Thoughts on Survival and a Book That Describes the Collapse of Complex Societies

Do you believe we can profit from negative examples? I do. There are a lot of people I don’t want to be like. And there are events I’d like to avoid in my own life by not doing what someone else has done.

I mention this because there’s an instructive scholarly book that can show us both what’s going to happen in the future and, by way of implication, what we can do in our own lives to live differently. That’s two sides of a coin, so to speak, and I’ll touch on both briefly.

The book is The Collapse of Complex Societies, by Joseph Tainter. It begins with an outline of basic principles, then goes into greater detail to describe why complex societies fail.

This book was written by an academic for academics and is full of data, as you might expect. His ideas are worth noting, especially when you consider it was originally written some 20 years ago, before Gulf War I, 9-11, and all that has followed in recent years.

Why have nations and societies risen and fallen in the past? Tainter observes that every complex society throughout history has collapsed. Among other things, this book shows how blending archaeology and social sciences can note changes in political and cultural institutions in societies.

How is this relevant? We’ve heard the phrase “too big to fail” quite a bit in recent years in relation to banks and major car companies. What’s really being said is, “These entities are so big we don’t want to live with the consequences if they fail.”

In reality, the larger an organization gets, the more complex it becomes. It expends so much in the way of resources, diminishing and negative returns will bring about its collapse. We should really be saying, “These entities are so big they’re bound to fail.”

When it comes to nations and societies, they must become more complex by their nature, but they can’t cope with all that is demanded of them. Inflation, taxes, an overextended military, and high energy consumption are just some of the factors that contribute to a society’s downfall. They may break up into smaller, more efficient societies. Sound familiar? It should.

Some predict the break up of the United States within the next few years or even months. There’s a growing secessionist movement saying the U.S. is too big to be manageable. The author of Reinventing Collapse says we’re headed for breakup like the former Soviet Union.

As one reviewer of Tainter’s book observes, the future may look a lot like the past. A friend of mine who has this book puts it this way: “Thoreau would say ‘I told you so.’”

Can we indeed live a simpler life with less money and energy consumption? This is something many of us anticipate. It’s why we’re making preparations for survival. Tainter might say the very existence of survivalists and preppers makes a statement about the coming collapse of our complex society.

To get your copy of The Collapse of Complex Societies, click on the book’s title wherever you see it linked in this post. A new window opens to the page where it’s featured, and you can place your order there.

Most who read this post today aren’t going to buy or read this book. It may be of limited interest.

On the other hand, the principles it puts forth will have an impact on each of us sooner or later. We can benefit from the negative examples of our complex society today.

How prepared are we to shape our thinking and lifestyle accordingly for survival?


Author: John Wesley Smith

John Wesley Smith writes and podcasts from his home in Central Missouri. His goal is to help preppers as he continues along his own preparedness journey.