Resilience through simplification: revisiting Tainter’s theory of collapse (part 1)

July 7, 2012

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

A society or other institution can be destroyed by the cost of sustaining itself. – Joseph Tainter

Resilience through Simplification: Revisiting Tainter’s Theory of Collapse
Samuel Alexander[1]
1. Introduction
In 1988 Joseph Tainter published his seminal work, The Collapse of Complex Societies, in which he presented an original theory of social complexity that he offered as the best explanation for the collapse of civilisations throughout history. Tainter’s theory, which I outline in more detail below, essentially holds that human societies become more socially complex as they solve the problems they face, and while this complexity initially provides a net benefit to society, eventually the benefits derived from increasing complexity diminish and the relative costs begin to increase. There comes a point, Tainter argues, when all the energy and resources available to a society are required just to maintain the society, at which point further problems that arise cannot be solved and the society then enters a phase of deterioration or even rapid collapse. Not only is Tainter’s theory of historical interest, many believe it has implications for how we understand the world today.
One of the most challenging aspects of Tainter’s theory is how it reframes – one might even say revolutionises – sustainability discourse (Tainter, 2011a). Tainter argues that sustainability is about problem solving and that problem solving increases social complexity. But he also argues that social complexity requires energy and resources, and this implies that solving problems, including ecological problems, can actually demand increases in energy and resource consumption, not reductions. Indeed, Tainter (2006: 93) maintains that sustainability is ‘not a passive consequence of having fewer human beings who consume more limited resources,’ as many argue it is; he even goes as far as to suggest that voluntary simplification by way of foregoing consumption may no longer be an option for industrial civilisation, for reasons that will be explained. Instead, Tainter’s conception of sustainability involves subsiding increased complexity with more energy and resources in order to solve ongoing problems.
While Tainter’s theory of social complexity has much to commend it, in this paper (which is part of a larger work-in-progress) I wish to examine and ultimately challenge Tainter’s conclusion that voluntary simplification is not a viable path to sustainability. In fact, I will argue that it is by far our best bet, even if the odds do not provide grounds for much optimism. Moreover, should sustainability prove too ambitious a goal for industrial civilisation, I contend that simplification remains the most effective means of building ‘resilience’ (i.e. the ability of an individual or community to withstand societal or ecological shocks). While I accept that problem solving generally implies an increase in social complexity, the thesis I present below is that there comes a point when complexity itself becomes a problem, at which point voluntary simplification, not further complexity, is the most appropriate response. Not only does industrial civilisation seem to be at such a point today (Homer-Dixon, 2006), or well beyond it (Gilding, 2011), I hope to show that voluntary simplification presents a viable and desirable option for responding to today’s converging social, economic, and ecological problems. This goes directly against Tainter’s conception of sustainability, while accepting much of his background theoretical framework.[2]  
2. Overview of Tainter’s Theory
This is not the place to review the historical details that serve to underpin Tainter’s theory (1988). For present purposes, what is required is simply an outline of the structure of his position, which can be done quite briefly. After doing so, I unpack some of the implications of Tainter’s theory, at which point I will be in a position to explore the thesis of ‘resilience through simplification.’ I conclude by situating my analysis in the context of various contemporary social movements, including those based on permaculture (Holmgren, 2002), eco-villages (Walker, 2005), transition initiatives (Hopkins, 2008), and voluntary simplicity (Trainer, 2010a; Alexander and Ussher, 2012). It is my view that voluntary simplification, understood in the context of Tainter’s theory, is the most coherent framework for understanding what these overlapping social movements are attempting to achieve. I hope that by clarifying this framework these social movements might be able to move more effectively toward their goals. 
2.1. The Dynamics of Social Complexity
The foundation of Tainter’s position, as already noted, is that social complexity increases when human beings set out to solve the problems with which they are confronted. Since problems continually arise, there is persistent pressure for growth in complexity (Tainter, 2011b: 91). Both historically and today, such problems might include securing enough food, adjusting to demographic, climatic, or other environmental changes, dealing with aggression within or between societies, organising society, and so on. Indeed, the challenges any society might face are, for practical purposes, ‘endless in number and infinite in variety’ (Tainter, 2011a: 33). As societies respond to the problems they face, they often develop their technical abilities, establish new institutions, diversify social, economic, and political roles, as well as increase production and information flows, all of which require energy and resources. Social or cultural ‘complexity’ is the term Tainter uses to describe this development in human organisation and behaviour.
In order to understand the dynamics of social complexity, it can be helpful to begin by focusing on prehistoric times (prior to the uptake of agriculture), when human life was about as simple as can be. During these times, the main problem human beings faced was securing an adequate food supply, and this was solved relatively easily by hunting wild animals and gathering wild plants. Interestingly, anthropologists have concluded that prehistoric hunter-gatherers were the most leisured societies to have ever existed (Sahlins, 1974; Diamond, 1998), which confirms that food supply was generally secure and easily obtained. It seems that once essential biophysical needs were adequately met, hunter-gatherers stopped labouring and took rest rather than work longer hours to create a material surplus for which they did not seem to desire.
This form of life was sustained by a minimal and largely static supply of energy – essentially just food, and eventually fire. This tightly constrained energy supply placed strict bounds on the types of society that could arise, for the reason that more ‘complex’ social organisations and behaviours require greater supplies of energy. In other words, hunter-gatherer societies had no food (i.e. energy) surplus to feed any non-food specialists – such as soldiers, craftspeople, bureaucrats, aristocrats, and so forth – so there was very little differentiation in social roles. Accordingly, for hundreds of thousands of years, early hunter-gatherer societies did not develop any significant degree of social complexity, in Tainter’s sense of the term.
Things began to change, however, around 10,000 years ago as a consequence of the agricultural revolution (Diamond, 1998: Ch 6). The greater productivity of agriculture for the first time gave human societies a significant boost in their food (i.e. energy) supply, and this set in motion the development of social complexity that continues to this day. Being so much more productive than foraging, agriculture meant that not everyone had to spend their time producing food, and this gave rise to an array of non-food specialists, including those noted above and many more. Furthermore, the sedentary nature of agricultural societies made it practical to begin producing and accumulating new material artefacts (e.g. houses, furniture, collections of tools, etc), all of which would have been too cumbersome for nomadic peoples to justify creating, or too energy-intensive.
Eventually wind energy (boats, windmills, etc) and hydro energy (waterwheels) further enhanced humankind’s energy surplus (Smil, 2004), paving the way for further increases in social complexity. The greatest energy revolution, however, was of course initiated early in the 18th century, when humankind first began harnessing on a large scale the extraordinary potential of fossil fuels. This provided the vast energy foundations required to establish and maintain a form of life as complex as industrial civilisation. While it is believed that hunter-gatherers had no more than a dozen distinct social personalities, modern European censuses recognise as many as 20,000 unique occupational roles, and industrial societies may contain more than 1,000,000 different kinds of social personalities (Tainter, 2011a: 25). If nothing else, this is evidence of unprecedented social complexity.     
At this stage it is important to note that social complexity does not always follow an energy surplus, but often precedes a surplus. In fact, Tainter argues that complexity typically precedes an energy surplus (Tainter, 1988; Tainter, 2000). While he accepts that historically there were a few isolated ‘revolutions’ in energy supply that certainly made further complexity possible, he argues that normally complexity arises when new problems present themselves, and in solving those problems societies are forced to find a way to produce more energy, if that is possible. This contrasts with the isolated situations (following an energy revolution) when societies voluntarily become more complex due to an availability of surplus energy. As Tainter puts it, ‘Complexity often compels the production of energy, rather than following its abundance.’ (Tainter, 2006: 92). This is significant because it means that increasing complexity often is not voluntary, in that it is typically a response to the emergence of unwanted problems, rather than being a creative luxury chosen in response to the availability of surplus energy. This is a point to which we will return.    
2.2. Diminishing Marginal Returns of Complexity
At the centre of Tainter’s theory lies his idea that social complexity is an economic function that has diminishing marginal returns. Complexity is an economic function in the sense that it involves a balancing of costs and benefits. That is, when a society solves a problem by becoming more complex it will receive the benefits of solving the problem, but it will also incur the costs of doing so. These costs will include, most importantly, energy and resources, but also costs like time and annoyance. For example, when hunter-gatherer societies discovered agriculture and became aware that its methods could produce more food than foraging, they had to balance the benefits of transitioning to an agricultural society with the costs. The costs were that early farming techniques were more labour-intensive than foraging; the benefits were that agriculture was much more productive per acre, and this extra productivity might have provided a welcome opportunity to support non-food specialists or solved a society’s food crisis (perhaps brought on by overpopulation or overhunting depleting available resources).
This same balancing exercise takes place every time a society considers responding to a problem by creating a new institution, adding new bureaucrats, developing some new technology, or establishing some new social system, etc. Societies choose complexity – that is, choose to solve the problems they face – when it seems that the benefits of doing so will outweigh the costs. Critically, there must also be the energy and resources available to actually subsidise the problem-solving activity (or at least the potential to acquire more energy and resources, if current supplies are already exhausted in simply maintaining existing complexity). 
Tainter’s central thesis, however, is that complexity is subject to diminishing returns, which is to say, over time the benefits of complexity diminish and the ongoing costs of maintaining or increasing complexity augment. He explains that this is because ‘humans always tend to pick the lowest hanging fruit first, going on to higher branches only when those lower no longer hold fruit. In problem-solving systems, inexpensive solutions are adopted before more complex and expensive ones’ (Tainter, 2011a: 26). In other words, over time increments of investment in complexity begin to yield smaller and smaller increments of return, which is another way of saying that the marginal return on complexity starts to decline (see Figure 1 below).
Image Removed
Figure 1: The marginal productivity of increasing complexity. At a point such as B1, C3, the costs of complexity exceed the benefits, and complexity is a disadvantageous approach to problem solving (Tainter, 2011a: 27).
Eventually, Tainter argues, the costs of solving a problem will actually be higher than the benefits gained. At this point further problems will not or cannot be solved, and societies become vulnerable to deterioration or even rapid collapse. Another way of expressing this is to say that there comes a point in the evolution of societies when all the energy available to that society are exhausted in simply maintaining the existing level of complexity. When further problems arise, as history tells us they inevitably will do, the lack of an energy surplus means that new problems cannot be solved and thus societies become liable to collapse.
This highlights the point explained above about how complexity is not always, and not even normally, a voluntary response to surplus energy, but instead is usually required for a society to sustain itself as new problems emerge. Societies can be destroyed, however, when the costs of sustaining their complexity become unaffordable. This is the essential dynamic that Tainter argues ‘can explain collapse as no other theory has been able to do’ (Tainter, 1995: 400).
3. Implications of Tainter’s Theory on Sustainability Discourse
Tainter’s theory of social complexity and collapse has profound implications on sustainability discourse. There are of course many strains of sustainability discourse, but Tainter argues that all the dominant varieties look inadequate once the implications of his theory are grasped. His main target is the argument that sustainability can be achieved through industrial societies voluntarily consuming less energy and resources (what I will call the ‘consumption argument’). But he also levels his critique against sustainability arguments based on pricing commodities correctly and market exchange; rationing resources; reducing population; or producing commodities more efficiently through technological advance. While acknowledging that these approaches are not always mutually exclusive, Tainter (2011b: 93-4) concisely dismisses them in the following terms:  
1. Voluntarily reduce resource consumption. This strategy is constrained by the fact that societies increase in complexity to solve problems. Resource production must grow to fund the increased complexity. To implement voluntary conservation long term would require that a society be either uniquely lucky in not encountering problems, or that it not addresses the problems that confront it.
2. Employ the price mechanism to control resource consumption. This is currently the laissez-faire strategy of industrialized nations. Economists consider it more effective than voluntary conservation. Both approaches, however, lead eventually to the same outcome: As problems arise, resource consumption must increase at the societal level even if consumers as individuals purchase less. Still, the price mechanism has more ability to curtail complexity than does voluntary conservation.
3. Ration resources. Because of its unpopularity, rationing is possible in democracies only for clear, short-term emergencies, as in World War II. Moreover, rationed resources may become needed to solve societal problems, belying any attempt to conserve through rationing.
4. Reduce population. While this would reduce aggregate resource consumption temporarily, as a long-term strategy it has the same fatal flaw: Problems will emerge that require solutions, and those solutions will compel resource production to grow.
5. Hope for technological solutions. Members of industrialized societies are socialized to believe that we can always find a technological solution to resource problems. Technology, within the framework of this belief, will presumably allow us continually to reduce our resource consumption per unit of material well-being. Unfortunately, recent research shows that innovation in industrialized nations is becoming more expensive and less productive (Strumsky et al., 2010), and its long-term prospects for solving resource concerns are in doubt. Moreover, experience shows that improvements in technical efficiency paradoxically cause resource consumption to increase through the Rebound Effect (Jevons, 1866; Boulding, 1959; Polimeni et al., 2008).
There are many points here that deserve further exploration, but since Tainter’s critique of the consumption argument (point 1, above) is the most important and by far the most original, it will be the focus of attention for the remainder of this essay.
3.1 Tainter’s Critique of the Consumption Argument
Tainter maintains that the argument for sustainability based on consuming less follows logically from the assumption that resources and energy precede and facilitate innovations that increase complexity. ‘Complexity, in this view, is a voluntary matter. Human societies became more complex by choice rather than necessity. By this reasoning, we should be able to choose to forgo complexity and the resource consumption that it entails (Tainter, 2011a: 31). But we have seen that Tainter rejects that reasoning. In his view, complexity is generally forced upon societies as they respond to new problems, not voluntarily embraced due to an energy surplus, and this leads Tainter to reject the consumption argument:
Contrary to what is typically advocated as the route to sustainability, it is usually not possible for a society to reduce its consumption of resources voluntarily over the long term. To the contrary, as problems great and small inevitably arise, addressing these problems requires complexity and resource consumption to increase (Tainter, 2011a: 31, emphasis in original).
Elsewhere, Tainter (2006: 99) arrives at the same conclusion: ‘Sustainability is an active condition of problem solving, not a passive consequence of consuming less.’ More directly still, he insists that ‘sustainability may require greater consumption of resources rather than less. One must be able to afford sustainability’ (2006: 99).
This conception of sustainability is derived from the following assumptions: (1) that human societies will constantly face new problems; (2) that problem solving increases social complexity; and (3) that increasing social complexity requires energy and resources. On the basis of these assumptions, each of which is very plausible, Tainter contends that achieving sustainability will require increased social complexity and thus increased consumption of energy and resources. He even concludes a recent essay with the following statement: ‘Developing new energy is therefore the most fundamental thing we can do to become sustainable’ (Tainter, 2011a: 33). His essential argument, therefore, is that if we have enough energy to solve the problems we face, civilisation will not deteriorate or collapse. The flip side of that argument, of course, is that if we cannot secure the necessary energy, our future looks much bleaker – that is, we will be destined to repeat the history of all previous civilisations that have collapsed according to the same logic of diminishing returns on complexity (Tainter, 1988).  
Despite Tainter’s approach to sustainability being coherently and rigorously defended (if one accepts his assumptions), his theory directly contradicts the widely held belief that sustainability requires reducing overall energy and resource consumption. For reasons already outlined, Tainter rejects that position as nice in theory but naïve in practice, perhaps even impossible. Given that Tainter is equally dismissive of the other approaches to sustainability, one can understand why he resigns himself to the fact that ‘the study of social complexity does not yield optimistic results’ (Tainter, 2006: 99). In fact, there is something deeply tragic in Tainter’s view, because it suggests that civilisation, by its very nature, gets locked into a process of mandatory growth in complexity that eventually becomes unsupportable. Furthermore, history provides a disturbingly consistent empirical basis for this tragic view (Tainter, 1988), leading Tainter (2006: 100) to conclude that ‘all solutions to the problem of complexity are temporary.’ This seemingly innocuous statement is actually extremely dark, for it implies that ultimately and inevitably social complexity will outgrow its available energy supply. Despite this situation, or rather, because of it, Tainter (2006: 100) argues that ‘“success” consists substantially of staying in the game,’ and he believes that sustainability in this sense depends on developing new energy sources to subsidise ongoing problem-solving activity.
3.2. Problems with Tainter’s Conception of Sustainability
Before offering a different response to the problem of complexity, it may be worth spending a moment further considering Tainter’s proposed solution, for even if we were to accept the underlying logic of his analysis, his thesis that sustainability should be pursued by increasing energy supply is highly problematic, to say the least.
First of all, production of the world’s most important source of energy – crude oil – seems to have ‘peaked’ or reached an undulating plateau, and production is widely expected to enter terminal decline in the foreseeable future (see Hirsch et al, 2010; Alexander, 2011b). This has led to increased development of non-conventional oil, but this is notoriously more expensive to produce and has a far lower energy return on investment (Hall and Murphy, 2011). What this means is that the world is almost certainly facing a future with less energy derived from oil supplies, not more. Furthermore, a similar, roughly bell-curve pattern of production levels will eventually apply to other fossil fuel sources too (coal and gas), as well as fuels for nuclear energy. This is the so-called ‘peak everything’ argument (Heinberg, 2007), and it presents Tainter’s approach to sustainability with what is probably an unsurmountable obstacle. That is, just as we need more energy to subside further complexity and respond to new societal or ecological problems, overall supplies look poised to plateau and diminish (Heinberg, 2011).
Secondly, the science of climate change (e.g. IPCC, 2007; Hansen et al, 2008) suggests very strongly that if we maintain or increase existing levels of fossil fuel consumption, we are likely to face increasingly dire consequences over the course of this century and beyond (Gilding, 2011). Again, this casts grave doubt on Tainter’s energy-based solution to sustainability problems. He argues that we must secure increased energy supplies to solve new and ongoing problems, but if increasing social complexity in that way requires the burning of more fossil fuels, then it seems clear that the world’s problems are going to get considerably worse, not better (Hansen, 2011). At the same time, if the world chooses to stop consuming fossil fuels – which currently make up more than 80% of global energy supply (IEA, 2010: 6) – then obviously Tainter’s approach fares no better, because he argues quite rightly that we need energy to solve problems. From his perspective, then, it seems that ‘we’re damned if we do, and we’re damned if we don’t,’ as the saying goes.
Given the problems of ‘peak everything’ and climate change, Tainter naturally highlights the importance of transitioning to cleaner, renewable sources of energy (2011b). Such a transition is certainly to be desired, but unfortunately it is very unlikely to provide a timely supply of energy at the level Tainter’s path to sustainability would require. Leaving to one side the fact that the transition to renewables is taking place at a disturbingly slow rate while emissions continue to rise (Jackson, 2009: 72), the more fundamental problem seems to be the inherent limitations to renewable energy sources. Ted Trainer (2012a; 2012b; 2010b) has spent the best part of a decade examining the best available evidence on varieties of solar, wind, biomass, hydrogen, etc., as well as energy storage systems, and he concludes that the figures do not support the widely held assumption that renewable energy can sustain the global economy, in anything like its current form. This is because the enormous quantities of electricity and oil required today simply cannot be converted to any mixture of renewable energy sources, each of which suffers from various limitations arising out of such things as intermittency of supply, storage problems, resource limitations (e.g. rare metals, land for biomass competing with food production, etc.), and inefficiency issues. Ultimately, however, the cost is the fundamental issue at play here. Trainer provides evidence showing that existing attempts to price the transition to systems of renewable energy are wildly understated, especially if future growth in energy production is taken into consideration. The challenges are exacerbated further by the existence of the ‘rebound effect,’ a phenomenon that can negate some of the energy use reductions expected from efficiency improvements (Holm and Englund; 2009). At times efficiency improvements can even be the catalyst for increased energy consumption, a phenomenon known as the ‘Jevons’ paradox (Polimeni et al, 2008). All this firmly suggests that renewable energy will never be able to sustain growth-based economies, primarily because it would be quite unaffordable to do so. This is not a message most ‘green’ people want to hear.
It is of the utmost importance to emphasise that this is not an argument against renewable energy; nor is it an argument more broadly against the use of appropriate technologies to achieve efficiency improvements. It seems clear enough that the world must transition to full dependence on systems of renewable energy without delay and exploit appropriate technology wherever possible. We cannot afford not to! But given the limitations and expense of renewable energy systems, it seems highly unlikely that Tainter’s approach to sustainability – the approach that argues that we need to increase energy supply to solve ongoing problems – can be subsided by renewable energy sources. Furthermore, as outlined above, maintaining or increasing consumption of fossil fuels will be either compromised by peak oil or rendered uneconomic due to the enormous costs of adapting to a changing climate. Tainter’s approach to sustainability, therefore, cannot be accepted.  
At this stage one may be tempted to reach for the nearest bottle of whisky. I would like to resist that temptation, however, or at least advise moderation. It certainly appears that Tainter’s approach to sustainability faces various insurmountable obstacles, and if we were to accept his assumptions, then perhaps the bottle is indeed our only salvation. But in the next section I wish to examine more closely Tainter’s critique of the consumption argument, and in doing so I hope to show that the strategy of voluntary simplification has far more potential than he is willing to give it. Indeed, I will argue that it is our best and perhaps our only hope to avoid civilisational collapse.

[This is the end of Part 1. Part 2 of this essay will be posted next week. It will contain:
4. The Strategy of Voluntary Simplification
5. Escaping Tainter’s Tragedy ‘from Below’
6. Conclusion
For a PDF of the full article, see the Simplicity Insitute publications page. ]


[1] Dr Samuel Alexander is co-director of the Simplicity Institute and a lecturer with the Office for Environmental Programs, University of Melbourne.

[2] There is one important terminological issue that needs clarification. The term ‘voluntary simplicity’ has long been used to refer to a way of life in which people choose to reduce or restrain their material consumption while seeking an increased quality of life (see Alexander, 2009; 2011a). By way of distinction, I use the term ‘voluntary simplification’ in this essay to refer specifically to a living strategy within the context of Tainter’s theory of social complexity. While there is much overlap in the practical implications of these two ideas, conceptually they ought to be kept distinct. ‘Voluntary simplicity,’ one might say, opposes ‘consumerism’ or ‘materialism,’ whereas ‘voluntary simplification,’ in ways that will be explained, opposes ‘social complexity.’      

Samuel Alexander

Over the last ten years Dr Samuel Alexander has been a lecturer and researcher at the University of Melbourne, Australia, teaching a course called ‘Consumerism and the Growth Economy: Critical Interdisciplinary Perspectives’ as part of the Master of Environment. He has also been a Research Fellow with the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute and is currently co-Director of the Simplicity Institute. Alexander’s interdisciplinary research focuses on degrowth, permaculture, voluntary simplicity, ‘grassroots’ theories of transition, and the relationship between culture and political economy. His current research is exploring the aesthetics of degrowth and energy descent futures. His books include Degrowth in the Suburbs: A Radical Urban Imaginary (2019, co-authored with Brendan Gleeson); Carbon Civilisation and the Energy Descent Future (2018, co-authored with Josh Floyd); Art Against Empire: Toward an Aesthetics of Degrowth (2017); Just Enough is Plenty: Thoreau’s Alternative Economics (2016); Deface the Currency: The Lost Dialogues of Diogenes (2016); Prosperous Descent: Crisis as Opportunity in an Age of Limits (2015); Sufficiency Economy: Enough, for Everyone, Forever (2015); and Entropia: Life Beyond Industrial Civilisation (2013); he is also editor of Voluntary Simplicity: The Poetic Alternative to Consumer Culture (2009) and co-editor of Simple Living in History: Pioneers of the Deep Future (2014). In 2016 he also released a documentary called A Simpler Way: Crisis as Opportunity, co-produced with Jordan Osmond of Happen Films. Alexander blogs at

Tags: Building Community, Consumption & Demand, Culture & Behavior, Energy Policy, Overshoot