Tainter’s argument rests on two proposals. The first is that human societies develop complexity, i.e. specialized roles and the institutional structures that coordinate them, in order to solve problems...large, heterogeneous, internally differentiated, class structured, controlled societies in which the resources that sustain life are not equally available to all...a delicate balance of symbolic and material benefits that Tainter calls “legitimacy,” the maintenance of which itself requires ever more complex structures, which become ever less flexible, and more vulnerable, the more they pile up.
His second proposal is based on an idea borrowed from the classical economists of the 18th century. Social complexity, he argues, is inevitably subject to diminishing marginal returns. It costs more and more, in other words, while producing smaller and smaller profits. “It’s a classic ‘Alice in Wonderland’ situation,” Tainter says. You’re “running faster and faster to stay in the same place.” Take Rome, which, in Tainter's telling, was able to win significant wealth by sacking its neighbors but was thereafter required to maintain an ever larger and more expensive military just to keep the imperial machine from stalling — until it couldn’t anymore.
Only complexity, Tainter argues, provides an explanation that applies in every instance of collapse. We go about our lives, addressing problems as they arise. Complexity builds and builds, usually incrementally, without anyone noticing how brittle it has all become. Then some little push arrives, and the society begins to fracture. The result is a “rapid, significant loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity.” In human terms, that means central governments disintegrating and empires fracturing into “small, petty states,” often in conflict with one another. Trade routes seize up, and cities are abandoned. Literacy falls off, technological knowledge is lost and populations decline sharply. “The world,” Tainter writes, “perceptibly shrinks, and over the horizon lies the unknown.”
“The world today is full,” Tainter writes. Complex societies occupy every inhabitable region of the planet. There is no escaping. This also means, he writes, that collapse, “if and when it comes again, will this time be global.” Our fates are interlinked. “No longer can any individual nation collapse. World civilization will disintegrate as a whole.”...The quest for efficiency, he wrote recently, has brought on unprecedented levels of complexity: “an elaborate global system of production, shipping, manufacturing and retailing” in which goods are manufactured in one part of the world to meet immediate demands in another, and delivered only when they’re needed. The system’s speed is dizzying, but so are its vulnerabilities.
If you close your eyes and open them again, the periodic disintegrations that punctuate our history — all those crumbling ruins — begin to fade, and something else comes into focus: wiliness, stubbornness and, perhaps the strongest and most essential human trait, adaptability. Perhaps our ability to band together, to respond creatively to new and difficult circumstances is not some tragic secret snare, as Tainter has it, a story that always ends in sclerotic complexity and collapse. Perhaps it is what we do best. When one way doesn’t work, we try another. When one system fails, we build another. We struggle to do things differently, and we push on. As always, we have no other choice.These few clips do not to justice to Ehrenreich's article, which notes the ideas of other thinkers, and contemporary research initiatives. I recommend you read the whole thing.