Friday, January 07, 2005

It's not the end of the world, but you can see it from here

Jared Diamond, a professor of geography and physiology at UCLA medical school and author of the Pulitzer prize winning, "Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies," wrote a gloomy New Year's Day piece in The New York Times outlining his concerns about environmental degradation and its role in past collapses of societies. His main concern seems to be the ability of elites to wall themselves off from problems in gated communities, private schools and even through the consumption of bottled water. The ease with which they do this is reminiscent of other elites in the past who have done the same thing. They then fail to respond to environmental challenges because their everyday experience tells them that nothing serious is wrong.

Joseph Tainter, an historian famous for his book "The Collapse of Complex Societies," which I've just finished reading makes some of the same points. Tainter's quest was to provide an overall theory of collapse that could be applied to a great number of known historical collapses. He settles on the notion of the diminishing returns on investment in complexity. It's analogous to diminishing returns on investment as applied to business.

He also points out that complexity in human societies is not the norm, but the exception. Only in the last 5,000 years or so have we as humans embraced complexity as a solution to our problems. History tells us that complex societies are costlier to maintain than simple ones and more easily disrupted. Our tendency has been to overuse complexity as a strategy to the point where the returns that we get in terms of resources, social cohesion and security begin to diminish and then actually go negative. It is this phenomenon that he believes explains vulnerability to collapse. Collapse by his definition means reversion to a lower level of complexity with all its attendant and sometimes unpleasant effects.

Tainter is an icon among the peak oil crowd because he focuses so much on increasing energy inputs as essential to the survival of complex societies. When those inputs in the form of human energy, fuel, financial resources and so on are no longer increasing enough to shore up the increased level of complexity, a society becomes subject to collapse since new challenges can now more easily exceed the society's capacity to respond. Tainter also observes that in the past, collapse has been a localized phenomenon, one which did not affect other societies. Mayan society collapsed without anyone in Europe either knowing or caring. So did Anasazi society in what is now the American Southwest. But today, Tainter says, the world is linked together in one globalized society, and for this reason the next collapse will be worldwide. (Tainter does not predict an imminent collapse although he sees many strains and severely diminishing returns in our complex global society.)

You can read a summary of Tainter's book here. You can also read a more detailed explanation in an essay by Tainter here.

Jared Diamond has just come out with a book on the same topic called "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed."

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