How Do You Know When Society Is About to Fall Apart?Historians in the News
tags: archaeology, ancient history, civilizational collapse
When I first spoke with Joseph Tainter in early May, he and I and nearly everyone else had reason to be worried. A few days earlier, the official tally of Covid-19 infections in the United States had climbed above one million, unemployment claims had topped 30 million and the United Nations had warned that the planet was facing “multiple famines of biblical proportions.” George Floyd was still alive, and the protests spurred by his killing had not yet swept the nation, but a different kind of protest, led by white men armed with heavy weaponry, had taken over the Michigan State Legislature building. The president of the United States had appeared to suggest treating the coronavirus with disinfectant injections. Utah, where Tainter lives — he teaches at Utah State — was reopening its gyms, restaurants and hair salons that very day.
The chaos was considerable, but Tainter seemed calm. He walked me through the arguments of the book that made his reputation, “The Collapse of Complex Societies,” which has for years been the seminal text in the study of societal collapse, an academic subdiscipline that arguably was born with its publication in 1988. “Civilizations are fragile, impermanent things,” Tainter writes. Nearly every one that has ever existed has also ceased to exist, yet “understanding disintegration has remained a distinctly minor concern in the social sciences.” It is only a mild overstatement to suggest that before Tainter, collapse was simply not a thing.
If Joseph Tainter, now 70, is the sober patriarch of the field, it is not a role he seems to relish. His own research has moved on; these days, he focuses on “sustainability.” But even in his most recent work his earlier subject is always there, hovering like a ghost just off the edge of each page. Why, after all, would we worry about sustaining a civilization if we weren’t convinced that it might crumble?
Tainter, who grew up in San Francisco and has spent all of his adult life in the West, has never been one to play Cassandra. He writes with disarming composure about the factors that have led to the disintegration of empires and the abandonment of cities and about the mechanism that, in his view, makes it nearly certain that all states that rise will one day fall. In interviews and panel discussions, Tainter sits with an uncanny stillness, a gray bear in wire-rimmed glasses, rarely smiling, rarely frowning, rarely giving away anything more than an impatient tap of his fingers on one knee. In our telephone conversations he was courteous but laconic, taking time to think before speaking, seldom offering more than he was asked. He wasn’t surprised that I had called to ask him if our compounding crises signaled the start of a major societal rupture, but he also wasn’t in a rush to answer.
In recent years, the field Tainter helped establish has grown. Just as apocalyptic dystopias, with or without zombies, have become common fare on Netflix and in highbrow literature alike, societal collapse and its associated terms — “fragility” and “resilience,” “risk” and “sustainability” — have become the objects of extensive scholarly inquiry and infrastructure. Princeton has a research program in Global Systemic Risk, Cambridge a Center for the Study of Existential Risk. Many of the academics studying collapse are, like Tainter, archaeologists by training. Others are historians, social scientists, complexity scholars or physical scientists who have turned their attention to the dynamics shaping the broadest scope of human history.
After I spoke to Tainter, I called several of these scholars, and they were more openly alarmed than he was by the current state of affairs. “Things could spin out,” one warned. “I am scared,” admitted another. As the summer wore on even Tainter, for all his caution and reserve, was willing to allow that contemporary society has built-in vulnerabilities that could allow things to go very badly indeed — probably not right now, maybe not for a few decades still, but possibly sooner. In fact, he worried, it could begin before the year was over.