Episode 19: Joseph Tainter
Dr. Joseph Tainter is an anthropologist and historian who has studied collapse in numerous ancient civilizations and penned The Collapse of Complex Societies. This is our first deeply historical episode and Dr. Tainter begins by offering his definition of complexity and taking us through the story of Western Rome’s collapse. Extrapolating from the past, Dr. Tainter paints a dark scene of our possible future. In our conversation, he critiques the primitivism of John Zerzan, the transhumanism of Max More, and rains on the technological optimism heard in Ariel Waldman, Colin Camerer, and Gabriel Stempinski’s conversations. What are we left with? Not optimism, that is certain, but not pessimism, either. Perhaps Ragnarok? Interestingly, Dr. Tainter finds a ray of hope in education (which would probably peeve Andrew Keen and please Lisa Petrides) and speculates that teaching children to think on larger spatial and temporal scales might be our best way to evade collapse. Alexander Rose would almost certainly agree.
I think it is remarkable that, as a historian, Mr. Tainter is unaware of the fact that 70% of the people in pre-industrial Europe were farmers. Which means that they could afford to have three times as many people in non-farm occupations than the 90% figure he brings up. All that with very little of what we consider modern technology.
Furthermore, the conquests of Rome certainly weren’t made to extract stored solar energy. Grain and food is produced annually and Rome didn’t commit genocides most of the time. The population of the conquered territories was still there and had to be fed with food grown annually on a fixed amount of soil, rain and sunshine.
The energy density of fossil fuels also pales in comparison to nuclear fuels (whose density is on the order of 10 million times higher). And while an electric tractor or combine harvester is certainly less convenient than conventional ones, they are perfectly feasible. Without putting to much thought into it, you could always hook up a cable on a powerline along the side of a field and spin it off a reel while driving down the field in order to plow it and spinning it back on, on the way back. Move the cable a couple meters to the side as you turn and do it again. You wouldn’t even need a battery. It’s quite a hassle, of course, but much less than a pair of oxen or horses.
I’m sorry, I’d like to be less dismissive of what he said, but I have no choice since I’ve committed myself to reality.
Calling space a childhood fantasy was a dope slap to lots of people, wasn’t it? And nicely timed with the flawless landing of Curiosity on Mars. I will grant that we aren’t ready to mine asteroids, yet, but who knows? Desperation is the mother of invention, is it not? All right, necessity is, but as things are going we may not be able to tell the difference.
The idea of complexity leading to a paralyzing Gordian knot is intriguing, but not altogether compelling; this notion of complexity may not be complex enough to fit the world. That is, there may be more to the Roman story than getting balled up with complexity.
In the 80s, I heard social critics bemoan the slowing patent situation, too; all while the computer revolution was changing the world top to bottom. Dr. Tainter was interesting, and his gloom is certainly shared by many, but he doesn’t have the whole story. He may be right about knowing too much history; fortunately, there must be a twelve-step program for History Junkies.
The complexity argument and businesses being choked with laws (next interview) has put a new spin on the corporation and it’s sociopathic behavior for me. Could it be the survival tool that replaced privately owned businesses to compete against the loss and risks leveled against business as a whole by complex and constantly fluid legal system? Is it a chicken or egg scenario?
It’s interesting to think about complexity leading to cycles of collapse, because it seems like while that is probably true it the subsequent cycle might have a greater (or at least differing) ability to be more complex.
It also seems like we don’t tackle complexity in bite-sized chunks. For instance, Tainter brought up health care, and the other conversation we don’t hear is how is health care managing the cost of health care for health care? Internal to the system they have the same problem that we have external to the system. And are there analogies in other fields we could learn from? Organisms have built-in health care, there’s significant infrastructure costs to that system, they sometimes fail, and the cost of failure is huge, but the alternative is that the (complex) system is prone to failure from a variety of vectors. But if health care can be figured out, how many other systems benefit?