• The Collapse of Complex Societies

  • New Studies in Archaeology, Book 8
  • By: Joseph A. Tainter
  • Narrated by: Brian Arens
  • Length: 10 hrs and 26 mins
  • 4.7 out of 5 stars (31 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

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 2,000 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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©1988 Cambridge University Press (P)2022 Echo Point Books & Media, LLC
  • Unabridged Audiobook
  • Categories: History

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Foundational text that’s still relevant!

Tainter did a great service to the study of history, economics and archeology (ancient history) by cutting through centuries of nonsense about the collapse of civilizations and combining disparate ideas into a single theory. He systematically shows how systems collapse is based in the simple, universal concept of marginal cost exceeding marginal benefit. He also shows how other theories are either a subset of the overarching marginal cost model, or he correctly banishes romantic (but goofy) concepts that civilizations just get too old and then “give up.”

The book feels ever so slightly dated for 2 reasons:
1) it was written was ‘88 and so refers to the Soviet Union and the Club of Rome (their ideas still keep popping up though!). Some of the impending problems he refers to have been largely solved (which I suppose goes to strengthen his argument that successful societies find solutions to their problems).
2) this work was so impactful that it has led to A LOT of great research since its release! Some of the discussion about specific civilizations have come a long way in 34 years, and the details are much better understood. Studies into economics, trade, climate, agriculture, demography, warfare, language, etc. since the original publication shine so much more light on these civilizations than was available at the time.

Regardless, understanding Tainter creates the framework to understand the similarities and differences between collapsing civilizations and allows those same principles to be applied today. Having a scientific approach to systems collapse is still VERY important (I keep hearing some of the nonsense reasons for collapse that he disproves). And even within the text, certain doomsayers were predicting our own collapse by now (hint: it didn’t happen).

Authors from Jim Diamond to Peter Zeihan owe a lot to Tainter, and if you want to understand their work, get this book!

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A Must Read

Understanding deminishing returns on investment in complexity is essential. It's the best way to maintain a complex society. This book explains it with Feynman like flair.

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