Wednesday, Sep. 15, 2010
Utah State University professor Joseph Tainter is among experts featured in the National Geographic Channel television production “Collapse: Based on the Book by Jared Diamond
.” The program premieres during primetime Saturday, Sept. 18, on NGC and also airs Sept. 20 and Sept. 27.
Based on Diamond’s 2004 bestseller Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, the NGC program travels 200 years into the future to imagine what the world would be like if civilization as we know it collapsed. Diamond, Tainter and others discuss the triggers that cause societies to topple.
Diamond, who presented a talk at USU in 2006, asserts that societies fail when overwhelmed by invasions, epidemics, environmental disaster and the like.
Tainter, a historian and anthropologist whose 1988 book, The Collapse of Complex Societies, remains a definitive work on societal collapse, contends that the ultimate cause of a civilization’s demise is diminishing returns on investments in social complexity.
“Our world faces many of the same challenges as ancient civilizations,” he says. “The question is whether or not we’ll be able to introduce technological innovations that allow us to withstand these threats and adapt to change.”
A faculty member in USU’s Department of Environment and Society, Tainter says societies become increasingly complex as they respond to challenges. In doing so, they increase their consumption of energy.
“We see this at both the personal and the societal level,” he says. “In your everyday life, complexity might cost in you in terms of money, time and annoyance. But, ultimately, the cost is energy.”
During the past century, fossil fuel has provided relatively inexpensive and abundant stores of energy and our civilization has flourished. But have we become dependent on an energy source that can’t sustain us?
That’s a key question, says Tainter, who was featured in the 2009 ABC News primetime special Earth 2100 and in the Leonardo DiCaprio’s 2007 eco-documentary The 11th Hour.
Unaddressed, he says, problems of global sustainability will ultimately result in a decrease in the net benefits of our complex, consumer-oriented society.
“Historically, societies become vulnerable to collapse when investments in social complexity reach a point of diminishing returns,” says Tainter, who has studied the demise of the Roman Empire and the Chacoan and Mayan civilizations. “But innovation and energy can help for complexity.”
In an increasingly interdependent world, he notes that the United States is facing a large number of very expensive problems that are converging at once.
“In addition to energy concerns and an economic crisis, we have an aging population, a strained health care system, a decaying infrastructure and high military costs,” Tainter says. “We’re incurring rapidly growing costs just to maintain the status quo.”