By J.B. Ruhl
One gets the feeling, doesn’t one, that the good old U.S. just isn’t what it used to be. There’s this Iraq thing, and places like China and India that will soon dwarf us in many respects once thought to be our exclusive domain. So how bad could it get? Can the U.S. fall to pieces? Maybe that’s unthinkable, but it no longer seems Chicken Littlish to wonder whether we might come out of a transition period looking fundamentally different from where we were a mere 5 years ago.
So how did we get to this point, and what are the dynamics of the forces at play? Notwithstanding the bounty of information and insight found in Jared Diamond’s Collapse, the most powerful account of societal breakdown through the ages remains Joseph Tainter’s 1988 treatment of the subject, Collapse of Complex Societies. Tainter examines the history of societal collapse using complex adaptive systems theory, identifying four qualities of complex social structures that led to collapse of thriving societies of the past: (1) human societies are problem-solving organizations; (2) sociopolitical systems require energy for their maintenance; (3) increased structural complexity carries with it increased costs per capita; and (4) investment in sociopolitical structure as a problem-solving response to social stressors can reach a point of diminishing (and eventually negative) returns. Social leaders respond to stressors by adding complexity to the structure of social systems, such as the economy, military, agriculture, technology, and, last but not least, the legal system. But neither of these subsystems can be isolated—to build structural complexity in, say, agriculture requires more structural complexity in technology and the economy. When major stresses confront a society, this “interlinked growth of several subsystems” places demands on the society’s reserve capacities. If the reserves are used up—when “there is…little or no surplus with which to counter major adversities,” then “investment in further complexity yields increased returns, but at a declining marginal rate.” Eventually, “increasing complexity may actually bring decreased overall benefits, as the economic system and the sustaining base are taxed to the point where productivity declines. All segments of the society compete for shrinking economic product. This is the realm of extreme vulnerability.”
Through a meticulous survey of the available record on collapse of many societies of the past, Tainter makes a compelling case that this is precisely the road they followed—each crossed a threshold after which, as far as what we can tell, no matter how much the leaders threw resources at the problem, things only got worse. Of course, what we’d like to know today is how do we know when we are getting near that point and how do we avoid it. More anon.