Agricultural societies have the unique ability to arbitrarily raise their food supply, simply by intensifying their cultivation. By bringing more land under cultivation, or by cultivating what land they have more intensively, or by the occasional technological innovation, agriculturalists can increase their output. By raising the food supply, agriculturalists can arbitrarily raise their population (see thesis #4). Thus increasing the energy throughput of their society, agriculturalists can arbitrarily raise their level of complexity. This draws all individuals in that society, and all neighboring societies, into a catastrophic game of prisoner’s dilemma (see thesis #12). Because complexity is subject to diminishing returns (see thesis #14), the effort required to further increase complexity rises, while the value of such an investment drops. Competition, however, keeps driving the assemblage forward, even after further investment in complexity has long ceased to be an economical decision. If any party does decide to make that investment—however large it may be—then they will enjoy an edge—however slight—over everyone else, forcing all parties to move to the next level of complexity to remain competitive. Thus, competition drives civilization headlong towards collapse.
The diminishing returns of complexity represent an escalating probability of disaster. As that probability approaches one, disasters continue at their normal pace. Sometimes, as we can see in our own world, our own complexity may accelerate that pace, as with our environmental problems (see thesis #17), or it may even create those problems, as with Peak Oil (see thesis #18). Even were this not the case, there is a regular, background pace of problems any society faces. Answering all of them with increased complexity—whether by pursuing technical solutions to systemic problems, inventing new technologies, or creating governmental bureaucracies in response—only aggravates the greater, underlying crisis of complexity’s diminishing returns. Following this strategy, a routine crisis will eventually arise, but the response of greater complexity will be impossible due to its prohibitive cost.
Thus, a society faces catabolic collapse.
In dealing with some of the problematic details of Tainter’s model, John Michael Greer offered a refinement with “How Civilizations Fall: A Theory of Catabolic Collapse.” Greer noted that, contrary to Tainter’s definition, many of the collapses he considered took place over significant periods of time—centuries or more—while others collapsed catastrophically. This led Greer to develop a model that distinguishes between a “maintenance crisis” and a catabolic collapse.
A society that uses resources beyond replenishment rate … when production of new capital falls short of maintenance needs, risks a depletion crisis in which key features of a maintenance crisis are amplified by the impact of depletion on production. As M(p) exceeds C(p) and capital can no longer be maintained, it is converted to waste and unavailable for use. Since depletion requires progressively greater investments of capital in production, the loss of capital affects production more seriously than in an equivalent maintenance crisis. Meanwhile further production, even at a diminished rate, requires further use of depleted resources, exacerbating the impact of depletion and the need for increased capital to maintain production. With demand for capital rising as the supply of capital falls, C(p) tends to decrease faster than M(p) and to perpetuate the crisis. The result is a catabolic cycle, a self-reinforcing process in which C(p) stays below M(p) while both decline. Catabolic cycles may occur in maintenance crises if the gap between C(p) and M(p) is large enough, but tend to be self-limiting in such cases. In depletion crises, by contrast, catabolic cycles can proceed to catabolic collapse, in which C(p) approaches zero and most of a society’s capital is converted to waste. …
Any society that displays broad increases in most measures of capital production coupled with signs of serious depletion of key resources, in particular, may be considered a potential candidate for catabolic collapse.
Once begun, the process of catabolic collapse creates a self-reinforcing feedback loop: the same kind of unbreakable, self-reinforcing process that propels civilization’s anabolic growth, as we discussed in thesis #12. That process only ends when that society reaches the next lower sustainable level of complexity.
The question, then, is not whether but when this process will impact our own civilization. As we have seen, we have already passed the point of diminishing returns (see thesis #15), leaving us open to the possibility of collapse. Peak Oil (see thesis #18) and environmental problems (see thesis #17) are already poised as potentially unsolvable problems that could lead to collapse in the near future, but ultimately, predicting the proximate cause of collapse is much more difficult than predicting its timeline. The best answer to that question is almost certainly, “soon.”
The U.N. expects human population growth to “level off” at 9 billion in the next century, but humans already take up 40% of the earth’s photosynthetic capacity to feed the 6.5 billion we already have. That is the ultimate cause behind the Holocene Extinction—already the worst mass extinction ever seen on the planet, and driven entirely by human agriculture. Global warming is radically altering the fragile interglacial climate that agriculture requires, and the fossil fuel subsidy that is so fundamental to our civilization’s current mode of existence is running out. As Tainter wrote in his 1996 paper, “Complexity, Problem Solving and Sustainable Societies”:
With subsidies of inexpensive fossil fuels, for a long time many consequences of industrialism effectively did not matter. Industrial societies could afford them. When energy costs are met easily and painlessly, benefit/cost ratio to social investments can be substantially ignored (as it has been in contemporary industrial agriculture). Fossil fuels made industrialism, and all that flowed from it (such as science, transportation, medicine, employment, consumerism, high-technology war, and contemporary political organization), a system of problem solving that was sustainable for several generations.
Of course, any course of action is “sustainable” over a sufficiently short time frame. Burning your house down for heat is sustainable for several minutes. The use of fossil fuels was sustainable for almost two centuries, but now we are facing the end of that subsidy—meaning that all those costs that we ignored in the past must now be paid.
Nothing can grow forever in a finite world. That basic truism is the ultimate doom for civilization. Its very nature will not permit it to exist in a steady state; it must grow. If it is not growing, it is dying. If the economy is not growing, and most investments will have negative returns, who is willing to invest? Without investment, how can we build the infrastructure to continue the civilized life—the roads, telephony, satellites or buildings we need now, much less the investments in future technology and complexity we will need to continue such a pace? That makes investment in complexity even less compelling, since its total cost must be divided among fewer investors. Being the last one “holding the door” is the worst possible strategy. The snowball may take some time to build up, but ultimately, if investment in complexity were a traded stock, collapse works in much the same way as a “run.”
Thus, the “point of no return” in the collapse of any society is when an increasing percentage of the population begins to believe that further complexity is no longer worth it. That fringe always exists, in small numbers; collapse comes when that fringe begins to grow. We see the first signs of collapse in the growth of primitivism. The spread of ideas like slow food, voluntary simplicity, Ethan Watters’ Urban Tribes—and the even less obvious attacks on complexity such as open source and blogging described in “The Hunter-Gatherers of the Knowledge Economy”—shows a general discontent with the current level of complexity, and a growing antipathy for further investment in it.
Much of the world has already collapsed, with countries now propped up only by the peer polity system in which they are enmeshed. The following map shows those countries in red, showing how far along in the process of collapse we already are.
In collapse, all the rules reverse themselves. Sustainability becomes not only feasible, but advantageous. Small, egalitarian groups out-compete large, hierarchical ones. Human nature becomes adaptive, rather than something we must suppress. That process is the inevitable end of any civilization, because nothing can grow forever and without limit in a finite universe. Moreover, that process will begin sooner, rather than later. It has already begun, and in all likelihood, most of us alive today will live to see its completion.