The Collapse of Complex Societies (New Studies in Archaeology)

Category: Humanities
Author: Joseph Tainter
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by lqet   2022-11-14
I recommend reading "The Collapse of Complex Societies" by Joseph Tainter [0].

Complex societies tend to address problems by adding more and more rules and regulations, simply because they have always done so and it has been successful in the past. More importantly, though, it is typically the only tool they have. Essentially these societies are increasingly overfitting their legislature to narrow special cases until it cannot handle anything unexpected anymore. Such a society is highly fragile. I witness this firsthand every day in my own country. Living here feels like lying in a Procrustean bed.


by nraford   2022-06-18
The two iconic texts are:

- "The Collapse of Complex Societies" by Joseph Tainter (Amazon link:

- "Normal Accidents" by Chuck Perrow (Amazon link:

Tainter deals directly with the Roman Empire, but the nutshell is the cost of complexity begins to outweigh its returns, requiring more and more resources just to maintain the status quo, until the entire thing becomes weak and susceptible to failures large and small.

- "Panarchy: Understanding Human and Natural Systems" (Amazon link: is also a fantastic book drawing from ecosystem science and proposes a general model for this. It's pretty well accepted in ecological circles but has been criticised for a lack of empirical data. The general model is the same as Tainter's though.

- "The Logic of Failure" by Dietrich Dorner is also a classic! (

Well worth reading all of the above.

by drallison   2018-11-10
The classic reference, for those HN readers who are not in the post-literate society, is Joseph Tainter's Collapse of Complex Societies. The book explains Tainter's theory explaining collapse (increasing social complexity without commensurate improvement in quality of life) and concludes with an unconvincing representation that our society does not meet the conditions motivating collapse.

by sturadnidge   2017-08-20
Joseph Tainter has done some interesting work on the relation between societal complexity and collapse[1], here's a recent(ish) paper of his on the subject
by narrator   2017-08-20
The problem with the U.S system is everyone has their hand out for money. In America, Money is considered the universal yardstick for success and universally effective solution to all problems. The health care industry grew 20% last year? Fantastic!

It's a perfect example of the civilizational collapse process that Joseph Tainter, a professor of archeology, wrote about in his book "Collapse of Complex Societies"[1]. A society will get some sort of civilizational process that works to create wealth in their society. The civilization will continue to increase complexity to exploit this process and when the process starts returning negative marginal returns the collapse process begins because the whole civilization can't switch into reverse. This happened to the Romans with their conquer and receive tribute process for example. It eventually started yielding negative returns and they couldn't reverse course. The inertia was just too great.