Complexity May Be a Flawed Solution

One of the great perks of a faculty career was learning from people whose abilities exceeded mine.  One popular professor who qualifies is Jordan Peterson – it isn’t that he expresses thoughts that are beyond my abilities.  He often describes the things that I know but can’t articulate – he clarifies things that I normally leave vague and undescribed.

Joseph Tainter isn’t so well known – but he carries Robert Merton’s thesis on unanticipated consequences into an approach that shows where to look for the things we do not anticipate.  Thirty years ago, Tainter published The Collapse of Complex Societies.  A review and presentation of his hypothesis is available at  and it’s worth looking at.  Tainter’s hypothesis suggests that socially we are well past the spot where increased complexity can yield increased productivity.

Here’s a quote from Dr. Tainter, that will hopefully get you to click the link and listen to more of his thoughts: 

“Sustainability requires that people have the ability and the inclination to think broadly in terms of time and space. In other words, to think broadly in a geographical sense about the world around them, as well as the state of the world as a whole. And also, to think broadly in time in terms of the near and distant future and what resources will be available to our children and our grandchildren and our great grandchildren.

One of the major problems in sustainability and in this whole question of resources and collapse is that we did not evolve as a species to have this ability to think broadly in time and space. Instead, our ancestors who lived as hunter-gatherers never confronted any challenges that required them to think beyond their locality and the near term(…)

We have developed the most complex society humanity has ever known. And we have maintained it up to this point. I have argued that technological innovation and other kinds of innovation evolve like any other aspect of complexity. The investments in research and development grow increasingly complex and reach diminishing returns. We cannot forever continue to spend more and more on technological innovation when we’ve reached the point of diminishing returns, which I argue we have reached.

Our system of innovation is going to change very significantly over the next twenty to thirty to fifty years or so. By the end of the century, our system of innovation will not be anything like what we know today. It will have to be very different. And it’s likely that innovation is not going to be able to solve our problems as readily as it has done to this point.

The technological optimists have assumed that the productivity of innovation is either constant or increasing. And in fact, what I think my colleagues and I can show is that the productivity of innovation is actually decreasing. What that means is that we will not forever be able to solve resource problems through innovation(…)

And so individuals need to take responsibility for their own ignorance. As I said, our species did not evolve to think broadly in terms of time and space and if we’re going to maintain our way of life, people have to learn to do so. People have to take responsibility for knowing and understanding the predicament that we’re facing. I have argued over the last few years that we need to start teaching early school age children in K to 12 to think differently, to think broadly in terms of time and space – to think historically, to think long-term about the future, to think broadly about what’s going on in the world around us instead of the narrow way – the narrow, local way – that most people live and think. So I put responsibility on individuals to broaden their knowledge.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s