The Mechanics Of Collapse

The Mechanics of Collapse
5th September 2005, by Jason Godesky


“Ultimately, every culture is a system for moving energy. There are two basic needs which all animal evolutionary strategies must ultimately serve: feeding and procreation, that is, the maintenance of life, and the propogation of life. Any human group would suffice to serve the needs of procreation, and the arbitrary sexual taboos and mating rituals which govern it are largely arbitrary. Therefore, cultures are needed for the much more difficult, and more frequently necessary, task of providing food. This is why cultural typologies have such strong correlations with subsistence strategy–why it is that how you get your food determines so much else about your culture. Locality, gender status, religion, art, philosophy, music, science, math–all play their role in the constant need to acquire food.”

“This suggests a much more general, much more useful definition of civilization than any I have yet encountered: a civilization is a society which adopts increasing complexity as a general strategy.

Civilization’s first response to any challenge is to increase complexity, whether that increased complexity is represented by research, development, new administrative levels or techniques, or technological innovation. The Green Revolution is an example of civilization answering a challenge technically; the Department of Homeland Security is an example of meeting a challenge administratively.

This strategy is flawed, however, because increasing complexity is subject to the same law of diminishing marginal returns as anything else–something Tainter illustrated with the graph above. Every aspect of complexity is subject to diminishing returns. Agriculture is a subject to the law in many ways we have discussed on this site in the past; indeed, it was in regard to agriculture that the law of diminishing returns was originally formulated. More interesting is its application to other aspects of complexity. In research, the most basic, fundamental research is the easiest to conduct, and it serves as a basis for all further research. That research tends to be more specialized, and thus, of less general use–even though it often costs a great deal more, since it is more specific, involved and complicated. The same applies to education. The most commonly used education is the general education we recieve when we are very young. This forms the basis for the much more narrow and specialized education and training we recieve later on–which is much more narrowly applicable. Reading, writing and arithmetic are necessary in any pursuit, but the esoteric commands of a UNIX command line have a much more narrow application. The simplest inventions–the wheel, the pulley, the lever, et cetera, are by far the most useful; more complex inventions, like an AC spark plug, have far fewer uses, but are much more difficult to put together.”

“…one of Tainter’s most powerful points–that collapse is an economizing process. Collapse improves our lives when civilization’s strategy of increasing complexity has run complexity far beyond its usefulness.

As I mentioned before, cultures are systems through which energy flows. The invention of agriculture allowed more energy to be harvested in absolute terms, by lowering the ERoEI of our general subsistence. Similarly, fossil fuels have allowed a great deal more energy to pass through our culture. This amount of energy has allowed our culture to achieve levels of complexity undreamed of by past generations. Unfortunately, because civilization is a strategy that meets every challenge with greater complexity, it is a strategy that does not require the same energy input every year, but greater energy input every year–as there are always new challenges, big and small, which require further complexity, and thus, more energy. Such a civilization faces collapse not just from less energy available, but simply from energy supply failing to grow at a sufficient rate.

When that happens, further complexity becomes impossible, and the economizing process of collapse takes over.

According to Tainter, the point of no return–B1,C3–is most immediately recognizable by the emergence of some marginal population that begins to consider whether it might be preferable to live at some lower level of complexity.

Our very existence suggests that this strategy of increasing complexity has already gone too far–that civilization has gone too far, and that we have now passed the point of no return, where there is no possibility but collapse.”


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