Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh CXLI

Steve Bull (https://olduvai.ca)
6 min readJul 19, 2023
Mexico (1988). Photo by author.

Declining Returns, Societal Surpluses, and Collapse

Today’s Contemplation has been prompted by some conversation with others on the Peak Oil Facebook Group I am a member of after I posted an article highlighting the drawdown of oil from the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserves. A drawdown that has brought these reserves down to their lowest level in about 40 years.

Click here for link to source and more information.

While the reasons for the drawdown are complex — and certainly political in nature, with various narratives put forward — the consequences of it got me thinking about how this situation reflects quite clearly the thesis presented by archaeologist Joseph Tainter in The Collapse of Complex Societies regarding how the use of a society’s surpluses to sustain its complexities brings it ever closer to ‘collapse’.

This is a lens through which I view/interpret a lot of the phenomena of complex societies given the pre/historical cycle of expansion followed inevitably by contraction. Every experiment/iteration of complex societies has repeated this growth/degrowth pattern. Every. One.

And, of course, the possible ‘collapse’ of the United States — that the drawdown of its oil surplus portends as I shall outline below — likely also signals a more generalised ‘collapse’ of its peer polities (e.g., Russia, China, Europe, etc.) given the global nature of today’s industrial societies and their interdependencies and connectivity and the fact that peer polities tend to ‘collapse’ together; but also the nature of how important the fundamental resource of fossil fuels are to sustaining the world’s complexities.

Now, to Tainter’s thesis and how this is reflected in this drawdown of the United States’ Strategic Petroleum Reserves.

Tainter argues that complex societies are maintained through control and specialisation. During the growth/expansion phase of a complex society, investments in these aspects result in significant benefits for society as a whole as it is growing. This is primarily because the cost-benefit ratio is low since the easiest and cheapest ‘solutions’ to the problems being addressed through added complexity are first put into practice. But as time passes, these investments encounter diminishing returns on their costs to society.

As Tainter states:

“The reasons why investments in complexity yields a declining marginal return are: (a) increasing size of bureaucracies; (b) increasing specialization of bureaucracies; (c) the cumulative nature of organizational solutions; (d) increasing taxation; (e) increasing costs of legitimizing activities; and, (f) increasing cost of internal control and external defense.” (p. 115)

As a society becomes more complex, its costs increase but the benefits of each additional change is not in proportion to the costs, and in some cases there are no benefits at all. Once more complex features are added, they are rarely abandoned so growth in complexity tends to be exponential. By adding greater complexity “the potential for problems, conflicts, and incongruities develops disproportionately.” (p. 116)

There are benefits for many added complexities but they only provide less and less positive return for the cost. Eventually “societies do reach a level where continued investment in complexity yields a declining marginal return. At that point the society is investing in an evolutionary course that is becoming less and less productive, where at increased cost it is able to do little more than maintain the status quo.” (p. 117)

As a society’s economy expands, its growth rate slows and follows a logistic curve. This may be the result of “an overall trend of declining marginal productivity in a society simply leaves proportionately less capital for investment in future growth.” (p. 118) Note that this phenomenon impacts mature economies much more than young ones.

Prior to the exploitation of fossil fuels, the energy cost of this growth was met mostly through human labour. Benefits relative to costs occur but follows the curve above so “that at some point in the evolution of a society, continued investment in complexity as a problem-solving strategy yields a declining marginal return.” (pp. 119–120)

As pointed out above, problems/stresses are solved via greater complexity that provide greater benefits per unit of cost to begin with as the least costly and easiest solutions are attempted first. As time passes and further problem-solving is required, more costly and difficult solutions must be used. “Barring the acquisition of new energy sources, most often through conquest, such increased costs are usually undertaken merely to maintain the status quo.” (p. 120)

Success is achieved when the factor(s) causing instability ceases to do so. A point is eventually reached, however, where further investment yields returns at a declining marginal rate and it is here where a society becomes increasingly susceptible to collapse. Collapse may occur if an unexpected stress surge cannot be met by reserves.

Stress is a constant feature of any society and is dealt with regularly, usually using previous production surpluses. A society experiencing declining returns, however, uses these productive surpluses to meet current needs, eventually depleting reserves.

“Unexpected stress surges must be dealt with out of the current operating budget, often ineffectually, and always to the detriment of the system as a whole. Even if the stress is successfully met, the society is weakened in the process, and made even more vulnerable to the next crisis. Once a society develops the vulnerabilities of declining marginal returns, collapse may merely require sufficient passage of time to render probable the occurrence of an insurmountable calamity.” (p. 121)

In addition, declining marginal returns can lead people to view complexity as a failed problem-solving strategy.

“Where marginal returns decline, the advantages to complexity become ultimately no greater (for the society as a whole) than for less costly social forms. The marginal cost of evolution to a higher level of complexity, or of remaining at the present level, is high compared with the alternative of disintegration.” (p. 121)

For some, the option of detaching from larger sociopolitical forms is more attractive since fewer benefits are resulting from the costs. Smaller social units begin to pursue their own goals, forsaking those of larger units. The status quo may respond through greater legitimisation activities and/or control. Peasant revolts may occur or, more commonly, apathy towards well-being of the polity

Sustaining services for a population becomes increasingly difficult as rising marginal costs due to declining resources saps economic strength. Unexpected stresses and normal operations are met by using reserves. Society disintegrates as local entities break away or is toppled militarily.

A society increasing its complexity through ever-increasing investment will eventually reach a point when marginal productivity can no longer rise; complexity can still accrue benefits past this point but at a declining marginal rate and stress will begin to rise (e.g. between growth/no-growth factions)

Although greater investment is made in research and development and education in an attempt to find solutions, taxes and inflation increase making collapse more likely. A point may be reached when increasing complexity actually results in decreased overall benefits; a society with inadequate reserves becomes extremely vulnerable at this time since a significant stress surge can overwhelm. The leadership may impose strict behavioural controls in response in an attempt to decrease inefficiencies.

Contemporary society’s technical innovations are unprecedented in human history but they too are susceptible to the law of diminishing returns. Using a new energy source to help fund continuing economic growth can help stave off, but not eliminate, declining marginal productivity; this may not help eliminate diminishing returns in others areas (e.g. agricultural production). In the past, this was accomplished through territorial expansion (which also eventually encounters diminishing returns); today it is being done by exploiting fossil fuels and nuclear power. In fact, fossil fuel inputs into agricultural production have been huge the past number of decades[1].

These energy sources, especially fossil fuels, have themselves not only encountered diminishing returns but the surpluses that have been established (e.g., the U.S.’s Strategic Petroleum Reserves) are being quickly used in an attempt to maintain status quo complexities. And as Tainter argues this depletion of surpluses to sustain our complexities in the face of diminishing returns sets up a complex society to not be capable of handling an unexpected stress surge, resulting in ‘collapse’. It is not a matter of if, but when.

If you’ve made it to the end of this contemplation and have got something out of my writing, please consider ordering the trilogy of my ‘fictional’ novel series, Olduvai (PDF files; only $9.99 Canadian), via my website — the ‘profits’ of which help me to keep my internet presence alive and first book available in print (and is available via various online retailers). Encouraging others to read my work is also much appreciated.

[1] See this, this, and/or this.

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Steve Bull (https://olduvai.ca)

A guy trying to make sense of a complex and seemingly insane world. Spend my days pondering our various predicaments while practising local food production...