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Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Woes Of Complex Societies

A few years ago a read a book by Joseph A. Tainter - The Collapse of Complex Societies. This was released in 1990, and its relevance has not diminished a bit. As a matter of fact, world events are at such a pitch right now that I feel that its insights and admonitions are comprehensible and digestible to an ever-widening swath of awakening people. So I'd like to talk about what I took away from this work and how it gibes with what I am seeing today. My observations will be mostly limited to my understanding and interpretation, of course, and, while I feel I pretty much agree with the data presented there, I in no way wish to imply that Dr. Tainter's conclusions would be the same as mine (though they might.) So, read the book if you don't mind a little down-and-dirty archeology-speak.

(Dr. Tainter has also contributed to a more recent - 2003 - book, Supply-Side Sustainability, which looks like a fascinating read as well.)

From the jacket:
Any explanation of political collapse carries lessons not just for the study of ancient societies, but for the members of all complex societies in both the present and future. Dr. Tainter describes nearly two dozen cases of collapse and reviews more than 2000 years of explanations. He then develops a new and far-reaching theory that accounts for collapse among diverse kinds of societies, evaluating his model and clarifying the processes of disintegration by detailed studies of the Roman, Mayan and Chacoan collapses.

The theoretical insights of the book and the case-studies the author examines together raise a whole series of new and important questions about the direction and future of all industrial societies...


First, what is a "complex society?" I would define it as a society which has devolved into a multitiered strata of class division, with its attendant specialities and interdependencies. In short, what we are experiencing in the "First World," and what developing and Third World countries are apparently aspiring towards. This is more popularly expressed as "evolution" rather than "devolution" - I hope by the end of this essay it will be clear why I chose the latter characterization.

History is littered with the debris of collapse and, as members of a contemporary complex civilization, we naturally do our forensics on these past societies with an eye to the survivability of our very own, with an ear for useful cautionary tales. Dr. Tainter points out something very interesting, however - only complex societies leave archaeologically detectable detritus that can be unearthed and studied. What that means is that we are myopic about what constitutes proper society and civilization. We can only study failures. It is pointed out that for all of the thousands of years of history recording Man in his civilizations, there is a far vaster periods of time when human beings lived successfully without erecting these Leviathions. What would such a society look like, what does Man look like when he is actually living in a successful, sustainable, indeed natural, fashion?

Well, we don't know much about that. Besides the fact that these societies leave little in the way of artifacts to be examined, we have long characterized peoples who have not developed complex technologies as "primitive," and have typically murdered, enslaved, or tainted these Earth peoples with the decadent lifestyles our cultures bring. They are rarely consulted in any way other than in a paternalistic, anthropological fashion which is inherently dehumanizing. (One exception to this led to Native American influence in the crafting of the United States Constitution, a rare example that grew out of Enlightenment-era thinking.)

Another question which develops while reading this book is: Is it really valid to look at these collapses as "failures," or are they merely a natural consequence of erroneous approaches to survival? Can we look ourselves in the eye and admit that perhaps we are the stupid ones? I would submit that we are, and it's high time we get it right this time, because this complex civilization is global now, and its ruination will have far greater impact than past failures (well, tell that to the residents of Rome or the Lowland Maya.)

Let's look at some the problems of complex societies. This will by no means be exhaustive - there's plenty more where they came from - but they will serve.

Division of labor. This is generally touted as a good thing, but what are the consequences of dividing skills amongst different classes of people? Well, for one thing, as a society becomes more and more complex, the individual becomes less and less capable of surviving without the support of the society. What's wrong with that, you ask? Well, any system has a fixed amount of energy within it, and the ever-increasing transactional costs that are incurred take away from other use. Thus, it requires more and more energy input for each marginal "jump" in complexity.

A simple example is the automobile. While this product is already the product of a complex society, there was a time when they were simpler, so it can serve as an illustration. There was a time when the maintenance of an automobile could be accomplished by any sufficiently fascinated teenager, or at least by the guy down the block. Now, even auto mechanics are reliant on hundreds of invisible specialists who have no idea what each other are doing. No one person can understand, let alone build, a modern automobile.

Division of labor, again. From a humanistic point of view, this unavoidably causes class divisions. Complex societies require slave labor. Whether it takes the form of ownership of human beings in overt bondage or in creating a class of service labor beholden to the weekly paycheck, in complex societies there will always be those at the "bottom" of society, and this corrupts those who are "making it," as they must, as a simple psychological defense against guilt, invent all sorts of reasons why other people "deserve" their fates. This creates no small tension in the system, and violence inevitably results - another corrosive energy-waster in the system.

Attenuation of responsibility. As societies grow more complex, and there is more and more specialization, there is a numbing of the senses as regards to resource utilization and environmental destruction. I mean, after all, is it really my fault that the groceries I bought last week contain literally pounds of materials which are going straight into the trash? That I participated in a process where thousands of gallons of oil were involved in filling that shopping cart? Can I help it that I was born and raised in an environment where everybody's doing it?

If one looks with clear eyes upon the current situation, one can see that even the most fervent and eco-centric people living in our complex society face a problem which is more than daunting. It is, frankly, impossible to not participate in the destruction of resources and environment. It is the system itself which drives the individual today, and all of the hand-wringing and recycling in the world will have a negligent impact as long as the complex society stands. Paging Mr. Gore...

Resource dependency. With complex societies, there is inevitably a one-way relationship with the "resources" of the Earth, and that way is consumption. Consumption until depletion, then collapse. Period. And anyway, what do think would happen, given our current behaviour, if tomorrow the Perpetual Motion Machine were invented and schmoos walked the Earth? I think there's a fair chance that we would only continue to overpopulate the planet until, well, collapse again. Just look at how it has exploded this last 150 years with just oil.

The combination of resource dependency and attenuation of responsibility leads to another inevitable horror, resource wars. The despicable and bloody occupation in Iraq is only the most visible manifestation of the bloodshed over resources that has perpetuated for many decades now. That it is so visible now is only an indication of just how close to the coming collapse we are. Or rather, we are actually witnessing the collapse itself.

I want to stop with the negativity at this point and revisit the point that a collapse is not really a bad (or good) thing, just an inevitable consequence to bad solutions for living. And the root of that is in our mind, and that is very good news. It is not some "law of nature" "out there" which forces us into some inevitability, it is our own minds. We choose how we wish to live. By "we" I mean mankind, the people on the ground. One of the reasons that we are trapped within our paradigm is that we have adopted a mindset that we must develop good policies and social structures to "solve" the problems we face. However, that is the behaviour of a complex society. A complex society cannot solve problems which are created by the very existence of the complex society itself.

So Tim Leary was right. "Tune in, turn on, drop out." No, I am not kidding.

One of the reasons characters like Leary are so quickly derided is that there are a great many "haves" who are in thrall with our complex society, and they wish mightily that it will all work out. It will not, but the fact of the matter is, in any complex society it is always the beneficiaries who are understandably in feverish denial. Just as "In times of universal deceit, telling the truth will be a revolutionary act" (Orwell), so too are those treated as subversive who try to walk away from the complex society. They are ridiculed at first, but if the message begins to absorb itself into the popular imagination, well then they are regarded as dangerous. Yes, Timothy Leary was a theatrical bombast, but he was on to something and had a tacit sense of the need to express that something outside of the structure of society.

This is real, people, and we are real, too. There is a solution to this, but it cannot be divined by committee or protest. The solution can only be come upon by looking, really looking, at your life. Go stare at that shiny metal box in your driveway? How does it really contribute to your quality of life? Do you really own it, or does it own you? Look up and down your street. How much money, which you have to get by getting into said shiny metal box every day, is spent due to the soft tyranny of lawns and property value? What extraneous personal motivations do you harbor without examination, which further increase your dependence on the shiny metal box to get more money?

As I incrementally simplify my life - nothing too radical, baby steps - I become more and more aware of the simpler pleasures of life, pleasures which are ironically ripped away from us as we try to adapt to this unnatural, complex, society. Even as you decide perhaps that this is the life for you, and you would not walk away from it willingly, remember this...

It will walk away from you.

1 comment:

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