Limits on simplification

Sometime last year I skimmed through Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies, but for some reason I didn’t get much out of it. Too bad, since the title itself suggests that it is pertinent to the things I’ve been thinking through recently. I may go back and try again, especially after stumbling across this excellent summary of Tainter’s thesis by Clay Shirkey [emphasis added]:

In 1988, Joseph Tainter wrote a chilling book called The Collapse of Complex Societies. Tainter looked at several societies that gradually arrived at a level of remarkable sophistication then suddenly collapsed: the Romans, the Lowlands Maya, the inhabitants of Chaco canyon. Every one of those groups had rich traditions, complex social structures, advanced technology, but despite their sophistication, they collapsed, impoverishing and scattering their citizens and leaving little but future archeological sites as evidence of previous greatness. Tainter asked himself whether there was some explanation common to these sudden dissolutions.

The answer he arrived at was that they hadn’t collapsed despite their cultural sophistication, they’d collapsed because of it. Subject to violent compression, Tainter’s story goes like this: a group of people, through a combination of social organization and environmental luck, finds itself with a surplus of resources. Managing this surplus makes society more complex—agriculture rewards mathematical skill, granaries require new forms of construction, and so on.

Early on, the marginal value of this complexity is positive—each additional bit of complexity more than pays for itself in improved output—but over time, the law of diminishing returns reduces the marginal value, until it disappears completely. At this point, any additional complexity is pure cost.

Tainter’s thesis is that when society’s elite members add one layer of bureaucracy or demand one tribute too many, they end up extracting all the value from their environment it is possible to extract and then some.

The ‘and them some’ is what causes the trouble. Complex societies collapse because, when some stress comes, those societies have become too inflexible to respond. In retrospect, this can seem mystifying. Why didn’t these societies just re-tool in less complex ways? The answer Tainter gives is the simplest one: When societies fail to respond to reduced circumstances through orderly downsizing, it isn’t because they don’t want to, it’s because they can’t.

In such systems, there is no way to make things a little bit simpler – the whole edifice becomes a huge, interlocking system not readily amenable to change. Tainter doesn’t regard the sudden decoherence of these societies as either a tragedy or a mistake—”[U]nder a situation of declining marginal returns collapse may be the most appropriate response”, to use his pitiless phrase. Furthermore, even when moderate adjustments could be made, they tend to be resisted, because any simplification discomfits elites.

When the value of complexity turns negative, a society plagued by an inability to react remains as complex as ever, right up to the moment where it becomes suddenly and dramatically simpler, which is to say right up to the moment of collapse. Collapse is simply the last remaining method of simplification.

Assuming this summary is accurate, I’d go a bit further and say that the inflexibility Shirky mentions is not merely a property found in some societies but an inevitable consequence of the complexity being discussed here, which is really a devotion to efficiency. We are unable to simplify because we see it (usually correctly) as introducing inefficiency, something the modern mind recoils from in horror.

Consider this article from the New York Times which highlights a serious problem for folks who want more control over their food, namely the rapid disappearance of local slaughterhouses. I’d forgotten how blessed we are to have not one but several small slaughterhouses within fifty miles of home. If there were none closer than one hundred miles away, we probably couldn’t manage the headache and expense of having them slaughtered; we’d either slaughter them ourselves (as we already do with the chickens), or not raise our own meat at all.

Sharon Astyk has a good post explaining how the shortage of slaughterhouses is really just one consequence of adopting the industrial system of food production. The industrial system does not simply provide a cheap and prolific alternative to older, less efficient methods of producing food, it necessarily crowds out those older methods. Industrial production starts with a universal claim—all food production comes under its domain—and it takes additional effort and regulation to restrain it so that the older methods can coexist with it. This is illustrated by the recent flap involving raw milk drinkers who have come down with campylobacter infections. The raw milk champions at the Weston A. Price Foundation are not claiming that those who were infected are grownups who knowingly took their chances and lost; instead, they claim that it is impossible to get such an infection from raw milk, and that those who think they did are either deluded or lying. The Weston A. Price folks are quite aware that, for all our big talk to the contrary, we no longer live in a society where individuals are willing (or even able) to waive liability. It is not simply a matter of citizens being unwilling or unable to shoulder their responsibilities; liability waivers would be a devastating tool in the hands of industrial producers, who would do anything and everything to get you to sign one. The Weston A. Price Foundation knows that the only hope for raw milk is that it not be risky.

The impossibility of piecemeal simplification comes out in spots in Astyk’s post. She quotes another writer who points out the downsides of industrial milk, and the growing demand for an alternative, and the difficulties of providing one that are caused by the encroachment of industrial milk:

Dairy farming recently entered particularly brutal phase — farmers are being forced to sell milk at below production costs, driving themselves into ruin and burnishing the bottom line of mega-processors like Dean Foods. Meanwhile, surviving farms tend to be large, heavy-polluting operations. Yet we’re living in a time when people are increasingly demanding access to milk from appropriate-scale, pasture-based farms. The time has come to bust up the dairy trusts — and rebuild the infrastructure that’s been laid waste as they gobbled up their smaller peers. Of course, I would say that.

I agree with the writer’s diagnosis, but the solution he proposes is ridiculous. Break up the dairy trusts—the system that has given the country ultra-cheap milk—for the sake of the growing but still miniscule demand for an alternative? It’s a pipedream to think that today’s faddish interest in local/simple/organic will lead to the dismantling of any portion of the industrial system; at best we can hope to create enough space within the system to pursue alternatives with minimal interference.

Astyk also tells a story that highlights a point I’ve started to make recently, that it is often besides the point to blame the government for encroaching on our freedom, since a law is often just the handiest tool for a neighbor to use against us [emphasis added]:

In populated areas, what will also be needed is shifts in zoning that permit small scale home and cottage production – a small discreet sign that says “brown eggs for sale” or “Honey” is often impermissible in suburban neighborhoods and developments with restrictive covenants – even if you can raise the animals legally, you often cannot market your products in your neighborhood. Given that local food is needed most where people actually live, the infrastructure that prohibits its production on even a small and tasteful scale is going to have to be dismantled, and replaced with one that encourages local production.

One of my readers, who I will call “Kim” to protect her anonymity recently emailed me telling her story – she is raising perfectly legal chickens in her backyard in a Western US suburb, and supplying a good number of her neighbors will those eggs. The only public evidence of her practice, which involves selling directly to her neighbors was a small 4×4 card by her door saying “for eggs, come around back” – and yet she was recently cited for operating an illegal business out of her home (her total weekly profits from this illegal business run well under $100 week). And yet two of her neighbors, a dentist and chiropractor, operate businesses out of their home. It turns out it was the chiropractor who reported her.

Dismantling infrastructure is not going to fix this problem. If a chiropractor doesn’t want you selling eggs next door, if he is unable to invoke a zoning ordinance he will make your life difficult in other ways. Out where we live, if a neighbor wanted to exercise some sort of control over your activities he would be more likely to take direct action rather than turn to the government, putting into effect what one of our neighbors calls “the law of the hills.” In either case, the source of your difficulty is not the law but the neighbor.


7 thoughts on “Limits on simplification

  1. In the end those like the chiropractor will lose this argument. It simply becomes a untenable argument yo say that someone can keep a couple of great Danes who’s bark shatters glass 3 blocks away, and leave droppings as large as cow pies, {and much nastier, to boot}or a cockatoo that can be heard the next county over, shrieking. While someone wants to keep a couple of chickens, who excluding a rooster, rarely do much other than cluck a bit. I’ve kept ducks in town, and they were not as much of a mess as a pair of dogs were. the norm in history is neighborhoods with small cottage industries. the modern way of regulating such things out of suburban neighborhoods, is an indulgence of cheap energy, and suburban conformity. In an age of expensive energy, and non conformity, it will be impossible to stop it. Drive thru neighborhoods, and carefully look at all the out of sight business, and poultry keeping going on. It will amaze you what goes on behind fences. My cousins one time raised a hog in a pen at the back of the lawn. I not sure the neighbors noticed.

  2. It will amaze you what goes on behind fences.


    I think that’s what fences are for.

    If we concentrate less on spelling out our ideals for how society should operate, and more on doing right by our neighbor, most of these difficulties will disappear. We still need to contend with the rules that others want to impose on us, but better to peaceably ignore them than to take our case to city hall.

  3. So long as we live in a fallen world, there will be food borne illnesses. To say raw milk can not transmit illness is false. We seem so shocked when there are recalls and deaths related to industrially produced food. We seem outraged and absolutely intolerant when a small farmer sells food that causes illness. Everyone cries for accountability to eliminate disease. Big ag picked up the baton and promised what it could not deliver: safe food, jobs, and the absence of diseased crops and animals. The truth is we live in a fallen world. There will be disease, famine, illnesses etc. I think local food production creates less confusion around food borne illness because serving a smaller customer base means you know where the food has gone. Generally speaking, a smaller outfit may have less disease due to overcrowding and better management. But, that does not mean their won’t be problems.

    If I remember correctly, WAPF has stated many times that if a small percentage (I think 15 percent) of consumers would change their purchasing habits the dairy industry would collapse. While the number of people consuming raw milk is small in comparison, it is obviously threatening to the industry. I say this because there are so many examples of state governments pursuing small farmers. Here locally we had a family charged for selling two gallons of milk “illegally”. It was a sting operation. You have to ask why are officials willing to spend so much money prosecuting a family for selling two gallons of milk. I believe it is because there is an increase in raw milk sales and it is threatening the industry even at a small number. When the prices are so low and almost criminally low for dairymen, and then small farmers come in and sell direct, it sets up a secondary pricing structure that creates problems for the dairy industry. It cuts out the middle man for sure and makes dairying profitable. I believe the industry is threatened. Also, I think that big ag wants people to be fearful of raw milk. It has been demonstrated in the past on the raw milk forums that officials have lied and tagged illnesses to raw milk when the illness wasn’t raw milk related in order to close down small farmers. I think this is why there is so much defensiveness with the WAPF.


  4. I was nodding my head up until the final paragraph. I would quibble a bit, because I think our culture’s reliance on this complex, regulatory system has actually changed the way people think about their neighbors and react to them- so they are more likely than people once were to use the law o those neighbors for no better reason than that there *is* a law which can be used that way.

  5. I think our culture’s reliance on this complex, regulatory system has actually changed the way people think about their neighbors and react to them.


    I think you’re right. I was assuming that it was only an extension of the busybody’s natural tendency to get someone or something else—a rule, an authority figure, a clique—to do the dirty work for them. (How many times have I heard a pastor say, “If you have a problem with someone, don’t come to me, go to them!) And that may be part of it, but it doesn’t seem to explain the explosion of litigiousness, much less novel uses of it such as going after deep pockets in search of a payoff, or using the law as a means of revenge.

    Maybe there is a rude analogy with the recent explosion in pornography. I used to think that it was simply due to the easy and anonymous availability that the internet provides, and I was quietly grateful that I hadn’t been confronted with such a temptation in my unmarried, unbelieving college days.

    But on reflection I realize that I was confronted with exactly that temptation; even in the early 1970s X-rated movies were shown regularly on my campus for a few dollars, magazines like Playboy and Hustler were shared freely, there were a couple of adult stores on the campus strip, and it was easy enough to borrow someone’s hardcore magazine stash if one was too embarrassed to buy them oneself.

    Somehow, though, pornography was barely a presence in the community. Very few people indulged, and it often had a rite-of-passage flavor to it—someone would get a stack of magazines, pin up some pinups, but a month or so later it was gone again. Just as they might have stacked an impressive collection of beer bottles in their window. Consuming pornography, like binge drinking, was still fringe behavior.

    Today I suspect it is quite different. Over the past ten years I’ve walked through various college libraries, and I always see a few students idly browsing pornography websites, making no effort to disguise what they are doing. Things I’ve read suggest that consuming pornography has moved from the fringe to the center; it may be frowned upon, but it is no longer unusual.

    Availability may have made the shift easier, but I don’t think it was the prime cause. Something had to change in people’s thinking first. Likely that change was the result of the relentless increase in the sexual content of both entertainment and advertising. During my college days there was still a fairly large gap between the explicitness of, say, grown-up films and pornographic films. By the late 90s, when I stopped watching current films, that gap had dwindled significantly. From what I’ve read, it may be more or less gone at this point.

    Which I hope gets back to your original point, that something has actually changed in the way people think about their neighbors and react to them. Increasingly complex regulations, together with increasing access to them for average people, may have facilitated the change but probably didn’t cause it.

    I wonder what did cause the change.

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