Peak Oil is You

Donate Bitcoins ;-) or Paypal :-)

Page added on January 24, 2019

Bookmark and Share

Why do Societies Collapse? Diminishing Returns are a Key Factor

Why do Societies Collapse? Diminishing Returns are a Key Factor thumbnail


In 1988, Joseph Tainter published a fundamental study on the collapse of societies, proposing the existence of a common cause, diminishing returns, for the fact that all past empires and civilizations had eventually collapsed. Recently, myself and my coworkers Sara Falsini and Ilaria Perissi performed a system dynamics study that confirms Tainter’s ideas and goes deeper into the origins of the diminishing returns of civilizations. It was published now on “Biophysical Economics and Resource Quality

Why do civilizations collapse? It is a question that has been haunting the nebulous entity we call “The West” from the time when Edward Gibbon published his “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” in 1776. The underlying question in Gibbon’s massive study was ‘are we heading for the same destiny as the Romans?’ A question that generations of historians have tried to answer, so far without arriving to answer on which everyone would agree.

There are, literally, hundreds of “explanations” for the decline and fall of empires, and the same confusion reigns for the fall of the past civilizations rising to glory and then biting the dust, becoming little more than ruins and footnotes in history books. Is there a single cause for these collapses? Or is collapse the result of many small effects that, somehow, gang up together to push the great beast down the Seneca Cliff?

One of the most fascinating interpretations of the collapse of civilization is Joseph Tainter’s idea that it is due to “diminishing returns.” It is a well-known concept in economics that Tainter adapts to the historical cycle of civilizations, focusing on the control structures designed to keep together the whole system, the bureaucracy for instance. Tainter attributes these diminishing returns to an intrinsic property of control structures to become less efficient as they become larger.  Below, you can see a rather well-known graph taken for Tainter’s book “The Collapse of Complex societies.” (1988)

Tainter’s idea is fascinating for several reasons, one is that it generates some order in the incredible confusion of hypotheses and counter-hypotheses of the debate on societal collapse. If Tainter is right, then the many phenomena we observe during the collapse are just a reflection of an inner sickness of the society undergoing it. Barbaric invasions, for instance, are not the reason that led the Roman Empire to fall, the Barbarians just exploited the chance they saw to invade a weakened empire.

A problem with Tainter’s idea is that it is qualitative: it is based on the available historical data, for instance, the debasing of the Roman currency, but the curve of the diminishing returns is just drawn by hand. One question you might want to ask is: fine, there are diminishing returns, but where is the collapse in the curve? Another one could be: if the system experiences diminishing returns, why doesn’t it just retrace the curve to go back to where it was before?

These and other questions are examined in a system dynamics study that myself and my coworkers, Ilaria Perissi and Sara Falsini, performed. The idea is that if a civilization is a complex system, then it should be possible to model it using system dynamics, a tool specifically designed for this purpose. So, we built a series of models inspired by the concept of “mind-sized” models. That is, models that don’t pretend to be a detailed description of the system but try to catch the basic mechanisms that make the system move and, sometimes, go through tipping points and collapse. We found that on the basis of some simple assumption, it is possible to produce a curve that qualitatively looks like Tainter’s one

The system dynamics model tells us that the origin of the diminishing returns lies in the gradual depletion of the resources that flow through the system. It is not so much an effect of increasing complexity in itself, the problem is sustaining that complexity.

Then, the model also tells us what happens on “the other side” of the curve. That is, what happens if the system continues its trajectory beyond the point where Tainter’s curve stop. The curve shows a clear hysteresis, that is, it doesn’t follow the earlier path, but it remains always on a low-benefit trajectory. It means that cutting on bureaucracy doesn’t make the system more efficient.

These results are not the final word on the question of societal collapse. But they do provide some fundamental insight, I think. It is the fact that the system is “alive” as long as its resources provide good returns — in terms of energy resources, it means they have a good EROEI (energy returned on energy invested). If the EROEI goes down, then the system falls into the Seneca Cliff.

Of course, since our society depends on fossil fuels, we are bound to go that way because the depletion of the best resources is progressively lowering the EROEI of the system. If we want to keep alive some kind of complex society, we can’t do that by scraping the bottom of the barrel, desperately trying to burn what we can still burn. But, unfortunately, it is exactly what most governments in the world are trying to do. It is a good way to speed up toward the impending cliff.

What we should do, instead, would be to move as fast as possible toward a renewable-based society. We are lucky that we have energy technologies efficient enough in term of EROEI that they could support a transition to a better, cleaner, and more prosperous world. Too bad that nobody seems to want them.

There has to be something in the concept of “BAU” that makes it one of the most powerful attractors you can simulate in a system dynamics model. And so we are moving toward an uncertain future, but one thing that we can be sure of is that fossil fuels will not accompany us there.

Cassandra’s legacy

95 Comments on "Why do Societies Collapse? Diminishing Returns are a Key Factor"

  1. I AM THE MOB on Fri, 25th Jan 2019 6:01 am 


    Maybe you didn’t see any names because you didn’t actually read the article..Because you can’t handle reality and live in Jesus magical world..And to because you are a naive idiot who spams this site with far right propaganda nonstop..You are a little brither than clogg but that doesn’t take much..

    The reason you are weak minded is because you are a trust fund baby..You have lived a privileged life and it has made you weak..

  2. I AM THE MOB on Fri, 25th Jan 2019 6:03 am 

    Trump associate Roger Stone arrested on 7 counts, special counsel Mueller says

    Next comes Don Jr!


  3. I AM THE MOB on Fri, 25th Jan 2019 6:06 am 

    Have you ever seen anyone more deluded than Davy? And so happy to just carry water for the elites..

    Davy your slow collapse and permi gardening narrative is going to fall all apart soon..You are going to wish you lived the high life while you still had a chance.

  4. Davy on Fri, 25th Jan 2019 6:10 am 

    I think this is what I said MOB “I didn’t see many right wing names” and this is what you said “Maybe you didn’t see any names”. I read through the compromised article. Give me some names dumbass but then tell us more about your leftist extremist fantasy to breed white daughters and kill their rich fathers. LOL what a freak you are. I think of all the people on this board you are the biggest freak. JuanP is the most insane and delusional but he can’t help it he is Asperger touched and a stupid spoiled Miami Beach playboy. You are a crime to the idea of enlightened liberalism, MOB. Even you name gives away your freakish nature. I hope when you go on your joy ride you get bred and your dick cut off. LOL

  5. Davy on Fri, 25th Jan 2019 6:13 am 

    “Davy your slow collapse and permi gardening narrative is going to fall all apart soon..You are going to wish you lived the high life while you still had a chance.”

    LOL, and your joy ride killing spree than offing is better? Come on freak show you have nothing in that stupid millennial head but hatred and resentment for a failed life pretty much like makato but a younger version.

  6. boney joe on Fri, 25th Jan 2019 6:25 am 

    I’ve done a little digging into DavySkum’s background. You will see how his past experiences have created today’s socially dysfunctional mess, although there were glimpses into his exceptional nuttiness along the way.

    The Skum hails from a nouveau riche St. Louis family. While attending private schools, Skum was an obligatory member of Reagan TARS (teenage Republicans). Skum’s private school tutelage and participation in the Reagan revolution molded his belief that he is smarter, better educated than the unwashed masses.

    Tellingly, Skum has NEVER been gainfully employed. He did take a brief stab at employment. Skum convinced a couple of (former) friends to make a passive investment in a row crop farming venture. Skum was the operating general partner. Skum convinced the investors that his high intelligence will allow the business to rake in the dough. The business failed miserably and resulted in the investors losing the entirety of their investment. Skum was subsequently exiled to the bowels of the earth in Ozarks, Misery where the heat and humidity for six months of the year is so oppressive, it ranks as one of the world’s most hellish locales. Skum enjoys his solitary existence, except when he “reaches” out to humanity on Truly a low life pathetic existence.

  7. Davy on Fri, 25th Jan 2019 6:26 am 

    This is the real crime MOB and the reason Mueller is around anyway. Mueller will push this to a conclusion that will draw in the original criminals which is pretty much the Democratic Party circa 2016. I love how the blind lying liberal’s crow and jump up and down like monkeys over Trump but then completely ignore the original criminality they pushed. Clinton is the reason there is Trump. Democrats need to own their stink first before they try to lynch a properly elected President. I think if the Democrats want to win in 2020 this is the wrong way to do it. This is all about revenge, resentment, and an identity war. It is emotional and reckless. It is denial and hypocrisy. Trump will lose himself if Democrats let him. Democrats will help Trump win if they keep being reckless and extreme. Democrats should run on a moderate policy platform and reject identity politics. They should push social healing and renewable issues. What I see now is a wild and crazy shit storm without substance IOW a MOB.

    “Clinton’s 2016 Strategy Revealed: Overwhelm FBI With Trump-Russia Narrative Until Something Stuck”

  8. JuanP we know you are Boney Joe on Fri, 25th Jan 2019 6:27 am 

    boney joe on Fri, 25th Jan 2019 6:25 am

    JuanP be a man and be yourself. You look so stupid when you play your sock puppet games especially when you have already been outed.

  9. Show me the documentation on Fri, 25th Jan 2019 6:28 am 

    “The Skum hails from a nouveau riche St. Louis family. While attending private schools, Skum was an obligatory member of Reagan TARS (teenage Republicans). Skum’s private school tutelage and participation in the Reagan revolution molded his belief that he is smarter, better educated than the unwashed masses.”

  10. The Truth Will Set You Free on Fri, 25th Jan 2019 6:32 am 

    Come on JuanP if you believe in the truth you will come clean

  11. JuanP on Fri, 25th Jan 2019 6:34 am 

    I can’t help it I am a surfer bitch and unable to make legitimate comments. I like playing games it fits my delusional personality. I think ThorD called me Asperger and that fits my personality. Check this out:

    JuanP on Mon, 23rd May 2016 8:53 am
    I was just telling my wife yesterday that I would very willingly give my arms, legs, tongue, eyes, ears, nuts, and dick to experience life like normal people do for just one hour to know what it feels like. I have been a seriously depressed realist since I have a memory. My first memory of my life is of leaning against a tree alone in my kindergarten’s playground looking at all the other kids playing, thinking how stupid their behavior was, and wondering why I wasn’t like them. I basically don’t interact with normal people anymore. They have nothing to offer me and I don’t want to give them anything.

  12. makati1 on Fri, 25th Jan 2019 6:36 am 

    Get help JuanP

  13. Davy on Fri, 25th Jan 2019 7:27 am 

    I’m not sure why I keep commenting on this board anymore. The only regular posters left here now are me and five of my biggest enemies. I’ve driven everyone else away.

  14. makati1 on Fri, 25th Jan 2019 7:30 am 

    For God’s sake, Davy, self-admit to the Missouri Institution for the Insane in Jefferson City. Much better alternative than guys in white uniforms using butterfly nets to apprehend you.

  15. Davy on Fri, 25th Jan 2019 7:38 am 

    “Lessons From Davos: Everything Can Come Crashing Down… And A Total Rejection Of Any Policy Alternatives”

    As Davos wraps up today, what have we got so far so far from the cockpit of globalization? Warnings of rising nationalism. Fears of recession. Worries that everything could come tumbling down again. And a total rejection of any policy alternatives regardless.

    “Billionaire US Commerce Secretary Ross coming across on TV as a “let them eat cake” kind of guy, when wondering why US government workers without pay don’t just go to a loan-shark to get them through the never-ending shut-down. It was a double-whammy from Ross: he also said the US and China are “miles and miles” away from an agreement on trade, meaning March madness looms”

    “George Soros boldly stating China’s Xi Jinping is: “the most dangerous opponent of those who believe in the concept of open society…Authoritarian regimes are proliferating all over the world and if they succeed, they will become totalitarian….I’ve been concentrating on China, but open societies have many more enemies, Putin’s Russia foremost among them…. Soros openly talked about targeting China’s economy in order to bring down Xi, and that Trump is not going far enough in that regard! And Davos gave Xi a standing ovation two years ago.”

    “China is lobbying intensely: it just announced ‘US banks can start operating there in six months’. I am sure useful-idiot headline-followers will say China is opening up. They probably won’t notice the PBOC also announced a Central Bank Bills Swap that will give primary dealers bills they can use as collateral in exchange for a flood of new perpetual bonds that Chinese banks are about to issue, following the lead of the Bank of China (which is offering CNy40bn at around 4.5% for people who never want to get their money back) In other words, Chinese banks, desperate for cash to keep the Ponzi scheme afloat, can issue perpetuals that nobody in their right mind would want to hold; and the PBOC will swap them for its bills.”

    “And US billionaires publicly laughing out loud at the idea floated by US political shooting star Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez that the US should raise marginal tax rates for those earning more than USD10 million to 70%. (And we should laugh: everyone knows you need to tax capital, not income to soak the rich! How ‘gauche’ to think they pay income tax!)”

    “Ironically, given how poorly the British ship of state is being piloted, it fell to UK Chancellor Hammond to try to tell UK firms that they had to accept that free movement was coming to an end and hence rethink business models based on cheap, low-skilled labour (and low productivity and wages). Likewise, Italian Prime Minister Conte appeared to sell his administration’s populist vision: “We are radical, but we are radical because we want to bring power back to where it was supposed to be, according to our Constitution, its people,” he said. In short, even in avoiding one iceberg we just hit another.”

    “Yesterday we noted a worst-case scenario for Venezuela would be the US backing the ‘new president’ and Russia and China backing the ‘old president’ (A “Gentlemen Prefer Bombs” Monroe Doctrine): well, guess what is happening? And the local military is also siding with the ancient regime for now too.”

    “Rather forlorn in this global picture, the ECB met, did nothing, and tried to show it sees things are getting worse while still believing that actually everything is doing just fine: all very ‘Davos’.”

  16. boney joe on Fri, 25th Jan 2019 7:39 am 

    “Mueller will push this to a conclusion that will draw in the original criminals which is pretty much the Democratic Party circa 2016.”

    Breaking news: Trump’s campaign advisor, Roger Stone, just arrested this morning for lying (surprise-surprise).

    Looks like DavySkum is hitting the cocoa puffs again with another round of delusional conspiracy theories. Remember, Skum, when you were pedaling hard the phony PizzaGate and Seth Rich conspiracy theories.

    Some are just too stupid to learn from past embarrassments.

    Seeing a pattern here?

  17. Go to bed makato your blood pressure is elevated on Fri, 25th Jan 2019 7:39 am 

    “For God’s sake, Davy, self-admit to the Missouri Institution for the Insane”

  18. JuanP on Fri, 25th Jan 2019 7:40 am 

    I’m not sure why I keep commenting on this board anymore.

  19. boney joe on Fri, 25th Jan 2019 7:41 am 

    Roger Stone arrested for making false statements, witness tampering, and obstruction of justice.

    Another Trumptard bites the dust for being a liar, liar.

    How does this fit into your conspiracy, DavySkum?


  20. JuanP is boney joe on Fri, 25th Jan 2019 7:41 am 

    boney joe on Fri, 25th Jan 2019 7:39 am

  21. JuanP on Fri, 25th Jan 2019 7:44 am 

    I am back, bitches! I just got back from a surfing vacation in Costa Rica. I am recharged and refreshed, and ready to continue fucking with the Exceptionalist and his multiple personalities for the foreseeable future.

  22. Davy on Fri, 25th Jan 2019 7:46 am 

    15 of the last 20 comments this morning are from me.

    Who am I talking to I wonder?

  23. Davy on Fri, 25th Jan 2019 7:53 am 

    When will one of my anti-Democratic Party conspiracy theories stick? I’ve been throwing enough shit against the wall over enough years that statistically I should get at least one right.

    I need this to redeem myself. Please, God, just let one of my cocoa puffs induced stories be right? If you will do this for me, I promise to play nice with other people from now on. You have my word on this, Lord.

  24. Davy on Fri, 25th Jan 2019 7:59 am 

    Let’s see.

    nedernazi = enemy
    makato = arch enemy
    SLOB = enemy
    Theedick = enemy
    JuanP = arch enemy (hasn’t made a post in 4 days)

    All the rest are my sock puppets.

  25. JuanP on Fri, 25th Jan 2019 8:11 am 

    I am an identity theft pervert and these are my dirty work. I hate myself but love myself. I love makati and anon. Most of all boney joe is my soulmate.

    Davy on Fri, 25th Jan 2019 7:46 am
    Davy on Fri, 25th Jan 2019 7:53 am
    Davy on Fri, 25th Jan 2019 7:59 am

  26. Davy on Fri, 25th Jan 2019 8:19 am 

    Mueller’s personal news network.
    “Was CNN Tipped Off By FBI Ahead Of Stone Arrest?”

    “The pre-dawn arrest of former Trump adviser Roger Stone in connection with the Mueller investigation has many scratching their heads over how it went down. Not only did the FBI surprise Stone at 6am Friday morning with a knock on his door, but CNN was there to film the entire thing going down.”

    “The FBI special ops-style predawn raid of Roger Stone for process crimes and the tipoff of CNN is a sad day for America CNN is literally on the side of the police state left Perp walks are a feature of witch hunts — Jack Posobiec (@JackPosobiec) January 25, 2019”

    “Just shows me it’s all about the theatrics. I’m sure if Stone’s lawyers were notified of his arrest, he would have turned himself in. The same for Manafort. I don’t thing Shock and Awe works in these cases. — Barry Butler (@barrybutler2008) January 25, 2019”

    “Roger Stone indicted for lying to Congress James Clapper is a CNN commentator on national security after blatantly lying to Congress about mass surveillance of American citizens CNN considers him an expert — Jack Posobiec (@JackPosobiec) January 25, 2019”

  27. Davy on Fri, 25th Jan 2019 8:22 am 

    I’m starting to see a pattern here.

    Eurotardland = enemy
    Russia = enemy
    Asia = arch enemy
    Canada = enemy
    Australia = enemy
    Middle East = enemy
    Liberals = enemy
    Everything south of The Wall = enemy

  28. The Truth Will Set You Free on Fri, 25th Jan 2019 8:33 am 

    JuanP the only pattern here is the exposing of extremist lies of which you have to be the biggest perpetrator. Not only have you introduced daily sock puppetry and identity theft as routine you also comment with lies. When you comment at all, most of the time it is insane ranting for Davy who you decided in July was going to be your personal mission without any regards to others on the board. JuanP why don’t you grow up and realize there are others in this world besides you. You cannot censor people with dirty tools of censorship and then claim respectability. You are a rotten and dishonest person who lives a lie and thinks this is justified if, you know, don’t give a shit about others. People have a right to freedom of speech without harassment. You are welcome to debate people and you can hold strong opinions. This is fine. The rest of your activity is dirty and nasty.

  29. More Davy Sock Puppetry on Fri, 25th Jan 2019 8:42 am 

    The Truth Will Set You Free on Fri, 25th Jan 2019 8:33 am

  30. More JuanP sock puppetry on Fri, 25th Jan 2019 8:45 am 

    Davy on Fri, 25th Jan 2019 8:22 am

  31. Davy Ultimate Hypocrisy on Fri, 25th Jan 2019 8:46 am 

    People have a right to freedom of speech without harassment

  32. JuanP narcissism and dirty behavior on Fri, 25th Jan 2019 8:51 am 

    I have a right to harass anybody however I want. I don’t give a fuck about the rest of you. The only one I care about is myself JuanP and my satisfaction. I have documented evidence on this board of these personal values. Fuck off

  33. Cloggie on Fri, 25th Jan 2019 10:10 am 

    Apple and Google should stick to their core business.

  34. pointer on Fri, 25th Jan 2019 10:38 am 

    Societies are supposed to collapse. The human species is supposed to go extinct. Renewables won’t change that.

  35. Cloggie on Fri, 25th Jan 2019 12:02 pm 

    “Children, children!”

    “Queen sends Brexit message to UK politicians: end your bickering”

  36. Cloggie on Fri, 25th Jan 2019 12:14 pm 

    AfD walks out of Bavarian parliament in protest:

    Chieftain of German jews and professional hater Charlotte Knobloch declares AfD for a hate party and unconstitutional. The AfD wants to keep Germany German, but that is not to the liking of the jews. They are asking for what is coming next.


    AfD walks away in protest.

    They still own Germany via the US overlord, but not much longer. They can’t voodoo away the AfD, in the polls the 2nd party of Germany and current opposition leader.

  37. Cloggie on Fri, 25th Jan 2019 12:55 pm 

    They are getting scared!!!

    30 self-styled “top intellectuals” warn against “Europe coming apart”.

    Sounds more dramatic than it is. What they forgot to add is that THEIR “Open Society” Europe, read: Europe as sewer of the rest of the world. They are afraid there Europe will “perish” under the weight of populism. Boohoo!

    Who are these intellectuals?


    Bernard-Henri Lévy
    Anne Applebaum
    Simon Schama
    David Grossman
    György Konrád
    Agnès Heller
    Elfriede Jelinek
    Lyudmila Ulitskaya
    Roberto Saviano
    Adam Michnik
    Adam Zagajewski (?)


    Vassilis Alexakis
    Svetlana Alexievitch
    Milan Kundera

    Muslim background:

    Ismaïl Kadaré
    Salman Rushdie
    Abdulah Sidran
    Leïla Slimani

    Probably Christian background:

    Jens Christian Grøndahl,
    António Lobo Antunes
    Claudio Magris (senator for the Italian “The Left”)
    Ian McEwan,
    Herta Müller
    Orhan Pamuk
    Rob Riemen
    Fernando Savater
    Eugenio Scalfari, leftist politician
    Colm Tóibín
    Mario Vargas Llosa

    The operation is lead by Bernard-Henri Lévy, the butcher of Libya.

    The good news, they are scared to death.
    They should be as their time is up, both in America, Europe and Russia.

    They once owned the USSR , but no more.
    Now they are going to lose Europe and America as well.

  38. Davy on Fri, 25th Jan 2019 2:20 pm 

    Someone please read my word salad. I worked so hard on it, and if even one person read it, it would warm my cold dead heart. And dont forget to mention how brilliant and learned I am. I really get off on that.

  39. Cloggie on Fri, 25th Jan 2019 2:57 pm 

    Roger Stone, who played a crucial alternative media role in getting Trump elected, was arrested by the FBI. CNN was clearly forewarned so they could deliver the pictures:

    Clearly a political arrest.

    One step closer towards major civilian unrest in the country.

  40. Cloggie on Fri, 25th Jan 2019 2:58 pm 

    Russia advisors in, American diplomats out.

    What happened to the Monroe Doctrine?

    “Russia sends ‘around 400’ mercenaries to Venezuela to protect President Maduro as US diplomats and their families flee the country”

  41. Davy on Fri, 25th Jan 2019 3:08 pm 

    nedernazi fraud, you like my word salads dont you? I read all your WW2 and Brixit spam. Please read my word salad, after me, you are most intelligent, high-brow thinker here, and I support your fraud agenda all the way. The least you can do, is congratulate me on my cut and paste salads.


  42. Not me on Fri, 25th Jan 2019 4:49 pm 

    Above is JuanP

  43. I AM THE MOB on Fri, 25th Jan 2019 5:18 pm 

    Is An Oil Supply Crunch Looming?

    Supply shortfall
    The global oil industry needs to come up with 35 million barrels per day (Mbd) of fresh supply between 2017 and 2025 in order to compensate for rising demand and natural decline from existing oil fields, according to the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) 2018 World Energy Outlook. Projects that are already under development could add roughly 11 Mbd over that timeframe, the IEA said in November. Additionally, the IEA said U.S. shale liquids could add another 7 Mbd of new supply, although it would require a heroic effort to achieve – the rate of production growth over the ten-year period of 2015 to 2025 would slightly exceed the ramp up in Saudi Arabia between 1967 and 1977, making it the “fastest rate of growth ever seen,” the IEA said.

    The US will pick up the crumbs when Europe, Japan and Asia collapse soon..Just like after WW2..And clogg will follow his hero with a bullet to the head..


  44. Duncan Idaho on Fri, 25th Jan 2019 7:45 pm 

    “Middle class” means today that you’re poor, but without a meth habit.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *