The Lighter Side of The Collapse of Complex Societies

“But on this Earth, Rome never fell. A world ruled by emperors who can trace their line back two thousand years, to their own Julius and Augustus Caesars.” – Star Trek

DSC02993

Wilderus, Welthius, and Wisus, the original Roman Edition.

 

When a star starts its fusion cycle, it starts off with nice, ecologically friendly hydrogen.  The star transforms this into helium, using just a bit of energy to send to nearby planets so that they can make Pez®.  Eventually, the star will start fusing helium in its core.  This causes the boundary of the star to move outward, and the star becomes a red giant.

If the star is big enough, it will continue creating heavier and heavier elements through fusion, each of them in turn making heavier elements.  Until the star starts creating iron.  Whereas the fusion reactions (including those that form iron) all produce excess energy, iron fusion actually consumes energy.  The collapse of a star that starts fusing iron is rapid – the energy required to push the mass away from the center of the star disappears.  The mass begins to (quite rapidly) fall inward back to the star.  All of it.  All at once.

And we call that a “Supernova,” which I hear is a pretty neat surf ride.   I voted to name it “Wildernova” but was overruled on the grounds I hadn’t been born yet.

Great cultures have fallen in the past – Rome is forefront among them, since, from founding until the fall of Byzantium (that’s the Eastern Roman Empire) it lasted 2200 years.  But there were others, the Mayans, the Greeks, and my next door neighbor when I lived in Alaska.  All of those cultures passed away over time.

Since you can’t be a professor and not make up theories and stuff (the job has to look like work at least some of the time) Joseph Tainter came up with his theory of The Collapse of Complex Societies, which he published in a book in 1988.  Like many people who have really good ideas, Tainter has been milking this one for quite a while, which I heartily approve of.  If they’re gonna buy the same stuff from you again and again?  Keep selling it!  Heaven knows Aerosmith hasn’t had a new song since 1985.

Tainter’s book is quite accessible, and much shorter than one would imagine with a good idea.  Most people take twenty pages of fascinating ideas and stretch them into several thousand pages of books, PowerPoints, and training sessions.  Not Tainter.  He packs his twenty pages of ideas into a Spartan 267 pages, including end notes.

A note about buying the book:  DON’T.  I spent $35 for my copy nearly a decade ago, and now a new copy is $47.  Plus tax.  So, unless you like paying $0.176 per page of book, DON’T.  Why did I spend so much?  Dunno.  I’m cheap, but this book kept being referenced EVERYWHERE, so I thought I’d buy it.

I think it’s so expensive because it’s technically a textbook, and thus normal supply and demand economics don’t work with textbook publishers.  Boy, when the Internet takes that group down, I’ll be smiling.

Anyhow . . .

Tainter suggests that societies start small, and aren’t very complex at the beginning.  As the society grows in size and scope, it begins to become more complex.  And then?  Problems start.  We have a water heater that supports four normal-human length showers, or one shower by The Boy.  Thus, a new rule.  Everyone showers BEFORE The Boy.  But that has unintended consequences.  Now I have to get up earlier to make sure I don’t have to take a shower in water colder than Shia LeBeouf’s jail cell.

Now I have to get up earlier.  Since I have to get up earlier, I’m groggy while I drive to work.  Since I’m groggy, I forget my coffee, now I’m double groggy and less sharp at work, and don’t create as much value.  Then the Cubans invade, sensing weakness, and we have to move to the Rockies to defend against the Soviets.  Go Wolverines!

You see how this works.

Actually, the above is a (slight) exaggeration of Tainter’s theory.  You start with one rule, and it has unintended consequences that require other rules.  Which . . . create more unintended consequences, requiring . . . more rules.

Pretty soon, most of society is either closely governed by the rules, or is so enmeshed in all the rules that they just want to get out – rather than society’s efforts going to create a comfortable life for the citizens, society’s efforts go into . . . supporting society’s rules.

I was reading Seneca’s (the dead Roman) Letters several years ago when one passage struck me . . . Seneca was writing to his friend and mentioned in passing boating regulations in Imperial Rome.  Boating regulations.  From that you can infer that the Romans had entire bureaucracies working on the correct size of a gladiator’s loincloth to the proper number of grapes in a bowl to be served to the Caesar.  And, eventually, people got tired of the regulation.  How bad did it get?  Bad enough that they had to make a regulation stating that if you were the first born son, you had to do what your dad did.  Farms were going unplanted because farmers’ sons were walking away to go do something less regulated, so they had to force them to be farmers.  Except they just ignored the rule and walked away, in time.

Additionally, Rome had to support the infrastructure required by the Empire.  An Empire requires food, roads, and bridges.  And slaves.  And Pez® factories.  And an Army.  And this stuff costs money.  Retard the economic progress of the productive folks through regulation and add in a bunch of stuff they have to pay for, and you’ve got trouble.

Plus, let’s say you’re a Roman dealer in granite countertops.  When your great-grandfather started business, all the granite was nearby, but the best stuff was used 20 years ago.  Now they have to bring it in by ship.  The cost of your business goes up and so does the societal energy required to get that granite.  Food and wine have to be brought from farther and farther away because, in order to feed over a million people living in Rome, you had to get the stuff here, and it wasn’t like you could walk down to Caesar-Mart to get Hot Pockets® at 2AM.  It took much more energy to feed the people of Rome.

And did you see that there were a million people living in Rome?  There were as low as 200 million on the whole planet, which would be like a modern city having 0.5% of the world’s population living there, or 350 million people living in one city.  (Tokyo is currently the biggest in the world, at only 33 million.)  While not overpopulation, this population concentration was costly in an economic sense.

The outward signs of Rome’s weakness were the Goths, Vandals, and Jocks sacking Rome – but Rome had to defeat itself first, just like the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI.

Eventually, Rome fell, but primarily because its citizens decided, quite voluntarily and rationally to shed a layer of complexity that no longer served their purpose.  It was as if they were a star, and started fusing iron.  And all the Romans ran together at once at full speed into the center of Rome and mushed into each other.  And exploded outward at the speed of light.

Ummm, metaphorically.

Author: John

Nobel-Prize Winning, MacArthur Genius Grant Near Recipient writing to you regularly about Fitness, Wealth, and Wisdom – How to be happy and how to be healthy. Oh, and rich.