Wednesday 27 April 2011

New Dawn Fades

One of the most important, though relatively obscure, books published in the 1980’s was the American archaeologist Joseph Tainter’s academic treatise The Collapse Of Complex Societies. The book was published by Cambridge University as part of their "New Studies In Archaeology" series, which included such page-turners as Ceramic Theory and Cultural Process and Prehistoric Farming In Europe.

In this book Tainter looked at various previous world civilisations that had collapsed, from the relatively small Easter Island colony, through the more sophisticated Mayans, to the great Roman Empire. Tainter believed that the trends that destroyed these societies, despite their variations in scale, had a common pattern, and this formed the crux of his theory, which he called the declining marginal returns of complexity. In essence, every human society, as it expands within its ecosystem, is forced to confront and solve the problems that the ecosystem presents as barriers to that expansion. These solutions, which are initially often ad hoc and provisional, eventually concatenate and require ever-greater levels of socio-political complexity and increases in energy and cost per capita in order to operate and maintain. Eventually the effort required to maintain these systems begins to outweigh the benefits of maintaining them, and the society then abandons them and returns to a lower level of complexity. In societies where the declining rate of return has become particularly pernicious, this abandonment is experienced as a collapse.

What was troubling about Tainter’s theory was his formulation that once the process of collapse has begun, it is almost impossible to reverse. Even more disturbingly, the collapse process can proceed so slowly that it is almost imperceptible to the members of that society until the final days. Tainter demonstrated that the Roman Empire’s collapse unraveled over a period of 400 years, with its undulations being demarcated by the progressive adulteration of the standard Roman coin, the silver denarius. It was possible to live a long and full life in Rome during this period, and not even notice that anything was amiss, let alone comprehend that your society was irretrievably doomed. The most that could be perceived, over periods of decades, would perhaps be slow but steady declines in available employment, wages and living standards. Public life would also steadily degrade, as the unity that was forged in the project of empire fractured into narrow sectional interests.

At the end of the book Tainter took a measured view on the decline of our own civilisation, seeing the oncoming challenges of resource depletion and environmental degradation as not setting the scene for a catastrophic collapse, but for long periods of mediocre stasis, punctuated by the occasional sharp step down for individual nations. In many ways this is the one scenario that Western societies are least willing to entertain. Our deep Faustian psychological investment in growth, expansion, and the myth of progress tends to divide future possibilities into a false binary - either infinite expansion into a techno-grandiose future of wonder, or, on the other hand, the Apocalypse, as we over-extend our Promethean powers and are punished for our wickedness. The idea that our future may be one of mediocre making-do is anathema.

The crises of the 1970’s that originally prompted Tainter to write the book were temporarily assuaged by the oil glut of the 1980’s, and the rise of China in the 1990’s. By the late Nineties, even the most cornucopian techno-optimists could sense that the West had had its day, so the rise of China supplied a tantalising possibility: that the baton of humanity’s bright future could be passed from West to East, the neoliberal dream of the end of history finding its destination in Beijing.

China, far from representing a genuinely alternative economic system, simply grafted neoliberalism onto its centralised state apparatus. The extent of its envelopment into the existing global system was its investment in the chimera of Gross Domestic Product, that phantasmagorical statistic that measures economic activity regardless of its utility. The result has been that China has become a kind of Potemkin state, in which entire uninhabited cities have been built in order to maintain the illusion of growth. Those who believe that the "project" of mankind will be carried on under Asian management are likely to find themselves deeply disappointed.

The real lesson of The Collapse Of Complex Societies was that we are blind to the wheel of history, as it slowly grinds away behind the curtain of events (elections, revolutions, economic crashes) that we mistakenly perceive as the dynamic forces that shape reality. Contrary to popular belief, civilisational collapse is generally a rather boring, imperceptible process. The future that we are likely to experience is the one we are temperamentally least willing to accept - a long, grim, drift into mediocrity.


David K Wayne said...

To get all dialectic about it, China may turn out to be a synthesis of Soviet and American collapse. They're overtaking of the US economy sooner than expected now (2016). Would be very ironic if the world's oldest empire collapses after combining the mistakes of two of the world's most short-lived.

Phil Knight said...

Agehananda Bharati once said something about China and India being the world's most long-lived civilisations because they're always falling out of a first floor window.

But yeah, combining Anglo-American perpetual-growth economics with Soviet-style monolithic resource planning must be the worst idea since the Aztecs figured that their endemic disease problem could be cured by throwing fresh human organs into their water supply.