Resilience through Simplification: Revisiting Tainter's Theory of Collapse

Simplicity Institute Report 12h, 2012

21 Pages Posted: 28 Jun 2012

See all articles by Samuel Alexander

Samuel Alexander

University of Melbourne - Office for Environmental Programs; Simplicity Institute

Date Written: June 15, 2012


In 1988 Joseph Tainter published his seminal work, The Collapse of Complex Societies, in which he presented an original theory of social complexity that he offered as the best explanation for the collapse of civilisations throughout history. Tainter’s theory, which I outline in more detail below, essentially holds that human societies become more socially complex as they solve the problems they face, and while this complexity initially provides a net benefit to society, eventually the benefits derived from increasing complexity diminish and the relative costs begin to increase. There comes a point, Tainter argues, when all the energy and resources available to a society are required just to maintain the society, at which point further problems that arise cannot be solved and the society then enters a phase of deterioration or even rapid collapse. Not only is Tainter’s theory of historical interest, many believe it has implications for how we understand the world today.

One of the most challenging aspects of Tainter’s theory is how it reframes – one might even say revolutionises – sustainability discourse (Tainter, 2011a). Tainter argues that sustainability is about problem solving and that problem solving increases social complexity. But he also argues that social complexity requires energy and resources, and this implies that solving problems, including ecological problems, can actually demand increases in energy and resource consumption, not reductions. Indeed, Tainter (2006: 93) maintains that sustainability is ‘not a passive consequence of having fewer human beings who consume more limited resources,’ as many argue it is; he even goes as far as to suggest that voluntary simplification by way of foregoing consumption may no longer be an option for industrial civilisation, for reasons that will be explained. Instead, Tainter’s conception of sustainability involves subsiding increased complexity with more energy and resources in order to solve ongoing problems.

While Tainter’s theory of social complexity has much to commend it, in this paper (which is part of a larger work-in-progress) I wish to examine and ultimately challenge Tainter’s conclusion that voluntary simplification is not a viable path to sustainability. In fact, I will argue that it is by far our best bet, even if the odds do not provide grounds for much optimism. Moreover, should sustainability prove too ambitious a goal for industrial civilisation, I contend that simplification remains the most effective means of building 'resilience’ (i.e. the ability of an individual or community to withstand societal or ecological shocks). While I accept that problem solving generally implies an increase in social complexity, the thesis I present below is that there comes a point when complexity itself becomes a problem, at which point voluntary simplification, not further complexity, is the most appropriate response. Not only does industrial civilisation seem to be at such a point today (Homer-Dixon, 2006), or well beyond it (Gilding, 2011), I hope to show that voluntary simplification presents a viable and desirable option for responding to today’s converging social, economic, and ecological problems. This goes directly against Tainter’s conception of sustainability, while accepting much of his background theoretical framework.

Keywords: Tainter, voluntary simplification, voluntary simplicity, complexity, collapse, resilience

Suggested Citation

Alexander, Samuel, Resilience through Simplification: Revisiting Tainter's Theory of Collapse (June 15, 2012). Simplicity Institute Report 12h, 2012, Available at SSRN:

Samuel Alexander (Contact Author)

University of Melbourne - Office for Environmental Programs ( email )

185 Pelham Street
Carlton, Victoria 3053

Simplicity Institute


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