Is the Collapse of Civilization Inevitable?

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: REDEFINING REALITY: THE INTELLECTUAL IMPLICATIONS OF MODERN SCIENCE

By Steven Gimbel, Ph.D., Gettysburg College

Like human beings, who are born, go through different phases, and eventually die, maybe human cultures too follow a trajectory that ends in their collapse. History is filled with great civilizations that have collapsed. Maybe all of them do eventually. But what is the cause?

An image of the ruins of the Roman Forum.
Like the Romans, most civilizations have gradually declined and then collapsed. Modern thinkers are trying to analyze the causes of these declines. (Image: BAHDANOVICH ALENA/Shutterstock)

Joseph Tainter’s View of Civilizational Collapse

American anthropologist Joseph Tainter explores cataclysmic views about civilizations and categorizes them into 12 basic explanations for why societies collapse. Eleven of them, he says, are wrong. The twelfth view is the one he has developed. Looking at the fall of the Roman Empire, the fall of the Western Chou Empire, the fall of Egyptian Old Kingdom, the fall of the Minoan civilization, the fall of the Olmec, the fall of the Mayans, not to mention the fall of the Mycenaean civilization, we see some interesting trends emerge.

It’s not that Malthus was right and cultures out-produced their resources. It’s not that catastrophes––like the meteor that doomed the dinosaurs––also wipe out society. It’s not that they fail to rise to circumstantial challenges they face or are replaced by more complex societies. They’re not destroyed by intruders from outside or conflict and mismanagement from inside. No, Tainter argues; it’s that they sputter and die from a lack of energy.

What human societies and political organizations do is distribute resources, and this takes energy. By energy, he doesn’t mean electricity, but rather human effort. The more complex a human society becomes the more energy it requires and––as Malthus argued—this is not a geometric growth, but an exponential one. If a society doubles in complexity, it needs much more than twice the energy to keep itself rolling, that is, more energy per person.

This is a transcript from the video series Redefining Reality: The Intellectual Implications of Modern Science. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Purpose of a Society

Why do we have societies? Because life is hard—there are dangers, there are needs, there are threats. When we join together we can avert the dangers, meet the needs, and subdue the threats in a way that we might not have been able to do individually and certainly could not do as efficiently.

Ancient rock painting depicting a group of hunters working together.
The earliest human societies were formed due to the need to help each other solve problems efficiently and quickly. (Image: Yury Birukov/Shutterstock)

As a result, we change social structures; we create institutions, whose job it is to take care of needs and threats so we don’t have to think about them. The society solves our problems with amazing efficiency, to the point where we often lose track of the fact that there was a challenge there to begin with.

Maintaining this requires energy, requires resources. Think about what we do to maintain the society we’ve created. We send our kids to school. Not just a little, but for 12 years of primary education, and then, frequently, for at least four years of higher education. This is what’s needed to simply join the society, understanding what’s happening, and contribute to its running.

Learn more about the birth of Sociology.

Why Do We Have Schools?

The educational system we have was constructed in the Middle Ages when we suddenly needed people who could read, write, and do arithmetic in order to serve as bureaucrats. We kept records, we made reports, we took inventories, we had a treasury, we wrote down laws and regulations.

In order to solve problems, we created specific organizations with well-tailored protocols and processes. But now we needed people with the skills to fill the positions. So, what did we do? We created another institution, the school, in order to create the bureaucrats.

We created then, the need for teachers and teachers of teachers. You see how the societal job of solving collective problems mushrooms out—creating the need for significant resources from everyone.

Increasing the Number of Institutions

We all have to spend years going to school. We all have to pay the taxes necessary to keep the school going—whether we have children there at the time or not. The institutions we use to solve problems generate a need for resources, a need that increases and increases the load on all of us.

A view of Bangkok at dusk.
As societies evolve more systems and institutions, they start to become more and more complex. (Image: Chuta Kooanantkul/Shutterstock)

No matter the time, no matter the place, there will always be new problems, new challenges we face as a collective. And what do we do when these concerns pop up? We create a new organization to deal with it. We create new complexity. The new bureaucracy will take care of the problem for us, but the added complexity comes at a cost. The burden of the increased weight of the culture has gotten heavier on everyone within it.

Eventually, Tainter argues, we reach a point of diminishing returns. The additional resources we put in are larger than the problem-solving power we get out. At this point, the society has layer upon layer of intertwined institutions, all of which keep themselves going, all of which pull energy from the society. But the amount of energy is finite; it’s limited by the resources available.

Learn more about social progress.

The Cultural Tipping Point

It’s here that we reach our cultural tipping point. Eventually, the beast we have created becomes too expensive to feed. When we’ve created too much complexity, we can no longer afford it. Every previous major civilization in human history in every corner of the world has collapsed due to becoming overly complex, Tainter argues.

We can look back and understand it by looking at the degree of complexity within these civilizations, the complexity they achieved before things started going south for them. There’s not a single common point which began a collapse. Different societies fell at different points, but the archaeological data suggests that the cause of all collapse is bureaucratic complexity.

Does this mean that Western culture is doomed to collapse under its own weight? Does all cultural progress have increasing costs? Are we actually progressing? What we need to consider is how to judge the standard of living for people in the culture. These are empirical questions that need empirical answers.

Common Questions about the Collapse of Civilizations

Q: What are the arguments for the collapse of civilizations that Joseph Tainter discounts?

Joseph Tainter discounts most theories of the collapse of civilizations: Cultures do not out-produce their resources. It’s not catastrophes that wipe out society. It’s not that they fail to rise to circumstantial challenges they face or are replaced by more complex societies. They’re not destroyed by intruders from outside or conflict and mismanagement from inside. Tainter argues that they sputter and die from a lack of energy.

Q: What has been the role of an educational system in the society?

The educational system we have was constructed in the Middle Ages when society suddenly needed people who could read, write, and do arithmetic in order to serve as bureaucrats.

Q: What is the cultural tipping point of civilization, according to Tainter?

The cultural tipping point is when a society has created too much complexity; at that point the society can no longer afford it. Every previous major civilization in human history in every corner of the world has collapsed due to becoming overly complex; due to bureaucracy.

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