"The citizens of modern complex societies usually do not realize that we are an anomaly in history. Throughout the several million years that recognizable humans are known to have lived, the common unit was the small, autonomous community, acting independently and largely self-sufficient ... hierarchy and complexity are actually rare in human history, and where present require constant reinforcement. No societal leader is ever far from the need to validate position and policy, and no hierarchal society can be organized without explicit provision for this need."

~ Joseph A. Tainter, The collapse of complex societies (NY: Cambridge, 1990)

Historically, the eleven major themes of societal collapse are given as (count them off now...):
  1. depletion or cessation of vital resources (gosh, we've run plum out of x. Possible inclusions: the Great West Plains tribes’ downfall with the extinction of the buffalo, or the Pacific tribes of Easter Island after the depletion of its forests),
  2. establishment of a new resource base (x was good, but check out what y can do; x is soooo five minutes ago. Possible inclusions: the Vandal tribesmen, in migrating across Europe, abandoned trading, hunting and finally settled in North Africa. While their adoption of farming seemed an advancement, this attracted the ire of the Byzantine Empire, and they were eradicated),
  3. insurmountable catastrophe (oh no, x is erupting/flooding/falling/imploding. Possible inclusions: the Great Flood and collapse of the Marib Dam, death blow to the Kingdom of Sheba)
  4. insufficient response to circumstances (x? who cares. Possible inclusions: Persian ambivalence and ultimate capitulation to Arabian tribal raiding parties)
  5. other complex societies (us vs. them. Possible inclusions: submission of Carthage by Rome, Macedonia by Greece, the Ostrogothic peoples by the Franks)
  6. invaders (oh those Hottentots. Possible inclusions: Arab overthrow of Visigothic Spain, Mongol overthrow of Abbasid Caliphate, eradication of Aztec culture by the Spanish)
  7. class conflict/societal contradiction/elite mismanagement or misbehaviour (alphas vs. betas. Possible inclusions: the dwindling of Athens’ Hellenic Empire after their defeat at Sicily, or deterioration of the Roman Republic after Sulla)
  8. social dysfunction (let’s eat/enslave/pogrom/burn the gammas. Possible inclusion: the imperial policy of insularity and eventual collapse of the Han Dynasty)
  9. chance concatenation of events (x, y & z all in the same month? Possible inclusions: financial and military collapse of the Western Roman Empire or the abrupt disappearance of the Mayan peoples)
  10. mystical factors (no worries about y, x will Redeem us. Possible inclusions: the Sarmatians certainly didn’t seem to fare so well)
  11. economic factors (x is the root of all Evil. Possible inclusions: the Vikings – unless you count Ikea)
"Complex forms of human organization have emerged comparatively recently, and are an anomaly of history...maintenance of legitimacy or investment in coercion require constant mobilization of resources...an unrelenting cost that any complex society must bear."
The book is an amazingly erudite study of historical cultural entropy. Outlines how civilizations historically tend to collapse precisely at the moment levels of increasing complexity are not sustainable. Complexity is defined here as population increase and the tendency over time for elites to exploit labour surpluses to redistribute wealth away from common people. This in turn requires maintaining order and consent as complicated methods are used to compensate for the imbalances arising through growth, leading to an upward spiral of Byzantine, and in the end, unsustainable complexity.

The book also takes on the best-known theorists of collapse : from Gibbon, Hegel, etc. Theories covered stretch from the idea that religion, barbarism and bad management did in the Roman empire (see Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire) to less 'elegant' notions that 'Great' history-altering men are born of frigid women, who are free to avoid marriage and child-birth, so civilization declines.

Coverage includes pre-Grecian and Roman past down to our own times. In the process he distilled a river of information about the western Chou empire, the Harappian civilization of India, the societies of ancient Mesopotamia including Sargon, Ur, Babylon, the Hittites, the Assyrians, the Medes, Persians and Mycenaenians, western Romans, the Olmecs of Veracruz, the Maya of Guatemala, the Chacoans of northwestern New Mexico, the Hohokam of southern Arizona, the Kachin of Highland Burma, the Ik of northern Uganda, the Toltecs of Meso-America and others.
Further Reading:
  • Politics and government : how people decide their fate. Karl W. Deutsch. (Boston : Houghton Mifflin Co., c1980)
  • The Collapse of Ancient States and Civilizations. Yoffee, Norman and Cowgill. (University of Arizona Press, 1988)
  • Guns, germs, and steel : the fates of human societies Jared Diamond (NY : Norton 1997)
  • The ends of the earth : a journey at the dawn of the 21st century Robert D. Kaplan (NY : Random, 1996
  • The coming anarchy : shattering the dreams of the post Cold War Robert D. Kaplan. (NY: Random, 2000)
  • Collapse : How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond (Viking Adult, 2004)

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