Joseph Tainter's 2009 Speech - Human Resource Use: Timing and Implications for Sustainability

Joseph Tainter, a Professor in the Department of Environment and Society at Utah State University, and author of the seminal work "The Collapse of Complex Societies", gave a speech about a year ago on complexity and resource use at the 94th Annual Meeting of Ecological Society of America in New Mexico: (Conference theme: Human Macroecology: Understanding Human-Environment Interactions Across Scales). The speech, 'Human Resource Use: Timing and Implications for Sustainability', was published previously on The Oil Drum, in September 2009.

Human Resource Use: Timing and Implications for Sustainability

by Joseph Tainter

Few questions of history have been more enduring than how today’s complex societies evolved from the foraging bands of our ancestors. While this might seem of academic interest, it has important implications for anticipating our future. Our understanding of sustainability depends to a surprising degree on our understanding of the human past. My purposes today are to show that the conventional understandings of cultural evolution are untenable, as are assumptions about sustainability that follow from them, and to present a different approach to assessing our future.

Cultural complexity is deeply embedded in our contemporary self image. Colloquially it is known by the more common term “civilization,” which we believe our ancestors achieved through the phenomenon called “progress.” The concepts of civilization and progress have a status in the cosmology of industrial societies that amounts to what anthropologists call “ancestor myths.” Ancestor myths validate a contemporary social order by presenting it as a natural and sometimes heroic progression from earlier times.

Social scientists label this a “progressivist” view. It supposes that cultural complexity is intentional, that it emerged through the inventiveness of our ancestors. Progressivism is the dominant ideology of free-market societies. But inventiveness is not a sufficient explanation for cultural complexity, which requires facilitating circumstances. What were those circumstances? Prehistorians once thought they had the answer: The discovery of agriculture gave our ancestors surplus food and, concomitantly, free time to invent urbanism and the things that comprise “civilization”–cities, artisans, priesthoods, kings, aristocracies, and all of the other features of early states.

The progressivist view posits a specific relationship between resources and complexity. It is that complexity develops because it can, and that the factor facilitating this is surplus energy. Energy precedes complexity and allows it to emerge. There are, however, significant reasons to doubt whether surplus energy has actually driven much of cultural evolution.

One strand of thought that challenges progressivism emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries in the works of Wallace (1761), Malthus (1798), and Jevons. The economist Kenneth Boulding derived from Malthus’s essay on population three theorems: the Dismal Theorem, the Utterly Dismal Theorem, and the moderately cheerful form of the Dismal Theorem. The Utterly Dismal Theorem directly challenges the progressivist view:

Any technical improvement can only relieve misery for a while, for as long as misery is the only check on population, the improvement will enable population to grow, and will soon enable more people to live in misery than before. The final result of improvements, therefore, is to increase the equilibrium population, which is to increase the sum total of human misery (Boulding, 1959: vii [emphases in original]).

The implication of this strain of thought is that humans have rarely had surplus energy. Surpluses are quickly dissipated by growth in consumption. Since humans have rarely had surpluses, the availability of energy cannot be the primary driver of cultural evolution.

Beyond a Malthusian view, there is another factor that undermines progressivism. It is that complexity costs. In any living system, increased complexity (involving differentiation in structure and increasing organization) carries a metabolic cost. In non-human species this is a straightforward matter of additional calories. Among humans the cost is calculated in such currencies as resources, effort, time, or money, or by more subtle matters such as annoyance. While humans find complexity appealing in spheres such as art, music, or architecture, we usually prefer that someone else pay the cost. We are averse to complexity when it unalterably increases the cost of daily life without a clear benefit to the individual or household. Before the development of fossil fuels, increasing the complexity and costliness of a society meant that people worked harder.

The development of complexity is thus a paradox of human history. Over the past 12,000 years, we have developed technologies, economies, and social institutions that cost more labor, time, money, energy, and annoyance, and that go against our aversion to such costs. Why, then, did human societies ever become more complex?

At least part of the answer is that complexity is a basic problem-solving tool. Confronted with problems, we often respond by developing more complex technologies, establishing new institutions, adding more specialists or bureaucratic levels to an institution, increasing organization or regulation, or gathering and processing more information. While we usually prefer not to bear the cost of complexity, our problem-solving efforts are powerful complexity generators. All that is needed for growth of complexity is a problem that requires it. Since problems continually arise, there is persistent pressure for complexity to increase.

Cultural complexity can be viewed as an economic function. Societies and institutions invest in problem solving, undertaking costs and expecting benefits in return. In problem-solving systems, inexpensive solutions are adopted before more complex and expensive ones. In the history of human food-gathering and production, for example, labor-sparing hunting and gathering gave way to more labor-intensive agriculture, which in some places has been replaced by industrial agriculture that consumes more energy than it produces. We produce minerals and energy whenever possible from the most economical sources. Our societies have changed from egalitarian relations, economic reciprocity, ad hoc leadership, and generalized roles to social and economic differentiation, specialization, inequality, and full-time leadership. These characteristics are the essence of complexity, and they increase the costliness of any society.

In the progressivist view, surplus energy precedes and facilitates the evolution of complexity. Certainly this is sometimes true: There have been occasions when humans adopted energy sources of such great potential that, with further development and positive feedback, there followed great expansions in the numbers of humans and the wealth and complexity of societies. These occasions have, however, been so rare that we designate them with terms signifying a new era: the Agricultural Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. It is worth noting that these unusual transitions have not resulted from unbridled human creativity. Rather, they emerged from solutions to problems of resource shortages, and were adopted reluctantly because initially they created diminishing returns on effort in peoples’ daily lives.

Most of the time, cultural complexity increases from day-to-day efforts to solve problems. Complexity that emerges in this way will usually appear before there is additional energy to support it. Rather than following the availability of energy, cultural complexity often precedes it. Complexity thus compels increases in resource production. This understanding of the temporal relationship between complexity and resources has implications for sustainability that diverge from what is commonly assumed. I will explore these implications shortly. It is useful first to present a historical case study, the Western Roman Empire, that illustrates these points.

The Roman Empire collapsed in the mid 5th century A.D., but its last 200 years of existence had been a reprieve. It had been nearly destroyed in the 3rd century. In the half-century from 235-284 the empire was repeatedly breached by invasions of Germanic peoples from the north and the Persians from the east. When these invaders were not being repelled, Roman armies were fighting each other in the service of would-be emperors. Many cities were sacked and productive lands devastated. For a time, rival empires broke away in the east and the west. It seemed that the Roman Empire would not survive much longer.

The Roman government had a clear sustainability goal: the survival of the empire. In response to the crises, the emperors Diocletian and Constantine, in the late third and early fourth centuries, designed a government that was larger, more complex, and more highly organized. They doubled the size of the army. This was very costly. To pay for this sustainability effort, the government taxed its citizens more heavily, conscripted their labor, and dictated their occupations.

With the rise in taxes, population could not recover from plagues in the second and third centuries. There were chronic shortages of labor. Marginal lands went out of cultivation. Faced with taxes, peasants would abandon their lands and flee to the protection of a wealthy landowner. The Roman Empire survived the 3rd century crisis and achieved two centuries of sustainability, but at the long-term cost of consuming its capital resources: producing lands and peasant population. When crises emerged again in the late 4th century, the empire lacked the resources to respond adequately and in time collapsed.

The Roman Empire is a single case study in complexity and problem solving, but it is an important and representative one. It illustrates the basic process by which societies increase in complexity. Societies adopt increasing complexity to solve problems, becoming at the same time more costly. In the normal course of economic evolution, this process at some point will produce diminishing returns. Once diminishing returns set in, a problem-solving institution must either find new resources to continue the activity, or fund the activity by reducing the share of resources available to other economic sectors. The latter is likely to produce economic contraction, popular discontent, and eventual collapse. This was the fate of the Western Roman Empire.

This understanding of complexity and resources has implications for understanding sustainability. Both popular and academic discourse commonly assume that (a) future sustainability requires that industrial societies consume a lower quantity of resources than is now the case, and (b) sustainability will result automatically if we do so. Sustainability emerges, in this view, as a passive consequence of consuming less. Thus sustainability efforts are commonly focused on reducing consumption through voluntary or enforced conservation, perhaps involving simplification, and/or through improvements in technical efficiencies.

The common perspective on sustainability follows logically from the progressivist view that resources precede and facilitate innovations that increase complexity. Complexity, in this view, is voluntary. Human societies become more complex by choice. By this reasoning, we should be able to forego complexity and the resource consumption that it entails. Progressivism leads to the notion that societies can deliberately reduce their use of resources and thereby achieve sustainability.

The fact that complexity and costliness increase through mundane problem solving suggests a different and startling conclusion: Contrary to what is typically advocated as the route to sustainability, it is usually not possible for a society to reduce its consumption of resources voluntarily over the long term. To the contrary, as problems great and small inevitably arise, addressing these problems requires complexity and resource consumption to increase. As illustrated by the Roman Empire and other cases, this has commonly been the case.

Many advocates of sustainability will find it disturbing that long-term conservation is not possible. Naturally we must ask: Are there alternatives to this process? Regrettably, no simple solutions are evident. Consider some of the approaches commonly advocated:

1. Voluntarily Reduce Resource Consumption. While this may work for a time, its longevity as a strategy is constrained by the fact that societies increase in complexity to solve problems. Resource production must grow to fund the increased complexity. To implement voluntary conservation long term would require that a society be either uniquely lucky in not being challenged by problems, or that it not address the problems that confront it.

2. Employ the Price Mechanism to Control Resource Consumption. This is currently the laissez-faire strategy of industrialized nations. Since humans don’t commonly forego affordable consumption of desired goods and services, economists consider it more effective than voluntary conservation. Both approaches, however, lead eventually to the same outcome: As problems arise, resource consumption must increase at the societal level even if consumers as individuals purchase less.

3. Ration Resources. Because of its unpopularity, rationing is possible in democracies only for clear, short-term emergencies. This is illustrated by the reactions to rationing in England and the United States during World War II. Moreover, rationed resources may become needed to solve societal problems, belying any attempt to conserve through rationing. Something like this can be seen in the fiscal stimulus programs enacted recently.

4. Reduce Population. While this would reduce aggregate resource consumption temporarily, as a long-term strategy it has the same fatal flaw: Problems will emerge that require solutions, and those solutions will compel resource production to grow.

5. Hope for Technological Solutions. I sometimes call this a faith-based approach to our future. Members of industrialized societies are socialized to believe that we can always find a technological solution to resource problems. Technology, within the framework of this belief, will presumably allow us continually to reduce our resource consumption per unit of material well-being. Conventional economics teaches that to bring this about we need only the price mechanism and unfettered markets. The flaw here was pointed out by William Stanley Jevons: As technological improvements reduce the cost of using a resource, total consumption will actually increase.

In conclusion, sustainability is not the achievement of stasis. It is not a passive consequence of having fewer humans who consume more limited resources. One must work at being sustainable. The challenges that any society (or other institution) might confront are, for practical purposes, endless in number and infinite in variety. This being so, sustainability is a matter of solving problems.

In the conventional view, complexity follows energy. If so, then we should be able to forego complexity voluntarily and reduce our consumption of the resources that it requires. This approach to sustainability implicitly sees the future as a condition of stasis with no challenges.

In actuality, major infusions of surplus energy are rare in human history. More commonly, complexity increases in response to problems. Complexity emerging through problem solving typically precedes the availability of energy, and compels increases in its production. Complexity is not something that we can ordinarily choose to forego.

Applying this understanding leads to two conclusions. The first is that the solutions commonly recommended to promote sustainability–conservation, simplification, pricing, and innovation–can do so only in the short term. Secondly, long-term sustainability depends on solving major societal problems that will converge in coming decades, and this will require increasing complexity and energy production. Sustainability is not a condition of stasis. It is, rather, a process of continuous adaptation, of perpetually addressing new or ongoing problems and securing the resources to do so.

It is useful to think of sustainability in the metaphor of an athletic game: It is possible to “lose”–that is, to become unsustainable, as happened to the Western Roman Empire. But the converse does not hold. Because we continually confront challenges, there is no point at which a society has “won”–become sustainable in perpetuity, or at least for a very long time. Success, rather, consists of staying in the game.

Discussion Questions

1. Can one group of people choose to, by themselves, forgo complexity and live in a sustainable way on land that they have purchased? Or are there too many inputs required for this to work?

2. Is it helpful for an individual to choose to become a little more sustainable - buy a smaller car, or use the subway instead of a car, or buy locally grown food?

3. Trying to make change at the governmental level seems to be difficult. Could this be related to the issues Joseph Tainter raises?

4. What insights of Joseph Tainter do you find most helpful? Disturbing?

Sorry, but this hypothesis of societal development continues to have a massive hole at its heart. A few examples are given where complexity requires extra energy/resources, then the QED is made that ALL increases in complexity require extra energy/resources.

Totally ignoring all those instances where extra complexity REDUCED energy/resource usage.

As an example, in 1973 OPEC dramatically raised oil prices and gave a shock to the world economy that the supply of cheap oil wasn't guaranteed. In response to that 'problem', the efficiency of oil usage significantly increased, with better designed, higher tolerance engines stripping more useful work from the oil and essentially lopping the peak off of Hubbert's prediction.

If you replace the 'complexity implies extra energy/resource' heart of this hypothesis with 'there are generally choices in response to problems, some of which can reduce usage' then the edifice of a red queen race falls away into a far more interesting set of questions - 'how do you pick the right solution (not necessarily the cheapest)?' and 'how do you stop the increased complexity and specialisation from creating in non resilient system (the real cause of the fall of Rome)?'

Considering it in metaphor, we are continually scrabbling up a hill as the flood waters rise. Eventually we will be all clustered on the very peak of the hill; and then we all get wet. Nothing precludes us swimming to another, higher, hill, or building a bridge (we've done it in the past); but more importantly, nothing precludes us pumping some of that floodwater elsewhere. It's all down to the ability to see clearly the systematic shape of the position we are in and make sensible decisions, in time.

For a society, a civilisation, to continue, we have to make the right decision EVERY time, fail and we all fall. It's not a question of complexity or resources, it's a question of understanding, intelligence and action. When the complexity or interconnectedness or just plain general intelligence level hits a point where it's not up to the job, that's when it fails.

I personally think we clambered up a particular hill for 4000 years now; one of centralisation and specialisation where advantage comes from joining together and being interdependent. That hill has reached its peak in the whole globe being essentially one organism that sinks or swims together. I think we need to recognise that distributed approaches are now the order of the day, where decisions have to be weighed against their resource costs, and where you explicitly recognise that there is a limit to the level of intelligence that can manage the society, and that multiple societies at that scale help the overall resilience. No wars, no power grabs, no competition in anything other than smart decisions. The only question is if we are smart enough to make that paradigm jump (I'm thinking not, unfortunately).

Maybe we should be calling our problem non-resilliant systems. Back when 90% of the population were farmers, and most of the rest were craftsmen, society was pretty resilient. If 10% of the population was wiped out by an illness, the rest could pretty well carry on. Most goods were made of local materials, so imports weren't much of an issue either.

But now, we are so specialized that we cannot necessarily cover for what others do, or if necessary imports suddenly become unavailable. I think of complexity as specialization. When everything becomes very specialized, it seems like Liebig's Law of the Minimum comes into play more often. What we plan, just doesn't work. We need specialized workers, or imports, or special tools, and the system becomes more and more difficult to maintain with limited oil.

Agreed, but non-resilient systems aren't a consequence of a certain complexity level. At 6.7bn people, it's perfectly possible to have every specialisation backed up 10...100...1000 times over. Nope, we have the systems setup in the way we do because of local, short term, and usually stupid decisions we have made.

Whether it's the concentration of the financial districts in a few square blocks in each country, the singleton chip factories, the moving of all manufacturing to where wages are low and regulation light, we tend to optimise for small costs whilst totally ignoring resilience issues. And don't get me started on planning controls, which seem purely concerned with making pretty patterns on maps.

In previous ages an Obama would have been a pretty effective leader for a country; stable, able to make reasonable decisions on systems of a complexity he could handle. Even a Dubya couldn't screw things up too bad before he was deposed - and even if he did, it only affected a few million.

Now however the systems are too big, too interconnected, too complex to be able to see the right path, even if you are a genius. A resilience viewpoint gets lost in the morass of what Fox News will say and how it will impact the midterms. Long term is a year. We do stupid things (let's build more airports) because we can't match the intelligence to the complexity level. And all the while the short term, local, 'efficiency' savings of salami sliced budgets grind down on the resilience of the system to shocks. A resilient system would have the capability and reserve to adapt to peak oil and the expected rate of decline. It's because we have created a brittle system that has little capability for agility that we are all expecting collapse.

Complexity or energy on their own don't bring down civilisations; it's a lack of resilience and a lack of the agility to adapt quickly that's the key.

While I generally agree with your premise(s). This line jumped out to me - "That hill has reached its peak in the whole globe being essentially one organism that sinks or swims together."

While I agree with this on a current status level - meaning the inter-relatedness of global economy basis, it speaks as well to what must take place. The reduction of global trade, interconnectedness, etc. A return, chosen or forced upon us, to fragment away from specialization, a return to 90% agriculture based occupations. A return to non-oil carrying capacity of human population. A return of plagues to reduce population. We are as much a active part as the 'grass,rabbit,coyote' cycle we were taught as kids, 'we' just don't know it or want to hear it.

IMO 'we' humans have solved so many problems that 'we' have a certain arrogance. 'We' can organize and manage our future. 'We' can send a man to the moon. 'We' have solved hunger only to increase or population and set us up for a larger problem when 'we' have a problem like wild fires in Russia or drought in Australia. 'We' have conquered diseases or so 'we' collectively think. Drug resistant TB, among other diseases, will be the future, an put a check on our arrogance.

The part I disagree with is this - "The final result of improvements, therefore, is to increase the equilibrium population, which is to increase the sum total of human misery (Boulding, 1959: vii [emphases in original])."

Boiled down to - "Life" is 'misery'.

Yes there is 'true' suffering, there always has been, always will be to a certain level. But our arrogance defines suffering. The power went out, the phone doesn't work, I have to walk. --Oh my what suffering!

This is so much of what I see here - clever ways to organize ourselves to keep the current level of comforts. I like that my cell phone doesn't work where I live, I like its convenience when I'm on the road but it is not essential, I use it to call out and even then 99.9% of the time it can wait.
So how much do we 'need'? How much resources are consumed for cell phones, cable TV and such. I suggest 'we' could get along with less. The collapse of pro- athletes, their wages, and the advertising that goes with it would be considered huge suffering for many. Perhaps we might survive and even thrive and be just as happy as well.

Like for example the Irish in the last century, when they had a bit of problem with their potatoes?

As an example, in 1973 OPEC dramatically raised oil prices and gave a shock to the world economy that the supply of cheap oil wasn't guaranteed. In response to that 'problem', the efficiency of oil usage significantly increased, with better designed, higher tolerance engines stripping more useful work from the oil and essentially lopping the peak off of Hubbert's prediction.

True, but as the author point Jevons paradox ensures that efficiency/technology improvements are always devoted to growth and such "improvements" lead to higher consumption. Efficiency will tend to physical limits and now that PO is past tense we have only so long for economic growth and stagnant oil supply to converge on maximum efficiency. Meanwhile we are stuck firmly in the oil trap.

Interesting to note that both of the critical commenters haven't read the book.

They got bored with it.

(edit : apparently some comments have been deleted, making the above nonsensical)

Tainters' point is quite clear : complexity is not driven by surplus energy, but the need for surplus energy is driven by growing complexity.

I know, just from personal experience, that this is true. History can only deliver confirmation.

As to the discussion questions :

1. Can one group of people choose to, by themselves, forgo complexity and live in a sustainable way on land that they have purchased? Or are there too many inputs required for this to work?

yes, obviously. Presupposing productive land, clement climate and cooperative people, almost everything we have been doing since we split from the chimps is feasible.

2. Is it helpful for an individual to choose to become a little more sustainable - buy a smaller car, or use the subway instead of a car, or buy locally grown food?

No, no and yes. Automated transport requires much too much energy to be sustainable, especially in large numbers. I wonder if even bulk transport can be made sustainable, apart from sail and animal power. Locally grown food, on the other hand, is the first building block of survival.

3. Trying to make change at the governmental level seems to be difficult. Could this be related to the issues Joseph Tainter raises?

Not quite sure. Government, and how to get there, is mostly about psychology, and has surprisingly little to do with real problems. Business as usual is not just a requirement, it is an absolute necessity for people at the top to stay at the top. Just as the people living right under the dam, they are incapable of imagining the dams' collapse. And when they see cracks appearing, they will keep pushing for more complex 'solutions', such as scrubbing carbon from coal-powered power generators.

4. What insights of Joseph Tainter do you find most helpful? Disturbing?

Both helpful and disturbing.

I find the prospect of my own death disturbing. The thought of drowning in my own mucus does not make me happy. But the prospect of seeing the civilization that I grew up in collapse and die is very much more disturbing.

Helpful? Of course. Anyone warning you of a coming tsunami is helpful.

Anyone warning you of a coming tsunami is helpful.

Provided that the tsunami is actually coming, and in a time frame that matters, and in a manner abrupt enough to make such a warning beneficial. Otherwise, as regularly happens nowadays with vastly overhyped hair-trigger hurricane warnings, we get a massive overreaction that risks more lives and treasure than a measured, rational response, or perhaps even no response at all. (So much so that we witness the ludicrous spectacle of local officials telling some people to stay put and not jam up the roads, so that those who genuinely need to get out can actually do so. And so much so that people perhaps don't heed the next warning, because the warnings are so flaky they have little credibility.)

lukitas, speaking only for myself, once you've learned enough in terms of critical thinking/reading, it's not really necessary to read every page of a book you can easily spot as following patterns of thought that are simply weak. It's sort of like learning what good wine is, good tobacco, you really don't need to drink the entire bottle to know that your first glass was as bad as your second, and that your hangover really wasn't going to be worth it the next day just to be able to say you drank it all, and in fact, every glass really was as bad.

I think I gave it about 100 pages give or take.

Mods, sorry, I wasn't aware that this thread required people to actually take the work in question seriously no matter how low its quality, I'll avoid such comments in the future any time I feel I might be approaching a sacred cow.

But I will repeat this: if this book is forming a cornerstone of any type of collapse analysis, I strongly suggest you expand your reading and find out why a book of this quality is even on your bookshelf. There's so many great works out there to pick from, so many brilliant thinkers... and life's too short.

I'm certainly going to take a closer look at the thinking of people who reference this work seriously in the future, in terms of questioning their core assumptions and biases.

It's all good though.... nice to see where the limits are, I've been suspecting some core problems with collapse thinking, and I'd guess this book is a big pointer to those problems, might be worth a re-evaluation of some of the premises that seem to be leading to consistent bad and way off predictions...

There's so many great works out there to pick from, so many brilliant thinkers... and life's too short.

Go on.........

Seemed like a complete statement to me.

TOD is good at solid real energy related consumption / production discussion, and let's leave it there. Hats off to ROCKMAN and his cohorts, always very much appreciate the time you share with us, same to Heading Out, your weekly Sunday stuff is just neat to read.

And the people who work on global production numbers etc, a thankless task in some ways, but it's still cool and a nice contribution to us out here.

Nothing says you have to learn everything from one web site. Take the good, leave the rest, all it costs these people to post the less... rigorous stuff is the juice to run their servers, and if they want to fund it to put up whatever else they want up, that's their deal, they can use their site for whatever they want, how we view Tainter's tainted work here won't affect anything in the outside world at all, that's what I mean by life is too short.

"Seemed like a complete statement to me"

It seemed very vague to me. Can you be more specific in your criticism of Tainters work. Do you not agree that as societies become more complex they are subject to diminishing returns?

Also please name some of these great works and thinkers you mentioned.

won't affect anything in the outside world at all

Everything affects everything else. This will have an effect. Likely a fairly small one but it is within the range of possibilities that the effect could be quite large.

I too await the titles and the names of the authors of these great works-oh, ever so eagerly, I would love for somebody to convince me that things are going to be ok.I know and love a bunch of little kids who I fear will have to live thru some very tough times.

going to be ok

I had an awake dream many years ago where I was in this large city in a valley. Mountains surrounded the valley on all sides. The city was full of all the issues of pending collapse that we face. There was overwhelming people energy, mass persona, of chaotic stress that permeated everything.

I saw a tunnel open up in a far hillside. I could see a light coming from this tunnel the beauty of which I had never before seen. I had a knowingness that this was where I needed to go. I became worried that the tunnel was too small for everyone to pass, feared mayhem would soon commence, and the tunnel entrance would be blocked.

I then noticed that nothing much seem to change. I started for the tunnel. I started noticing a few people here and there also moving toward tunnel and before long I could see people passing thru. I made it there ok and notice that the tunnel was exactly the right size for everyone present to pass.

Thru the tunnel all of my internal stresses melted away and by the time I arrived at the far side I was in bliss. Coming out of the tunnel, I noticed I was in an open plain with no mountains in sight. The color of the light was different as was the mind thought energy of the people around me. There was a calmness, feeling of safety, acceptance that I had never before or since experienced.

I have been looking for this tunnel ever since. I am ok with the possibility that I might never find it. I am not ok with the option that I stop looking.

Those musta been some awfully good shrooms you'd gotten your hands on there bubba... >;^)


Being an old hippie type I have had my share of those types of experiences but it this case, no. It just happened during a reflective moment. But this experience has influenced how I look at life and helps me to keep going.

Looking for "the tunnel" could be as simple as looking for the good in life...

Looking for "the tunnel" could be as simple as looking for the good in life...

I took this picture in Linz Austria, last week... I'd settle for banning private automobiles from every city street on the entire planet.


That would be an excellent start.

There are many aspects of our car centric lifestyle that are detrimental. Social isolation might be it's most damaging effect.

From Tainter:

In conclusion, sustainability is not the achievement of stasis. It is not a passive consequence of having fewer humans who consume more limited resources...

OK, fair enough. Seeking stasis won't get us anywhere that's helpful. Or, life is a dance, not a tableau, nor a stasis, so that to stop dancing is to die. Or something. But from the 'discussion questions':

1. Can one group of people choose to, by themselves, forgo complexity and live in a sustainable way on land that they have purchased? Or are there too many inputs required for this to work?
2. Is it helpful for an individual to choose to become a little more sustainable - buy a smaller car, or use the subway instead of a car, or buy locally grown food?

Now I'm confused. This is very reminiscent of the typical TOD discussion of turning the clock back a century or so, reverting en masse to bicycles and other late 19th century paraphernalia, as our preparation to sink into ... stasis. The only difference is that according to these questions the preparatory turning back of the clock would be by millennia (question 1), or some decades (question 2), rather than by roughly a century.

Tainter seems to be after something a lot more complicated and elusive, but beneficial, than mere stasis. However, I'm not sure what that might be, or even what domain(s) of knowledge it might tap. And, to judge by the 'discussion questions', no one else here has a clue either. I wish we could bring Tainter in to elaborate...

"I wish we could bring Tainter in to elaborate..."

Possible ? .... I e-mailed him

His most recent interview ...

Dear jmygann,

If you or anyone else in TOD is successful in your efforts to encourage so esteemed an expert as Joe Tainter (or any other similarly situated top-rank expert for that matter) to make comments, please ask him/her to review the two-part interview with Russell Hopfenberg on population numbers of the human species as a function of food availability that is re-presented below.

Please note that comments on Russell Hopfenberg's perspective are sure to be welcome from one and all, regardless of expertise.

Thank you,


begin--- interview with Dr. Russell Hopfenberg about this thesis {population numbers of the human species is a function of food availability}. The interview and comments can be found at

Special guest: Dr. Russell Hopfenberg on food supply, carrying capacity, and population
May 3, 2007 ·
It’s my pleasure to welcome Dr. Russ Hopfenberg to GIM. During the preceding weeks we’ve summarized and had the chance to discuss his work on the links between food supply, carrying capacity, and population growth, and to comment and ask questions. In this post, Russ generously responds to our questions and comments. Feel free to post additional comments and questions below, and Russ will return later in the month (update: make that next month) for one more round of follow-up comments. Thanks so much, Russ!

– John


By Russell Hopfenberg:

I’d like to extend my thanks to John Feeney and Steve Salmony for inviting me to participate in this forum. I’d also like to express my appreciation to them for hand-holding me through the blogging process.

Question 1. The observation that individual countries’ food supplies don’t seem to correlate with their fertility rates as described by your hypothesis: I’ve read that one criticism of your work involves the observation that the countries with the lowest fertility rates tend to be the developed countries, and those with the highest tend to be those more deprived of food. (which would seem to contradict your hypothesis that more food means more population growth).

Response 1 - This is a very important question. It speaks to the complexity of understanding our global population difficulties. It seems that, in order to fully address the food-population issue, your question requires a thorough answer.

First, there is a biological fantasy imbedded in this question. The end of the question states “those with the highest (fertility rates) tend to be those more deprived of food.” I don’t think that this is biologically or physically possible as people are made from nothing but food. This kind of statement reveals the deeply held cultural position that humans are not subject to the same biological laws as the rest of the living community. I don’t think the questioner would ever make such a statement about another species’ population. If news came out that armadillos at the zoo had an elevated birth rate and now thousands were starving, I think the questioner would understand without hesitation that food supplies had first been elevated and then cut off. If the armadillo fertility rate continued to remain high, the questioner would understand that more food was being supplied.

Regarding humans, how is it possible that more people can be produced with less food? In reality, we have all seen the images of the UN workers handing out food. We have all seen the Sally Struthers commercials. When the crisis is over, i.e., the famine or political turmoil at least temporarily abates, there is more food available to the population in these areas. This increase in food availability precipitates an (unsustainable) increase in the population. The cycle then begins anew - another crisis, and more food is shipped in.

Second, it is true that more developed areas / countries show a lower birth rate.

This has to do with a phenomenon known as the demographic transition (DT). As you would find in a basic ecology book, it proceeds as follows: There are four stages in the classic DT model. In Stage 1, both birth rates and death rates are equivalent and high. In Stage 2, Death rates dramatically decline, but birth rates remain high. In Stage 3, birth rates begin to decline. And in Stage 4, both birth and death rates are equivalent and low. In other words, the declining birth rate occurs in countries that have traversed the DT.

But the DT model, as it is generally understood, is limited in historical and geographical scope. First, to even be in Stage 1, food production must already be at such a high level that birth rate and population size are greatly elevated. With this large population, environmental, medical and sanitation problems increase the death rate, so that it now matches the birth rate. Once health care and sanitation improve, the population enters Stage 2. In Stage 2, the birth rate remains elevated and the death rate decreases so the population naturally increases. As average resource consumption per individual increases, the population enters Stage 3. In Stage three of the demographic transition model, the birth rate declines. As this trend continues, the population theoretically moves to Stage 4. In Stage 4, birth and death rates are low but population and resource consumption are highly elevated.

Let me take a moment to summarize Abernethy and Moses & Brown’s position on the demographic transition: In stage 1 & 2, perceptions of increasing resource availability encourage and permit high fertility rates (Abernethy, 1997). This is followed, in stages 3 & 4, by a trend of declining fertility as societal expectations for high per capita resource consumption become established and tradeoffs between the number of children and resource allocation per person, are accepted (Moses & Brown, 2003).

I think the above paragraph needs a little more explanation. First, it is the worldwide perception that resource availability will be increasing. We have national and international farming programs, farms, agricultural departments, bureaus, and institutions that have a mission to increase food production and distribution. So, the perception is that resource availability will be increasing. Therefore, fertility increases. As the population grows, and resources are further increased, with the perception that they will be increasing further, fertility begins to decline but resource use per person increases. At the end of the road, with a greatly increased carrying capacity, large population size, low fertility rates and excessive resource use, the Brundtland Report, commissioned by the United Nations, estimated that it would take more than ten planet earths to supply the required resources for the now larger, more resource-consuming population. In other words, imagine if the entire planet’s population was similar to the US in resource use and fertility.

Question 2. The question of correlation versus causation (and why no correlation coefficient?).

Response 2 - My studies are certainly correlational studies. Imagine what an ethics board would say to a proposed human food-population experiment. Much that we know about humans comes from correlational studies. Think about the cigarette smoking and lung cancer link. Until recently, the tobacco industry’s defense was that all of the scientific evidence was from lab animal, human tissue, and human correlational studies. There was (and is) no human experimental evidence that links cigarette smoking to cancer. I offer the same type of evidence – animal experimental evidence and human correlational data. Regarding the correlation coefficient, I felt that the graph was sufficient. Also, the correlation coefficient might confuse matters as the correlation would be between the actual population data set and a theoretically derived population data set.

Question 3. If population growth is a function solely of food supply, one might realistically have to expect to see a future development of a further eroding of the ecosystems of this planet. ‑ Rampant overfishing, industrial farming, deforestation, etc., all because of a growing population’s rising demand for food.

Response 3 - Your assessment is true. If we continue on as we have been, then we will destroy the earth’s capacity to sustain us. However, the “biological fantasy,” imbedded in this question, rears its head once again. Our growing population’s “rising demand for food” is due to a misconception. Remember, population is a function of food supply, not the other way around. Food supply is an ecological magnet that draws population numbers to it.

Question 4. That seems an incredible leap. Family planning, education, free contraceptives, and empowering women are methods that has been shown to be effective.

Response 4 - I would like to ask the questioner - “Where have these things been shown to be effective?” They may help some individuals, in some places and for a little while, but I think the global population is still growing at a near exponential rate. To quote Daniel Quinn, “Birth control always works in fantasy. Where it doesn’t work, unfortunately, is in reality. For individuals, it works wonderfully well for limiting family size. What it won’t do is end our population explosion.”

Birth control has been around since at least 1960. Since then the global population has more than doubled. Also, for every person that chooses to have one child, resources are then available for someone else to choose to have more children. In theory, it could work that individuals choose to have fewer children even though there is an abundance of food available, it just isn’t very likely. And history bears out that, as a global population, given increasing agricultural production, we choose to increase our numbers. Also, we must understand that it is evolutionarily unstable for a population to diminish in a time of abundance.

Question 5. Would stopping the increase in food production cause more people to starve?

Response 5 - First, what we know is that as food production numbers have risen, the number of starving people has also risen, almost lock-step.

Second, if 3 billion tons of food (arbitrary number) was enough to feed the current world population last month, I can’t see why any more people would be starving if there were 3 billion tons available this month. … or next month.

Question 6. If we put a cap on global food production, how soon would world population growth stop?

Response 6 - I haven’t done the math on this, but I think we currently produce enough food worldwide to support a population of about 20 billion. Of course, it’s unclear as to how long the biological community can support the current human population. Let’s remember, right now there are over 200 species per day becoming extinct as a direct result of human activity. If we don’t understand the issues and act responsibly, at some point one of those 200 species will be our own. I think that the first order of business is to understand the cause and effect relationship between food availability and human population growth. Only then can thoughtful and effective action be taken.

Question 7. But how would stopping the growth of food production interact with the social and economic issues known/thought to influence fertility rates?

Response 7 - To quote Mark Meritt (2001),

Basic population ecology models will show that population growth is simply an epiphenomenon of a particular kind of economic growth, the increase of our food supply. Ecologically speaking, population growth is thus not a sustainability problem in and of itself but only inasmuch as it is caused by, and exacerbates, increasing resource use. Theories of organization and state formation, however, show that a growing population generates hierarchy within a social structure. Population growth can therefore systematically generate inequality by increasing the complexity of social structure, perpetuating poverty, material and otherwise, even in conditions of abundance. Further, the complication process itself is systematically unsustainable in its own way…. In the end, economic growth is, in more than a metaphoric sense, the largest pyramid scheme possible.

In other words, underlying our social and economic, as well as our population issues, is food supply. Social and economic issues influence the ways that the population grows (see the response to question 1) but the ultimate causative variable is food supply.

Question 8. Over some period of history, it seems we’ve tried to “keep up” with population growth by producing more and more food. I believe your contention is that we can’t “keep up” with population growth that way. The result is just more people, and ultimately more starving people. This leads to this question: Historically, did this attempt to “keep up” with population in our food production begin around the time of industrialized agriculture?

Response 8 - The food race certainly began long before the industrial revolution. Many ancient military campaigns were driven by the quest for more resources, especially food, for the growing population. I think we’ve made the idea of the “food race” more explicit in relatively recent times. But civilizations’ answer to starvation and famine has always been to attempt to increase food production. Of course, intensive agricultural production actually precipitates famine.

In closing, I think it’s important to remember that there will never be an answer to end all questions or an argument to end all arguments. I hope that, if nothing else, I have facilitated some thought and advanced the paradigm that human population dynamics are subject to the same laws as the population dynamics of all other species. With this perspective, you will be in a better position to answer your own as well as others’ questions.

Thank you for taking the time to entertain my responses. I hope that my answers addressed the issues sufficiently.

Reply | Reply in new window | Start new thread | Flag as inappropriate (?) [new] stevenearlsalmony on September 12, 2010 - 8:44am Permalink | Subthread | Parent | Parent subthread | Comments top Posted on December 6, 2007
by John Feeney| 19 Comments
Administrator’s note: Several months ago GIM was lucky enough to be able to arrange for Dr. Russell Hopfenberg to respond to readers’ comments and questions concerning his important work on the links between food supply, carrying capacity, and population growth. My own summary of that work and its background, along with initial reader comments, is here. Additionally, since I wrote that post, Russ has developed an informative slideshow featuring his ideas. Russ’s responses to those initial comments, and readers’ subsequent questions and comments, are here. If you’re not familiar with the ideas involved and the prior discussion here, those links will help you get up to speed.

Now I’m pleased to post Russ’s follow-up responses to that second batch of reader comments linked to above. To my knowledge, GIM is the only website to have had the chance to present a dialog on this work between Russ and interested readers. The content which has emerged has helped readers better understand these underappreciated ideas. My thanks to Russ for his generosity in participating in this illuminating process! — JF

By Russell Hopfenberg:
I’d like, once again, to extend my thanks to John Feeney and Steve Salmony for their help with this discussion. Also, thanks to those who participated in this process by either asking questions, responding to my answers, or reading and integrating this information.

Trinifar: For decades the world population growth rate has been declining — see for example here. As Russ says, “… the declining birth rate occurs in countries that have traversed the DT.” It would be interesting to know how much of that decline is due to DT traversal and how much (if at all) to food supply limits.

RH: Regarding the growth rate, this is absolutely true. Now, let’s take a moment to analyze this reality. A growth rate of 3% per year with a population of 2 billion makes the population 2.06 billion the following year — an additional 60 million people. A growth rate of 2% per year, a 1/3 reduction in the growth rate, with a population of 6 billion makes the population 6.12 billion – an additional 120 million people. That’s twice as many additional people as with the higher growth rate!! At some point, our population size will hit the tipping point of ecological disaster and the growth rate won’t matter. As for the DT itself, the DT is a dependent variable. This means that it is a function of something else. That something else is, among other things, food availability. Also, according to the Brundtland Report, it would take more than ten planet earths to usher a population of 6 billion people through to stage 4 of the DT.

Trinifar: Yet it occurs in DT stages 3 and 4 (as Russ notes above) and that includes the US, Canada, Europe, and Japan — a good portion of the world. Is Russ only talking about the parts of the world in DT stages 1 & 2?

RH: The populations of the US, Canada, Europe and Japan are still growing. They are really not in stage 4. Even in theory, Stage 3 of the DT includes population growth. See Pan Earth for a narrated slide show that includes a discussion of the DT.

Comments pasted here to provide background for RH’s next response:

Trinifar: It would be easy to read Russ and take away the message that we should not send food aid to these countries as it only encourages more growth. I’m not sure that’s the message he intends to send.

Steve said, “The decline in the rate of human reproduction numbers in some countries need not blind us to the well-established fact that the growth of human numbers worldwide are increasing drastically.”

That’s true and Nigeria is the poster child. The question is what to do? Emphasizing this piece of Russ’s research can lead to what I think is a misguided notion that we have but one lever which which to address the problem: limiting food supply. To me that is not a humane response. Neither is it humane to “help” developing countries by getting them to do agriculture in an unsustainable way or by ignoring our own unsustainable, fossil fuel, pesticide and fertilizer driven agriculture.

Steven Earl Salmony: It seems to me that Hopfenberg’s science is suggesting several things to us:

1. Free, immediate and universal access to contraception is required;

2. Open access to family and health planning education is made available to everyone;

3. The time for the economic and social empowerment of women is now.

4. As a means of accelerating the present downward movement in birth rates in some countries, a VOLUNTARY policy of one child per family would be initiated worldwide.

5. The many human beings who are suffering the unhealthy effects of obesity will share their over-abundant resources with many too many people who are starving.

6. Every effort to conserve energy and scarce material resources will be implemented, beginning now.

7. Substanitial economic incentives are necessary for the development of energy resources as alternatives to fossil fuels.

8. Overhaul national tax systems so that conspicuous per human over- consumption of limited resources is meaningfully put at a disadvantage.

9. Humanity needs a new economic system, one that is subordinated to democratic principles and more adequately meets the basic needs of a majority of humanity who could choose to live better lives with lesser amounts of energy and natural resources.

9. Overall, what is to be accomplished is a fair, more equitable and evolutionarily sustainable distribution of the world’s tangible (e.g., food) and intangible (e.g., education) resources, as soon as possible.

Trinifar: I appreciate your point of view, Steve, and I’m on board with your proposals. That’s a good list.

Russ, however, says things like this: ‘To quote Daniel Quinn, “Birth control always works in fantasy. Where it doesn’t work, unfortunately, is in reality. For individuals, it works wonderfully well for limiting family size. What it won’t do is end our population explosion.”’

So I’d like to know if Russ is on board with your proposals too.

RH: All of these proposals seem quite admirable. I’m sure there are many, many more that are equally admirable. However, these do not address the direct bio-behavioral reality that the population size of any species is a function of its food supply. This includes the human. Therefore, each proposal (numbered above) has its own set of problems. For proposal #: (1) Who will pay for universal contraception? Will the Pope approve of this? Also, we’re much more likely to see commercials for Viagra than for Trojans. The culture is simply not on board with the idea of limits. (2) Same points as proposal #1. (3) Civilization is a worldwide patriarchal culture. This proposal seems to be a way that men can abdicate responsibility and women can be held accountable. Also, think about the “empowerment of women” in a fundamentalist Muslim (or Christian or Jewish or Hindu) society. How would that work? Will they tell their husbands – “it’s not good for the planet to have more children”? This is near absurdity. (4) The world already has a voluntary policy of 0 children per family. (5) Which ones? I bet that if you ask obese people, they would all say that they would rather not be obese. The bio-behavioral reality is that all creatures turn excess food availability into themselves or their progeny. Also, who will pay for this distribution? (6) In word, we are making every effort to conserve. (7) Who will supply these economic incentives? (8) Our economy is based on growth and consumption. We seem to have a worldwide goal of “use it all up until it’s all gone.” (9) This is quite possibly true, but the culture’s response to shortages is to look for / make more (food production, oil drilling, coal mining, etc.) (10) Again, who will pay?

These proposals are worthy of further discussion and each contains valuable elements. However, the proposals above are what my wife calls “the house.” And, in order to build a solid house, we need a firm foundation. The foundation that needs to underlie any course of action is the understanding of the relationship between human food production and population size. Only then can we proceed toward solutions. For more on this, see the slide show at Pan Earth.

Magne Karlsen: Now: here’s where I’m arriving at my most basic point. Among the most probable consequences of global warming, lies our future food supply. If the ocean water keep warming, and if the soils keep eroding due to floods, draught and stupid farming techniques, chances are you won’t have to plan for a future of less food production, as it is going to happen anyway.

Mother Nature has a way of teaching us things. But are we ready to respond to the knowledge?

RH: Good point!

Magne Karlsen: Now: I’d also like to hear Russ’ views on the “peak oil and agriculture” dilemma, as posed to us here by Paul C. – — a very compelling analysis, to say the least.

Thank you.

RH: I think it is very likely that the peak oil issues will extremely negatively affect agricultural production. Just as the steep increase in food production, i.e., carrying capacity, has precipitated a steep increase in population growth, a sudden sharp decrease in food production will precipitate a sharp decrease in the population (funny, nobody seems to have a problem understanding this side of the equation). Some predict, using compelling evidence, that we are already at the beginning stages of a die-off. I hope they’re wrong.

John Feeney: The data Russ uses (from the FAO) show annual food production enough to feed over 20 billion people. If I understand correctly, every year that we increase food production, we do feed more people, and at the same time the number of people starving goes up. But what of the gap between the people fed and the amount of food produced? Clearly, there’s a serious distribution problem. But what is it about that problem that allows us to feed more people each year, but keeps the percentage of starving people the same (I assume)? It’s like the obstacles to distribution are working on a percentage basis or something, allowing x% of food produced each year to get through to people. Something about that seems strange. I guess I’m just uninformed on how food distribution works. It’s as if someone were knowingly keeping the lid on what’s distributed at a very precisely controlled level.

RH: First, by some estimates, the percentage of starving and malnourished actually continues to go up. Others have reported that the percentage is hovering or slightly declining. In either case, the number of starving and malnourished seems to make little sense in light of the huge annual increases in global food production, leading to the next point… Second, there is only one simple barrier to equitable distribution. Ladies and gentlemen, the barrier is (drum roll please) … MONEY!! Who wants to pay for equitable distribution? The agricultural businesses are in it FOR THE $$. Governments are in it FOR THE $$. Why would they pay for distribution to poor, starving people? Who’s going to foot the bill? The food goes to consumers who then turn the food into themselves or their progeny.

John Feeney: Beyond that, one thing is clear — that according to Russ’s findings we should stop the worldwide increase in food production as that is causing the increase in population. Is there any implied suggestion beyond that? I’m thinking about Trinifar’s question concerning withholding food aid. But now the more I think about it, the more I think it is instead just a matter of capping overall food production. Is that right?

RH: In fact, there is no reasonable action that can be taken until the people of the world in general understand that continually expanding food production is ultimately going to lead, not to a well-fed human race but to an extinct human race. Why “people of the world in general?” It’s for the same reason that people of the world in general had to understand that the Earth is not the center of the solar system and all heavenly bodies do not orbit it in order to have a successful space program. Capping increases in food production might be a good start, but it’s not possible unless people in general understand the relationship between food production and population growth. The action that we need to take, and can take right now, is to educate people. That’s why this blog and other endeavors are so important!! We have to build a strong foundation (understanding) before we start on our house (solutions).

John Feeney: Related to my first comment above, a simple, albeit tangential question: What happens to that huge amount of food every year that doesn’t reach people? If we’re producing enough food for 20 billion, then over 2/3 of all food produced is not reaching people, right? What happens to it. (Or does that account for people or countries which receive excessive food, such as the US with its high levels of obesity? If so, then maybe a much smaller amount is actually not reaching people.)

RH: Thrown out (for example, check out the fast food industry’s food practices). Obesity too, as you mentioned. Here’s another way to think about it. If we had 500 chickens and produced enough chicken feed for 40 million chickens, we wouldn’t see 40 million chickens in the next year, or even the year after that. What would happen to the excess feed each year until we reached 40 million chickens? Here’s a figure similar to ones presented at Pan Earth:

This figure, from FAO data (artificially) sets world (and region) food production equal to 100 for the year 1961. Food production is presented as carrying capacity, or, the number of people that the amount of available food can support. You can see that, relative to the population, food production has increased even since 1961.

Again, notice that the data for the year 1961 are set to equal an index of 100. Based on the trajectory, if this were really the case, there would have been a vast famine in the year 1950, and all the years before that!! The amount of food produced in the world, relative to the population, was certainly much higher in the year 1961 than indicated here. Therefore, the amount of food produced in the world in 1999, relative to the population was far greater than indicated here.

John Feeney: If, as Steve S. has mentioned here, most scientists are unwilling to discuss Russ’s (and Pimentel’s…) work, I’m wondering why that is.

RH: The idea of a “cultural defense mechanism” comes to mind. Notice how we in this discussion group are struggling with this relatively simple concept. It’s like an abused person who can’t say “no.” It seems simple enough, but not for someone with a personal history of abuse. We have a history of being taught that humans don’t follow the same bio-behavioral rules as other creatures. We’re special. Scientists are not immune from cultural influences....


Steve, please post the link and a short quote, not the entire interview. Thanks.

Thanks for the reminder.

Do you have anything to report in response to Russell Hopfenberg's perspective? Silence is deafening.



How about this--You shave the cut-and-pasted article down to a short (paragraph-long) quote you judge to be particularly excellent, and I'll comment extensively on the entire article.


It seems to me that much of the growth in complexity came in spurts, during the "rare" times mentioned by Tainter, and others. Complexity of human societies did not change much at all for tens of thousands of years. Are we to believe this is largely because we were not presented with problems during that time? Were there also a dearth of problems in the long time periods of little increase in complexity between the rare times such as the industrial revolution and agricultural revolution when complexity increased greatly? Tainter's statement that we usually adopted the simplest solution seems self-evident. The example he gives of depending on hunting and gathering for subsistence, prompts me to wonder since it worked so well for so long as a simple, effective solution, what prompted us to undertake agriculture? What new problem occurred that prompted this solution? What evidence exists that complexity grows in response to problem solving? It is merely stated as a truth here. You certainly cannot increase complexity without additional energy input, whether it be food energy or fossil fuels. Increased complexity is increased activity, and that requires more energy.

To me we are like an ant colony that discovered an abundant food source. We exponentially grew our population in response, and it will shrink when the energy source is used up unless we find a way to use the much smaller amount of energy available far more efficiently. It seems our only hope to avoid a crash is to develop as many alternative energy sources as possible before the main energy source is too far depleted to use for this purpose, and learn to use energy far more efficiently.

...What evidence exists that complexity grows in response to problem solving? It is merely stated as a truth here. You certainly cannot increase complexity without additional energy input,...

Err, live by the sword, die by the sword.

I totally agree that you can't just state 'problem solving > complexity' as truth, but the same rules apply to 'complexity > energy input'.

Take the example of ten men, each carrying out all activities necessary to maintain their individual subsistence farms. If instead they combine those farms, with, say, seven of them taking individual roles suited to their capabilities - then the remaining three can take up roles such as blacksmith or teacher. Overall the complexity has risen, as has the ability of that society to do new things and develop. It's far from obvious, however, that the energy input has increased - it's just that they are specialising in the things they do well and not wasting efforts.

"Take the example of ten men, each carrying out all activities necessary to maintain their individual subsistence farms. If instead they combine those farms, with, say, seven of them taking individual roles suited to their capabilities - then the remaining three can take up roles such as blacksmith or teacher."
So they combined their farms, still producing the same amount, but somehow with less labor, since some of them are now engaged in other activities. How did they manage to produce the same amount with less labor and energy? Or did they replace the human labor with mechanical labor, which requires energy?

Well Tom can plough a field like a demon, whereas Steve takes ages to create a wobbly furrow, but can work metal, sharpen tools with skill. Abe instinctively knows how to deal with diseases, but due to an old injury finds it difficult to walk his entire farm.

As ten independent entities they each have to do all the jobs, usually badly, and in small units.

As one group, each does what they are best at, and benefits from the economies of scale of not having to jump from one type of task to the next.

It's not energy that's in play here, its optimising the bigger system.

But in the real world, competition for status/power/money will ensure that the men don't allocate roles on the basis of who is really best suited for the job BUT instead, there will be a center of power and people who can successfully negotiate with that center of power (on whatever basis is particular to that culture) will get the plummy positions. Who wants to be a doctor? Me! Me! Me! I don't like tilling fields, working in muck! I want to wear nice clothes and my spouse too. We are educated, we know so many things. We are so clever. You have to respect us. We know long words.
I would like to be doctor too then. And me. And me.

Power-in-charge: (sigh) I will decide. I will give the job to my nephew. Blood is thicker than water. (1700s)
Power-in-charge: (sigh) I will decide. I will make a hard test. If you can pass it then you can be a doctor. If you have money to study for the test and if you are smart then you can be a doctor (now).

Unless it's a really small local village where people "know" who is better at healing people (and then there might not be all the powerful tools and drugs we know now) then the power center chooses who gets the status of doctor. Everyone is constantly in competition with everyone else for status/money/power.

Especially energy being available in surplus tends to heighten this mechanism, which is strongly related to the second law of thermodynamics. Once the surplus is gone, all bets are off and it's a new day, however.

Take the example of ten men, each carrying out all activities necessary to maintain their individual subsistence farms. If instead they combine those farms, with, say, seven of them taking individual roles suited to their capabilities - then the remaining three can take up roles such as blacksmith or teacher. Overall the complexity has risen, as has the ability of that society to do new things and develop. It's far from obvious, however, that the energy input has increased - it's just that they are specialising in the things they do well and not wasting efforts.

You're making two absurd assumptions:

That the ten farmers don't have ten wives with their X number of children and increasing.

That the new, combined farms don't run into any additional problems.

If you had listened to Tainter, you would have learned that complexity arises to solve new problems.

New situation + more people + more problems = more energy required.

Sigh OK,

Problem: Each farmer finds it difficult on occasion to manage their individual farms and deal with weather extremities, working alone.

Solutions: Joint farming and specialisation.

Still no extra energy, but instead the ability (if desired) to develop, with the ability to mitigate risks by being able to call on 3 extra hands in emergencies.

Thought that was implicit; and it still points up that complexity on its own doesn't necessarily change anything for the worse. eg its not complexity that's the driving factor, its making dumb, unconsidered decisions that don't weigh the potential decrease in resilience against the benefits.

Many pages of the book are devoted to the discussion of situations in which complexity pays a marginal return well in excess of its marginal cost, leading to growth and prosperity that must be credited to the increased complexity.

There only dumb unconsidered decisions obvious to me here today are the ones made by numerous people who are posting comments condemning the book and Tainter's work without having read it.

The point Tainter is making is that SOMETIMES complexity costs more than it generates in benefits,on an overall basis measured across an entire society.If the imbalance becomes too large, THEN the society must necesarily collapse or contract if it cannot bring new resources to bear , such resources being adequate to offset the costs of the (new or recent) excess complexity.

If food production collapses in the modern industrial world, a great many people will starve, and a great many professions will disappear;this is an example what is meant by a loss of complexity in anthropologial terms.

If SOMETIMES complexity costs more than it generates, then SOMETIMES is costs less, or even reduces the total cost. That was the point of the original post, if you poke a hole in the complexity>cost>more energy postulate then the rest of it falls down into a morass of 'well sometimes...'.

If you want to rescue it, you need to then do more work showing that the tendency is for cost to always exceed benefit over time (and not with handwaving arguments from civilisation 1000+ years in past). You also need to show why, what's fundamental.

And even then, you've missed out on what I'll call the 'information argument'; that its not complexity as such that causes the problem, but bad decisions made on development directions since all important factors (eg resilience) are not been considered. You can actually make a much better case for the Fall of Rome being down to its size, central command structure, and lack of understanding at the centre about the ramifications of its decisions than you can about some complexity measurement.

Sorry, but nothing you have said have persuaded my otherwise. Complexity may be correlated to civilisation decline, sometimes, but I'd suggest that resilience, brittleness and poor decisions made on incomplete or not understood information are MUCH closer to the heart of the issue.

make a much better case for the Fall of Rome being down to its size, central command structure, and lack of understanding at the centre


You actually make a good point here although, perhaps it is not articulated as well as it could be.

So please allow me to paraphrase what you are saying.

A civilization can have imbalanced complexity, for example, when it has a large number of highly specialized worker bees but too simple of a communications and control system. The imbalance in complexity can lead to collapse.

It remains obvious that you haven't read the book, or you would know that ALL THE POINTS you raise are dealt with within the covers, and that Tainter would agree with you in many respects.

You are jumping to all sorts of conclusions about what Tainter wrote simply because YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT HE WROTE.

He has not made any philosophical or values based argument argument against complexity,or any technical arguments, or tried to make such an argument, or advocated a return to a simpler world.

He simply explored what was known at the time about collapse and tried to make sense of it.

I believe in automobiles; I like fast sleek shiny cars, and I would own a super complex Ferrari or something along that line if if I were rich.

But automobile accidents happen;and automobiles wear out and break down too.

I engage in many debates(in other forums) about the causes of accidents and the failures cars are subject to without condemning the complexity of the modern automobile-except from the pov of a person who necessarily repairs his own.

Tainter explores some of the shortcomings of complexity;he also credits the benefits of complexity, extensively.

He devotes a great deal of thought to the very points you raise, about poor decision making, etc, as he ios after all an anthropologist.His professional world is centered around the interrelationships between people and all the technology people create and use to modify thier envirionment, physical and cultural.

As a matter of fact, it is entirely possible and appropriate to read Tainter's necessarily brief relation of the history of the rise and fall of the Roman Empire in exactly such terms as you use-the making of poorly informed short term decisions and the long term consequences of the same.

Of course Tainter considers the fact that such decisions were NECESSARILY poorly informed, and that while the people who made them may or may not have known about and considered the possible long ternm consequences, thet were NECESSARILY CONSTRAINED by the simple matter of arranging thier survival today, next month, next year, next decade perhaps.They didn't really have the option to make long term future plans.

We today may have the knowledge to make such plans, but the realities of politics today and short tem survival in the future may well prevent us from ever fulfilling such plans.

You sound like a little kid accusing Mommy of not bringing the soda pop to the picnic because he hasn't looked in the cooler.People who make such uninformed judgements in respect to the work of others should remember that third parties may rely on thier remarks and base thier own opinions on them, thereby leading us down paths characterized well by the words "poor decisions
made on incomplete or not understood information."

We will always make poor decisions;we aren't sanything but monkeys controlled by a mid brain suddenly given the use of a powerful upper brain.

We are , collectively,teenage boys in possession of a six hundred horsepower sports car;to expect us to drive it,collectively, as if we were responsible adults is absurd.

We are , collectively,teenage boys in possession of a six hundred horsepower sports car;to expect us to drive it,collectively, as if we were responsible adults is absurd.

To not work to change this is irresponsible.

This may sound off-topic, but it is not.

I was just watching part of an expose on American government handling of the Abuh Grave (sp?) prison scandal in Iraq. The bottom line is that we had "simple" minded people given the car keys to a complex and explosive system and they went to "play" at it as simple minded teenage boys (and girls) would.

The expose suggests that the entire command and control chain, from the White House and on down to the scapegoated army privates was peopled with simple minded actors who did not understand and did not question the fun ride as they put the pedal to the metal and screamed wee wee wee all the way down the road to disaster.

Even the investigation after the fact was peopled with simple minded actors who could not comprehend the idea of a complete and continuous chain of command. They were just looking for politically expedient scapegoats and a way to sweep the whole affair under the rug.

It's just an example of a deeply flawed, "complex" system.

deeply flawed, "complex" system

This seems to be an example where the problem is dysfunctional mindset issues that are amplified by the degree of complexity of the system.

The more complexity the more amplification of the underlining problem.

What new problem occurred that prompted this solution?

The problem we created was overpopulation, the solution was agriculture.

The problem we created was overpopulation, the solution was agriculture.

I interpret things a bit differently.

As hunter gatherers we existed in a stable and relatively long term balance with our existing ecosystems. At some point our population grew beyond the capability of our ecosystems to sustain us and we invented agriculture as the solution. This created conditions which allowed us to expand our population into overshoot.

Now we are faced with a slew of dilemmas to which there are no good solutions and it seems highly likely that nature will reshuffle the deck and deal us a new hand.

Unfortunately in this new game we may not be able to stack the deck in our favor, we are running out of chips and bluffing simply won't work.

Oh, and that Ace of Diamonds we thought we had up our sleeve...

I interpret things a bit differently.

Say what? Looks like we agree. You added some additional information that I agree with by asking a second question and then answering it.

My point was that agriculture wasn't a long term solution to overpopulation, it actually just made the problem worse. The cards are lying face up on the table and we don't have the winning hand.

its gets all a bit chicken and egg at times

but I have it the population growth was a result of the biological/agricultural revolution in the neolithic rather than the invisible hand responding to population growth by inventing agriculture.

some of it was due to two successive genetic hybridizations of cereal grasses in the ME..luck!

Extant research of human population dynamics appears to directly contradict the near-universal misconception that humanity needs to increase in a seemingly endless way global food harvests in order to meet the needs of a growing population. The best available research indicates just the opposite: that, just like other species, the size and availability of the human food supply is the independent variable upon which the global human population depends for existence.

Please note, too, that this relationship cannot be conveniently passed over as a “chicken and egg” situation. That appears to be one of the ways many people have found to miss the point of the science. Because an adequate enough understanding of the relationship between food supply and its effect on human numbers could have profound implications for the future of life as we know it on Earth, perhaps this relationship could be made the subject of much more discussion.

good point

I would hold that the relationship changes over time.

there is no fixed relationship or precursor of one over the other if look at the entire history of the two.

If we accept well-established knowledge that has been developed in the biological sciences, how on Earth can human beings (or non-human life forms for that matter) live without food required for their existence? What we are derives from what we eat. No food equals no people, does it not?

Food for human consumption can exist without presence of human beings; however, there is no way human beings can live without the availability of food for human consumption.

Food comes first, I suppose.

human food supply is the independent variable upon which the global human population depends for existence

If true would be an excellent example of a non-intuitive relationship.

Human population growth is a long term phenomena. Food supply in comparison a short term one. To run an argument that splits this relationship because of this factor seems a little off the wall.

I am however open for more discussion.

I think it doesn't matter from his POV. which is why he makes such a good point

the idea population pressure caused the neolithic peoples of the fertile crescent to invent agriculture based on wheat is a tall ask given it would require us to assume they were practicing some form of genetic manipulation via hybridization on purpose as a form of "market " response to innovate themselves out of starvation


agricultural practice and land reform in the later middle ages or the mechanization of agriculture in the 19th cent could be better looked upon as response to population growth.

the relationship of precursor to effect hardly matters even if we agree time lags will be a factor since ATEOTD treating it as an independent variable is in effect the most accurate way of viewing food supply to population relationships.

don't clutter up the analysis with unnecessary and some what subjective theoretical problems.

in a way its a different question

would require us to assume they were practicing some form of genetic manipulation via hybridization on purpose as a form of "market " response to innovate themselves out of starvation

True, the "model" I feel most confident with forces the acceptance of this basic assumption. I agree it may seem like a bit of a stretch and other factors are surely at play but I don't think you can totally rule it out.

From a quick google look-about Extant research of human population dynamics seem to have come out during World Population Day 2010. I am not familiar with this study. Any recommenced links?

circumstances out of our control often played a part in population dynamics.. the idea we have always innovated our way ahead rather than got a break from nature is rather unlikely IMO in the early historic.

always a good start and while not helpful in your case is a good link for lurkurs

while dated I still think his view is a good one

being an archaeologist has lead me to be somewhat cynical of generalized but solidly formulated theories of human dynamics [of all types] that are applicable across all the ages...

" Life is just a bunch of stuff that happens"

Homer Simpson

Ryeguy, you and Mididoctor appear to be woefully ill informed as to the early history of agriculture I wouldn't even know where to in respect to filling you in on the subject;it would take the equivalent of a survey course on the college level.

Suffice it to say that when any crop plant or useful animal is brought into close and continued contact with man, the farmer/ herdsman starts selecting the specimens best suited to his needs;no knowledge of genetics is necessary for this practice to succeed, and indeed, no planning or foresight is necessary for it to create cultivated or domesticated species

An example , grossly oversimplifed:

If I am in the habit of eating wild apples, and there is a grove nearby, I might just inadvertently drop a lot of apple seeds near my cave that were contained in the best apples;and I might just clear awya some of the lesser performing other trees and brush of different species simply so i could get at the apples I do want a little easier.

I might also tend to do a number one or two in the vicinity of such trees while working there gathering the (after a few generations) SEMIWILD FRUIT.

I might also take exception to a deer or bear sharing in the bounty, and tend to hunt more for meat in the nieghborhood of the trees best suited to my own needs.

Domesticated species exist in a symbiotic relationship with man;that's hard for some people to grasp, especially if they are of such a mindset they tend to think of man in value laden terms such as "spoiler".

Of course we do spoil a lot.;)

woefully ill informed

There is nothing written above that I do not know/understand.

Let's see - you do not agree with a point of view so therefore the person must be woefully ill informed...

I do have a BS in Human Environmental Science with a concentration in Clinical Nutrition. I have also done much reading/studying about subjects related or somewhat related to this topic.

That being said it is on my to do list to learn more about this topic since it is a subject of interest. Any book recommendations?

Please forgive me if I have jumped to unjustified conclusions, but as I read your remark, you seem to be agreeing that ancient proto farmers were necessarily DELIBERATELY breeding plants,including hybridized plants,again deliberately,thereby implying a knowledge of genetics and the practice/technology of crop hybridization.

I can't think of any books at the moment DEVOTED SPECIFICALLY the history of crop domestication and animal domestication , but the subject is touched upon in passing in many technical agricultural texts, of which I have read a great many-but not very often in recent years.It is also touched upon in many texts written by specialists or popular writers in other fields;it was often discussed in bs sessions and occasionally mentioned in class when I was an undergrad in ag back in the dark ages.

If and when I get around to it, I intend to add a couple such books to my personal library-there are probably more than a few available.

Most of what I have read in recent years on the subject has been culled a bit here and a bit there from books or magazine articles by anthropologists, historians, biologists, and so forth.

The geneticists have been making a lot of progress in recent years tracking the historical spread of domesticated species, and in some cases, the actual places of origin are now known to a high degree of certainty.

not a good post.

nothing in it contradicts what I have stated concerning early agriculture in the ME. You even support my contention by explaining that hybridization or human driven selection can occur without any knowledge of genetics.

The symbiosis of wheat and Man is not ruled out in the discussion I had with Ryeguy.. in fact the opposite


Obviously I have misinterpreted your remarks;that is not so hard to do in a forum whwere it is not easy to keep all the commentary in chronological order and to stay tuned to the context of a given remark, especially when one is mixing blogging with various chores.

Please accept my apology.

internets..the cancer that is killing TOD

don't worry about it no big thing


Yes, definitely yes, the relationship between between food and population is non-intuitive.

ryeguy, imagine our failure to acknowledge that human population dynamics is essentially similar to, not different from, the population dynamics of other species as the greatest misperception in human history because this failure could inadvertently result in a colossal, human-driven, global ecological wreckage of some unimaginable sort. In such circumstances would experts not have responsibilities to assume for the sake of preserving the integrity of science as well as duties to perform for the sake of protecting human wellbeing that would lead them to correct so vital a mistaken impression of what could somehow be real? It appears to me that many too many experts have willfully held an intuitive, politically convenient and economically expedient misconception and rejected the best available science of human population dynamics. That is to say, experts are ignoring certain non-intuitive, politically incorrect and economically unwelcome evidence while choosing to let inadequate 'scientific' evidence stand that is based upon preternatural thinking and specious understandings derived from inadequate investigations.


I think I get your point now after reading more of the interview with Dr. Russell Hopfenberg you posted. The point however is rather straight forward, Dr. Hopfenberg claims that we grow enough food to feed 20 billion if we were were mostly vegetarians, ate just enough to keep us healthy and did not allow any food to go to waste.

That allows for the argument that population and food are not necessarily in lock step.

I posted an apology a while ago for misinterpreting remarks about the early history of agriculture.

I am not going to apologize for calling bullshit when someone refuses to recognize one of the very foundation stones of biology-food supply is always a variable determining a population,and probably most often THE variable,when dealing with higher species, and if any one variable can be considered independent it would have to be food supply, everything else held equal.

In the case of humans in the present day it may be a variable that only sets an upper limit not currrently approached in some wealthy societies;but the preponderance of the evidence is that the more food, the more people.

This is not to say that we may not be able to steer society towards a lower reproductive rate if we are lucky.

Fair point, I just feel that the preponderance of what limited data we have better supports more forcing factors from necessity than choice.

It would be reassuring to think that we decided that it would be nicer to live in a urban environment, which means needing a higher population which means we need more food than hunter/gather can provide. So we came up with agriculture.

I do wonder if agriculture, tilling of the soil, is fundamentally unsustainable. Our emphasis on maximizing production/profits puts unsustainability into overdrive. I think it is a given that current standard agriculture practice in the US is unsustainable.

Our failure to close the nutritional circle, the need to add back human manure might be a major part of why. The longest-lived productive soils have incorporated this practice.

Here again is a problem caused by cultural stupidity. The problem, loss of soils nutrients cause by not recycling our manure. Our solution is to not address the true problem and find a "solution" that allows a short-term reprieve from accepting reality.

Failure to face the underlying problem causes additional problems/solutions that cause even more problems/solutions. The complexity grows and grows while we drift further and further away from sustainability.

Dear Fred and Friends,

What would think of the following statement,

The rise of industrial agriculture is the problem and the result is human overpopulation of the Earth.

Thanks to all,


doesn't matter is my answer

what matters is the ability of a certain amount of food Y supports a population X

once you have the metrics you can see where we are going

what is a desirable and sustainable food supply? put your answer in the box provided press calculate and the population fig comes out the other end

yon complicate it up for various per capita standards of living or rationing while reducing the population etc etc

...but the blame doesn't matter

The rise of industrial agriculture is the problem and the result is human overpopulation of the Earth.

I think I'd prefer to state it more as a cause and effect relationship.

If you provide a small population of yeast in a vat with more sugar their population will grow exponentially until they use it all up or the waste products from their metabolism start to poison them and kill them off. The combination of these two circumstances is sure to cause a population crash.

This kind of cause and effect relationship will exist for all living organisms unless there are some controlling feedback mechanisms that would serve to keep the population stable and in check.

"This kind of cause and effect relationship will exist for all living organisms unless there are some controlling feedback mechanisms that would serve to keep the population stable and in check."

What most doomers would see as the desired controlling feedback mechanism is the knowledge of collective cause and effect rather than tragedy of the commons.

It's human nature. Our number one driver in life is to copulate and breed.
To facilitate that we required to free the female from the nomadic life. When settled, the only limit is the available food supply. The more food we have the more children we can look after and feed.

Basicaly humans seek pleasure. Up until now we are pretty well able to copulate and breed at will. That leaves open other avenues to pleasure ourselves and now each new generation expects "more from life" than the previous. There is consumerism, drugs, alchohol, pornogrphy, travel and an expectation to retire with a fat pension.

Now each new generation will have to be content with living with less of most everything, even an expectation of less, that's going to be hard for existing generations to explain.

"living with less of everything"---I am one of those people who really looks forward to that because what we've done to the planet is really inexcusable. It is time for everyone to stop using plastic, live with beans and rice for dinner and walk everywhere.

The sweetest revenge is seeing the older generation---I am speaking specifically of my parents and my in-laws, who always harped and harped on the stupid stock market, why-don't-you-buy-a-car, economic growth is forever, now everything is modern, better!----now these family members are in their late 60s and early 70s, still perfectly able to read the newspapers, and they can see where their STUPID WASTEFUL economic growth schemes got them. Yay! I hope they are happy; some of the time (although I had a basically happy childhood) I remember really hating the careless, wasteful, vapid suburban existence where the main point of life was to get into a "good" college in order to make the neighbors bow down to you.

I remember my dad (mid 1980s) said that the point wasn't to work; it was to get in on a good thing, like government contracts, and generate paper reports then charge for the results. Noone would think twice about that. Automatic pilot. That was our bread and butter, by the way.

What a nightmare! Thank god it is coming to an end! It has been a hell of a ride for humanity, and it's good to be here to see the end game.

TODers! Thank you for being here to share this experience together. So many people in my family just hate the whole PO thing; this is the only place sometimes where I feel I can really say what I think.

It's human nature

As far as our current condition of overpopulation and the resulting global resource depletion, I am not so sure at all. Going back for the many thousands of years that modern humanity has existed, the vast majority of cultures seem not to have taken this path.

The one that has, unfortunately, has successfully replaced, displaced, and assimilated nearly all the rest. The dominant culture, surveying the wreckage it has caused, may conveniently find that it was "human nature" to blame, but that ignores a vast number of previous cultures who did not do so.

What different human nature did we have previously?
You are confusing lack of opportunity with a previous (perceived by you) active pursuit of a sustainable lifestyle.

So people that have not been "assimilated" have different human natures, is that what you are saying?

If "human nature" is the innate biological structure and process we all possess and live by, then "culture" is the outward expression of that process. Human nature has many possible expressions, then, and it is wrong to say that one culture is inevitable because of human nature and another is not. The time element is also easily overlooked - modern humans with modern human nature have existed for at least 40,000 years. Only the slightest advantage in reproductivity and survival rates is needed over that span for one type of culture to swallow up all others. Again, that doesn't mean that other cultures and ways of living, as valid expressions of human nature in better accord with sane and sustainable living, cannot predominate once this one has fallen on its sword (so to speak).

I highly recommend Diamond's "Guns Germs and Steel".
I think you will be surprised by the insights you will receive.
After that his "Collapse, How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed".

I have read them both, and watched Diamond's documentary on Guns, Germs and Steel as well. He is a very interesting writer, and in the first book in particular there are some novel and brilliant perspectives. My only criticism would be that he is prone to "sticking to the narrative", or making a simple case from a selection of evidence where the cause and effect relations are really more complex.

Jared Diamond approaches Collapse from a geography and vulnerabilities perspective.

Tainter appears to approach it from a more-internal, "complexity of anthropological structuring" perspective.

The more perspectives (Points of View) we have the better we see the whole picture

The noble savage, of course.

The practice of agriculture on the grand scale using the resources and lands currently in use is unsustainable.

The prqactice of agriculture itself, on a small simple scale, can probably be sustained more or less forever,meaning for thousands or tens or hundreds of thousands of years, so long as some process natural or man caused, serves to keep the population low.

The first European people who lived in my immediate community raised thier crops on the creek bottoms and in the relatively few level spots away from the bottoms,built thiier houses and sheds out of logs cut within a few hundred yards, thier fences out of saplings, and burned wood for heat.Land that had lost a lot of fertility was reverted to pasture, or allowed to go back to forest;the early winter winds took care of dumping huge quantities of leaves in such overgrown fields fron the adjacent woodlands.A couple of generations later, the trees would be cut for building material or firewood, and cows grazed among the stumps;the cow was often milked right in the pasture.

After a while, thre field would be used again for corn or rye or some other crop for a few years;the greater part of the land was always in fallow, and the extensive mountiansides and deep ravines were were for the most part left untouched except for hunting and some minor gathering as of nuts and herbs.The gradual formation of soilon this untouched ground and the gradual movement down slope of the same gauranteed a certain basic level of continued fertility along the streams-so long as not too many people were present of course.

It has taken Mother Nature many tens of millions of wears to deposit thebulk of mineral wealth of the formerly huge Blue RIDGES at the foot of the slopes.A few people living an entirely locally supplied life style could almost certainly expect the bounty to last for a few more million years-this is not to say the climate might not change of course.

Agriculture is with us to stay-on some vastly reduced scale, of course.


The assumption that people can't exercise reproductive restraint is what gives rise to the food = overpopulation theorem. In other words, humans beings are like yeast in a petri dish. We could have had a steady state or declining population if we wanted to. The problem is in human behavior, that we live life like someone insisting on blowing every penny of his paycheck every month. There's no reason we couldn't have developed a surplus of energy and food and then stop growing, but we didn't.

This is what surely drives people like Nate to focus on the psychological aspects of overconsumption.

mandated one(or less!) child policy and rationing

problem solved

We know what the long term solution to overpopulation is:

"As hunter gatherers we existed in a stable and relatively long term balance with our existing ecosystems. At some point our population grew beyond the capability of our ecosystems to sustain us and we invented agriculture as the solution."

We were either in balance with our ecosystems or not. You cant have your cake and eat it you know :p

Most likely humans were never in balance with their environment. Most natural systems grow and decline exponetially. Many large mammals, birds and even Nethandetals went extinct while humans were HGs. Nomads can over exploit the resources and sinks of a local region as long as there is somewhere else to move on to.

We were either in balance with our ecosystems or not

I agree and I said this:

we existed in a stable and relatively long term balance with our existing ecosystems. At some point our population grew beyond the capability of our ecosystems to sustain us

Which implies that at some point we were no longer in balance with the ecosystem and I do also believe that you are right and that humans probably never really were in balance except for possibly a few small tribes in certain special places.

In any case once we developed agriculture and civilization all bets were off and we were then inexorably on the path to population overshoot.

I have not done my homework and am not familiar with Tainter's work.
My understanding of his argument is that complexity causes an increase in energy and resource use.
If this is true, it is not intuitive.

It seems to me that something more fundamental is happening.
Just like yeast finding sugar, we have found oil. And with the same consequences, exponential growth and decay and a lot of carbon dioxide given off.
Yeast die in their own pollutants and so do we.

Perhaps my mind is too simple.

On the other hand I do like Tainter's idea that the prize for making the correct decisions is that you keep in the game.
And the idea that life cannot be preserved in Aspic.

Like any simple fungus we are now getting ready to sporate, but some people find that idea too frightening to contemplate so it is best not to pursue it.

I have done my homework in this case, having read Tainter before, and I'm going over his book a second time at present,methodically and in detail.

It seems obvious to me that nobody else who has posted a comment up at this time has done so, Lukitas possibly excepted.Gail's comment makes good sense but doesn't reflect the central thesis of the book.

It's been a long day and tomorrow promises more of the same, but tomorrow night if I'm feeling energetic, I intend to rip up some of the off in left field comments by people who haven't read Tainter like confetti, or a chicken shredding a dried cow patty looking for bugs.

Maybe I will just write up a research type summary of the book with page references and quotes;it will take a long time, but it will be worth it;the main post is too abbreviated to make much sense to anyone who doesn't already understand the arguments Tainter makes;it's like a professor's fast end of term rewiew of the primary points covered in a course;helpful to his students, nearly worthless except possibly as a starting point to anybody else other than someone who might be willing go out and read the source materials.

It's been a long day and tomorrow promises more of the same, but tomorrow night if I'm feeling energetic, I intend to rip up some of the off in left field comments by people who haven't read Tainter like confetti, or a chicken shredding a dried cow patty looking for bugs.

Feel free, but rather than 'ripping up' the statements, maybe you'll like to address them, properly?

Central to Tainter's hypothesis seems to me to be 'its not energy resources that produce complexity, its complexity that requires energy resource'. Neither of which really address the point I'm suggesting, which is that complexity and energy usage aren't necessarily linked, and that other factors are more critical. Sure greater complexity CAN result in more energy usage, and, against Tainter's hypothesis, greater energy availability CAN result in more complexity. But its not all A>B or B>A.

To answer your implicit question, no I haven't read all of the 200+ pages of "The Collapse of Complex Societies" - I started but it became rapidly obvious that he liked to argue in long verbal knots, in the hope that people would miss the missing steps and assumptions, I guess. It failed the sniff test.

I think at heart it stems from where he comes from - anthropology, history and the social sciences. Here, it seems, to prove an hypothesis simply requires that one or two supporting instances need to be found. Whereas in the harder sciences it tends to be that a single instance is all that's necessary to disprove an hypothesis.

Is complexity in the mix? Obviously. Is it as simple as saying complexity requires greater energy resources because of diminishing returns? Nope, and I'd contend that any theory that doesn't explicitly recognise resilience in the society is something of a non-starter when it comes to understanding collapse.

I suggest you read the book from end to end before you evaluate it as the work of an idiot.

I have lots or persommons on my place;they are a delicious fruit ONCE they are ripe, but absolutely nothing eats them before thier time.

You have fallen for a gross oversimplification of a very complex subject, and Tainter addresses your argument very well in the latter parts of the book.

I didn't say Tainter was an idiot, just that I don't think there is much there; no great insights that describe the conditions pertaining to the fall of all civilisations, just a claim that amounts to 'sometimes a civilisations complexity level requires a resource level that can't be met'. It's missing out on some big factors as far as I can see.

Now, you're not answering the basic issue I point up, rather saying that its dealt with over half way through a dense book.

A basic, fundamental, issue, not dealt with early on in the 200+ pages, and obviously not dealt with simply enough for you to quote here in an answer.

I think I'll pass.

PS here's Einstein's paper describing special relativity. 23 pages in total.

you're not answering the basic issue

It is true that Tainter's brief explanations fail to adequately define what he means by "complexity".

Assume a simple amoeba.

Pretend that by chance evolution, it develops an external "hand" and that proves advantageous.

Two hands are better than one. And soon amoebas appear with two or more "hand" extensions.

But complexity begets more complexity. The hands get entangled with one another. The amoeba develop more organelles to solve the unintended consequence problems of the first level of complexity. And so on.

Before you conclude this is a pure hypothetical, consider a simple city.
And then it evolves to have its first suburb ....

I expect I could make sense of Einstien's paper if I were lucky enough to possess a few years training in higher mathematics and physics that are unfortunately entirely over my head and quite possibly beyond the limits of my learning abilites, even though my measured iq is high enough to get me into some elitist organizations.

Tainter might have written only ten pages if his intended audience were as well qualified.


what do you think about the references to the !Kung? As far as I know this is where Tainters work takes the most flak.

I was wondering about that myself;apparently at that time, a lot less was known about the!Kung than at present;and while I have read something about the !Kung myself, it was a long time ago and I can't remember the details.

Any work in the field of human studies is apt to have some serious weaknesses; I don't think this one particular failure in the book is enough to seriously reduce its overall value.

I came to the same conclusion.

that it not address the problems that confront it.

This might be exactly what we need to do. I would argue that most of the “problems” are of our own making and solving them is to simply stop creating them.

Our wasteful use of energy and resources are not going to be solved by increasing the use of energy and resources.

Sustainability is to live within the flow of life. Going against the flow creates turbulence/problems and creating more turbulence is hardly the way to reduce turbulence.

We do have major societal problems that must be addressed. However, the solution will only come from within and this will require neither additional infrastructure complexity nor more energy consumption.

kudos on likening the emergence of complexity in societies with the onset of turbulent flow; I think it's more than a metaphor.

Hi Greenish,

I too appreciate Ryeguy's comments about 'going with the flow' as a necessity in preventing turbulence.

I was hoping that you could comment on the occasions when creating vast amounts of turbulence is a good thing. In my own experience, after waking up from my BAU slumber three years ago, I've been expending a fair amount of physical effort and financial resource to try to reduce the force of the blow when the energy and/or financial and/or political meltdown occurs. These efforts were definitely not in keeping with the 'going mainstream flow' philosophy. I know they were aligned with the idea in the greater scheme of things.

Unfortunately, I know lots of people who use the idea of 'going with the flow' as an excuse.

I haven't read Tainter's writings - so that's probably a very good place to start. Also, I might not be phrasing my question very well. But I know that in the past when a topic on TOD has captured my attention, your posts are unusually enlightening - and they sometimes take me a few readings to get much of meaning. There seems to be something more that I'm missing - but I can't put my finger on it.

If you have some time, please consider educating this poor dolt :)


"Our wasteful use of energy and resources are not going to be solved by increasing the use of energy and resources"

Nicely put. That is why it dismays me that so many here seem obsessed with finding new sources of abundant energy, renewable or otherwise, rather than obsessing, as we all must now, about how to limit the human project so that it does not destroy itself and the planet beyond what it already has and what is already cooked into the cake.

"However, the solution will only come from within and this will require neither additional infrastructure complexity nor more energy consumption."

When you say the solution must come from within do you mean on a personal or social level?

Must come from enough people on a personal level to effect the social level.

On "The collapse of complex societies":
The question of civilization has my attention. I've lived in mansions with servants, cruised on the SS France and the QE2, lived on a mountaintop with dogs, ravens, and rats, and have built a little retreat from normalcy: Disenfranchised by childhood experience yet having mined very edges of technological complexity: I am neither engaged nor remote.
From what I've read, civilization issues from superior weapons: Natives gather, build huts, make babies, and simply live within the bounds of resource and necessity. The narcissistic or psychopathic arrive with inhuman needs. These needs are met by taking value from the natives. In this co-opting, the natives are rendered into peasants. From them, worth is excised. The wealth is concentrated to the narcissists and psychopaths: it goes to the rulers.
People do not like what they live in under these conditions. See the movie "Radio Bikini"... not for the atomic weapons story... for the story of how the Bikini islanders were transformed from happiness to both destitution and squalor by their forced participation in this empire. Of the civilized: the American Indians said "In such soil, how could any seed grow to be human?"
The rulers will follow the path that brought them to rule. There is no other civilized path, by definition. The act of civilizing destroys the native paradigm. These are "the old ways" that people now talk about. Humans are a weak animal: the human that lives alone dies... like a single ember scattered from a roaring fire. It is community that survives.
Reducing one's consumption will simply allow another to consume more. The population will take care of itself in the face of available food and conflict.
The thing that will allow continuity is novelty. The discovery of vast new herds of humans with resources in the latter 1400's saved the day. It was exactly the game the ruler's played and knew how to play. See the book "The great frontier" by Walter Prescott Webb. It is presented almost in its entirety on Google Books.

The rulers will follow the path that brought them to rule.


Ah, the world is separated into the white hats (leavers) and black hates (takers). Yes, let's moralize to the point where we can just wallow in bitterness and self-loathing.

Peasants (Foundations of Anthropology) by Eric R. Wolf

"Complexity" seems to be the problem.

Australia is large and diverse ranging from extreme desert, tropical, sub-tropical, Mediterranean and in Tasmania during the last ice age, very cold and very wet. Australian aboriginal hunter gatherers existed apparently unchanged over the whole of that continent for over ~50,000 years.

As everybody knows they were a stone-age people with fire making ability with technologies like woomera spear throwers and boomerangs but no bows and arrows. Their culture, language and art is quite sophisticated and their brain power is certainly the equal of anyones.

Interestingly according to Jared Diamond's "guns, germs and steel" Australia possessed neither the animals or plants that would have allowed them to progress to farming, nothing like a horse or a donkey, goat or sheep that could be milked or domesticated to perform work; it seems that hitching kangaroos or emus to a plough was just not on. And there were no suitable grains, grasses or vegetables that could be cultivated or cropped.

The other interesting thing is that despite super-abundant easily accessible coal, iron and copper they remained users of stone and wood, so the availability of fossil fuel was not a determinant. Maybe the mix of resources was such that there was enough to sustain life at a relatively 'comfortable' level to not drive innovation through necessity but not the right mix to allow a natural move to agriculture.

The take away message seems to be that even though there were no predators / invaders to limit the population they achieved a stable equilibrium.

If "complexity" is the problem then Darwin will take care of it in the end. A massive population/civilisation crash could return us to hunter gather existence and the lack of the previously easily available energy may keep us from recovering to a state much beyond basic agriculture or at least delay our growth path for a very, very long time.

If Tainter is right then mankind's innate destiny is to slowly oscillate between crash and recovery forever, barring the odd flight of black swans.

None of that answers any of Gail's questions; the only easy answer I can think of at the moment is to re-define the period required for sustainability as "the term of my personal existence".

Australian aboriginal hunter gatherers existed apparently unchanged over the whole of that continent for over ~50,000 years.

It helps to understand that the primary philosophy of Australian aboriginal society was to preserve the condition of their environment as it appeared to them on the "first day". So... building roads, irrigation systems, mining coal... were forbidden activities.

The physical (and meta-physical) world was revealed to them in perfected state. Their cosmology prevented them from altering it. Their society was required to preserve the "first day".

Like Eden before the serpent, I think...

Wellllll, maybe. But there were a suspiciously large number of extinctions right about the time of those "first days" of human arrival in Australia:

" Quaternary Extincions...


The sudden spate of extinctions occurred earlier than in the Americas. Most evidence points to the period immediately after the first arrival of humans — thought to be a little under 50,000 years ago — but scientific argument continues as to the exact date range. The Australian extinctions included:

* Diprotodonts (giant relatives of the wombats)
* Zygomaturus trilobus (a large marsupial herbivore)
* Palorchestes azael (a marsupial "tapir")
* Macropus titan (a giant kangaroo)
* Procoptodon goliah (a hoof-toed giant short-faced kangaroo)
* Wonambi naracoortensis (a five-to-six-metre-long Australian constrictor snake)
* Thylacoleo carnifex (a lioness-sized marsupial carnivore)
* Megalania prisca (a giant monitor lizard)

Some extinct megafauna, such as the bunyip-like Diprotodon, may be the sources of ancient cryptozoological legends."

Don't get me wrong. I think the various aboriginal cultures are great and that we should all learn from them and from other human groups that practice life/earth honoring cultures. But I think they learned their lessons only after causing some pretty horrible damage to the fauna that they first found in their new home, damage humans seem to have caused pretty much everywhere they went. Some though, like the aborigines, seem to have learned something from the experience, while others did not quite so much (or unlearned the lessons over time).

Will,I doubt if the Australian Aborigines had a primary philosophy.They were hunter gatherers who faced the problem of survival in an extremely harsh environment in some cases.They solved these problems by adapting to the environment but also by changing the environment,primarily by the use of fire.

You have put this process and its result on an extremly rarified plateau which is not consistent with the reality.Glorifying and romanticizing hunter gatherer societies is unrealistic and does you or the Aborigines no favours.There was no Eden in Australia or anywhere else.

No. That is not true. I based my comments on anthropological research, not hunter-gatherer romantics.

The aborigines had a concept of what their world was like on the "first day" and they built a social ecology around that perspective. It worked for centuries.

Harsh environment is our view. Their view was: first day.

I am not sure why you doubt the aborigines had a primary philosophy, they have told us in detail about this philosophy. It's not based on the archeological record, it's based on interviews and observation. It's not even controversial, anyone who reads on the subject understands the aborigines had a "first day" belief structure.

And you are wrong about Eden. The aborigines had Eden for at least 5000 years. The world supported them and allowed them to build complex social networks and have a sophisticated world view. The early sociologists were quite surprised at the cognitive faculties of Aboriginal subjects. The Aborigines had more nuanced view of time and consequences than English scientists who studied them. It took the English a while to understand the Aborigines "remembered" test consequences 8 to 10 levels deeper than the typical English respondent.

You need to step out of the colonial perspective Thirra. Get acquainted with "dream-time".

The culture that Cook found in the 18th century had indeed lasted the best part of 50,000 years, but on the Darwinian level that attempts to move away from it will have met with failure and extinction. Natural resources like coal were not exploited because they had no use for them in the dominant culture. Who needed more fire in a land of desert sun? The ancestral myths of the Aborigines are not that so removed from those of any pre-agricultural society. They are modern humans like us, with the potential for the same level of social networking and complex environmental knowledge. It is us who are the primitives in this respect, as our sterile industrial habitat has robbed us of our cultural inheritance. We are increasingly autistic.

We are increasingly autistic.

Could you explain what you mean by this. I do not think you meant this offensive but it come across that way.


I think he means like when one sits in front of a computer all day on The Oil Drum.

"I based my comments on anthropological research, not hunter-gatherer romantics."

It seems like the halls of anthropology are stacked with hunter-gatherer romantics. It's all part of the selection-bias.

Quite true.

Sort of like National Geographic's love of corpses.
Mummies always make the editorial cut.

It took the English a while to understand the Aborigines "remembered" test consequences 8 to 10 levels deeper than the typical English respondent.

This is more evidence that all humans are not equal.

50 000 years? They remember what things were like 50 000 years ago?
I cannot remember what I had for breakfast.

Let me guess.
They are humans, they came to virgin continent (half their luck) before the last ice age.
They have modified the ecology over those 50 000 years, and had to adapt to changing conditions. And the environment modified them.
At best They cannot remember what things were like 10 generations ago.

That does not make them bad. It makes them human.

Life is not preserved in aspic.
Never has been and never will be.

Human societies always grow to their greatest extent until some force(s) limit further progress. IMO complexity can mean any number of human innovations including temple building and religion and much of the fluff of modern society. These innovations are not complex like a computer chip but rather complex in a thermodynamic sense in that energy is transformed to assemble all of the simple materials and manufacture a relatively complex product. These are basically activities that burn energy but do not offer a return of energy on investment. Societies flower during the good times (disposable income) and do many complex things that do not offer an energy dividend.

Eventually many “complex” things have to fall away as society must invest all energy in finding energy. Warfare is a way societies have sought existing energy and I think we may build more temples and pray for energy and this will have a very low EROEI.

Societies can grow more and more complex in both a vertical (computer chip) and horizontal manner (poodle grooming) and horizontal compression will occur much sooner and faster than vertical compression. For instance, medicine will be compressed both vertically as research dollars and expensive treatments are eliminated and horizontally as many plastic surgeries become unaffordable.

The complexity of our societies has always depended upon the net energy we have to play with. The Egyptian pyramids, Mayan temples, modern churches, stone heads of Easter Island and so on are manifestations of excess energy. IMO, a society that becomes top-heavy in investments that do not return energy will soon fall over and collapse.

My guess is that societies are politically unable to change and therefore must face the consequences of collapse. Warfare is very energy intensive and likely to disrupt existing energy supply lines and hasten collapse, IMO.

I agree with your statement that societies are politically unable to change. Collapse is inevitable. Warfare and health care keeps our society going. A group of people can only be self-sustainable under dire conditions-out of need. If a group intentionally set up camp on a piece of land to become sustainable, they wouldn't be able to "start" without bringing technology with them. If there wasn't technology available to bring with them, creativity would have to start over. Meaning that even building a crude house would be difficult without even a hand saw. Houses as we know them would not exist. Different types of housing would be necessary to create. Problem is that people think that energy comes from technology, when actually it is what drives us as humans. Without human energy technology wouldn't be possible. Food was grown in mass, I believe, because it was profitable to do so. There was a time when each household "made" something in order to trade for something else. That is gone now. We don't know how to be self-sustainable because we don't have the creative energy the first humans had. They took their excess energy and made monuments. Community is what made those monuments, people working together. Building monuments was a testament of their faith to their gods and of their abilities as a community. We can only be self-sustainable once we need to.

"I agree with your statement that societies are politically unable to change"

Would you accept "societies are strongly resistant to political change"?

I would argue that, for example, the French, Chinese and Cuban Revolutions (among others) did in fact change those societies politically.

Was it easy? No, or they would not call them revolutions. Were the changes always exactly what the original instigators had in mind? No, but political structures that existed before went away, and new ones came in that had a different effect than the old structures.

Am I missing something? Is there some reason you don't see political change here?

"Food was grown in mass, I believe, because it was profitable to do so."

Wow, so the profit motive predates money and even agriculture!! That's some pretty wild anachronistic projection you seem to have going on there.

" Building monuments was a testament of their faith to their gods and of their abilities as a community."

More often as a testament of the over-inflated ego of the communities leaders.

"We can only be self-sustainable once we need to."

A marvelous excuse to do nothing?

I'm watching my intrepid chickens graze the yard and procrastinating grading, so I might as well weigh in here.

In the progressivist view, surplus energy precedes and facilitates the evolution of complexity. Certainly this is sometimes true: There have been occasions when humans adopted energy sources of such great potential that, with further development and positive feedback, there followed great expansions in the numbers of humans and the wealth and complexity of societies. These occasions have, however, been so rare that we designate them with terms signifying a new era: the Agricultural Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. It is worth noting that these unusual transitions have not resulted from unbridled human creativity. Rather, they emerged from solutions to problems of resource shortages, and were adopted reluctantly because initially they created diminishing returns on effort in peoples’ daily lives.

Most of the time, cultural complexity increases from day-to-day efforts to solve problems. Complexity that emerges in this way will usually appear before there is additional energy to support it. Rather than following the availability of energy, cultural complexity often precedes it. Complexity thus compels increases in resource production. This understanding of the temporal relationship between complexity and resources has implications for sustainability that diverge from what is commonly assumed. I will explore these implications shortly. It is useful first to present a historical case study, the Western Roman Empire, that illustrates these points.

I don't agree with this piece that occasions where surplus energy precedes and facilitates the evolution of complexity are rare, unless you want to call the grand human experiment of the past 200 years a rare exception to the rule? Technology is a solution to harnessing and maximizing energy flow-throughs, IMO, beginning with the mastery of fire. Reiterative development of technology, complexity, technology, complexity heaps transformation on transformation, until you have massive diversity and specialization both geographically and at different scales (vertically and horizontally). Defining complexity is problematic, yes. One of the simplest methods for quantifying diversity and thus complexity is to sample a thousand humans and count the number of occupations, or take a plot and count the number of species.

Too bad our phantom carrying capacity has allowed us go way over the edge. The further we go, the more tightly linked everything is, with increased errors in copies, and thus the more vulnerable. Like yeast finding a bottle of grape juice, we're going to stew in our own juices. Whatever comes behind us will find a very nice vintage to sip from, hopefully.

I find that a good example for Tainter's work is the traffic system.
We started of with some roads and a few signs. Now this has transformed itself into a system with hundreds of thousands of electronic sensors, signals and control rooms, all of which consume energy. Reducing the number of cars on the road is simple compared with reducing the energy consumption of this built infrasturcture.

In discussing the truth or applicability of a concept both the overly broad brush or the cherry picked item can point to either support or denial. I think it is not hard to find support for the benefit of a bit of organization to many situations but I think some things cannot be scaled up without suffering from the increased complexity.

Very small groups with common interests can work well with consensus decision making(low social complexity) but that will absolutely paralyze a larger diverse group. Perhaps man has an inherent tribalistic mentality and to attempt to make him work in a concerted manner in much larger groups needs organizatiional complexity that becomes too expensive to pay dividends in practicality. Herding cats!

As stated, complexity can be elevated to an art form but that is only enjoyed on full stomachs; when complexity starts to waste productive time or attempts to enforce inherently unnatural conditions it becomes counter productive. The promoters of complexity are a powerfull lobby but very self seving. When a small group problem solves they attempt to do so the most efficiently; professionals tend to create themselves an empire.

Whatever is the seed for complexity, the need for it becomes greater with population density; the more shoulder rubbing you force diverse groups into, the more you have to spend in policing and the less effective concerted effort becomes. Benefits of scale are not universal and in too many ways we lose our resilience by having all of our eggs in the common basket.

At least in his base concept I think Tainter is 100% correct that we are choking on the cost of complexity and that it is in a run away growth pattern.

"paralyze a larger diverse group"

We seem to be pretty well paralyzed anyway.

"Perhaps man has an inherent tribalistic mentality and to attempt to make him work in a concerted manner in much larger groups needs organizatiional complexity that becomes too expensive to pay dividends in practicality."

The solution that complex societies have come up with for that is sometimes called "nested tribalism"

My family belongs to my community belongs to my city/county belongs to my state belongs to my country.

We can extrapolate the feelings of solidarity up each level till we are as ready to kill a potential intruder into our country just as we would be willing to kill a violent intruder into our home. In fact, it is exactly this kind of nested tribalism that has been identified as the key ingredient that allows societies to go to war.

"enforce inherently unnatural conditions"

Definitions, of course, can become difficult here.

The nested tribalism is certainly one of the "solutions" but I think that it adds complexity to accommodate the turbulence along defining borders. Just one of the things I see that do not respond efficiently to being scaled up.

The reference to enforcing inherently unnatural conditions is connected to the question of trying to herd control an animal which is instinctively territorial. Herding cats, Lol! now that is an example of turbulence; poor return on energy invested.

Whenever you push the carrying capacity of an environment problems occur that demand solutions. These seem to have ever more unintended consequences. I think much of what is touted of the wonders of solutions refers more to adaptations we made as we expanded under circumstances of lesser environmental pushback. If you judge the merit of added complexity upon too short a time frame you get some wrong answers.

Tainter is a rather unimaginative luddite who hasn't proven any of his points.

1. 'Complexity' inexorably forces increased consumption?
Demonstrably false.
For example, the more complex information revolution/automation has reduced inputs and raised productivity.

2. Problems that will arise can/will only be met with ever increasing levels of consumption because of the nature of the market system.

Has Tainter never heard of demand destruction?
A large number of free-marketeers support a policy of letting the system fail and shrink by attrition.

3. Rationing doesn't work because it's unpopular.

Reality is also highly unpopular.

4. Population control won't work because it's unpopular.

Tainter ignores how society overtly promotes population growth. Population control is a matter of education.

5. Technological solutions are a delusion.

Oh, paleese. Renewables supply 9% of world energy.
The world uses 474 XJ/year or 68 GJ per person.
Bangladesh currently uses 6.8 GJ per person.

Here's a list of countries by energy use per person.

Renewables can grow and consumption can shrink if we make these our number one priority.

We can walk and chew gum at the same time.

Demonstrably false.
For example, the more complex information revolution/automation has reduced inputs and raised productivity.

Really? Well it has but increasingly of products that are completely unnecessary and that most people wouldn't ever think to purchase if the need weren't artificially created by a super complex civilization that supports advertisers and marketing professionals who design and create consumer items with built in obsolescence that require ever more complex supply chains and ever more resources to produce.

Q.E.D., indeed!

actually agree with your point about rationing

it works even if it is unpopular

on the other things

Discussion Questions

1. Can one group of people choose to, by themselves, forgo complexity and live in a sustainable way on land that they have purchased? Or are there too many inputs required for this to work?

2. Is it helpful for an individual to choose to become a little more sustainable - buy a smaller car, or use the subway instead of a car, or buy locally grown food?

3. Trying to make change at the governmental level seems to be difficult. Could this be related to the issues Joseph Tainter raises?

4. What insights of Joseph Tainter do you find most helpful? Disturbing?

1. yes probably but the scale is so limited as to be meaningless. We can not all return to the "good life".

2. Jevons.... requires societal take up hence rationing. its unpopular but its fair

3. Tainter may have a good point about administrative drag increasing as the complexity of problems and solutions increase. this may not manifest itself as massive increases in energy consumption thou (i doubt it did in Roman western empire) thou other problems may such as the change in demography etc.

on balance Tainter's arguments have merit despite numerous reservations I have about some the historical assumptions in there

4. The idea of diminishing returns is a obvious point . The disturbing inevitability of his analysis is one for the doomers

Is he right?

I think he has hit on something useful and as such is well worth the read.

For example, the more complex information revolution/automation has reduced inputs and raised productivity.


This is so silly I shouldn't comment, but since you called Tainter a Luddite...

There is no thing that a computer does that reduces inputs. That is complete fiction.

Once you have a computer, the computer needs data.

1) Information is not free, it must be acquired.

2) Once acquired it must be converted for processing.

3) Processing requires IT department.

4) IT department requires Finance Department.

5) Finance requires HR dept.

6) HR department requires social hierarchy.

7) Social hierarchy requires benefits and fringes.

8) Benefits and fringes require "growth".

9) Growth does not happen with reduced inputs.

This, Mr. Majorian, IS the corporate model. The pattern has been repeated tens of thousands of times.

Read Tainter slowly... maybe that would help.

I think its more a matter of not getting any additional insight from Tainter.

For instance, Tainter talks about complexity without mentioning entropy at all. For any sufficiently complex system, one can use entropy arguments to show that it is indistinguishable from a random disordered system subject to constraints. So if the so-called complexity breaks down, we have nowhere else to go but a more disordered state. On the face of it, things might not change too much. We will still have huge disparities in income and the same separation between the poor and the wealthy (your point #2). Say something complex breaks down. The wealthy may still be able to cope, and the poor will find themselves in the same old familiar situation. The overall entropy creeps up a little. This is just a consequence of the filling up of available states of the system.

Just as statistical mechanics would predict for a thermally disordered state, the higher energy states (the wealthy) will be rare and the lower energy states (the masses) much more numerous. This situation has always existed and will continue to exist as everything in the world is entropically "complex". Yet, Tainter himself can't quantify this complexity so we might as well use informational entropy concepts to describe the situation.

That is why Tainter and writers like him always stay on the qualitative level and rely on rhetorical arguments to get their point across. It seems to me that not being able to quantify any of this is the most disturbing.

Above all else, this kind of thinking allows us to get into a different mindset and perhaps come up with alternate approaches. We are progressives in the sense that we can welcome change and not be frightened by the consequences.

BTW, these kind of arguments are at the heart of econophysics, which is a good candidate to replace the sorry state of conventional economic theory.

Trust you ;-)

Quantifying Archaeological data is a crap shoot as the meaning of the numbers is context specific given that recovery is dependent on processes which no longer leave evidence of them selves in the archaeological record except by deduction (and more often by spurious induction).

you trying to reverse engineer a civilisation from window sampling a truncated distribution where you have to deduce what the truncation mechanisms are despite often there is no direct evidence for them...? frankly pretty ridiculous

backward modeling from modern sites with strong data is a growing idea in archaeology at the moment, so the quantification of the past is yet to begin as a prelude to hard(er) archaeological science.

given that we see Tainter's best fits quantitive wise are often modern analogies..

For ancient geological process I believe you can do the forensics, but in terms of human archaeology I agree that it would be difficult to interpret in any meaningful way. Give me any productivity data from today or recent years and I think you can make headway.

1. 'Complexity' inexorably forces increased consumption? ... For example, the more complex information revolution/automation has reduced inputs and raised productivity.

All too easy to believe something when all the pieces are hidden from your view.

Our modern "computer" infrastructure relies on a world-wide complex web of manufacturers, suppliers, technicians, etc. many of whom are located offshore and thus you don't see them. Out of sight, out of mind.

Click on image for more info (EUV= Extreme UltraViolet)

For example, the more complex information revolution/automation has reduced inputs and raised productivity.

Productivity - well we do produce a lot more stuff now, but of late most increased productivity comes not from increased automation but from using very poorly paid people in China etc. Productivity is measured by $ not by human hours. So if you can fire your highly paid workers and hire new ones at less wages and benefits your productivity goes up. Employers like this way of increasing productivity, but it may be all that is left to them as the automation revolution has pretty much done all it can to increase productivity. That is in line with Tainter's theory. He wouldn't argue that automation fails to increase productivity, but rather that it reaches a point where any new gain in productivity becomes smaller compared to the cost of the new automation.

"1. 'Complexity' inexorably forces increased consumption?
Demonstrably false.
For example, the more complex information revolution/automation has reduced inputs and raised productivity."

True, in that a modern Intel processor requires less silicon and other materials than an 80386, and you get much higher performance as well.

But, the silicon that was good enough for the '386 is not good enough for the I5. The process that built the '386 can not build an I5; it takes a vastly better, more accurate stepper, more accurate temperature control and so on. It takes fantastically pure chemicals to build the I5 compared to the '386. The I5 takes an extra layer of sapphire that the '386 did not. It requires copper traces that the '386 did not. And so on.

The increase in complexity relocated the consumption, but it did not wholly eliminate its increase. So the initial statement is not so demonstrably false after all.

I believe many would agree that the US is a plutocracy rather than a democracy. If this is true, and I believe it is, how will this effect a collapse in the US? Clearly the form of governance dose not stop a societal collapse since societies ranging from theocracies through dictatorships have collapsed.

What I'm thinking of here is whether the psychological impact upon society when they find that their cherished beliefs were untrue will make it more chaotic and anarchic. And, further, make it more difficult to regroup.

My gut feeling is that it will be far worse than if they had a central figure or group to blame. Any thoughts?


bleak situation but amenable to acknowledgement, redress and overcoming.....

I don't see anybody facing the reality that growth is not sustainable.
I think that if we don't come up with some miracle, we will not survive.

If we choose to ignore reality as many too many leaders are doing now and instead adamantly advocate overconsumption, overproduction and overpopulation activities that allow a tiny greedmongering minority to effectively pleasure themselves to death, what chance is there for a good enough future for the childen, who are being directed by self-proclaimed masters of the universe among us down a primrose path, at the end of which some sort of colossal ecological wreckage (the likes of which only Ozymandias has witnessed) could be precipitated?

I expected to see a comment along the line of "renewables based electrical energy and transport systems" would be too complex to maintain comapared to FFs based system so it would not be viable over time".

"renewables based electrical energy and transport systems" would be too complex to maintain comapared to FFs based system so it would not be viable over time".

Well, perhaps, but a 3.5 billion year history of successful photosynthetic replicating machines might give us some cause for hope. Cyanobacteria being somewhat more complex than a chemical soup and clay...

Best hopes for finding the right balance between complexity and KISS.

I swear to my imaginary sky daddy that I must be almost the only person who has actually read the book, judging from the comments so far.

Most of the people attacking Tainter don't have a clue as to what the book is about ;it is not a physics or chemistry text and Tainter's arguments are only dependent on the physical sciences insofar as the sciences set the outer limits as to what is possible in human affairs.

Allow me to make a poor analogy;in the nature versus nurture debate, any one with a brain must concede that nature sets the outer limits of human behaviors/abilities while chance and environment-nurture- determines what happens on the continium of the possible.

I don't see anything in the book-taken or read IN CONTEXT- that conflicts with anything I know about the physical sciences.

Tainter's arguments are based on the actions people take or make in groups as circumstances change, and these actions are only BOUNDED OR LIMITED by the physical sciences, as opposed to being DETERMINED by the sciences.

Any body who fails to grasp these points is simply not going to understand Tainter..anyboy who fails to understand these points almost certainly hasn't read Tainter;if he has , his reading comprehension skills are minimal at best.

Tainter's basic argument, pared down to the bone, is that in the earlier stages of the development of complex societies,each incremental increase in complexity, on average, pays a dividend in excess of it's cost;the dividend can be in the form of more food, better shelter, more luxury consumables, greater safety, increased liesure, or any other percieved "good" or combination of goods.

The increase of complexity-which can be roughly measured by the level of organization of industry, agriculture,govt, and the number and knd of specialists innolved in the economy, can come about for various reasons-in terms of explaining collapse,probably the single most important one is the necessity of dealing with various societal stresses.

As these stresses grow, more and more resources must be devoted to dealing with them, at the expense of diverting resources in the form of both natural resources and manpower from more basic uses or duties;a soldier in the field defending his clan or his state raises no grain, and the iron in the head of his spear chops no wood as an axe nor does it turn any soil as a plow.

At some point, the increased marginal costs of supporting all the various specialists can exceed and sometimes does exceed the combined marginal returns provided to the society by thier work.

At this point the society may begin to stagnate -to cease to grow and/or flourish-unless additional resources can be found to support continued prosperity and growth;these resources can take the form of new harnessable energy sources, such as firewood, coal, oil, and uranium;newly occupied or conquered lands, slaves, new technology, asuch as herding, farming, iron working,etc.

If enough new resources can be brought into play, the society may continue to grow or a least maintain itself in a stable state, even past the point when complexity no longer pays a dividend.

But sooner or later, the society is likely to bump into resource limits, and run short of reserves in the form of farmland, manpower, water, soil. credit, or whatever.

When this happens, the society must deal with any new stress out of the current income in the form of goods and services it produces;but since the new stress MUST BE DEALT WITH, it must NESESSARILY DIVERT some resources-for example farm labor and feed for draft animals-to the solution to the problem.If the problem is an invasion mounted by a competing society, for example, the laborer, his horse, and its feed are apt to be commandeered by the army.

This sets up a viscious positive feed back cycle of course, further weakening an already stressed economy or society.The result might be the loss of a war or territory.

If the stress is of a different sort, such as might be brought on by unfortunate combinations of disease, drought, and/or shortages of critical resources-timber for instance, or iron ore perhaps,the primary producers in the society may find themselves in such a position that they simply cannot cope;they may rebel,emigrate, or simply walk away from thier homes and livelihoods to ally themselves with some powerful individual capable of feeding and sheltering them.Landowners and thier workers found themselves in this situation in the latter days of the Roman empire due to draconian taxes.The laborer found that he was better off in the city on the dole than on the farm where everything was confiscated.Some became indifferent to the invaders, seeing them as not being any worse masters than the rulers in Rome;some actively helped the invaders.

Of course the elites of the day wanted the empire to survive, as thier own positions depended on it, but they continued for the most part to live as well as possible and make as few sacrifices as possible on the personal and group level.The income from the economic base proved to be inadequate to the overall task of dealing with the combined stresses, and the empire failed.

Now this already overly long comment is barely adequate to introduce the reader to Tainter's basic arguments,but perhaps it will throw a little light on the subect for those who haven't read the book.

I have necessarily painted fast with a broad brush, so please don't quibble too much about the way I have described the thesis of the book.I fully realize haven't even mentioned major parts of the reasoning put forth in the book, or the evidence on which the reasoning is based.

I am a skeptic by nature, and I find Tainter's arguments to be closely reasoned, well supported, and entirely defensible.SfaIcs, most of the people trained in the sciences ( as opposed to bau business aaaaand economics ) who have read the book tend to agree that Tainter is a man of stature -heads and shoulders above the crowd.

I would take at least a week of days to write up a good concise summary of the book, and by then the thread would be forgotten if not already closed, and anyway, I have other things to do.


Is Tainter basic argument that certain group mindset patterns are so locked in that they will not change and therefore collapse will happen as he describes it.

If this is his assumption, likely a correct one then he is likely to be correct.

Of course if he is right then we are toast. Therefore our only hope is to prove his assumption wrong and figure out how to change these dysfunctional group mindset patterns.

That was useful. It all seems very intuitive. I have to admit that I haven't read Tainter because it didn't seem quantitatively analytical enough for my tastes.

Thanks OFM.

Listening to the recently posted interview with Tainter is also helpful.

Like many others, I DID NOT READ Tainter's book.

If understood correctly, Tainter has a special meaning that he attaches to the word "complexity". I suspect the choice of that word throws people off track. On the other hand, our language does not have a word that expresses what he wants to say.

With that said, there are probably also examples of civilizations that were too simple and failed for the reason.

Maybe we all need to read the book and try this discussion again. It is interesting how people who have read or tried to read his book are so passionate about it. Either they really "like it" or really don't.

does not have a word that expresses what he wants to say.

This seems to be true. I do not accept that what he is trying to say is all that difficult to understand, but it might be challenging to explain given the limitations of language.

That ambiguity might be the problem.

In the book, Tainter doesn't mention entropy once and apparently doesn't use any of the well-established ways to quantify/measure complexity. I used the Amazon search function and looked in the index. An old scientific and engineering adage goes something like "if you can't measure it, you can't deal with it". I am at a loss to practically apply much of what he says.

at a loss to practically apply much of what he says.

Mentally I approach things from the framework in. I need to understand the fundamental underlying structure of the frame before I can start analyzing the picture.

I have not been able to decipher enough from this post and comments to create this framework. I have a feeling the book is presented backwards from the way my mind works.

I think thats a good point when looking at reconstructions of past collapses. less so in projecting current and recorded trends which both you and Tainter do to some extent

get a copy and read it

I will eventually get around to it as so many people have recommended it. The educated mob is usually right.

This looks like a great OPPORTUNITY for You to break some new ground in your specialty.

Step Back, You may be considered correct in saying that some societies have failed because they were too simple;another way of saying this is that they did not muster sufficient resources, and apply them correctly, to solve whatever growing problem did them in.

Such a society could be justiafiably said to not have arrived at a sufficient degree of complexity to deal with the problem.

Native American societies had not yet developed sufficient complexity to ward off the invasion of the Europeans;the local "Indians" couldn't fight off people armed with firearms with stone tipped arrows.I still pick up the occasional arrowhead on our place.There are pottery shards on my deceased grandfathers place.

Page 23:



Caps are mine in this case.

The use of a professional dictionary may be helpful to those unacquainted with the professional jargon of anthropology.

Considering there are so many well educated people here, it puzzles me greatly that none have bothered to consult a professional dictionary;every profession seemingly uses at least a few common words in a narrowly and oddly defined fashion that seems almost deliberately designed to confuse and irritate outsiders.The fact thaT SO MANY OTHERWISE BRIGHT LIGHTS hAVE FAILED TO CONSIDER THIS POINT MIGHT BE considered further amusing evidence of Tainter's remarks in reference to specialization!

Tainter expands on the concept at various places throughout the book.

Now everybody should understand what Tainter-and other anthropologists-use when they use the word "complexity".

As usual, I beg the pardon of everybody in respect to my poor typing-It takes a long time for me to correct all the errors.Too long!

If I could type as fast as most people, the editors would probably find it necessary to throw me off the site for using up too many electrons.;)

Landowners and thier workers found themselves in this situation in the latter days of the Roman empire due to draconian taxes.The laborer found that he was better off in the city on the dole than on the farm where everything was confiscated.Some became indifferent to the invaders, seeing them as not being any worse masters than the rulers in Rome;some actively helped the invaders.

Draconian taxes?

The earliest taxes in Rome were customs duties on imports and exports called portoria.

Caesar Augustus was consider by many to be the most brilliant tax strategist of the Roman Empire. During his reign as "First Citizen" the publicans were virtually eliminated as tax collectors for the central government. During this period cities were given the responsibility for collecting taxes. Caesar Augustus instituted an inheritance tax to provide retirement funds for the military. The tax was 5 percent on all inheritances except gifts to children and spouses. The English and Dutch referred to the inheritance tax of Augustus in developing their own inheritance taxes.

During the time of Julius Caesar a 1 percent sales tax was imposed. During the time of Caesar Augustus the sales tax was 4 percent for slaves and 1 percent for everything else.

In Rome farm laborers were called 'slaves'.

While the aristocracy owned most of the land in Rome, they oftentimes were not present at the farms. With obligations as senators, generals, and soldiers at war, many of the actual landowners spent very little time working on their farms. The farms instead were maintained by slaves and freedmen paid to oversee those slaves. The overseer of the farm had many responsibilities that coincided with maintaining the land. He was responsible for ensuring that the slaves were kept busy and for resolving conflicts between them. An overseer had to be dependable and trustworthy in that the land owner had to know that the person they hired to run the farm was not going to try and steal any of the produce from the farm. Overseers were also responsible for ensuring that both servants and slaves were properly fed and housed, and that they were assigned work fairly and efficiently. They had to ensure that any orders given by the owner of the land were followed diligently and that everyone on the farm honored the gods completely and respectfully, which Romans believed was necessary to ensure a bountiful harvest. Good inscription evidence of how the system was organsied is visible in the Lex Manciana

The majority of the work was done by servants and slaves. Slaves were the main source of labor because of the low cost of owning and maintaining a slave. In Roman society, there were three main ways to obtain a slave. The first and possibly most common way to gain a slave was to buy one on the market. Slaves were purchased at auctions and slaves markets from dealers or were traded between individual slave owners. Another way slaves were acquired was through conquest in warfare. As Keith Hopkins explains in his writings, many landowners would go to war and bring back captives. These captives were then taken back to Roman territory and either sold to another citizen or made to work on the capturer's farm. The final way a slave could be obtained was through birth: If a female slave gave birth to a child, that child became property of the slave's owner. Slaves were relatively cheap to use because their payment was only food, shelter and clothes. Overseers ensured that slaves maintained a high level of motivation by providing some form of reward to harder working slaves and severely punishing slaves who did not work to their potential. “If the overseer sets his face against wrongdoing, they will not do it; if he allows it, the master must not let him go unpunished.

The dole, a FOOD RATION(a loaf of bread, later olive oil and occasional strip of pork) was originally for veterans and later extended to citizens and their families.

Also the population of Rome didn't change much from the founding of the empire in 27BC to ~350 AD, so there was no evidence of the hypothetical flocking to Rome for hand outs.


I hope these FACTS will persuade you to question and discard your
theory that sky high high taxes and tiny food rations lured masses of free Romans into town and thus
destroyed the Roman Empire.

Your story may work as Limbaugh/Beck style conservative 'truthiness' but it is historically twaddle.

Bit harsh given just about everything written about the Roman Empire is twaddle including some of the supposed insights from the grain supply documentation.

Tainter's take on Rome is one of the better takes out there (i think) ... and thats after I agree with you that it leaves a hell of a lot to be desired.

Frankly I wouldn't trust a model of the changing economic fortunes of the Roman empire I hadn't just made up myself.


A long time ago, I came to the conclusion that you and I enjoy a single mutual opinion;each of us believes the other is an idiot.

I don't attack or belittle many posts or comnments, and when I do , I mostly try to do so with some degree of courtesy and consideration-unless the commenters are talking twaddle.

Tainter is a giant in his field.

His work is referenced by just about every serious researcher working in the field at some point.

I read the book-twice.Very slowly, the second time-for in depth comprehension.

I noted that a serious review or summary would take a week to write, and that I tried to get just enough into my comment to get across the gist of the book.

You on the otherhand attack just about everybody and just about every idea as as unscientific, impractical, politically motivated, or otherwise fatally flawed week after week.

I mostly skip over your commentary, having come to the conclusion that almost the ONLY specific things YOU believe in are handouts for the auto industry and ccs for coal, leading me to suspect you have skin in these two games.

The reference to landowners and thier workers abandoning thier homes and livelihoods is in ther book-obviously you haven't read it;I threw it out as a part of a single abbreviated example.

A s a general thing, nearly all of your commentary seems to be based on a childish desire to denigrate the thoughts of ANYBODY else,almost without exception.

It's incredibly easy to find references on the net pro or con in respect to virtually anything.

Otoh, it takes some considerable amount of time to actually learn enough about a complex subject to comment on it intelligently.


I must admit that since this book is priced like a textbook, which it is at some fine universities, it's pricey.I have two more days before my interlibrary loaner from Davidson College is due.

I have refrained from responding to any comments you have made for a good while, on the grounds that others listening in may not be well informed and thereby misidentify the fool , as thier particular personal prejudices might dictate.

I should not have made this exception but since I have taken the time to type it with two fingers, I am going to post it.

Sometime tonight I will post the page number so that any interested party can check the accuracy of my comment;if the book were mine, I would have annotated it so thoroughly I could find it in a minute.

Page 188, first edition:

"The burden and costliness of the Empire not only increased over time,but the benefits it afforded its members declined.As crops were confiscated for taxation and peasant's children were sold into slavery, lands were increasingly ravaged by barbarians who could not be halted with the Empire's (remaining) resources.The advantage of empire declined so precipitiously that many peasants were apathetic about the dissolution of Roman rule, while some actively joined the invaders.In being unable to maintain an acceptable return on investment in complexity, the Roman Empire lost both its legitimacy and its survivability."

This quote is from the summary/evaluation portion of the book, and is well supported in the previous pages.

Page 146:

"The tax burden was such that peasant propietors could accumulate no reserves, so if barbarians raided, or drought or locousts diminished the crop, they either borrowed or starved.EVENTUALLY THIER LAND PASSED TO CREDITORS, TO WHOM THEY BECAME TENANTS.As tenants, they paid half thier crops in rent, while propietors owed 1/3 in taxes.Whatever crops were brought in had to be sold for taxes , even if it meant staration for the farmer.Under conditions of famine it was the farmers , amazingly enough, who were the first to suffer, often flocking to cities that held stores of grain."

Caps and the word "remaining" in parentheses are mine, not Tainter's.

At the time this was written by a serious scholar,rather than one of the millions very poorly informed idiots posting half baked comments on the net , I doubt if anybody, other than his personal circle of acquaintances had ever heard of Rush Limbaugh.

Tainter was careful to give due consideration to all other competing theories of collapse, and acknowledged that all, excepting the mystical, have some powerful arguments in thier favor, and can apply in part or possibly in full in cases of new or unknown circumstances,as in the case of the collapse of past societies about which we know little or nothing.As well , he acknowledges that competing theories throw a lot of light on the cases he examines in his book;he simply makes a case that a declining return on complexity is the theory best supported by the known facts.

In broad general terms, I agree with him, although I would have some hard questions for him if I were in a graduate class he might teach-to study under him would be a privilege indeed.

As I have remarked here before , I leave it to the readers to decide who knows what he is talking about. ;)

I will try to remember in the future that some comments should not be dignified by a reply.

The Cato Institute has a good (though perhaps Koch Industries-libertarian-flavored) write up on the subject:

I swear to my imaginary sky daddy that I must be almost the only person who has actually read the book, judging from the comments so far.


Admittedly my comment was OT and wasn't really so much about Tainter's work at all. It was merely to point out that one could find examples of some forms of successful, relatively complex systems, that had lasted a very long time. Therefore by analogy I was implying that there might perhaps be a sort of 'Goldilock's' level of complexity that could be sustainable long term.

Egypt and China come to mind. As do the aborigines mentioned above. I think that local conditions determine what level of complexity is possible, and local traditions determine if the complexity turns out to be sustainable.

Also, as pointed out above, you can have complexity on a number of levels--aborigines have very rich oral literary traditions. During the "Dark Ages" in Greece, after the collapse of the Mycenaean civilization but before the classical period, huge cycles of epics seem to have been developed and passed down orally, the "Iliad" and "Odyssey" being the only two left to us, though there are references to and fragments of others.

Similarly, the Celts, Indo-Iranians, and probably other early Indo-European cultures, though not yet 'civilized' (settled in cities) had enormously complex oral texts that were developed and passed down outside of any written tradition. Similar things could be said about many other 'traditional' cultures.

So cultures that seem 'simple' in their material cultures can be quite complex in their linguistic art. Perhaps this is one way forward?

Sometimes I think this site is peopled by elites who have succeeded in their endeavors by certain kinds of thinking, and regardless of the situation they continue to do what has worked for them in the past. This is what humans do, so it isn't an attack, just an observation. You know, that guy who has a hammer and everything to him looks like a nail? Now numbers, charts, graphs and complex math and modeling are powerful tools for some kinds of problem solving, but sometimes I think that if you are only capable on one point of view, then much remains that is invisible to you.

I think that to decide if Tainter's discussion of the Roman empire is off the mark might take a lifetime of study with access to documents and maybe sites, a community of fellow students of same, and a good knowledge of Latin to boot. A couple minutes of Googling isn't going to do it. I think that is what OFM was referring to in an above comment. I admit I don't know if Tainter or OFM has these things informing him or not.

And there's the rub. In our complex society, people err in thinking that expertise is interchangeable. A good debater doesn't necessarily know anything about his subject.

Good observation.

I do think Tainter's take on the Roman empire is off.. but then again i have had years of experience of digging it up and trying to understand it myself. Probably have a better understanding of Roman stratigraphy than he will ever have..

The broader stroke of Tainter's analysis is harder to have a critical opinion on given my narrower experience but its hard to ignore the contradictions in his Roman model compared with our current findings in the field (he often quotes texts 30 years or more old)

That being said his take is what I classify as one of the more useful ones even if archaeologists in the field are becoming increasingly uneasy about how generalizations of a quantitive type have been extrapolated from specific pieces of evidence. more so given that contradictory evidence resolution is hardly ever(never) attempted by hypothesis but instead pet ideas are superimposed top down. Coalescing all this data from multiple sources into a big answer about societal collapse is a task way way way beyond me.

Tainters book is definitely worth a read

The biggest criticism I have of the book/theory and this applies to a lot of ideas about societal evolution and change is it may well be a fools errand in that there may well be no common cause that is applicable to all cases of human societal collapse. The book never really addresses this possibility well but in its defense it does investigate other popular ideas as a precursor to his own and that alone makes it worth a read even if you dismiss the premise out of hand.


You get a little gold star for getting it and rephrasing it in different and perhaps more understandable terms.

Tainter has not claimed to have said the las word on the subect;he simply says that the best and most parsimonious explaination of the known collapses that are reasonably well documented is a marginally decreasing return on investment.

In other words, when times get hard, a society SOMETIMES has to give up some of its complexity in order to bring things into a sustainable balance again.

This idea is quite simple and intuitive, and if most of the audience were not in the habit of thinking in engineering and hard science terms, there would be no controversy at all-once the anthropological defitition of complexity is understood.If. if ,if, the audience had read the book instead of listening to sound bite commentary posted by other folks who haven't read the book.

Any car salesman or real estate salesman or investor in the stock marlet should get it fast-as the productivity of our society shrank recently, thier jobs/investments shrank too-sometimes right out of existence.

This idea is quite simple and intuitive, and if most of the audience were not in the habit of thinking in engineering and hard science terms, there would be no controversy at all-once the anthropological defitition of complexity is understood.

Or alternatively, Tainter gets an easy ride by those in his field because of the groupthink of what constitutes a valid argument. However when the hard science and engineering types take a look at it, they put the finger on sloppy reasoning, claimed axioms, and jumps in the chain of thought - and won't be placated by appeals to authority (eg they carry out the scientific method).

It's not down to some strange definition of complexity; the one given is pretty adjacent to that of complexity science (although light on the network aspects). It's that he claims the fail of civilisations is due to reductions in the marginal return on changes (fair enough) and that that is due to EVERY/MOST changes requiring an increase in complexity (not proved) and complexity necessarily requiring extra energy (not proved).

Sorry, but the rules of science are, if you can't answer the questions and criticisms of your theory, it dies. Doesn't matter who you are, how thick your book is, or how big the choir.

Now actually I think there is probably a bit more to his work than you are presenting - but I see no sign of the key issues being addressed and in any case I think the whole thing is secondary to the issue of information availability/decision making capability in societies. WHY we make bad decisions, and if we are actually forced into a dead-end or do our choices place us there; is a much more useful and pertinent question. Its also more hopeful.

"Sorry, but the rules of science are, if you can't answer the questions and criticisms of your theory, it dies. Doesn't matter who you are, how thick your book is, or how big the choir."

Sorry, but you don't win the debate by reframing the discourse to suit you, and then tearing it apart.

All that Tainter would have to do to prove his point is to show that "often" complexity is the result of problem solving, as those are his words. He doesn't have to prove every case, which would be impossible. You know that by showing in your words how in science things are never proven, only proven false. I guess what you don't like is that word "often" that he put in there which makes the whole thing seem, well, squishy to you. But I don't think Tainter intends to show that it is the only way that civilizations can fail. I really think the point is "Hey guys, I thought of another way of looking at the way things can go wrong for a civilization no one has considered before." He then looks for evidence of those kinds of ways things can go wrong in collapses he knows about. I have never read anything of what his colleagues think of his ideas, so I don't know that they are stupefied into this groupthink that you mention. I do know that not everyone in the discipline thinks Tainter has all the answers, and some disagree entirely. Nothing humanity does is just one thing or the other. But I do think that here in this venue what it comes down to is maybe these questions that Gail asked:

3. Trying to make change at the governmental level seems to be difficult. Could this be related to the issues Joseph Tainter raises?

4. What insights of Joseph Tainter do you find most helpful? Disturbing?

The issue is whether he has anything of value to offer to the discussion. You can say no to both questions, that's okay. You think that "resiliency" and "agility" are the main operators in a collapse. Okay.

But whoa! I can't think of anything more complex as a response to a problem that we face than applying all the layers of distributed economies etc. that you prescribe in your view of what are the proper decisions to make at this point! Resiliency is redundant, and costly, and is a structural change that fits the Tainter way of looking at things quite well!

4. What [non]-insights of Joseph Tainter do you find most Disturbing?

Most disturbing is that Tainter does not tackle the word "complexity" as being an admission that the human brain is incapable of holding and processing more than a few thoughts at a time.

Hence we label some problems as "complex" (too much for our pea wee brains) and others as manageable or "simple".

Then we let this overlooked definition of "complexity" take over our understanding of complex civilization without addressing its root cause.

Sorry, but you don't win the debate by reframing the discourse to suit you, and then tearing it apart.

All that Tainter would have to do to prove his point is to show that "often" complexity is the result of problem solving, as those are his words.


Look at the first posting in this debate, it's been there all along. It says that there are problems with the axioms that Tainter is claiming, and they'd need to be answered if the whole hypothesis was to be something to consider.

Reason is that if complexity doesn't always lead to greater energy use, then sometime greater complexity leads to less energy use - and the hypothesis falls.

Despite all the hot air and claims that the 200+ pages amount to holy scripture, nobody has actually stood up this axiom here. In fact if anything people have tended to agree that its only sometimes that this happens. As such you, or Tainter, need to prove that increased energy use from increased complexity happens in preference, before you can go on to claim that complexity explains societal collapse. How often does complexity lead to increased energy use? 80%.... 70%....50%....40%? If it's not addressed, and proved, it could be that complexity preferentially reduced energy usage (not something I believe, but this is supposed to be science).

So, no I haven't been 'reframing the discourse to suit', I've been ensuring that people can't do the same and politely ignore the missing, critical step; and since nobody has addressed it, calling them on it. I've been sticking to the discourse.

And no, Tainter doesn't just have to just show that '"often" complexity is the result of problem solving' - because the focus is elsewhere, on one of the axioms that supports that. If the axiom is wrong then it doesn't matter if problem solving causes complexity, because, so what, complexity could be reducing energy use.

PS Resilience is not usually redundancy, it maybe nuanced to some, but there is a big difference in worldview and methodology. As a very simplistic example, a diesel engine has more resilience to supply constraints because it can easily run on lots of different types of fuel (in theory). Putting two petrol engines in a car does nothing to address that.


I agree something just does not add up. I'm thinking that complexity is a visible indicator of a underlining factor. It is visible because it amplifies it's effect.

Poor management/mindset issues is the issue. Increase the complexity in a poorly managed system and what happens? Since us humans have poor management issues, increasing complexity often causes increasing problems.

I'm actually glad that you responded, as I figured that as this post drifted off the front page people would get bored with it, especially those who think of it is tripe, and drift away as well. I did read Tainter's book five years or so ago, and I wish that I had a copy right now as I think things could be made more clear, at least to me, if I did. You have to understand that that was the first time in my life I ever was exposed to the concept of diminishing returns, and I was actually reading it to inform my understanding of Jared Diamond's Collapse book, and so I was reading it and thinking about it in a way that doesn't help me respond cogently when I respond to your posts. I'm also sorry I drifted into being snide, as that never improves the thinking or the discourse.

I think that the main issue is what Tainter thinks complexity means, and on what scale he is discussing it. The part of the book that I would reread is the part where he introduces complexity and defines it. But anyway, I can't do that now as I had it as an interlibrary loan. But, chances are that if you read a hundred pages, that is what you did read and disagree with. So what I am wondering about now is all these examples of complexity (to your definition anyway) that didn't require more energy inputs to enact. You gave one example, but it wasn't really made clear to me that it was a good one. I see the more-efficient-engine response as only part of a larger response to a larger predicament that the Arab oil embargo was part of. I think that Tainter is maybe thinking in very large terms when he talks of complexity. Probably there are on a small scale a lot of examples of greater efficiencies from problem-solving responses, but when all the responses are taken as a whole, the net energy needed for a response is larger. I am not a good student of history, but I see the Arab oil embargo as a logical response by countries finally realizing the score and seeing that they are ahead in the game and acting accordingly. And if the engine response is ultimately seen to be to part of that same game, the declining production of petroleum in the US, then you would have to add up all the responses to that stimulus, maybe even over time, and see what the net energy used would be. I suspect it would be greater, and not just because of increasing demand over time (and with my math skills wouldn't that be hard to separate out,) because although you might make more efficient engines, you are also funding greater research into getting more oil out of declining fields, building more oil infrastructure in far away places, building more tankers to service more imports, funding more wars in the Middle East etc. etc. which is of course way more expensive in terms of energy than pumping oil in Texas was up to that point. So I think Tainter was speaking in broad terms that your examples possibly don't address. Everything is connected to everything else, so it would be maybe hard to really address each example and see if they are really part of a broad response, as I don't know what your other examples are, and maybe don't even have the time or expertise to do it anyway. But maybe this will help you see what I am thinking, and why I'm not giving up yet on my ideas.

And I had a second thought as I re-read my post, that if you did represent oil demand as per capita over time, maybe you would be left with growth in demand after you brought your new engines online that you would have to explain away somehow. So you would have to see that other things are at work here on a larger scale. Maybe these are the effects of stepback, twilight and mididoctors' ideas of bad command and control, or civilisation working from a bad set of premises, or increases in function tasks, or even Tainter's increased complexity.

Not to start a political football war here, but as an example just imagine the first day that George W. Bush stepped into the Oval Office at the White House. The "complexity" of his world had suddenly increased by an order of magnitude. For example, there was that "football" thingy with all the shiny buttons and codes and he was probably itching to give them some play. But the Air Force officer probably snatched the toy away and said, "I'm sorry Mr. President, today is not a good day to play with this kind of football."

On the other hand, the "complexity" of thought process within the Oval Office probably decreased that day by an order or two of magnitude:

"Oh Higher Father, we trust that you will give us the wisdom to do thy will on this day and going forward. Amen. Now how do I get myself on them there internets and where is my annotated copy of Pet Goat? Laura come quickly, I need you."

I am still thinking about this, I feel that there is something of interest hidden in the shadows. I have not read the book but since this post is on his speech and not specifically his book...

I suspect that complexity cuts both ways. If it is done with cross-purpose and poor intelligence, it creates turbulence, which builds until destruction sets in.

Complexity done with good cooperation and intelligence creates efficiencies and stability.

Think of the incredible amount of complexity in a living organism.

Hi Fred,

You are on firm ground as is usual for you.

Tainter's objective was to discover and codify whatever he could about collapse by studying the historical record and the literature;this was quite a job in and of itself, and iirc, took him two years.

The book is useful in the study of complexity in that it points out some ways in which complexity can become a evolutionary dead end in the cultural evolution of a given society.

He does not claim that collapse is inevitable in any or all cases;anyone who thinks so is jumping to entirely unjustified conclusions.

HE DOES say that once the stresses on a given society build up to a certain level, collapse is always a possibility, and that an informed observer may sometimes be able to say with confidence that that the collapse of a given society may more or less inevitable from examining the state of its affairs.

Just about everybody who is here and posting in respect to ff,population, ff, and the environment may be reasonably said to fall into this last mentioned group, excepting our handful of resident cornucopians.

If my language is convoluted , I apologize for trying to say so much in just a few words.

This topic demands a far more detailed discussion.

OFM - I've read Tainter, I thought he made a lot of sense, and I think you did a decent job summarizing (not a task I would have wanted to do). I'm kinda surprised at the number of people who have such strong opinions about something they've made no effort to understand.

Everyone seems to get hung up on the word complexity - try thinking of it as the change in complexity, and only apply it on a large scale, society-wide level.

{Edited} The words I have used in my own independent search (not for same question) are "specialization" and "tunnel/funnel vision".

Like all civilizations that came before us, we the occupiers of the year 2010 have raised our children to have tunnel/funnel visions and to be "specialized" in very specific fields of endeavor: anthropology, engineering, economics, ecology, etc.

No two of us differently-specialized experts speaks the same language. Many concepts get lost in the translation. (i.e. what does "complexity" mean to anthropologists as opposed to math and engineering types)

Hence we have a complex Tower of Babel. It seems to be building up/ progressing upward to that grand singularity in the sky all well and fine. Yet none of us understands the foundation or what keeps the whole thing going. None of us understands the detailed complexities of the specialist next door. We all trust that every cog in the grand machine is doing his/her function correctly. ... Until he/she doesn't. ... Boom ... Go ask the citizens of San Bruno (site of recent gas main explosion)

Specialization is a good example of how to get all confused about the issue of complexity. One could have endless debates about whether an individual with highly specialized training is more or less complex than a generalist, but this misses the point. A society with a large percentage of individuals highly specialized in various different fields is more complex than one with a lot of generalists. At some point further specialization may yield negative returns, but it is the response that has always worked, and so it is what we do.

Now, I must have more coffee - at some point later this morning the marginal returns on this approach may become negative, but I am not there yet.

See may response to garyp up-thread about having too simple of a command and control system interwoven with a complex system of specialists.

Increasing levels of caffeine consumption is a good example of diminishing and turning-negative returns

The coffee comment was actually intended as an illustration - it occurred to me as I picked up my mug right as I was about to post.

Anyway, many of the comments here are fairly pointless, coming as they do from people who have not read the book and are not understanding it. I'm not really sure what people are disputing, as much of the quibbles I'm seeing here are actually addressed and incorporated into the concept. I do not think complexity is the only factor, and I find Greer's explanations fit better, but Tainter's observations on complexity are an extremely useful tool in understanding what happens when societies fail.

I'm not really sure what people are disputing [here].

I don't think we are "disputing".

We are merely trying to get a better handle on this "complexity" thing.

Many thanks to OFM for being patient with the many of us who have not read Tainter's book.

trying to get a better handle on this "complexity" thing

With that said, it seems clear that the English language is lacking words for better explication of the ideas that Tainter [and OFM] was/were trying to make.

Expressions such as "increased complexity" and "diminishing positive returns" give us a rough idea of what is going on, but not a complete idea.

Part of the "complexity" of a civilization is how it models itself and how it models the outside world.

One gets the impression that the Roman Empire failed to honestly model its own make-up, i.e. that its "growth" was based on a need to infinitely continue to conquer outside societies and scavenge the resources of each next conquered land.

By the same token, our "modern" globalized civilization seems to be based on a similar failure to model and on a similar need for infinite conquests (in the business world --i.e. one 'growing' bank assimilates the toxic assets of a next large bank and so on).

"Part of the "complexity" of a civilization is how it models itself and how it models the outside world."

In the article above I think Tainter does address complexity in a way that is similar to this. He sees it not as failing to model, but using a failed model. He wrote:

"Cultural complexity is deeply embedded in our contemporary self image. Colloquially it is known by the more common term “civilization,” which we believe our ancestors achieved through the phenomenon called “progress.” The concepts of civilization and progress have a status in the cosmology of industrial societies that amounts to what anthropologists call “ancestor myths.” Ancestor myths validate a contemporary social order by presenting it as a natural and sometimes heroic progression from earlier times.

Social scientists label this a “progressivist” view."

He then goes on to point out what he saw as flaws in this progressivist view. But I don't think he would take exception to what you are suggesting here.

As far as whether we need to just admit we have pea brains and get on with things, I think one thing that we did do was invent computers to give us a way to do complex modeling and math without getting all muddled in our mini brains. So what we have now all the added on complexity if you will that goes with that: more industrial waste, computer manufacturers deciding that there's gold in all those unwashed masses so we have the internet clogged up with average Joes entertaining themselves or selling things rather than problem solving, unenforceable copyright laws, Windows Vista and Word. Talk about putting up with aggravation! I think Tainter's ideas have a lot of explanatory power.

When I first read his book what came to my mind was all the things that we are becoming more and more reluctant to fund. I wondered if it wasn't indicative of a lot of things besides oil production in our own age reaching that point of diminishing returns. This might come partially under Gail's government question, as in general the hue and cry anymore is "no taxes!" I guess you would have to believe first that people are put their money where they think it will do some good, at least for themselves, and sometimes for the greater good. Recently on this site there was, for example, a discussion somewhere about how maybe we need to admit that not everyone needs to go to college anymore. When I was in high school that was heresy! The papers published proudly the local high schools' records of graduates continuing their education, and trumpeted the necessity of a college education in the modern world. Now we're forecasting the demise of a lot of institutions of higher learning. And then there's housing. Now the American Dream that drove our economy for so long is being exposed as a lie. The front cover of Time mag says home ownership is no longer worthwhile. Maybe it's become too costly to have everyone owning their own home? I have to admit there's part of me that wonders if this isn't the way to get everyone ready to become serfs on the lord's lands, but it still at best seems like a bit of contraction happening. There's a lot of problem solving that is failing right now because the majority is unwilling to fund it. One of the best ways we have of getting around a law we don't like is to refuse to fund its enforcement. We say solutions are "too costly" or "an idiotic idea" (meaning it won't work), but maybe what we mean here is I'm not going to put up that much money for only that return!

When I was in high school that was heresy!


That is what I mean by operating on flawed models.

What we see in our own times is like a slow motion replay of the movie, Idiocracy:

"What you mean go to college and then no job? Always we have job! After all, college has electrolytes in it. Don't it?"

One mindless cog after another in our society (me included) keeps repeating the mantra: go to school= get a good job. But now we see that the wheels have come off that bullet train. It was a flawed model of how the world works from the get go. We just couldn't see it back then. To challenge it was heresy.

right....... rolls up sleeves

Tainter doesn't define it well TBH but his intent is clearer if you read TBT but if you want a one liner I would go for something like this...

To paraphrase after a bit of thunking... Tainter's measure of complexity is an unstated assumption that defines complexity as the number of different function tasks a society/civilization performs in delivering benefits and sustaining those benefits

his contention is that problem solving increases the task count especially in sustaining benefits which has an impact on its resource base both in labour and resources

what constitutes a function task is of course somewhat subjective but trivial tasks all humans of any society would perform are cancelled out

eg picking your nose or scratching your arse, taking a piss... however where you take a piss and how it is disposed of is a function task...or set of tasks

Tainter's complexity a soft term but totally usable and is not 100% universally applicable to all increases in task count. some new problem solving tasks could well reduce resource pressures but the basic thread of his argument is not without merit



Taunter defined complexity;anthropology as a science defines complexity;I posted the definition.

The tasks defined are not personal things but job roles, and are quantified in census tallies and so forth.

I don't think you have read the book either.

The point in part is that as obs become more specialized, the holders of them produce less and less of intrinsic value-a fancy hairdo is not as important as a simple trim to keep the hair out of the eyes, which is not as important as having something to eat.

But the barber must be fed and housed, as must be the stylist;and the stylist requires more in the way of inputs than the barber who could get by with a razor , a scissor , and a comb.

If things become unsustainable, people will dispense with the services of stylists, and then barbers, and do thier own hair.The out of work barber and stylist may either starve of find new jobs more closely aligned with truly essential services.

The point in part is that as Jobs become more specialized, ...

I think you meant to say "jobs".

"Specialization" certainly can go hand in hand with "complexity" although not always necessarily so.

For example, some people like to get in on the middle-management gravy train where they produce nothing, do nothing and merely pretend to be useful.

In that case, the Organizational structure chart becomes more "complex" but the actual jobs performed by those in the trenches doesn't change much.

Adam Smith was a great proponent in favor of "Specialization".
His idea was that the cobbler gets better at making shoes,
The tailor gets better at sewing clothes,
Etc., etc, and we all profit from the increased skill set of ever greater "Specialization".
Click on image to learn about "duck" shoes

I agree 'complexity' is the issue. How do we forgo complexity?

We can, but not if we think the way we do today.

It is not a logical or emotional change that is required; it is a spiritual change.

For me to live a less 'complex' life I must learn to accept all the 'problems' that complexity solves. My appendicitis would have killed me. Accept it and die. We get disease on our crops; accept it and die. Difficult childbirth; accept it and die. Idiots arrive at the farm bearing cunning weapons; accept it and die ("It is better that we are know for how we lived, than how we died.")

This is not a bad thing; we have allowed ourselves to be convinced that our span is Three score years and Ten, but if we accept that our span here is what nature gives us and to rejoice in every fragment of those precious moments, then our 'acceptance' becomes the new norm.

But try and 'fix' the appendicitis, the plant disease, the miscarriage or the invasion with increasing complexity and we are lost, again.

Let's skip the academic aspects for a moment.

Take a look at Real Life to see what increasing 'complexity' is doing to us.

For example, I am currently trying to get Planning Permission in the UK ('Zoning': USA?) for a mobile home to sit on our smallholding for three years.

So far this has cost hundreds maybe thousand of pounds/ dollars in legal fees, professional preparation of business plans etc.

We have also had many formal objections from local people (mostly retired).

The end result will probably be that we simply give up our plans for a chicken and fruit production business and simply leave 10+ acres to go to seed.

Society will lose the planned food production, the local civil servants will feel happy having 'done their duty' and the local pensioners will smug quietly to themselves.

End result : major expenditure of energy and time for no social benefit.

I lay the blame for this on two factors - we, as a society, simply have too much time and money ... both a result of ultra cheap energy.

'Complexity' seems to be a sprawl of LOW GRADE structure emerging from a glut of energy.

This unhelpful 'complexity' feeds on the low cost energy whilst poisoning the host society.