Failures of Complex Societies

Joseph Tainter in The Collapse of Complex Societies (Cambridge University Press, 1988) and Jared Diamond in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (Viking, 2004) provide compelling evidence for how complex societies fail.  I am not going to rigorously follow their analyses.  However, I am going to leverage their insights into the sources of failures.

Tainter argues that sustainability or collapse of societies follow from the success or failure of problem-solving institutions.  Societies collapse when their investments in social complexity and their energy subsidies reach a point of diminishing marginal returns.  In other words, the levels of complexity overwhelm resources.

Diamond argues that deforestation, pollution, soil depletion (or erosion), climate change, and hostile neighbors lead to diminishing competitive advantages.  While Tainter focuses on organizational missteps, Diamond emphasizes natural resources as wee al political and social adversaries.

Where are we headed? Three scenarios seem plausible:

  • We will get beyond the current landscape of challenges to new levels of technological innovation and prosperity
  • We will try to maintain the status quo, but societal services will eventually be overtaxed and under resourced leading to significant curtailments of services
  • Marginalized constituencies, on the left and right, will revolt leading to new radical leadership and capital flight to other, less-threatening venues

How might we know which scenarios are emerging?  Here are a few leading indicators:

  • Innovation and Prosperity: New starts, venture capital, acquisitions and/or IPOs
  • Curtailments of Services: Budget deficits, decreasing investments, public sentiment
  • Revolt and New Leadership: Protests, primary fights, changing of the guard

What should we do?  We need to balance risks across alternative futures.  This should include investments in “options” on alternative futures.  In other words, avoid big bets on one possible future.  We also need to manage failure scenarios across ecosystems such as health, education, energy, finance, etc.

We also need to be flexible and adaptive if society, as we know it, disappears.  This requires resources imbued with flexibility and adaptivity.  This could mean stockpiling canned goods and toilet paper in the basement.  More important, however, is an outlook that expects change and is open to new ways of addressing it.  This means questioning the sustainability of the status quo, particularly the underlying assumptions.

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