The Collapse of Simple Societies

Peter Turchin

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Why do large-scale complex societies, within which >99% of humanity now lives, recurrently experience periods of social and political breakdown? This question is morbidly fascinating, especially since after we’ve entered the “Turbulent Twenties.” Books on collapse are now a cottage industry and there is a whole new science called collapsology. The classics, such as Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies, enjoy enduring popularity. “Societal Collapse” has been surging on the GoogleBooks Ngram Viewer.

Tainter argued that as societies become more complex, they become more fragile and susceptible to collapse. More recently, this theory has received a name, “Complexity Overhang.”

A negative view of social complexity as a source of instability fits well with another current in political thought, anarchism, which sees the state as the source of all evil—oppression, violence, and legalized theft (aka taxation). In my view, political anarchism is complete bunk, as I’ve argued in these blog posts:

An Anarchist View of Human Social Evolution

The Pipe Dream of Anarcho-Populism

But returning to the question of the relationship between complexity and stability, I need to confess that until recently I also thought that “simple” societies—small-scale societies of farmers without deep social inequalities and no political organization beyond a local settlement (village)—were quite resilient/not susceptible to collapse. In such societies there is no state or nobles to rebel against and, in any case, what’s there to “collapse”?

Life in a simple society—prosperous, peaceful, and free of oppression? Source

But perhaps “collapse” is not such a useful way of thinking about societal dynamics — it is a problematic concept because it can mean so many things. This is why I am not a collapsologist—I prefer to work with well-defined concepts (which, ideally, are amenable to quantification). So let’s approach this question from the point of view of quantitative history.

The most basic property of a society is its size—how many people interact together and (hopefully) cooperate. Population numbers (or density – numbers divided by area) is, thus, a fundamental variable for cliodynamics. Previous work by my colleagues and me on state-level societies shows that waves of sociopolitical instability are often associated with substantial population declines—“population busts.” The current tabulation of past crises in CrisisDB (note: work in progress), indicates that in roughly half the cases sociopolitical crisis in “complex” societies results in a substantial population decline. What about pre-state, non-centralized societies?

There is a classic study by Ammerman and Cavalli-Sforza on the rate of spread of early farming in Europe, published in 1971. I studied it in graduate school because it was one of the first applications of the diffusion equation to population spread (population dynamics in space and time was my disciplinary specialty before I switched to quantitative history). These distinguished authors started with the observation that farming increases the “carrying capacity”—how many people can be supported per unit of land (e.g., a squared kilometer). A population of farmers, after spreading into a new area, would grow until it reached this carrying capacity and then stabilize at that level (with some fluctuations due to variable climate and other random factors). This dynamic process was captured by Ammerman and Cavalli-Sforza with the logistic equation.

But as archaeologists developed better methods for estimating past populations and accumulated lots more data, it turned out that this assumption was wrong. In several regions into which first European farmers spread (this is known as the LBK culture) we see, as expected, an initial population boom, resulting from a more productive economy. But instead of leveling off, the boom was abruptly followed by a bust.

Population densities of the early LBK in the lower Rhine basin. Figure 6 in Zimmermann, A., J. Hilpert, and K. P. Wendt. 2009. Estimations of Population Density for Selected Periods Between the Neolithic and AD 1800. Human Biology 81:357-380.

And the same pattern is observed not only in Europe, but also in other world regions.

Last week Daniel Kondor and I organized a workshop at the Complexity Science Hub in Vienna, in which we delved into this issue. While we know that population busts in early farming societies were a frequent occurrence, we don’t yet know whether such cycles were universal, or whether there were periods and places when population levels stabilized for long periods of time. For the list of participants and the questions that we discussed, see the CSH press release:

BUSTS AFTER BOOMS, BUT WHY?

We also discussed the possible causes of population busts in prehistory. But that is a topic for another post.

 

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Allan Groves

Interesting topic. We have just returned from Latvia, where the national history in popular discussion is that the region was settled about 6000 BC, and the (presumably subsistence) farmers there coexisted peacefully, speaking three mutually unintelligible languages in the region, for about 7000 years. This peaceful scene was disturbed by outside traders in Riga, who saw a commercial opportunity, and persuaded the Pope at that time (1208 CE) to provide warrior monks to accompany the merchants and convert the populace to Christianity at sword point. Hence began 750 years of serfdom after their lands were stolen by the German “nobles.”

Is there evidence that they could live peacefully in such a simple society for 7000 years?

Katherine Kern

Here’s a theory.

In agricultural society, households tend to be multi-generational. The longer the boom, the better the child survival rate and the longer the previous generation lives.

So when something goes wrong after a boom, the multiplier factor of large multi-generational HH size will accelerate the “bust”

I wonder what happens after a bust.

Are cultures that put individual independence above family obligation more or less resilient?

Jan Steinman

I think independence depends upon trophic energy, whereas collaboration is a response to low trophic energy.

This appears to be a general ecological principle. In tropic biomes, hundreds of types of small critters are being chased by dozens of medium-sized critters, which are hunted by perhaps a dozen or more top predators.

In arctic and alpine biomes, a handful of small creatures feed perhaps a half-dozen mesotrophs, who then feed perhaps just two raptors — and the Snowy Owl and Ferruginous Hawk “cooperate” temporally, by splitting the hunting up by day and night.

Don’t forget that we owe our long lifespan to the influence grandparents have in ensuring that their grandchildren propagate their genes! In most species, this phenomena is matrilineal — female Orcas live nearly twice as long as male Orcas, for example. But for humans, grampa seems to be nearly as important as gramma in propagating their genes.

This leads me to believe that, long-term, familial relations trump individuality. It seems to only be when trophic resources are vast enough to fight over that individualism wins. THis has been the case for some time, and so we’re used to it as “normal.” It will be interesting to see how well that keeps going when fossil sunlight goes into permanent, irrevocable decline.

Katherine Kern

Your analysis feels right to me. Particularly because it’s not an either individualism or collaboration answer. It may be that the human condition, as Turchin describes in other posts, is a constant tension between the two. The “cooperation” era seem to benefit more people but then that changes and individuals feel their freedom is at risk and rebel. You can observe these dynamics inside a family! What seems simple can be very complex! Which comes first? Family or community complexity?

Doina Contescu

Is it possible that more “simple” societies (such as the LBK farmer culture) experience sudden busts because, unlike more complex “state”/centralized societies, they are actually less resilient and have a harder time adapting and surviving? I would imagine that more complex societies might also be more technologically advanced and/or can innovate at a greater rate (because they simply just have more people contributing to the knowledge & the labor pool ?), and that this increased level of “solutions” (i.e, technology/innovation) available makes them more resilient to collapse than “simple” ones? I would love to know if I’m thinking along the right track here! Thank you!

FL

a system with a vast number of single point failures is complex, so is a system with a large degree of redundancy. Our society has so much of both it’s hard to say whether its more fragile or not.

Katherine Kern

I’m thinking about the collapse of FTX as an analogy for a “complex” (and technologically advanced) society. Its lack of resilience is a function of the complexity of the technology. No one knows what happened to everyone’s money! Simpler organizations could expect the leader to understand and control internal systems and therefore able to adapt more quickly when factors outside of their control go wrong.

We’re starting to see a pattern of leaders claiming they had no awareness or control of internal systems.

That seems like a red flag and predictor of collapse.

Loren Petrich

There may also be a life-cycle effect. Early in their history, social institutions may be unstable from their members learning how to do those institutions’ activities. But as time goes on, the participants become more experienced, and the institutions stabilize. But in developing a body of practice that seems to work, they may become unable to changing circumstances, because their participants may be unwilling to depart from that practice even if it does not work very well.

Cryptocurrency is a very recent invention, and cryptocurrency users may still be in a learning phase. FTX was not the first big exchange to collapse; an earlier one was Mt. Gox back in 2014.

Tudor

LBK society was not quite simple. The founders of any village kept the largest houses with several outbuildings. Later households were smaller and had few if any outbuilding. The LBK villages did not extend to the largest possible extent. It seems that they preferred to keep a significant percent of available land as forest / pasture and not to till it. The population boom was handled by creating new villages on the frontier with Mesolithic people.
The implications would be that LBK villages were stratified with the founders all important. The initial founders probably kept a tight control over the entire land area around a village and decided its use.
LBK villages were not set randomly over the entire European map but followed special loess soil. They seem to had a strategy not to overuse land and yet there is evidence for population decline when no more villages could be created. Population declined and fortifications started to appear. The religious images also start to change at this moment.

David Hurst

Are you familiar with Gunderson, Lance H. and C.S. Holling, eds. 2002. Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems. Washington, DC.: Island Press? In their adaptive cycle/panarchy framework they show why the logistics curve is not the end of the story in ecosystems. I use it as a sense-making narrative in institutions and enterprises. It helps managers understand how enterprises are conceived in passion, born in communities of trust, grow through the application of reason and mature in power, where they tend to get stuck. This sets them up for crisis and destruction but with the possibility of renewal…. It’s an old story that has been told many times

David Hurst

Holling himself described the framework as a ‘grand narrative’. But I work at the organization/enterprise level, where managers are interested in making sense of what is happening, controlling the controllable, preempting the undesirable and exploiting the inevitable. They need to anticipate what might happen through pattern recognition. The primary source of these patterns is narratives of all kinds from many sources, including their own experience. Here Holling’s framework can be very helpful. Separating the systems levels is very important, Most organisms die, but ecosystems can persist through constant renewal. Mainstream Anglo-American management is cursed with an overemphasis on mechanical explanations and the instrumental rationality that accompanies them.

Zachary Nebula

Systems age and become senile perhaps because they accumulate “technical debt”, in a generalized sense (e.g. the US’s antiquated Electoral College system and long interval from election day to inauguration day, which are relics of the days when regional vote counts had to be communicated to DC by Pony Express rather than fiber optics, count as “social technology technical debt”, as do entrenched institutions that have become very good at perpetuating the problem to which they are supposedly the solution (e.g. the DEA) and all the resources lavished upon no-longer-productive privileged individuals in sinecure positions).

As for the LBK collapses, an obvious thought would be if their agricultural practices were not the world’s best at not depleting the soil (or even salinating it). Agriculturalists who haven’t figured out things like crop rotation and non-salinating methods of irrigation yet have to move periodically through a cycle of locations instead of being able to stay put long-term, leaving each location fallow for a while so it can recover before they return there. Though the intervals between moves are usually shorter than 400 years …

Martin Longbottom

Systems “age and become senile” perhaps because they accumulate “technical debt”, in a generalized sense (e.g. the US’s antiquated Electoral College system and long interval from election day to inauguration day, which are relics of the days when regional vote counts had to be communicated to DC by Pony Express rather than fiber optics, count as “social technology technical debt”, as do entrenched institutions that have become very good at perpetuating the problem to which they are supposedly the solution (e.g. the DEA) and all the resources lavished upon no-longer-productive privileged individuals in sinecure positions).

As for the LBK collapses, an obvious thought would be if their agricultural practices were not the world’s best at not depleting the soil (or even salinating it). Agriculturalists who haven’t figured out things like crop rotation and non-salinating methods of irrigation yet have to move periodically through a cycle of locations instead of being able to stay put long-term, leaving each location fallow for a while so it can recover before they return there. Though the intervals between moves are usually shorter than 400 years …

Harold Opener

Systems “age” and “become senile” perhaps because they accumulate “technical debt”, in a generalized sense (e.g. the US’s antiquated Electoral College system and long interval from election day to inauguration day, which are relics of the days when regional vote counts had to be communicated to DC by Pony Express rather than fiber optics, count as “social technology technical debt”, as do entrenched institutions that have become very good at perpetuating the problem to which they are supposedly the solution (e.g. the DEA) and all the resources lavished upon no-longer-productive privileged individuals in sinecure positions).

As for the LBK collapses, an obvious thought would be if their agricultural practices were not the world’s best at not depleting the soil (or even salinating it). Agriculturalists who haven’t figured out things like crop rotation and non-salinating methods of irrigation yet have to move periodically through a cycle of locations instead of being able to stay put long-term, leaving each location fallow for a while so it can recover before they return there. Though the intervals between moves are usually shorter than 400 years …

Quatro Endeavor

Systems become “senile” perhaps because they accumulate “technical debt”, in a generalized sense (e.g. the US’s antiquated Electoral College system and long interval from election day to inauguration day, which are relics of the days when regional vote counts had to be communicated to DC by Pony Express rather than fiber optics, count as “social technology technical debt”, as do entrenched institutions that have become very good at perpetuating the problem to which they are supposedly the solution (e.g. the DEA) and all the resources lavished upon no-longer-productive privileged individuals in sinecure positions).

As for the LBK collapses, an obvious thought would be if their agricultural practices were not the world’s best at not depleting the soil (or even salinating it). Agriculturalists who haven’t figured out things like crop rotation and non-salinating methods of irrigation yet have to move periodically through a cycle of locations instead of being able to stay put long-term, leaving each location fallow for a while so it can recover before they return there. Though the intervals between moves are usually shorter than 400 years …

Doina Contescu

Hi Peter, I thought I would share the following ‘conversation’ I just had with the text-davinci-003 GPT-3 AI language model ( https://beta.openai.com/docs/models/gpt-3) on this topic. At the very end, I asked it about your opinion. It’s amusing!

Why do societies collapse?
The reason why societies collapse is because of a variety of different factors. These include environmental issues, such as climate change and resource depletion, political and economic instability, social unrest, and natural disasters. Other factors include internal conflicts, warfare, disease, and population growth. All of these factors can contribute to the collapse of a society if they are not adequately addressed.

Are simple societies less or more resilient to collapse than large-scale complex ones?
It is difficult to generalize about the resilience of different types of societies to collapse, as this depends on the particular circumstances of each society. Generally, however, simpler societies are often seen as being more resilient to collapse than larger and more complex ones. This is because simpler societies often have less complex systems and structures in place, so they can be more easily adapted and adjusted in the face of change. Additionally, simpler societies are often more self-sufficient, so they can more easily sustain themselves in times of difficulty.

But wouldn’t more complex societies be more resilient to collapse than simple ones because they are probably more technologically advanced, which would give them access to more varied solutions to implement in order to adapt in changing circumstances?
Yes, it is true that more complex societies are usually more technologically advanced and have access to more varied solutions to adapt in changing circumstances. However, this does not necessarily mean that they are more resilient to collapse than simpler societies. In fact, complex societies may be more vulnerable to collapse, as they can have many more interconnected systems and structures that can be disrupted by changes in one area. Additionally, complex societies may be less self-sufficient, so they may be more reliant on external resources that can be affected by external factors.

Yes, complex societies have many more interconnected systems and structures that can be disrupted by changes, but wouldn’t that make them more, not less, resilient to collapse than simple societies just for the simple reason that if there are more systems to disrupt, it becomes more difficult to destabilize them than simpler ones?
Yes, it is true that complex societies have many more interconnected systems and structures, which can make them more difficult to destabilize than simpler societies. However, it is also important to consider the potential for disruption in those systems and structures. For example, if a complex system is disrupted, it may take longer to fix and could have a more significant impact on the overall stability of the society. Additionally, complex societies may be more reliant on external resources, so they may be more vulnerable to disruption in those areas.

What external resources do you mean exactly?
External resources refer to any resources that a society needs from outside sources in order to function. These can include natural resources, such as water, food, and energy, as well as technological resources, such as technology and transportation systems. External resources can also include economic resources, such as trade and investment, and political resources, such as international agreements and alliances. All of these resources can be affected by external factors, so a society that is overly reliant on external resources may be more vulnerable to collapse. I still don’t understand why complex societies are more dependent on external resources than simpler societies.

What makes you think this?
Complex societies often require more specialized resources than simpler societies. This can include technological resources, such as access to advanced technologies, as well as economic resources, such as access to international markets. Additionally, complex societies can have many more interconnected systems and structures, so they may be more reliant on external resources in order to keep those systems running. Finally, complex societies often have a larger population, so they may need to rely on external resources in order to provide for their needs.

I still don’t understand how simpler societies don’t need external resources like complex ones do.
Simpler societies often have less complex systems and structures, so they may be more self-sufficient and able to provide for their own needs. Additionally, simpler societies may have access to local resources, such as food and water, which can reduce their reliance on external resources. Finally, simpler societies may be able to rely on traditional methods of production, such as subsistence farming, which can also reduce their reliance on external resources.

So does this mean than in your definition, ‘external resources’ for a society do not include food and water?
No, food and water are considered external resources for a society. While these resources may be available locally, they may also need to be imported or sourced from external sources. Additionally, food and water resources may be affected by external factors, such as climate change, which can impact their availability.

So, if food and water are external resources that both simple and complex societies need to survive, but only complex societies can also import or source them from non-local sources, making their availability greater to complex societies, then why doesn’t this make complex societies MORE resilient to collapse, instead of less resilient, than simple societies?
It is true that complex societies may have access to more external resources than simpler societies, but this does not necessarily make them more resilient to collapse. Complex societies may be more vulnerable to collapse due to their reliance on these external resources, as they can be affected by external factors. Additionally, complex societies may have more interconnected systems and structures that can be disrupted by changes in one area, making them less resilient to collapse.

I feel that you are repeating the same argument while I am asking a different question.
Could you please clarify? Yes, my apologies. What I am trying to explain is that complex societies may have access to more external resources than simpler societies, but this does not necessarily make them more resilient to collapse. Complex societies may be more vulnerable to collapse due to their reliance on these external resources, as they can be affected by external factors. Additionally, complex societies may have more interconnected systems and structures that can be disrupted by changes in one area, making them less resilient to collapse.

Do you think Peter Turchin would agree with your assessment?
Yes, Peter Turchin’s research into the causes of societal collapse is largely in line with the assessment outlined above. Turchin’s research emphasizes the importance of environmental, economic, and political factors in the collapse of a society, as well as the role of internal conflicts, disease, population growth, and natural disasters. He also highlights the need for societies to have resilient systems and structures in place to adapt to changing circumstances.

Yes, I know what Peter Turchin’s research emphasizes. But would he agree with you that complex societies are less resilient than simple ones? I’m not sure he would.
Yes, Peter Turchin’s research suggests that complex societies are generally less resilient to collapse than simpler ones. His analysis highlights the importance of having robust systems and structures in place within a society; these can be more difficult for complex societies to maintain due to their complexity and interconnectedness. Additionally, he notes that complicated societal structure with reliance on external resources may make them vulnerable as those resources can be affected by outside factors beyond our control.

Jakob

How long until this replaces actual researchers ? It’s absolutely groundbreaking

Pavel Nosikov

Hi Doina and Peter,

I found it surprising that InstructGPT, the basis for text-davinci-003, and its sibling ChatGPT (called this way by their creator OpenAI) came to such different conclusions for the set of narrow questions while their answers to the broad question ‘Why do societies collapse?’ sounds rather same.

The most prominent difference in my opinion is that one large language model from Open AI drives a conclusion about Peter’s research while its large language model siblings openly admits it can’t do that, ‘I am a large language model trained by OpenAI and do not have personal beliefs or opinions.’

I asked ChatGPT the same questions that Doina did, stopping at points where follow-up questions were irrelevant, and here is what I got:

Pavel Nosikov
Why do societies collapse?

ChatGPT
Societies can collapse for a variety of reasons, including environmental, economic, social, and political factors. Environmental factors can include things like climate change, natural disasters, and resource depletion, which can strain a society’s ability to support its population. Economic factors can include things like economic mismanagement, inequality, and over-reliance on a single industry, which can lead to economic instability and social unrest. Social factors can include things like religious or ethnic conflict, which can cause people to lose trust in their institutions and turn against one another. Political factors can include things like corruption, authoritarianism, and the loss of political legitimacy, which can cause people to lose faith in their leaders and the political system. When these and other factors combine, they can lead to a collapse of a society.

Pavel Nosikov
Are simple societies less or more resilient to collapse than large-scale complex ones?

ChatGPT
It is difficult to say whether simple societies are more or less resilient to collapse than complex ones because the factors that can lead to the collapse of a society can vary depending on the specific circumstances of the society in question. In general, however, it is likely that simple societies may be more resilient to collapse in some ways because they tend to be more self-sufficient and less dependent on complex systems and infrastructure. This can make them less vulnerable to disruption from things like natural disasters or economic instability. On the other hand, simple societies may also be more vulnerable to collapse in other ways because they tend to have fewer resources and less technology, which can make it difficult for them to adapt to changes in their environment or to defend themselves against external threats. Ultimately, the resilience of a society to collapse will depend on a wide range of factors, including its size, complexity, and resources.

Pavel Nosikov
But wouldn’t more complex societies be more resilient to collapse than simple ones because they are probably more technologically advanced, which would give them access to more varied solutions to implement in order to adapt in changing circumstances?

ChatGPT
It is possible that more complex societies may be more resilient to collapse than simple ones because they tend to be more technologically advanced and therefore have access to a wider range of solutions to adapt to changing circumstances. However, it is important to note that the complexity of a society is not the only factor that can affect its resilience to collapse. Other factors such as the availability of resources, the strength of its political and social institutions, and the ability of its leaders to make effective decisions can also play a role in determining a society’s resilience to collapse. Additionally, the very complexity of a society can also make it more vulnerable to collapse in some ways. For example, complex societies are often highly interconnected and reliant on sophisticated systems and infrastructure, which can make them more vulnerable to disruption from things like natural disasters or economic instability. Ultimately, the resilience of a society to collapse will depend on a combination of factors, including its technological advancement, the strength of its institutions, and the availability of resources.

Pavel Nosikov
Do you think Peter Turchin would agree with your assessment?

ChatGPT
I am not able to provide a personal opinion on whether or not Peter Turchin would agree with my assessment because I am a large language model trained by OpenAI and do not have personal beliefs or opinions. I am designed to provide factual information and answer questions to the best of my ability based on the information available to me. My responses are not intended to reflect the personal beliefs or opinions of any specific individual, including Peter Turchin.

Doina Contescu

Hi Pavel, fantastic comparison. This sure is the clearest and most direct demonstration of the fact that one is only what one knows! We are what we know — nothing more and nothing less.

Pavel Nosikov

Hi Doina,
Thank you for the comment! I would also add that the perceived space of unknown (i.e., what we know we don’t know) also defines us, but it is a whole different story 🙂

Here I would also add a link to a sheet where everybody can compare models’ answers side by side: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/16jxrBH2I45O8BsGcbj2zzbFzfddoHBHxP_jJDZAuQRo/

Roger Cooper

Can we have an objective definition of collapse? An example of a modern nation/culture that collapsed. In the modern world, state failure has occurred in only the poorest nations (consider the current Haitian crisis).

There is often remarkable resilience even under extreme circumstances, For example, Lebanon’s current government is paralyzed but private economic institutions continue to function at a reduced level.

Industrial economies are so productive that mass famine is rare outside of wars.

DiscoveredJoys

Good definitions are important. They need to be tested against (comparatively) well known challenges to societies. So, as a test case, was the European experience of the Black Death (peaking in Europe from 1347 to 1351) a collapse? The population did not rebound until around 1500, societies were changed, arguably attitudes towards religion started to change. Or are we looking at only near extinction events?

Gene Anderson

Very interesting. I was aware of the phenomenon but hadn’t thought of it in terms of comparing it with the collapse of complex societies, though I have pretty good knowledge of the causes of the cyclic collapses of dynasties in China. Small-scale societies can collapse for purely stochastic reasons, like women having too few daughters to carry on the population, or some natural disaster. There was a sudden storm in the Shetland Islands a couple of hundred years ago that caught men out fishing and killed 10% of the adult males of the Shetlands (wish I had the details). But internal factors comparable to Chinese dynasties presumably happened too. Critical is a situation that makes the leaders look out for themselves rather than for the people. Corruption and court politics were the usual problems in China; I suppose kin-based feuding in small-scale societies would do it.

Kurt Cagle

Intriguing article. Let me put in another observation. The logistics curve is well known in demographic circles. In it’s most basic form, It’s the rabbit island phenomenon where a rabbit is introduced onto a grassy island, breeds in response to available resources until the rabbit’s reach a point where the grass is increasingly short supply, which brings conflict and population leveling out. If the rabbits and grass can’t reach an oscillatory equilibrium, the rabbit population will plummet. Most ecosystem simulations may have thousands or even millions of these kinds of paired interactions, but even then, you end up with situations where the coupling between two variables becomes high enough that they act like they are in isolation.

This is essentially a collapse, a la Jared Diamond. What’s noteworthy is that even before the population bust, the second derivative is already changing – population growth is still positive, but it’s slowing down. This is where we are right now. In the US, peak population will be some time in the second half of the century, but family size is already plummeting. People have fewer kids later, or stop having them at all. I used to think the driver was oil (and still believe the latter plays a factor) but I’m coming around to the idea that it is a confluence of economic and ecological factors.

We’ve never had a large-scale collapse of a technologically advanced society before. Russia may be a bellwether there. My suspicion is that the the biggest difference will be that megacities will become more dominant than Federal or State authorities, and may even continue advancing for awhile before logistics catches up. Rural areas are already in decline, which is why it’s more obvious there. Mitigating factors will change that: fusion may be a game changer, but fusion won’t significantly impact things for another fifty years, even if it went commercial tomorrow.

My only other point is that I don’t expect collapse to be apocalyptic. It will (it already is) changing the structure of society pretty dramatically, and in some places, it WILL look apocalyptic (West Virginia comes to mind), but the biggest difference will be an *average* unwinding of complexity per population density.
.

Dan B.

Tikopia is said to be a small society with a population more or less at long term equilibrium.

David Fallon

A book well-worth taking a look at is An Environmental History of the Middle Ages
The Crucible of Nature
By John Aberth …a broad and detailed cultural survey of attitudes towards the environment during the period 500 to 1500. Humankind’s relationship with the environment shifted gradually over time from a predominantly adversarial approach to something more overtly collaborative, until a series of ecological crises in the late Middle Ages. With the advent of shattering events such as the Great Famine and the Black Death, considered efflorescences of the climate downturn known as the Little Ice Age that is comparable to our present global warming predicament, medieval people began to think of and relate to their natural environment in new and more nuanced ways. They now were made to be acutely aware of the consequences of human impacts upon the environment, anticipating the cyclical, “new ecology” approach of the modern world.

Exploring the entire medieval period from 500 to 1500, and ranging across the whole of Europe, from England and Spain to the Baltic and Eastern Europe, John Aberth focuses his study on three key areas: the natural elements of air, water, and earth; the forest; and wild and domestic animals.

Godfree Roberts

Tainter argued that as societies become more complex, they become more fragile and susceptible to collapse. More recently, this theory has received a name, “Complexity Overhang.”

Western societies, in the Roman tradition, have never been strong on governance. They are born to rule, not serve, and the plebs. Covid-19 is showing that clearly.

But the world’s biggest society, China, handles complexity brilliantly, as the contrast with Covid outcomes demonstrates.

82% of Chinese support Dynamic Covid Zero, DCZ, because*:

1. Over 3 Covid years, US GDP grew 3.4%, with 1,000,000 Covid deaths and 3,000,000 Long Covids.

2. Over 3 Covid years, China’s GDP grew 13.8%, with 7,000 deaths and 38,000 Long Covids.

3. Over 3 Covid years, Chinese life expectancy rose to 77.1 years, US fell to 76.1 years.

4. 72% of Chinese participate in the labor force, vs. 62% of Americans.

5. There are 20 new cases daily per million Chinese, 100 daily in America.

6. 0.0003 deaths/million Chinese, 0.8/million Americans, though Chinese testing catches every case.

7. 95% of China deaths are unvaccinated. In other words, the inactivated vaccines used in China seem to be doing what they are designed to do -prevent serious illness and death.

8. Higher QOL: Free testing & treatment. 7% have been quarantined.

9. “Long Covid is a $3.7 trillion drag on the U.S. economy equal to 17% of pre-pandemic economic output”. Harvard economist David Cutler says cost rivals the Great Recession**.

*https://chinadatalab.ucsd.edu/viz-blog/how-unpopular-is-covid-zero/

**https://www.cnbc.com/2022/11/30/why-long-covid-could-be-the-next-public-health-disaster.html

Vladimir Dinets

Someone still believing official Chinese statistics is a rare sight nowadays 🙂

Gene Anderson

Interesting about the LBK decline. I am not aware of anything in the New World that is comparable and wasn’t climate-driven (at least in large part). The collapse of the Pueblo societies in the drought of the late 1200s is a case in point. They were dependent on maize agriculture and had reached rather high population levels, and couldn’t handle drought, to which maize is very susceptible.
Tikopia: Raymond Firth, in what is arguably the best ethnographic work ever done, showed how they deliberately kept their population stable and at or below carrying capacity for their system, until missionaries convinced them otherwise. So SOCIAL CHANGE IN TIKOPIA. Works for a small island with a strong chief system.
Panarchy: I worked with that and with Dr. Turchin’s models in my book THE EAST ASIAN WORLD-SYSTEM, and especially used Ibn Khaldun’s theory of cycles with Peter’s modification of it. Works fine to model Chinese dynastic cycles, but the fall cases have to be explained with specific stressor events, such as two child-emperors in a row–apparently the system either collapsed or (as at the end of Han) the guardian who held the actual decision-making power just got sick of it and took over in a coup.

Jan Steinman

Tainter argued that as societies become more complex, they become more fragile and susceptible to collapse.

It think Tainter is a bit more nuanced than that.

He argues that civilizations (“societies”) depend on increasing amounts (on a per-capita basis) of complexity as they grow, and they ultimately fail because too much of their resource base goes into maintaining that complexity, so that too little resource is available for its citizens’ more mundane use.

I find that resonates nicely with your “over-production of elites” idea. “Elites” can surely be seen as a form of complexity, no?

Both these theories seem to be imperilled by evidence that non-collapse societies collapse, too.

Correlation is not causation. I question whether the LBK culture was indeed as simple as it seems, and whether population density is a reasonable measure of civilization.

There is evidence that North American aboriginals maintained trading routes over thousands of kilometres, even while having relatively low population density. Artifacts from Arizona appear in British Columbia — why? Is not long-distance trade evidence of both complexity and civilization?

Perhaps the LBK culture morphed into a more-disbursed form of civilization? I plead guilty to not examining your references.

versatanic

To revisit the larger societies problem, much of the world is facing a future of population decline. South Korea is in the news with record low fertility rates. Many countries are below replacement rate. The US mitigates this more than some countries through immigration although the current trend is to increasingly restrict this.
Now, few would argue that South Korea is in the midst of a collapse. People are fed. Bandits do not roam the streets. Factions are not facing off in imminent civil war. Ditto for the US, China, Japan, Italy, Germany and many other countries (one might think).
But…maybe…collapse really is occurring throughout the “civilized world.” Why is there a population decline? Because people cannot juggle family responsibilities with “work” (i.e., obligatory service to the overproduced elite). This “work” (which is essentially required, thus akin to indentured servitude) is performed under conditions set by the elite whereby the resources needed to raise a family (work hour flexibility, income rate sufficient to either pay for quality child care or allow a single income to support a family, etc.) are not available – being instead sucked into the vortex of elite wealth accumulation.
Capitalism may conveniently take the blame, but it is actually broader than that. All modern economic systems relying on people who perform what is categorized as “labor” to enrich an elite who control the conditions of labor are implicated. The art and science of increasing what is pleasantly described as the “productivity” of labor, wielded by the elite, is getting better and better at extracting service from the masses to the elite. Everything from keyboard tracking to adjusting the values of the educated masses so that they value “career fulfillment” over family is implicated.
Perhaps we are in the midst of a collapse without even realizing how embedded, deep, pervasive, and even perhaps uncorrectable the rot has penetrated the edifices of society.

FL

Peter, I take it a completely avoided Short Cycle peak is extremely rare among historical data, is this correct? And reading your 2021 Multipath Forecasting paper, it seems actually avoiding a Short Cycle could have a reset-the-clock effect on the Short Cycle, i.e. knocking it out of the ~50-year interval. Is this so?

FL

Father and son cycle

Randi Aamodt

What about disease? Could it be that more people within a limited space steadily increases the risk for mutations and gene transfer between bacteria? What did these societies do with their feces, and their animals feces? More people and more animals clumping together? Or expanding the living and hunting area into previous wilderness could expose new infectious agents, viruses for example?

steven t johnson

In the context of farming societies with no visible state or urbanization, “collapse” may not be so vague. Population collapse seems to serve quite well.

But it’s not so clear to me that either “complexity” or “carrying capacity” are so well defined for such societies. It’s the failure of the populations to recover that seems to be the issue. If there is some sort of “complexity” of a kind not marked by archaeologically visible elites, artifacts and edifices, a collapse that destroyed this “complexity” that was previously essential to the growth of a relatively dense population, then it is precisely the loss that keeps the surviving populations from recovering to their previous density. The obvious question, what is this “complexity” is a matter of conjecture at this point. I suppose a variety of social equilibrating mechanisms enforcing stability in the local population so that it doesn’t overload the carrying capacity might serve. If there are no archaeological evidence of a prolonged stability in population but evidence instead of a pattern where some societies expand to their limit then collapse, then I suppose we can conclude there is no such complex of social institutions that can serve?

But the notion of a “carrying capacity” seems more difficult to me than might appear at first glance. On general principles, any local ecosystem at full capacity is by definition has its marginal reserves depleted. Any series of events, even unlikely events, can destabilize the system, which would have the practical effect of lowering the “carrying capacity.” This view of “carrying capacity” as a dynamic variable in the long-run may not be orthodox but it seems plausible, to me at least. A relatively non-technological society seems unlikely to have the resources to cope with absolute overpopulation, a situation causing a cultural breakdown, the dissolution of social bonds. This would compound the problem with s social catastrophe. The thing is, in a long enough period of time, there will inevitably be a series of improbable events.

Figaro Edgar

Systems perhaps become “senile” because they accumulate “technical debt”, in a generalized sense (e.g. the US’s antiquated Electoral College system and long interval from election day to inauguration day, which are relics of the days when regional vote counts had to be communicated to DC by Pony Express rather than fiber optics, count as “social technology technical debt”, as do entrenched institutions that have become very good at perpetuating the problem to which they are supposedly the solution (e.g. the DEA) and all the resources lavished upon no-longer-productive privileged individuals in sinecure positions).

As for the LBK collapses, an obvious thought would be if their agricultural practices were not the world’s best at not depleting the soil (or even salinating it). Agriculturalists who haven’t figured out things like crop rotation and non-salinating methods of irrigation yet have to move periodically through a cycle of locations instead of being able to stay put long-term, leaving each location fallow for a while so it can recover before they return there. Though the intervals between moves are usually shorter than 400 years …

FL

Father and son cycle

Vladimir Dinets

One thing to keep in mind is that population decline is not always a bad thing. For a tribe constantly fighting enemies on all sides it might be a disaster. But if you live in an age of massive overpopulation causing an environmental disaster, bringing your numbers down is a smart survival strategy that benefits the society in the long term.

Liz Cademy

Complexity vs Simplicity is a slippery distinction.

Different groups of people have different definitions of complexity. For example, most of modern western civilization would consider traditional native Australian (aboriginal) culture very simple … but their kinship and marriage systems were incredibly complex. Looking from our view, we might say “oh, but that’s not *real* complexity and doesn’t matter” — or does it?

It’s my belief that ever since homo sapiens became homo sapiens, we’ve held the same levels of complexity … it’s just expressed in different ways. There’s no such thing as a “simple” human society.

[Disclaimer: I’m a completly untrained person, just one who thinks deeply and reas a lot.]

Katherine Kenr

“there’s no such thing as a ‘simple’ human society”! How true is that.

I found Turchin’s discussion of cooperation worth reading about because I’m very interested in understanding why humans are more motivated to cooperate/collaborate during some “eras” (e.g. post WWII) and not in others (like now). I would agree with you that humans are always complex. But perhaps it’s the simplicity or complexity of factors they don’t control that makes a difference.

For example weather – during a drought, all the factors affecting supply and demand change and change is inherently complex.

David Ronfeldt

I’m glad you raised Tainter. For I’ve long wondered and wanted to ask about the following:
Tainter has helped stimulate thinking about collapse. For that he deserves credit. But his approach to social evolution and complexity is so linear, unclear, and incomplete that it’s misleading. He is partly right in arguing that societies are problem-solving systems, that advances in complexity may enable better problem-solving, and/but that at some point and under some conditions the “marginal utility of complexity” and “diminishing returns to complexity” may become so problematic that a society ceases to progress and heads toward collapse. But I see lots of problems.

• Tainter’s model of collapse lacks a full-fledged concept of complexity.

— It/he does not distinguish clearly between complexity and complicatedness. Yet they are different. He sometimes says complexity is increasing when it is complicatedness that’s increasing, not complexity

— It/he presumes that progress proceeds from simplicity to complexity, and that simplicity decreases as complexity increases. Not so. More-complex societies may be able to solve difficult problems more simply than can less-complex societies (e.g., market transactions). When working well, increased societal complexity makes some challenges easier to address and resolve, challenges that the prior level of complexity was not well suited to handling (e.g. administrative competence, market transaction, network coordination).

— It/he does not recognize that, as societies evolve, increases in complexity require learning to take advantage of the emergence of new forms of organization (e.g., tribes, hierarchical institutions, market economies, information-age networks). He tends to regard states as entities for regulating class relations, whereas a deeper purpose of states is to coordinate and regulate relations among a society’s different organizational realms/sectors: e.g., civil society, government, market economy, etc.).

• Not only are there errors in his model’s portrayal of complexity and evolution, it/he makes errors in using the economic principle of diminishing returns as the way to explain social collapse. His thesis is “that return on investment in complexity varies, and that this variation follows a characteristic curve” (1988, p. 92). Thus, “investment in sociopolitical complexity as a problem-solving response often reaches a point of declining marginal returns”; “investment in complexity breeds diminishing returns” (p. 93). As a result, “Societies collapse when stress requires some organizational change” (p. 198).

Among Tainter’s many reasons why complexity produces declining marginal returns, one is about information and communications. To wit, “The reason why complex organizations must allocate ever larger portions of their personnel and other resources to administration is because … increased complexity requires greater quantities of information processing and greater integration of disparate parts” (p. 107). Also, “Economies of scale and advances in information-processing technology do help lower organizational costs, but ultimately these too are subject to diminishing returns” (p. 212).

Here’s what’s wrong with this aspect of his model:

— Some of what he identifies as increases in complexity are more about complicatedness than complexity (as per point above).

— He knows that as societies evolve to become more complex, they come to have “more parts, different kinds of parts, more social differentiation” (p. 37). I don’t cotton to how he goes about identifying specific “parts”; but that aside, I see a deeper problem. Societies progress over time by learning to use different forms of organization, and combine them in systematic ways. In Tainter’s telling, the advance from tribe-centered to state-centered societies fits what I just posited, but his model is not clear and is thus incomplete about what comes later. In my view, the progression is from tribes, to hierarchical institutions, to markets, and lately to information-age networks as cardinal forms of organization. Your view may differ, but here’s the rub that undermines his model: These cardinal forms of organization, though all present at the beginning, have emerged and matured at different rates in different historical eras. In addition, each form has required a different, more advanced information-and-communications revolution in order to emerge and mature (from oral, to writing/printing, to electric, to digital). Tainter’s model does not recognize this, at least not adequately.

— Which means that there is a way out of its/his almost immutably cyclical or spiral view of collapse. As a society advances over time, the challenges that society faces may become too complicated to resolve in light of the level of complexity that society has attained. This may be especially so if a society has made great progress under its existing level of complexity, such that the progress itself has generated critical new challenges which its existing level of complexity is no long suited to managing. Yet, if this occurs in an era when a new form of organization is emerging, accompanied by a new information technology revolution, and if actors within that society are adept at figuring out how to use the new form and technology, then that society, instead of declining and collapsing, may head into a major evolutionary transition toward next-level complexity that brings increased returns for quite some time. I am hoping this applies to America our current juncture.

Well, I wrote more than I meant to. But it’s a fascinating topic. Any comments, encouraging or otherwise?

Onward.

Loren Petrich

In the context of social collapse, It may be good to research smaller-scale collapses, collapses that affect only parts of societies. I have in mind economic boom-and-bust cycles and economic bubbles. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economic_bubble notes several kinds, like:
– Asset bubble: Dutch tulip mania, cryptocurrency bubble
– Real-estate bubble: US housing bubble of mid-2000’s
– Investment bubble: UK canal, railway manias, US dotcom bubble

Loren Petrich

The structural-demographic integrative-disintegrative cycle of preindustrial societies is a sort of limit cycle, where each phase generates the next phase. The SD cycle of US history is similar, but faster.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyclical_theory_(United_States_history) – notes several cycles, with each phase generating the next one. Several of them are associated with each other.
Schlesinger: liberal, public purpose, increase democracy, wrongs of the many / conservative, private interest, contain democracy, rights of the few
Huntington: bursts of “creedal passion”, wanting to make government “egalitarian, participatory, open, noncoercive, and responsive.”
Race-relations upheavals.
Party systems: each one originates from the previous one failing to meet challenges

Schlesinger liberal periods have bursts of activism and reform to solve social problems, and they end from society-scale activism burnout. Conservative problems accumulate social problems which the elites do not do much to solve, if they think that those are real problems, and they end from efforts to solve them.

There is also a cycle of US foreign policy, Frank Klingberg’s cycles. The US alternates from being extroverted, asserting itself against other great powers, and introverted, not doing so. Introverted periods end from challenges from great powers, and extroverted periods end from big wars.

Loren Petrich

The Klingberg cycles are independent of the other cycles, as I’ve statistically verified for the Schlesinger cycles. So US foreign policy is thus like smaller-scale cycles and bubbles.

Everything else is correlated: structural-demographic: int / dis, Schlesinger lib / con, Huntington creedal passion, Race-relations upheaval, party-system (numbered):

1776 int lib cpas, 1788 int con p1, 1800 int lib p1, 1812 int con p1, 1829 dis lib cpas p2, 1841 dis con p2, 1861 dis lib race p3, 1869 dis con p3, 1901 int lib cpas p4, 1919 int con p4, 1931 int lib p5, 1947 int con p5, 1962 dis lib cpas race p5-6, 1978 dis con p6

Some correlations are evident. The integrative periods have nearly equal length of liberal and conservative periods, while the disintegrative periods are mostly conservative period after initial liberal periods. That is likely a reflection of elites being more dominant in disintegrative than integrative periods.

Michael Elling

Everything needs to be viewed through the lens of networks and network effects. Simply put, the busts occurred because the simple society networks based on agriculture were either not sustainable (properly structured to scale) or not generative (to adapt to internal or external change); or both. Several examples of this are raised in the comments.

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