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Resilience Through Simplification: Revisiting Tainter’s Theory of Collapse

Below, Samuel Alexander summarises his new Simplicity Institute Report, which discusses ‘voluntary simplification’ in the context of Joseph Tainter’s theory of collapse.

The full report, ‘Resilience through Simplification,’ is available here (360kb PDF).

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

Joseph Tainter

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 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 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 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. 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 a new paper (see link at top and bottom of this post) I examine and ultimately challenge Tainter’s conclusion that voluntary simplification is not a viable path to sustainability. In fact, I 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 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, or well beyond it, 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.

Industrial civilisation is at a point in history when it is faced with the pressing issue of whether it can afford the problem of its own existence. Like a growing number of others, I do not believe that it can afford this, at least, not for much longer. The financial crisis currently plaguing the Eurozone (and elsewhere) is a barely disguised metaphor for this question of affordability, and it presents all of us living in industrial civilisation with the question of how best to respond to this problem. We are hardly the first to be faced with this problem; all previous civilisations have faced it. But perhaps we can be first, thanks to Joseph Tainter, to understand the dynamics at play. By embracing voluntary simplification, perhaps we can even respond in such a way as to avoid the collapse scenario that has marked the end of all other civilisations.

However, since voluntary simplification is unlikely to be widely embraced as a response to the problem of complexity, one hesitates before claiming that voluntary simplification will produce sustainability. While this sustainability scenario is still an option available for us, the odds of it being selected do not look promising at all. Nevertheless, voluntary simplification still remains the best strategy to adopt even if industrial civilisation continues to marginalise it. This is because if voluntary simplification is not embraced on a sufficiently wide scale to avoid social, economic, or ecological collapse, it nevertheless remains the most effective way for individuals and communities to build resilience, and in the current milieu, perhaps the ability to withstand forthcoming shocks is the best we can hope for.

The full report, ‘Resilience through Simplification,’ is available here (360kb PDF).


Dr. Samuel Alexander is co-director of the Simplicity Institute and a lecturer in ‘Consumerism and Sustainability’ at the Office for Environmental Programs, University of Melbourne. He also writes regularly at the Simplicity Collective and helped create The Simpler Way Project.

Samuel Alexander

Dr Samuel Alexander is 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.

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