Toward a General Theory of Societal Collapse: A Biophysical Examination of Tainter’s Model of the Diminishing Returns of Complexity

Abstract

The collapse of large social systems, often referred to as “civilizations” or “empires,” is a well-known historical phenomenon, but its origins are the object of an unresolved debate. In this paper, we present a simple biophysical model which we link to the concept that societies collapse because of the “diminishing returns of complexity” proposed by Tainter (The collapse of complex societies, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1988). Our model is based on the description of a socio-economic system as a trophic chain of energy stocks which dissipate the energy potential of the available resources. The model is based on the idea that we observe that the exploitation of a non-renewable resource stock (“production”) has a strongly nonlinear relation with the complexity of the system, assumed to be proportional to the size of the stock termed “The Economy” (or “capital”), producing various trajectories of decline of the economy, in some cases rapid enough that they can be defined as “collapses.” The evolution of the relation of production and the economy produces a curve similar to the one proposed by Tainter, for the decline of a complex society.

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Fig. 1

(redrawn from Tainter’s book)

Fig. 2

It is a convention described in Bardi (2013)

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Data from Sverdrup et al. (2012)

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Correspondence to Sara Falsini.

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Bardi, U., Falsini, S. & Perissi, I. Toward a General Theory of Societal Collapse: A Biophysical Examination of Tainter’s Model of the Diminishing Returns of Complexity. Biophys Econ Resour Qual 4, 3 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s41247-018-0049-0

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Keywords

  • Tainter’s theory
  • Societal collapse
  • System dynamics
  • Complexity