Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh CXLVIII

Steve Bull (
8 min readSep 1, 2023
Mexico (1988). Photo by author.

What Do Previous Experiments in Societal Complexity Suggest About ‘Managing’ Our Future

Viewing ‘degrowth’ through my archaeology/anthropology lens (and primarily via archaeologist Joseph Tainter’s thesis laid out in The Collapse of Complex Societies[1]) there are a number of societal factors that stymie, if not make impossible, the idealised ‘managed contraction’ advocates tend to market it as. Purposeful ‘simplification/decline’ has never been wantonly experienced for a complex society outside of short-term, imposed ‘austerity’ (e.g. wartime, when the chairs are rearranged to ‘support’ the military[2]). All ‘contractions/collapses’ appear to have been ‘imposed’ by systemic ‘forces’ beyond the scope and control of the people experiencing it.

First, there is the ruling caste of a large, complex society that is HIGHLY motivated to maintain its power/control, especially over the wealth-generation/-extraction systems that provide its revenue streams. The notion that any of this class of society would willingly give their privileges up for the benefit of society-at-large is naïve at best[3]. In cases of ‘collapse’, society’s power-brokers place the burden of ‘contraction’ upon the masses via currency devaluation, increased taxes, forever wars, increased totalitarianism, narrative management, etc.. They continue to ensure their slice of the pie by taking from the disadvantaged/non-influential masses. While I guess one could call this ‘managed’, it is ‘managed’ in a way that protects the elite and their privileged positions but continually leads to a degradation of the living standards for most[4]. Of course, since ‘collapse’ is invariably unstoppable, the ‘rulers’ are simply amongst the last to experience societal decline, and usually because the support systems that sustain society’s complexities (and, thus, their positions atop the power/wealth structures) have been weakened beyond repair as more and more citizens ‘opt out’ due to the costs to remain outweighing the perceived benefits. And once a tipping point of withdrawn citizen support is reached, collapse of complexity ensues.

Second, there is Tainter’s contention that it is primarily diminishing returns on investments in complexity (i.e., problem solving via increased sociopolitical complexity) that invariably leads to ‘collapse’ [5]. This occurs because humans tend to employ the easiest and cheapest ‘solutions’ when first addressing ‘problems’. Our ‘solutions’ not only intensify complexity (i.e., result in more ‘problems’ that require attention) but grow our material/resource requirements (especially energy) thus increasing the ‘cost’ of our problem-solving behaviours. As costs increase and more issues arise that require attention, we experience diminishing returns on our investments and are forced to direct increasing amounts of material resources towards our problem solving, eating into surpluses. Once surpluses are exhausted, everyday operating ‘costs’ begin to suffer and living standards for the majority begin to wane. A gradual decline in complexity ensues. Any unexpected stress surge can push society off the cliff towards a complete breakdown of societal complexity. Alternatively, it is simply the passage of time before things have broken down to a point when one could label the situation an example of ‘collapse’.

Third, Tainter’s thesis is basically economic in nature. As societal investments encounter the Law of Marginal Utility due to ever-increasing costs of problem solving and its associated complexity, society experiences declining living standards. Eventually, participants opt out of the arrangement (i.e., social ‘contract’) — usually by migrating — resulting in a withdrawal of the support/labour necessary to maintain the various complex systems. ‘Opting out’ in today’s world is more difficult as there are no more ‘New Worlds’ to exploit for their resources, nor seemingly endless reserves of fossil fuels to support humans living beyond the natural environmental carrying capacity — to say little about the loss of skills/knowledge to survive without the complex systems in place (particularly procurement of potable water and food) and the overloading of sinks and biodiversity loss that reduces the carrying capacity of an area. Leaving the workforce or ‘downsizing’ significantly seems to be how some are ’opting out’ given modern constraints.

Fourth, to offset our increasing experience with diminishing returns, especially as it pertains to energy, we have employed significant debt-/credit-based fiat currency expansion to increase our drawdown of important resources among other perceived ‘needs’ — just as past societies have accomplished via geopolitical expansion and/or currency debasement. In the modern iteration, this has resulted in our globalised and financialised, highly-complex economic system increasingly taking on a Ponzi-like nature. Such schemes require perpetual growth to prevent them from imploding, not only to deal with the increased debt of ‘borrowing/creating’ currency, but to expand the resource/energy base. Maintaining this approach, however, will and is bumping up against limits to what is possible. Infinite growth is not possible (except via magical thinking) on a finite planet.

Fifth, to sustain a society’s complexity as it bumps up against limits to expanding its problem-solving ability (particularly its finite resource requirements), surpluses are drawn upon as mentioned above in the second point. The drawdown of these surpluses puts society at greater risk of being incapable of reacting to a sudden stress surge that may expedite the ‘collapse’ of complexity. A true Seneca Cliff-type decline/simplification/unravelling/collapse that cannot be ‘managed’, regardless of wishes.

Sixth, Tainter raises the unprecedented aspect of today’s technological innovations, but they too are susceptible to the Law of Marginal Utility (diminishing returns). He stresses that using a new energy source to help fund continuing economic growth can help stave off, but not eliminate, declining marginal productivity. Perhaps more importantly, a new energy source may not help eliminate diminishing returns in other areas (e.g. agricultural production). And once diminishing returns sets in for a society, collapse requires merely the passage of time. New energy sources, however, do little to address the issues that arise from expanded technology use–particularly the finiteness of the materials required and the overloading of planetary sinks that occur from their extraction and processing (see more on this below).

Seventh, pre/historic evidence also demonstrates a peer polity competition trap where competing ‘states’ drive the pursuit of complexity (regardless of environmental and/or human costs) for fear of absorption by a competing state. In such situations, ever-increasing costs create ever-decreasing marginal returns that end in domination by one state, or collapse of all competing polities. Where no or an insufficient energy subsidy exists, collapse of the competing states occurs at about the same time.

Little to none of the above takes into consideration our current overarching predicament: ecological overshoot (and all of its symptom predicaments such as biodiversity loss, resource depletion, sink overloading, etc.).

Having significantly surpassed the natural environmental carrying capacity of our planet, we have strapped booster rockets to the issue of complex society ‘collapse’.

We have chosen to employ a debt-/credit-based economic system to more quickly extricate finite resources from the ground in order to meet current demands rather than significantly reduce stealing them from the future. We have created belief systems that human ingenuity and finite resource-based technologies are god-like in their abilities to alter the Laws of Thermodynamics (especially in regard to entropy) and biological principles such as overshoot.

It is my contention that no amount of purposeful contraction can alter the trajectory we are on. We might, at best, mitigate to some marginal degree the coming storm for small, local regions/communities. But we cannot halt the consequences that accompany overshoot.

There are many (most?) that will remain in denial about all of this. Our propensity to avoid anxiety-provoking thoughts guarantees it. Magical thinking, particularly in regard to human ingenuity and our technological prowess, will continue. We cannot help ourselves. By denying our biological nature and proclivities, we guarantee failure in ‘managing’ a ‘graceful’ fall from our elevated heights.

I would love to see homo sapiens extricate themselves and the planet from the ecological overshoot trap we have set for ourselves through our expansionary ‘successes’. I have next to no faith that we can escape, however, particularly on a global scale. Not only does the ‘average’ individual have little to no agency in any of this but adaptive systems become ever more complex as they grow requiring increasing resource inputs and becoming more fragile as a result.

Add to this growing complexity the fact that large, complex systems with their nonlinear feedback loops and emergent phenomena are, by their very nature, impossible to control. Every attempt to control/manipulate such systems invariably leads to more ‘problems’ and thus more ‘solutions’ leading to more complexity and further finite resource drawdown, sink overloading, biodiversity loss, etc.. And this says little about the sociopathic ruling caste whose primary motivation is to sustain current power/wealth structures regardless of human and environmental costs; or even if it results in thermonuclear war.

Given we cannot control complex systems, we also cannot predict them well (if at all) and thus we cannot forecast the future with any certainty. But there exist physical laws and limits, biological/evolutionary principles, and pre/historical examples/experiments that all point towards a future quite different from the optimistic ones painted by those who believe we have control over such things.

So, I repeat my ‘advice’ from my last Contemplation:

Yes, spread the message about ‘degrowth’. Encourage a managed contraction of the human experiment. But understand, we’re in a predicament without solutions and time is not on our side. Get through the grieving as quickly as you can and move on to some actions that will help to mitigate the inevitable consequences for your family/friends/local community. And, make as certain as you can that the actions do not exacerbate our predicament by feeding the monster that is continued growth.

Recently released:

It Bears Repeating: Best Of…Volume 1

A compilation of writers focused on the nexus of limits to growth, energy, and ecological overshoot.

With a Foreword and Afterword by Michael Dowd, authors include: Max Wilbert; Tim Watkins; Mike Stasse; Dr. Bill Rees; Dr. Tim Morgan; Rob Mielcarski; Dr. Simon Michaux; Erik Michaels; Just Collapse’s Tristan Sykes & Dr. Kate Booth; Kevin Hester; Alice Friedemann; David Casey; and, Steve Bull.

The document is not a guided narrative towards a singular or overarching message; except, perhaps, that we are in a predicament of our own making with a far more chaotic future ahead of us than most imagine–and most certainly than what mainstream media/politics would have us believe.

Click here to access the document as a PDF file, free to download.

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).

You can also find a variety of resources, particularly my summary notes for a handful of texts, especially Catton’s Overshoot and Tainter’s Collapse: see here.

Encouraging others to read my work is also much appreciated.

[1] See:

[2] Actually, it’s the armament manufacturers producing the weapons and the financial institutions providing the capital that receive the lion’s share of any ‘support’ (i.e., funding). The masses are ‘persuaded’ to sacrifice for the ‘greater good’, ignoring Brigadier General Smedley Butler’s assertion that war is a racket to help enrich a few at the expense of the many. See:[electronic%20resource]%20%20the%20antiwar%20classic%20by%20Am.pdf

[3] Although they constantly virtue-signal that this is exactly what they are doing with their policies and ‘investments’, such declarations actually serve to help legitimise their power/control.

[4] Remember George Carlin’s warning: “It’s a big club and you ain’t in it!” See: ​​

[5] ‘Collapse’, here, is defined as a loss/decline of sociopolitical complexity that results in other systems failing, such as the rule of law, economic interactions such as energy-averaging systems/trade, art and literature, etc..



Steve Bull (

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...