Pride goeth before a fall, they told him. He didn’t listen. He went right ahead and tried to develop a grandiose theory to explain the decline and rise of nations and civilizations. His name was Jared Diamond. He wrote Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005). He was also Mancur Lloyd Olson, Jr. and wrote The Rise and Decline of Nations (1982).
Or his name is Joseph Tainter. His Collapse of Complex Societies (1988) is beloved by Brian Walker, one of the gurus of the resilience crowd in Stockhom and Sydney. I like Walker pretty much, so I read Tainter.
Turns out Tainter’s thesis can be boiled down to four interlocking observations:
- As societies grow and develop, they confront problems that need to be solved.
- in solving them, they increase complexity.
- Complexity costs (through transaction costs and drop in flexibiility, etc.).
- When the costs exceed the benefits of the solutions, societies collapse.
Walker accepts this thesis unquestioningly. They both miss a basic point that the originator of ecological resilience, C. S. (Buzz) Holling, makes repeatedly: resilient systems are both conservative and creative.
Tainter stresses the conservatism of complex societies. He stresses how societies grow rigid in their choice of solutions and pile new solutions on top of old, existing but worn out, solutions.
He’s certainly right about the United States Government. It’s virtually impossible to get rid of a government program once it is instituted. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and multiple other groups have tried to consolidate and eliminate various federal agriculture programs, but the bureaucrats refuse. Check out what they did when Congress clearly said to combine RBOG and RBEG in the last farm bill. All they did was have two subprograms within one program. Same with FMPP and LFPP. Bureaucrats fight to keep their own program alive because they want to continue their jobs. Long term bureaucrats are in government for job security, not for improvement of society. Those who really want to improve society can’t stand government and all its creaking, slow, ponderous, inefficient ways. And they get out and go back to the private sector.
The bureaucrats run our governments, not our elected officials. And it’s getting worse. The lobbyists know it. In Arkansas a few years back, term limits were instituted. The lobbyists in previous years had always had a private party for legislators at the end of each session. These soirees would honor the House of Representatives one year and the Senate the next year and so on. When term limits came in, the lobbyists knew power had shifted to the bureaucrats who had no term limits. So the party was held in honor of the Legislative staff–the bureaucrats.
Tainter’s problem is that he thinks all societies inevitably get more complex and rigid and costly to run and eventually collapse. He doesn’t belief that any civilization can be resilient and last. Maybe he’s right, or maybe some civilizations transform themselves when things get too rigid and transaction costs get too high. Certainly he’s right that societies which don’t have conservative innovation and periodic transformation will not survive.
How do societies stay creative, stay innovative, keep from getting rigid and hanging on to outmoded solutions? One key is for leaders to just get out of the restricting worldview of their nation. Get out of their own head and take on a different perspective. Some folks cannot hold two conflicting idea in their mind at the same time. So they won’t be able to take in a conflicting new perspective without changing the old one. And they should never be running anything. They should maybe work in a factory or on a farm and make stuff and be useful. Nothing wrong with that. In fact, we all should make stuff and be useful. But in our leaders, it would be nice to have something more.
Conceptual pluralism (and its opposite, disciplinary tribalism) is Richard Norgaard’s term for this ability. Check out his book: Development Betrayed: The End of Progress and a Co-Evolutionary Revisioning of the Future (1994).
Norgaard believes that society and nature are complex adaptive systems interacting with each other and co-evolving. If society destroys existing natural systems for some reason, nature will respond by not supplying what society needs to survive. And the society will die. So, co-evolve or die.
But you and your society can’t even evolve, much less co-evolve unless you can see a different way of thinking and acting in the world.
It helps me to pop out of the usual American way of looking at the world by travelling to other countries. Especially those of the former Soviet Union and its colonies. They have such a different perspective on life, the world, survival and collapse.
If you can’t break away and go to Ukraine right now, maybe look at some videos and get a taste of a totally different way of looking at the world. Try the one which says: we can eat, we can drink, we can dance, Ukraine is not dead yet: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HCxCcQwWQs8
Maybe the Ukrainians know a little about survival. Or maybe the Russians have the answer. Or maybe the answer is just to always be innovating, but conservatively. Keep the tried and true, but get rid of the costly, useless structures and ideas weighing you and your society down.
You can buy Jared Diamond’s fun book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005). Or you can download it for free at:
You can buy a flesh and blood copy of Tainter’s book for 40 bucks like I did or you can download it here for free: