Joseph Tainter

Historian Joseph Tainter was born on December 8th, 1949. Tainter has written or edited many articles and monographs. His arguably best-known work, The Collapse of Complex Societies (1988), examines the collapse of Maya and Chacoan civilizations, and of the Western Roman Empire, in terms of network theory, energy economics and complexity theory.


Intense, authoritarian efforts to maintain cohesion by Domitian and Constantine the Great only led to an ever greater strain on the population. The empire was split into two halves, of which the western soon fragmented into smaller units.


The eastern half, being wealthier, was able to survive longer, and did not collapse but instead succumbed slowly and little by little, because unlike the western empire it had powerful neighbors able to take advantage of its weakness. However, Tainter is not entirely apocalyptic:


“When some new input to an economic system is brought on line, whether a technical innovation or an energy subsidy, it will often have the potential at least temporarily to raise marginal productivity”.


Thus, barring continual conquest of your neighbors (which is always subject to diminishing returns), innovation that increases productivity is in the long run the only way out of the dismal science dilemma of declining marginal returns on added investments in complexity.


Joseph Tainter theorizes that societies essentially exhausted their own designs, and were unable to adapt to natural diminishing returns for what they knew as their method of survival. It matches closely Toynbee’s idea that “they find problems they can’t solve”.


As a population grows and technology makes it easier to exploit depleting resources, the environment’s diminishing returns are hidden from view. Societal complexity is then potentially threatened if it develops beyond what is actually sustainable, and a disorderly reorganization was to follow.


The scissors model of Malthusian collapse, where the population grows without limit and resources do not, is the idea of great opposing environmental forces cutting into each other. History includes many examples of the appearance and disappearance of human societies with no obvious explanation.


The abrupt dissolution of the Soviet Union in the course of a few months, without any external attack, according to Johan Galtung was due to growing structural contradictions brought on by geopolitical over-reach, which could not be resolved within the existing socio-political systems.


Joseph Tainter is Head of the Department of Environment and Society at Utah State University. He has led several research projects on culture and society such as the Cultural Heritage Research Project, Rocky Mountain Forest and Range Experiment Station.


His work has been referenced by the United Nations Environment Programme and he is author of numerous articles and monographs. His best-known work, The Collapse of Complex Societies, examines the collapse of civilizations such as the Maya or the Roman Empire. It is often assumed that the collapse of the Western Roman Empire was a catastrophe for everyone involved.


Tainter points out that it can be seen as a very rational preference of individuals at the time, many of whom were actually better off. Archeological evidence from human bones indicates that average nutrition actually improved after the collapse in many parts of the former Roman Empire.


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