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Historian/Anthropologist Named New Environment & Society Department Head

Friday, Jul. 27, 2007

Joseph Tainter

Joseph Tainter joins USU's College of Natural Resources as head of the Department of Environment and Society.

Leonardo DiCaprio

Tainter is among the experts in Leonardo DiCaprio's new eco-documentary, 'The 11th Hour,' opening Aug. 31 in Salt Lake City. Photo credit: Chuck Castleberry © 2007 Eleventeen Productions, LLC, courtesy of Warner Independent Pictures.

When Joseph Tainter noticed an advertisement in The Chronicle of Higher Education for a position in an academic department called “Environment and Society” in a university’s college of natural resources, he was intrigued.

“It sounded exciting – visionary for a university to group these disciplines together,” says Tainter, who recently joined Utah State University to serve as head of that very department that caught his eye some six months ago.
“Most job interviews are stressful, but I actually enjoyed the (USU) interview,” he says. “The atmosphere was very welcoming, strongly committed to teaching and supportive of students.”
A noted historian and anthropologist, Tainter comes to USU’s College of Natural Resources from Arizona State University’s Global Institute of Sustainability where he served as a professor and researcher. He previously served as project leader of Albuquerque’s Cultural Heritage Research Project, Rocky Mountain Research Station and taught at the University of New Mexico.
Tainter’s professional experience includes 28 years with the U.S. Forest Service, where he learned firsthand about conflict between human needs and environmental values.
“Fundamental questions about resource management revolve around people’s needs, perceptions and values,” he says. “If we can’t address human issues, we can’t address natural resources issues. These are right at the heart of society and environment.”
Among Tainter’s best known works is The Collapse of Complex Societies. In the book, first published in 1988, he examines the demise of several ancient civilizations and applies lessons from history to modern-day societies. Such collapse occurs, he contends, when a society’s investments in social complexity reach a point of diminishing returns. Innovation that boosts productivity is the key to stemming declining returns and sustaining an increasingly complex society.
“A uniting theme of the book and my research is sustainability,” Tainter says. “What do members of a society value enough to work to sustain?”
His ideas caught the attention of producers of Leonardo DiCaprio’s upcoming eco-documentary, The 11th Hour. Tainter is among about 70 sustainability experts interviewed for the film, which is scheduled for early release in Los Angeles and New York Aug. 17 and opens in Salt Lake City Aug. 31. His bio is included in the movie’s action Web site. (Click on “Ideas & Experts” and select the “Civil Society and Collapse of Civilization” category.)
Is the United States on the verge of collapse?
“I get that question all the time,” Tainter laughs. “The answer is no, not immediately.”
The United States is a wealthy country and a substantial number of its residents enjoy a satisfying standard of living, he says. Still, the country faces a disturbing and growing list of challenges that must be addressed soon.
“We’re potentially facing a long-term energy crisis,” Tainter says. “We’re facing a changing climate, a decaying infrastructure and an aging population that requires increasingly costly health care. We have serious problems that will converge in the next five to 15 years.”
If he had the opportunity to pose one question during a debate of U.S. presidential candidates, what would it be?
“Well, I’d expect a lot of spin for an answer,” Tainter says. “But I would ask how they plan to address challenges facing the country while maintaining the standard of living people value.”
The problem, he says, is that our political system doesn’t encourage long-term thinking. Lessons learned from ancient civilizations reveal that the strategies needed to tackle a society’s current challenges take longer than a human lifespan to successfully develop and implement.   
It’s this broad, long-term approach to societal problems that Tainter hopes to instill in his students.
“We have to carefully examine the costs and benefits of solving our major social problems,” he says.
He adds that those costs and benefits aren’t limited to dollars and cents. “Very often we overlook social and cultural issues, which people often value more than economic issues.”
A San Francisco native, Tainter studied anthropology at the University of California and Northwestern University, where he earned a doctorate in 1975.
He succeeds Professor Terry Sharik, who served as department head for five years. Sharik departs Aug. 1 for a sabbatical year at the University of Michigan, where he’ll pursue research on a treatment of trees of the world’s temperate regions.
The Department of Environment and Society is one of three academic departments in USU’s College of Natural Resources. The department offers undergraduate degrees in environmental studies, geography, geography education and recreation resource management. Graduate degrees are offered in bioregional planning, ecology, human dimensions of ecosystem science and management, human geography and recreation resource management.
Related links:
Contact: Joseph Tainter [], 435-797-1790

Writer: Mary-Ann Muffoletto [], 435-797-1429

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