there is the apparently endemic need to invent silly new names for commonplace events. Maybe to sound scientific? I don’t know. Building towns, for example, becomes “settlement nucleation” in the hands of the Archeologist.


But for all of that a good book and a very worthwhile read. Warning, though. Once you’re aware of these signs, you can see them all around you, and paranoia comes a-creeping.

sitting up clapping

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