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The Collapse of Complex Societies (New Studies in Archaeology)
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The Collapse of Complex Societies (New Studies in Archaeology) [Format Kindle]

Joseph A. Tainter , Colin Renfrew
5.0 étoiles sur 5  Voir tous les commentaires (2 commentaires client)

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Revue de presse

'Tainter's model accommodates all levels of complexity and all kinds of evidence. It deserves to be widely read.' Antiquity

'Tainter's is an attractive and compelling thesis, of a genre which is nearly extinct among domestic historians.' History Today

Présentation de l'éditeur

Political disintegration is a persistent feature of world history. The Collapse of Complex Societies, though written by an archaeologist, will therefore strike a chord throughout the social sciences. Any explanation of societal collapse carries lessons not just for the study of ancient societies, but for the members of all such 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.

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5.0 étoiles sur 5 Ce n'est pas de la science-fiction ! 13 mars 2013
Format:Broché|Achat vérifié
On peut entrevoir l'avenir en examinant comment les sociétés du passé se sont complexifiées au point d'arriver à des situations ingérables à leur échelle. La nôtre est beaucoup plus exigeante en énergie, elle est dopée par les énergies fossiles...pour quelques décennies encore. A suivre sur "Les limites de la croissance dans un mon de fini"...
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5.0 étoiles sur 5 Excellent scientifical study 27 novembre 2011
Par Karl
Very interesting scientific view on collapse of societies, but also on the previous development of these societies. The thesis is a good mix of archeology, sociology and economy, and sounds quite strong to explain the collapses of various societies. Also an interesting view on the current (on a very long time scale, though) challenge of our humanity
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484 internautes sur 487 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Fascinating and deeply disturbing 29 mai 2004
Par Chris Stolz - Publié sur
Tainter's project here is to articulate his grand unifying theory to explain the strange and disturbing fact that every complex civilisation the world has ever seen has collapsed.

Tainter first elegantly disposes of the usual theories of social decline (disappearance of natural resources, invasions of barbarians, etc). He then lays out his theory of decline: as societies become more complex, the costs of meeting new challenges increase, until there comes a point where extra resources devoted to meeting new challenges produce diminihsing and then negative returns. At this point, societies become less complex (they collapse into smaller societies). For Tainter, social problems are always (ultimately) a problem of recruiting enough energy to "fuel" the increasing social complexity which is necessary to solve ever-newer problems.

Complexity, writes Tainter, describes a variety of characteristics in a number of societies. SOm aspects of complexity include many differentiated social roles, a large class of administrators not involved in the production of primary resources, energy devoted to different kinds of communication, centralised government, etc. Societies become more complex in order to solve problems. Complexity, for Tainter, is quantifiable. Where, for example, the Cherokee natives of the U.S. had about 5,000 cultural artifacts (things ranging from recipes to tools to tents) which were integral to their culture, the Allied troops landing on the Normandy coast in 1944 had about 40,000.

Herein, however, lies the rub. Since, as Tainter writes, the "number of challenges with which the Universe can confront a society is, for practical purposes, infinite," complex societies need to keep on increasing their level of complexity in order to survive new challenges. Tainter's thesis is that these "investments in aditional complexity" produce fewer and fewer returns with time, until eventually society cannot muster enough energy to fuel complexity. At this point, society collapses.

Consider this example: A simple hunter-gatherer society with limited agriculture (i.e. garden plots) is faced with a problem, such as a seasonal drop in food production (or an invasion from its neighbours who have the same problem and are coming over for food). The bottom line is, this society faces an energy shortage. This society could respond to the food crisis by either voluntarily declining in numbers (die-off, and unlikely) or by increasing production. Most societies choose the latter. In order to increase production, this society will need to either expand territorially (invade somebody else)or increase agricultural production . In either case, this investment can pay off substantially in either increased access to already-produced food or increased food production.

But the hunter-gatheres of the above example incur costs as they try to solve their food-shortage problem. If they conquer their neighbours, they have to garrison those territories, thus raising the cost of government. If they start agriculture on a larger or more intense scale in their own territories, they have to create a new class of citizens to man the farms, distribute and store the grain, and guard it from animals and invaders. In either case, the increases in access to energy (food) are offset somewhat by the increased cost of social complexity.

But, as the society gets MORE complex to confront newer challenges, the returns on these increases in complexity diminish. Eventually, the costs of maintaining garrisons (as the Romans found) is so high that both home and occupied populations revolt, and welcome the invaders with their simpler way of life and their lower taxes. Or, agricultural challenges (a massive drought, or degradation of soils) are so great that the society cannot muster the energy reserves to deal with them.

Tainter's book examines the Mayan, Chacoan and Roman collapses in terms of his theory of diminishing marginal returns on investments in complexity. This is the fascinating part of the book; the disturbing sections are Chapter Four and the final chapter. In Chapter 4, Tainter musters a massive array of statistics that show that modern society has been facing diminishing returns on investments in complexity. There is a very simple reason for this: we solve the easiest problems first. Take oil, for example. In 1950, spending the energy equivalent of one barrel of oil in searching for more oil yielded 100 barrels in discovered oil. In 2004, the world's five largest energy companies found less oil energy than they expended in looking for that energy. The per-dollar return on R&D investment has dropped for fifty years. In education, additional investments in programs, technology etc. no longer produce increases in outcomes. In short, industrial society is looking at steadily fewer returns on its investments in both non-human and human capital.

When a new challenge comes, Tainter argues, society will eventually be unable to muster the necessary resources to deal with the crisis, and will revert-- in a painful and unhappy way-- to a much simpler way of life.

In his final chapter, Tainter describes the modern world's "arms race of complexity" and makes some uncomfortable suggestions about our own future. (...). In an age where, for example, the U.S. invasion of Iraq has yielded net negative returns on investment even for the invaders (where's that cheap oil?), and where additional investments in education and health care in industrialised countries make no significant increases in outcomes, the historical focus of Tainter's work starts to become eerily prescient.

The scary thing about this deeply thoughtful and thoroughly researched book is its contention that the future, for all our knowledge and technology, might be an awful lot like the past.
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5.0 étoiles sur 5 Scholarly but gripping 31 mars 2006
Par Erik D. Curren - Publié sur
In contrast to Jered Diamond's "Collapse," this volume does not just focus on one theory of why societies collapse--depletion of natural resources--but presents in summary several different theories. In academic style, Tainter examines the pros and cons of each, offering a cornucopia of references that would be an invaluable source for future research.

While he sees some merit to most theories, one he holds in complete contempt, while another he tends to prefer. Tainter has no patience for "mystical" notions that societies collapse because their moral fiber has degenerated, a theory made famous by Gibbon, Spengler and Toynbee. What he does believe is that complex societies always at some point reach a stage where they become too complex, where the costs to citizens and elites alike begin to outweigh the benefits of keeping the society together. At that point, the society is vulnerable to breaking up.

This is what happened to the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century. The burden of inflation and taxes became so heavy on the populace that even the Italians began to yearn for "liberation" by barbarian tribes. And collapse is not always a bad thing: tribes like the Vandals actually governed their sections of the old empire more effectively.

So, what about us? Because of globalization, any collapse would affect all industrialized countries together. So, the US cannot collapse without either being taken over by a competitor or bringing everyone else down with us. Oil running out might be the end of our era of complexity, an anomaly in human history, but we still have time to make changes that could forestall collapse. Overall, a fresh view of history key to understanding the present.
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5.0 étoiles sur 5 Best explanation of the rise and fall of civilization 19 juillet 2008
Par Dirk J. Willard - Publié sur
Format:Broché|Achat vérifié
What I found interesting about Joseph Tainter's treatise on civilizations is his application of economic theory to explain how they collapse. After a methodical review the two basic theories of why civilizations develop in the first place, the integration theory and the conflict theory, he launches into why he thinks economics is useful: it explains marginal returns.

In simple terms, societies are machines for solving social problems. As problems become more difficult, solutions become more complicated, eating into resources. Eventually, all societies are faced with marginal returns on their investment. Economics is a study of how supply meets demand and management of scarce resources.

Tainter begins by exploring the two concepts of civilization. Actually, it really does not matter whether you subscribe to the integration theory or the conflict theory. Economics helps explain complexity. Screw drivers exist because hammers weren't enough. Power drills were eventually developed and so on. Societies created such things as cash because lugging things around to exchange slowed commerce. Eventually, monetary policies developed to both explain transactions and allow regulation and taxation. Taxation pays for society.

Here is where the two theories on civilization diverge. Integration theory proposes that societies become more complex because of a growth in people's wants and needs. Conflict theory says that societies exist because an upper class wants to control the output of society to further their own comfort and avarice. Personally, I agree with Tainter that neither theory works, although many societies I've read about, including our own can lean in one of these directions or another. Tainter agrees that economic theory cannot explain everything. After all, society and people have a rational and irrational half. For example, he explains how the taxation of citizens in the later Roman Empire became so unbearable that citizens frequently welcomed invading barbarians; miners in one central European province went over to the barbarians en-mass. Meanwhile, the rich in Rome fled to the countryside to avoid being conscripted into a failing series of governments. Peasants were encouraged to migrate to the cities, where they became a burden, because Roman governments deprived them of even subsistence --- all went to taxes.

Getting back to Tainter's approach with economic theory, he supports this theory very well. There are figures showing the declining returns on increased investments in agriculture, medicine, education, pollution control, nutrition and scientific research. Taken as a whole it is very impressive.

Unfortunately, I think the author relied too much on Rome as an example. Perhaps it was one he was extensively familiar or just a well-documented example. There are several examples of societies that have moderated their behavior and survived, at least long enough to be taken over by the current, predominant western culture: e.g., Japan. Faced with resource problems since the beginning they showed a remarkable ability to adapt without the widespread famines that seemed to plague the Chinese.

As for the current crisis that western civilization is experiencing now, Tainter provides a few clues but no concrete predictions. He believes that the civilization will adapt and survive. I believe that instead it will break down. Some countries will be abandoned to their fate while others, such as India and the European Union will strive to exist as separate entities long after the collapse of the United States and China. Tainter believes, while providing a few historical examples as proof, that societies existing together, like the European Union, cannot collapse because they are bonded together in competition. I, however, feel that as collapse becomes inevitable, worrying about what your neighbors will do becomes less important than worrying about your own survival.

Eventually, we in the US will climb out of the hole created by our demise but generations to come will wonder at our foolishness.

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4.0 étoiles sur 5 Flawed but fascinating 4 octobre 2011
Par Breck Jack - Publié sur
Tainter develops a theory for why civilizations collapse. His theory is to my taste more disciplined and maybe more persuasive than Toynbee's or Spengler's. That doesn't mean Tainter's theory is right. He summarizes his theory on page 93 as follows:

"Four concepts ... can lead to an understanding of why complex societies collapse. These concepts are:

"1. human societies are problem-solving organizations;
"2. sociopolitical systems require energy for their maintenance;
"3. increased complexity carries with it increased costs per capita;
"4. investment in sociopolitical complexity as a problem-solving response often reaches a point of declining marginal returns."

I see three problems with his theory:

--Tainter measures complexity by energy use. According the World Bank figures, in the US and some other developed countries per capita energy consumption has been flat (with some fluctuation) since the early 1970s. For example, in 1973 the US used 8,164 kg of oil equivalents per capita; in 2007, the figure was 7,759. So either Tainter is wrong in using energy as a measure of complexity; or he is wrong is saying that complexity increases over time. Many people find it difficult to believe our per capita energy use is roughly flat. If you are skeptical, you should check for yourself. The World Bank is not the only relevant source: the US Energy Outlook 2010 has a chart showing the same thing.

--The Law of Diminishing Returns was developed in the context of using labor and materials to produce goods. It can plausibly be extended to the production of services. But does it apply to an abstraction like complexity? Recall the classic explanation of diminishing returns, that businesses will use the most easily available resources first, so that as the need for resources grows, businesses have to use resources that are more and more difficult to get. Contrast complexity. When society is faced with a problem, does it systematically seek out the least complex solution, as the law of diminishing returns would imply? Or does it seek out the solution that (a) will work and (b) is palatable to a sufficient number of politically influential groups? To give an example, Nixon's solution to the problem of inflation was wage and price controls, which are complex indeed. Jimmy Carter's solution was simple: appoint a tight money sadist, Paul Volcker. It was brutal but it worked. Nixon undoubtedly knew about the tight money solution, but chose not to use it, probably because of the short-term political blowback Carter in fact encountered. So what actually happened was that society tried a complex solution, and when it didn't work, tried a simple one. That doesn't fit Tainter's theory.

--Tainter's theory is like much of the economic theory he draws on: it is post hoc. The US in 1900 was a much more complex society in any common-sense meaning than it was in 1800; yet it did not collapse. Why not? Apparently it wasn't complex enough? The US in 2000 was a much more complex society than it was in 1900; yet it did not collapse. Still not complex enough? At what point does complexity become excessive? Tainter's theory gives no way to answer this question, except after the fact. In 1970 Somalia was a less complex society in any common-sense meaning than the US. Yet Somalia collapsed, and the US hasn't. Why not? Tainter's theory sheds no light except to say that technology may make complexity more feasible, a post hoc explanation

Some other facts that conflict with his theory:

1. Tainter on page 116 says that "Once developed, complex social features are rarely dropped." He is simply wrong. Forty years ago, the US had a draft; we had unions in much of the private sector; and we had government regulation of some prices, for example airline prices. In these respects, things have become simpler. I could give other examples.

2. On page 116 Tainter claims that tax rates go up more often than they go down and that standing armies rarely get smaller. Among developed countries in the last half century, income tax rates have generally gone down, and standing armies have generally gotten smaller.

Notwithstanding the foregoing, I respect and admire Tainter's achievement in this book. He tackles a big issue, and tackles it intelligently, with creative thinking and scholarship. His theory may be flawed, but he provides a solid foundation for further thinking. I wish we had more people like him.
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5.0 étoiles sur 5 Thoughtful and succinct 4 janvier 2007
Par O. Brown - Publié sur
Tainter skewers most castrophe theorists, then provides his own ideas, with supportive evidence from three different cultures. The fact that this book is still in print nearly 20 years after publication should serve as evidence of its worth. Pleasantly free of jargon, well-balanced, and hewing to a scientific, quantifiable perspective whenever possible, it is well worth your exploration.
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A society has collapsed when it displays a rapid, significant loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity. &quote;
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The features that set states apart, abstracting from the previous discussion, are: territorial organization, differentiation by class and occupation rather than by kinship, monopoly of force, authority to mobilize resources and personnel, and legal jurisdiction. &quote;
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Collapse, if and when it comes again, will this time be global. No longer can any individual nation collapse. World civilization will disintegrate as a whole. Competitors who evolve as peers collapse in like manner. &quote;
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