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Civilizational Neo-Malthusianism

Civilizational neo-Malthusianism is perhaps the most original modified Malthusian theory. It states that a civilization's problem solving capacity is depleted as social and technological complexity rises to unsustainable levels.

The classical statement is Joseph Tainter's theory of the emergence, survival, and collapse of complex societies (1988). According to this theory, the fate of societies depends on their ability to adapt to emerging challenges either by an upgrade or by a voluntary downgrade of their systemic complexity. In general, upgrades are obviously the preferred option. They are particularly rewarding at the early stages of civilizational development, when the marginal cost of higher complexity is still low. Later on, the growing marginal cost of complexification makes comparable upgrades gradually more expensive. The strategy of problem solving through complexification becomes entirely punitive at the final stages, when the return on investment in further complexity is negative. Tragically, however, the alternative option of voluntary simplification is hardly available because advanced civilizations are not “downward compatible”. They are incapable of a planned reduction of their level of complexity because the existing complexity represents indispensable solutions to real problems. Consequently, involuntary collapse is often the only way for the fragments of the system to reach a new equilibrium.

The fundamental underlying point is that societies are always driven to respond to emerging problems (Wilkinson 1973). These problems can be either exogenous to the society in question, or they can be externalities produced by it. Either way, the logical answer is additional layers of complexity. Tragically, however, complexification has diminishing returns because the easy fixes are implemented first. Moreover, increasing complexity implies increasing costs for the maintenance of

Climatic stress

Dominant response

10800−9500 BC

Younger Dryas

More complexity Agricultural revolution

3300−3000 BC

More complexity Rise of urban culture

2500−1950 BC

Temporary increase Northern Mesopotamia: rise and fall in complexity, of the Akkadian empire followed by Southern Mesopotamia: rise and fall

systemic collapse of the Third Dynasty of Ur

1200−850 BC

Collapse “Dark ages” all across the Old World

Fig. 4.10 The ancient Near East, 11000–1000 BC

that complexity (Homer-Dixon 2006). When the capacity for problem solving has been depleted due to the declining returns on complexification and the escalating cost for the maintenance of the existing level of complexity, only collapse remains because voluntary simplification is not a feasible option.

The framework has sometimes been applied to the rise and fall of civilizations in history. For example, archaeologists such as Weiss (2000) and Ur (2010) have explained the rise and fall of ancient civilizations in Mesopotamia by the initial ability of these civilizations to respond to climatic stresses with more complexity, followed by a later inability to avoid collapse in the face of otherwise similar stresses (Fig. 4.10, from Friedrichs 2013, 62).[1] The theory can be adapted for the diagnosis of current predicaments such as anthropogenic climate change, energy scarcity, or financial instability (Friedrichs 2013, Ch. 3; Korowicz 2010, 2012).

  • [1] See the interesting edited volumes by McIntosh et al. (2000) and Costanza et al. (2007). See also the work by climate historians (Lamb 1977; Fagan 2004, 2008, 2009), as well as Chew (2007, 2008) on the “recurring dark ages” and Greer (2009) on the “ecotechnic future”
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