Monday, June 27, 2011

Joseph Tainter: The Collapse of Complex Societies

While on my trip I decided to tackle Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies. I learned of this book from Thomas Homer-Dixon’s excellent The Upside of Down. Since we were once again headed to see some ruins, I thought this an appropriate time to approach this book, although in the case of the Incas, we can easily identify “Guns, Germs, and Steel” (and perhaps horses) as the proximate causes of collapse. But other cases, like the Maya, the Western Roman Empire, and Easter Island, are among those situations that do not provide easy explanations. Tainter reviews virtually all of the prevailing theories. He identifies the prevailing theory in popular thinking and among some historians (Toynbee, for instance) as “mystical” explanations, a poor choice of words to my mind. Toynbee, following a long pedigree, thinks in terms of biological analogies, with birth, youth, maturity, decline, and death the pattern for “civilizations” as well as individuals. This, Tainter argues, provides a false and rather misleading or unhelpful analogy. The other theory, of “decadence”, seems more literary and moral than causative. So what is Tainter’s alternative? Declining marginal returns on complexity (complexity being a term of art in this instance). In short, he bases his theory upon a fundamental economic law (if you will suffer the dubious term here). His analysis and application of his theory to the Western Roman Empire argues that it was not barbarians, Christians, or plagues that brought down Rome, but a limitation on the value of complexity. He applies a similar analysis to the Mayans and to the Chaco Canyon civilization in North America. If he’s right, and I think that he makes a very strong argument (but see Peter Turchin’s War and Peace and War for an excellent competing theory), it has to be taken quite seriously, and if he’s right, then we have to think very carefully about our current predicament. Can we innovate our way out of the inevitable decline of petroleum? Can we get out from under excessive demands for complexity?

I highly recommend this book, and I count it an excellent part of my Big History reading project.

Peru 2011

I should reflect a bit on the great trip that Iowa Guru, One Hungary Panda, and I had to Peru. (Africa Girl was, of course, in Africa, Benin to be exact, alas.) I will share some random thoughts about the trip & my experience there. Of course, for a great photo tour, see One Hungary Panda’s photos.

For a guy from the flat Midwest, the Andes provide a starkly contrasting, three-dimensional world. They look not only front and back, right and left, but by necessity, up and down. Distance and perspectives really vary from our daily experience here on the Midwest. Distances, for instance, mean little, given the (literal) ups and downs and arounds of travel. Sometimes I felt almost claustrophobic with sheer mountainsides towering above me.

Machu Pichu is all that it’s cracked up to be. In the train from Cuzco that follows the river valley (a tributary of the Amazon), one suddenly realizes that you’ve traveled low enough to enter the jungle. Mountainsides once brown are now green and marked by trees. When one arrives at the heights of Machu Pichu you can see this verdant (even in winter) environment, steep and lush. Machu Pichu itself is a testament to engineering. It stands on this mountaintop (and side) as it has for about 600 years. I quickly learned that if an earthquake were to strike, I’d want to be in some Incan (popular, not accurate name for the civilization) ruins. If you have the chance, visit.

The people of Cuzco love to dance. You see many persons who are obviously from pretty pure indigenous genetic stock, as well as many of mixed ancestry. All seem to love to dance, pre-schoolers to college kids. While we were in Cuzco there seemed to be a dance festival about every day circling the square. Just for the tourists? I don’t think so. This seems to be a genuine vehicle of popular solidarity.

How the present relates the past always fascinates me. There, one sees a lot of reference to the Incan history (okay, Tahuantinsuyo history). The Spaniards, real bastards as far as I can tell, or at least the initial wave, really attempted to stomp on the native culture, but this always proves difficult, perhaps always impossible. Even in colonial churches one sees how Incan motifs sneak into the Christianity grafted over it (literally often, as churches often have Incan ruins for foundations). For instance, statues of the Virgin have her clothed the shape of a mountain. I thought it merely to cover some unseemly weight gain, but no, it was because mountains were sacred to the Incans. Also, in paintings of the Last Supper, we see Jesus and the disciples about the enjoy the last supper with cuy (guinea pig) as the main course. Christianity, like almost every religion, is extremely syncretistic.

Well, perhaps more later. If you have the chance, I highly recommend Peru for a trip. BTW, the people were very friendly, and multi-lingual (1HP was virtually challenged to a linguistic duel!).

Niall Ferguson on The Pity of War

I don't know how this just came to my attention, but this is an interview from about 10 years ago, shortly after Ferguson published his The Pity of War, which is about the First World War. Listening to him, you realize why he is a first-rate historian. This is good, because as a current events commentator, where he is quite active currently, I find him less persuasive. Indeed, I have a growing skepticism of all such commentators, but he's been more irksome to me than some. However, because of his interesting work as a historian, I listen.