Collapse again possible?

Much of the central floodplain of the ancient Euphrates now lies beyond the frontiers of cultivation, a region of empty desolation. Tangled dunes, long disused canal levees, and the rubble-strewn mounds of former settlement contribute only low, featureless relief. Vegetation is sparse, and in many areas it is almost wholly absent. Rough, wind-eroded land surfaces and periodically flooded depressions form an irregular patchwork in all directions, discouraging any but the most committed traveler. To suggest the immediate impact of human life there is only a rare tent … Yet at one time here lay the core, the heartland, the oldest urban, literate civilization in the world.

Robert McC. Adams


Most people encounter the dilemma of fallen empires and devastated cities in casual reading, or in a school course. The image is troublesome to all, not only for the vast human endeavors that have mysteriously failed, but also for the enduring implication of these failures.

The implication is clear: civilizations are fragile, impermanent things. This fact inevitably captures our attention, and however we might wish otherwise, prompts disturbing questions. Are modern societies similarly vulnerable? Is it likely, as Ortega asserts, that ‚The possibility that a civilization should die doubles our own mortality‘.

Many of course prefer to believe that modern civilization, with its scientific and technological capacity, its energy resources, and its knowledge of economics and history, should be able to survive whatever crises ancient and simpler societies found insurmountable. But how firm is this belief?


Collapse today is neither an option nor an immediate threat. Any nation vulnerable to collapse will have to pursue one of three options: ( 1 ) absorption by a neighbor or some larger state; (2) economic support by a dominant power, or by an international financing agency; or (3) payment by the support population of whatever costs are needed to continue complexity, however detrimental the marginal return. A nation today can no longer unilaterally collapse, for if any national government disintegrates its population and territory will be absorbed by some other.

Although this is a recent development, it has analogies in past collapses, and these analogies give insight into current conditions. Past collapses, as discussed, occurred among two kinds of international political situations: isolated, dominant states, and clusters of peer polities . The isolated, dominant state went out with the advent of global travel and communication, and what remains now are competitive peer polities .

Even if today there are only two major peers, with allies grouped into opposing blocs the dynamics of the competitive relations are the same. Peer polities, such as post Roman Europe, ancient Greece and Italy, Warring States China, and the Mayan cities, are characterized by competitive relations , jockeying for position, alliance formation and dissolution, territorial expansion and retrenchment, and continual investment in military advantage. An upward spiral of competitive investment develops, as each polity continually seeks to outmaneuver its peer(s). None can dare withdraw from this spiral, without unrealistic diplomatic guarantees, for such would be only an invitation to domination by another. In this sense, although industrial society (especially the United States) is sometimes likened in popular thought to ancient Rome, a closer analogy would be with the Mycenaeans or the Maya.

Peer polity systems tend to evolve toward greater complexity in a lockstep fashion as, driven by competition, each partner imitates new organizational, technological, and military features developed by its competitor(s). The marginal return on such developments declines, as each new military breakthrough is met by some countermeasure, and so brings no increased advantage or security on a lasting basis. A society trapped in a competitive peer polity system must invest more and more for no increased return, and is thereby economically weakened. And yet the option of withdrawal or collapse does not exist. So it is that collapse (from declining marginal returns) is not in the immediate future for any contemporary nation. This is not, however, due so much to anything we have accomplished as it is to the competitive spiral in which we have allowed ourselves to become trapped.

Here is the reason why proposals for economic undevelopment, for living in balance on a small planet, will not work. Given the close link between economic and military power, unilateral economic deceleration would be equivalent to, and as foolhardy as, unilateral disarmament. We simply do not have the option to return to a lower economic level, at least not a rational option . Peer polity competition drives increased complexity and resource consumption regardless of costs, human or ecological .

I do not wish to suggest by this discussion that any major power would be quickly in danger of collapse were it not for this situation. Both the primary and secondary world powers have sufficient economic strength to finance diminishing returns well into the future. As seen in the cases of the Romans and the Maya, peoples with sufficient incentives and/or economic reserves can endure declining marginal returns for centuries before their societies collapse. (This fact, however, is no reason for complacency. Modern evolutionary processes, as is well known, occur at a faster rate than those of the past. )

There are any number of smaller nations, though, that have invested quite heavily in military power out of proportion to their economic base, or in development projects with a questionable marginal payoff, that might well be vulnerable. In the world today they will not be allowed to collapse, but will be bailed out either by a dominant partner or by an international financing agency. Such instances lower the marginal return that the world as a whole experiences for its investment in complexity.

Peer polities then tend to undergo long periods of upwardly-spiraling competitive costs, and downward marginal returns. This is terminated finally by domination of one and acquisition of a new energy subsidy (as in Republican Rome and Warring States China), or by mutual collapse (as among the Mycenaeans and the Maya) .

Collapse, if and when it comes again, will this time be global. No longer can any individual nation collapse . World civilization will disintegrate as a whole. Competitors who evolve as peers collapse in like manner.

In ancient societies the solution to declining marginal returns was to capture a new energy subsidy. In economic systems activated largely by agriculture, livestock, and human labor (and ultimately by solar energy), this was accomplished by territorial expansion. Ancient Rome and the Ch’in of Warring States China adopted this course, as have countless other empire-builders . I n an economy that today is activated by stored energy reserves, and especially in a world that is full, this course is not feasible (nor was it ever permanently successful). The capital and technology available must be directed instead toward some new and more abundant source of energy. Technological innovation and increasing productivity can forestall declining marginal returns only so long. A new energy subsidy will at some point be essential.

It is difficult to know whether world industrial society has yet reached the point where the marginal return for its overall pattern of investment has begun to decline. The great sociologist Pitirim Sorokin believed that Western economies had entered such a phase in the early twentieth century ( 1957 : 530). Xenophon Zolotas, in contrast, predicts that this point will be reached soon after the year 2000 ( 198 1: 102-3 ) . Even if the point of diminishing returns to our present form of industrialism has not yet been reached, that point will inevitably arrive. Recent history seems to indicate that we have at least reached declining returns for our reliance on fossil fuels, and possibly for some raw materials . A new energy subsidy is necessary if a declining standard of living and a future global collapse are to be averted. A more abundant form of energy might not reverse the declining marginal return on investment in complexity, but it would make it more possible to finance that investment.

In a sense the lack of a power vacuum , and the resulting competitive spiral, have given the world a respite from what otherwise might have been an earlier confrontation with collapse. Here indeed is a paradox: a disastrous condition that all decry may force us to tolerate a situation of declining marginal returns long enough to achieve a temporary solution to it. This reprieve must be used rationally to seek for and develop the new energy source(s) that will be necessary to maintain economic well-being. This research and development must be an item of the highest priority, even if, as predicted, this requires reallocation of resources from other economic sectors. Adequate funding of this effort should be included in the budget of every industrialized nation (and the results shared by all) . I will not enter the political foray by suggesting whether this be funded privately or publicly, only that funded it must be.

There are then notes of optimism and pessimism in the current situation. We are in a curious position where competitive interactions force a level of investment, and a declining marginal return, that might ultimately lead to collapse except that the competitor who collapses first will simply be dominated or absorbed by the survivor .

A respite from the threat of collapse might be granted thereby, although we may find that we will not like to bear its costs . If collapse is not in the immediate future, that is not to say that the industrial standard of living is also reprieved. As marginal returns decline (a process ongoing even now), up to the point where a new energy subsidy is in place, the standard of living that industrial societies have enjoyed will not grow sorapidly, and for some groups and nations may remain static or decline. The political conflicts that this will cause, coupled with the increasingly easy availability of nuclear weapons, will create a dangerous world situation in the foreseeable future.

To a degree there is nothing new or radical in these remarks. Many others have voiced similar observations on the current scene, in greater detail and with greater eloquence. What has been accomplished here is to place contemporary societies in a historical perspective, and to apply a global principle that links the past to the present and the future. However much we like to think of ourselves as something special in world history, in fact industrial societies are subject to the same principles that caused earlier societies to collapse.“

From: Joseph A. Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1988

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