A society or other institution can be destroyed by the cost of sustaining itself. – Joseph Tainter
Resilience through Simplification: Revisiting Tainter’s Theory of Collapse
[This is Part 2 of the essay. Part 1 was posted last week. It contained:
2. Overview of Tainter’s Theory
3. Implications of Tainter’s Theory on Sustainability Discourse
For a PDF of the full article, see the Simplicity Insitute publications page. ]
4. The Strategy of Voluntary Simplification
As we have seen, Tainter argues that sustainability is about problem solving and that problem solving increases social complexity. But he also argues that social complexity requires energy and resources, and this implies that solving problems, including ecological problems, requires increases in energy and resource consumption, not reductions. On essentially that basis, Tainter concludes that sustainability cannot be achieved by voluntarily reducing energy and resource consumption, because societies are required to meet the ongoing and indeed increasing demands of social complexity, or else suffer deterioration or collapse. Accordingly, sustainability for Tainter involves securing enough energy and resources to subside ongoing problem solving activity.
The first point to note is that Tainter’s conception of sustainability is not really about sustainability, if sustainability is meant to refer (as it normally is) to something being sustained over the long term. In Tainter’s view, the tendency of all societies to become more complex, coupled with the diminishing marginal returns on complexity, means that eventually all societies get locked into a process of mandatory growth in complexity that eventually becomes unsupportable. This theory of social complexity implies that all societies have an inbuilt tendency to collapse, and this is why Tainter’s conception of sustainability is necessarily compromised. After all, if one were to accept his assumptions, the idea of sustainability as meaning ‘a civilisation being sustained over the long term’ is actually a contradiction in terms. Civilisation is inherently unsustainable according to Tainter’s logic, and this is why he is required to weaken his conception of sustainability to mean merely ‘staying in the game’ (2006: 100). But he also insists that all solutions to complexity are only temporary, and that is why I refer to Tainter’s view as ‘tragic.’ Not only is it tragic, it is disconcertingly plausible (Tainter, 1988).
While I accept Tainter’s view that problem solving generally implies an increase in social complexity, and that social complexity has diminishing marginal returns, the thesis I outline below is that there comes a point when complexity itself becomes a problem – that is, there comes a point when the costs of further complexity exceed the benefits – at which point voluntary simplification, not further complexity, is the most appropriate response. Tainter believes this is not an available response, but I hope to show that on this point, at least, he is in error.
Furthermore, I will argue that given the tendency of societies to become more complex than they can afford to be, true sustainability, in the sense of being sustained over the long term, requires that societies embrace voluntary simplification when the costs of complexity exceed the benefits. If they do not, they collapse. Another way of expressing this argument is to say that as the benefits of social complexity diminish and become outweighed by the costs, the benefits of voluntary simplification increase. Since industrial civilisation today is arguably at the point where the costs of complexity have begun to outweigh the benefits – or, at least, at the point when maintaining existing complexity is going to get increasingly difficult due to the anticipated descent in overall energy supply – it follows that we are at a critical point in history. We are at the point where we must embrace voluntary simplification, if that is possible (see Alexander, 2012a), or suffer the consequences.
4.1. Situating Voluntary Simplification within Tainter’s Theory
In order to assess the viability of voluntary simplification as a strategy for achieving sustainability, a clearer view of what it might mean is required. The short answer is that voluntary simplification means choosing a form of life in which the overall consumption of energy and resources is progressively reduced and eventually stabilised at a level that can be sustained over the long term; and because social complexity requires energy and resources, voluntarily reducing energy and resource consumption would generally imply a reduction in social complexity.This definition of voluntary simplification, of course, raises many questions, which I will now endeavour to answer, or begin answering.
First of all, the definition must be situated in the context of Tainter’s theory of social complexity, for in that context the notion of voluntarily reducing energy and resources seems like an incoherent strategy to achieve sustainability. This demands an immediate explanation, because if one were to accept that solving problems requires energy and resources – and I do accept that – it would seem to follow that voluntary simplification means choosing to solve fewer problems. I will now try to explain that the apparent incoherency here disappears when we take a closer look at what Tainter means when he uses the term ‘problem,’ which is a central concept in his theory. It seems that Tainter oversimplifies here what is a complex term, and that misunderstanding or misuse locks him into the tragic worldview outlined above. I believe that clearing up this misunderstanding provides the key to escaping Tainter’s tragedy.
4.2. The Indeterminacy of ‘Problems’ and its Implications
Societies increase their social complexity in Tainter’s view when they solve the problems with which they are presented. However, Tainter employs the term ‘problem’ as if it were self-defining and unambiguous. He assumes that a society just knows what is and what is not a problem, which of course is not an unreasonable assumption. On closer inspection, however, it can be seen that a ‘problem’ in Tainter’s sense is actually a radically indeterminate notion, requiring various value judgments in order to give it content. There are at least three causes of this indeterminacy.
First of all, indeterminacy can arise over the very question of what constitutes a problem. For example, if a nation seeks security, it may wage war on a threateningly powerful neighbouring state, rather than risk being attacked by surprise. Solving the ‘problem’ of security, therefore, might require (a) creating an army; and (2) if the war was successful, defending a larger territory, perhaps requiring a larger army still. This solution to the problem of security is a classic example of how increasing social complexity can require increased energy and resources. However, the ‘problem’ here is by no means something independent of human values or perspectives. That is, the problem is not just imposed on the society for it to deal with as best it can. There are choices involved about what to focus on. For example, rather than seeing the problem as being one of security, a different society might have seen a problem of ‘economic growth,’ and rather than waging war, this alternative society might have tried to solve its problem by seeing if it could create a relationship of mutual benefit with its neighbours, perhaps through trade. Even through these simple examples it can be seen that the ‘problems’ that exist for any given society are often a value-laden function of their perspective or goals, not externally imposed challenges that arise independently.
A second cause of indeterminacy lies in the fact that there is rarely only one means of solving a particular problem. In the first example above, the problem of security could have been solved by waging war, building a defensive wall, trying to negotiate a treaty, some mixture of these strategies, or through some other strategy entirely. Likewise, in the second example, the problem of ‘economic growth’ could have been solved by creating new trade relationships, developing new technologies, marketing goods more effectively, or perhaps realising growth was not actually so important. Just as different perspectives might produce or dissolve certain problems, different perspectives also provide different ways of dealing with the problems that do exist (or are perceived to exist). Significantly, this means that shifts in perspective, values, or desires can affect the level of energy or resources that are needed to deal with social problems.
Finally, indeterminacy can also arise over the question of ‘whose’ problems have to be solved, for society is not a harmonious entity with a single set of goals and desires. Accordingly, when a society invests energy and resources to solve certain ‘problems,’ we are entitled to ask questions about whose interests are being served by addressing those particular problems as opposed to other problems. It may be, after all, that some people in a society do not see such and such a problem as being a legitimate problem, or perhaps they see other issues that are not being addressed as more urgent problems. Tainter, it should be noted, is not wholly unaware of this issue. He writes: ‘In a hierarchical institution [or society], the benefits of complexity often accrue at the top, while the costs are paid primarily by those at the bottom’ (Tainter, 2006: 100). But he does not seem to appreciate that this is evidence of indeterminacy over what constitutes a problem; nor does he seem to appreciate how all these causes of indeterminacy impact on his theory.
My point in exposing these three indeterminacies is to show that ‘problems’ are not objective phenomena that exist independently of humankind and which we must simply deal with the best we can. Rather, problems are often the product of a particular worldview, in the sense that they only exist as problems because society (or a particular subset of society) desire a certain state of affairs. This is not always the case, of course. Some problems will not disappear merely because human beings decide to think differently about the world. But many perceived problems and perceived solutions are in fact dependent on the way human beings view the world, or dependent on whose particular perspective is adopted. What this means is that if the world came to be looked at through a different worldview, a society might well find that it was faced with different problems, and perhaps different solutions would present themselves. Again, this is significant because it means that changing perspectives or values can affect the level of energy or resources that are needed for a society to deal with its problems.
The implications of this analysis are potentially profound. Most importantly, the analysis opens up space within Tainter’s theory for voluntary reductions in energy and resources. The key point is this: the energy intensity of industrial civilisation is primarily a function of the values that produce or shape the perception of its problems. Those values also produce and shape the perception of what constitutes a solution to perceived problems. Change those values, however, and many of the energy intensive problems industrial civilisation currently feels the need to solve may well disappear. And if energy intensive problems can be solved or rather dissolved by changing one’s values or perspective, this will reduce the overall energy requirements for ‘problem solving,’ thus opening up space for voluntary simplification. When this is understood, the apparent incoherency of voluntary simplification (i.e. the perceived implication that it would require choosing ‘to solve fewer problems’) disappears. Simplification might simply involve solving different problems, or perhaps solve the same problems in different, less energy-intensive ways. Tainter does not seem to appreciate this, for otherwise he would not dismiss simplification so readily. He argues that voluntarily reducing consumption would require that a society be either uniquely lucky in not encountering problems, or that it not address the problems that confront it (Tainter, 2011b: 93). But the analysis above shows that there is a third option: rethinking what constitutes a problem. It maybe that many problems that industrial civilisation currently invests in are not actually problems that need to be solved, or not solved in such energy intensive ways.
For example, the vast amounts of energy and resources that are currently expended on military forces around the globe are an example of societies trying to solve the problem of national security. This investment obviously increases social complexity (and therefore increases the costs of maintaining a society), but military expenditure is a perfect example of problem solving activity that has diminishing returns (Tainter, 2006: 98). Indeed, an ‘arms race,’ so-called, is typically a zero-sum game: military forces increase, but since everyone’s military forces can increase at a similar rate, relative positions often remain unchanged, despite vast expenditure. But since one nation invests, so must the others. At a non-governmental level, the ‘marketing’ of products provides another example of vast amounts of energy and resources being directed towards what is often a zero-sum game: the more one corporation spends on marketing its products, the greater incentive a different corporation has to spend on marketing its competing products, but one corporation’s success is another’s loss.
In both these examples, expenditure is easily wasted, that is, invested without providing any net benefit to society. Furthermore, such expenditure takes energy and resources away from solving other problems (e.g. food security, poverty, climate change, health, maintaining infrastructure, or whatever). Worst of all, it can even create new problems (e.g. war can create incentives for more war; marketing can create energy-intensive consumerist cultures, etc.). The critical point to appreciate is that this type of analysis could be reproduced through essentially limitless examples. There is always room for a society to rethink its problems; rethink its solutions; and, importantly, rethink how it prioritises the energy and resources it has available for problem solving. If a society does this effectively it may find that it can solve all of its most important problems while reducing its consumption of energy and resources. In doing so, of course, it may produce a very different type of society.
4.3. How might Tainter respond?
One way Tainter might respond to this analysis is to argue that it seems to ignore the tendency of all societies to increase in complexity. Even if Tainter accepted, as he might well do, that there is room to reduce the energy intensity of industrial civilisation in the short term, he might nevertheless reiterate that societies are constantly faced with new problems, such that any attempts at voluntary simplification will eventually be rendered unsuccessful by the inexorable pressure to increase social complexity in response to new problems. For that reason, the costs of maintaining society will still tend to increase over the long term. Tainter might insist, therefore, that my analysis has not been able to provide any escape from the inherent tendency of civilisations to grow in social complexity until they cannot afford the costs of their own existence.
While I accept that societies will constantly be faced with new problems and that solving them will tend to increase social complexity, this is not fatal to the position I am defending. It would only be fatal if it were assumed that voluntary simplification was somehow a ‘passive’ activity, and we have seen that Tainter does actually make that assumption. Sustainability, he maintains, is ‘not a passive consequence of having fewer human beings who consume more limited resources’ (2006: 93). But I would argue that voluntary simplification, far from being a passive activity, must be a strategy that is self-reflective and constantly in flux. The thought processes and behaviours which voluntary simplification represent cannot be static or unchanging, but must constantly respond to new circumstances and opportunities in new ways. Granted, if voluntary simplification meant reducing consumption and then returning to old ways of living, one can understand why social complexity would tend to increase over time, negating any initial benefits of voluntary simplification. But if voluntary simplification is considered an ongoing process, in which people and societies continually seek to reduce and restrain consumption, while also rethinking how best to invest the energy and resources at their disposal, then there is no reason to think that a society cannot be sustained, over the long term, on a sustainable level of energy and resource consumption, while still solving its most important problems (including new problems). Voluntary simplification, therefore, is not about achieving a stasis; it is about actively working on reaching and then maintaining some form of dynamic equilibrium within sustainable limits. This will not be easy, of course; but it is possible.
A second way Tainter might respond to my analysis is to say that there is already room for it within his own theory. Although this would require a degree of self-contradiction, the response would seem to have some initial justification. After all, in his historical analysis, Tainter states that the Byzantine Empire (which survived the collapse of the Roman Empire in the fifth century) is an example, albeit the only one, where ‘a large, complex, society systematically simplified, and reduced thereby its consumption of resources’ (2011a: 31). At first instance, this seems to be the strategy I am defending. But after acknowledging Byzantine simplification, Tainter immediately adds that ‘[w]hile this case shows that societies can reduce consumption and thrive, it offers no hope that this can be commonly done’ (Tainter, 2011a: 31). More importantly, however, Tainter points out that simplification by the Byzantine Empire was both forced – that is, made necessary by a gross insufficiency of resources – and temporary (Tainter, 2011a: 31). Since I am defending a strategy of simplification that is both voluntary and practiced over the long term, the Byzantine example is not evidence that voluntary simplification already fits within Tainter’s theory. Rather, establishing the viability of voluntary simplification extends Tainter’s theory in a way that avoids his tragic conclusions.
A third way Tainter might respond to my analysis is by stating that, even if simplification is an available strategy, it will never be voluntarily embraced on the grounds that people will perceive that it is against their own interests. In fact, when considering whether voluntary simplification is possible, he states: ‘I am confident that usually it is not, that humans will not ordinarily forgo affordable consumption of things they desire on the basis of abstract projections about the future’ (Tainter, 2011a: 31). Although Tainter’s position here has some intuitive force, it is far from being self-evident. It assumes that reducing consumption is against one’s self interest, but that assumption, despite being culturally entrenched, is empirically debatable, and in consumer societies it is most probably false. Indeed, there is now a vast body of social and psychological research (see Alexander, 2012b) indicating that many if not most Western-style consumers are actually mis-consuming to some extent, in the sense that they could increase their wellbeing while reducing their consumption. The intricacies of that research cannot be explored here, but if it can indeed be shown, as I believe it can, that large portions of high-consumption societies would benefit from exchanging superfluous material consumption for more time to pursue non-materialist forms of wellbeing, this would provide further support for the argument that voluntary simplification is not only possible, but desirable. If more people came to see this, one would expect voluntary simplification to be eagerly embraced.
Nevertheless, while that might be so at the individual or community level, the question of whether governments will ever voluntarily initiate overall reductions in societal production and consumption is more challenging. After all, governments depend on taxes, and a larger economy means more taxable income, so a process of voluntary simplification is almost certainly not going to be initiated from the ‘top down.’ The overriding objective of governments around the world is to grow their economies without apparent limit (Hamilton, 2003; Purdey, 2010), and continued growth requires (among other things) a citizenry that seeks ever-higher material standards of living. This growth model of progress is arguably a reflection of an underlying belief that social progress requires more energy and resources in order to increase existing standards of living and solve ongoing problems. But if the global economy has now reached a stage where the growth model is now causing the very problems it was supposed to solve, as many argue it has (Meadows et al, 2004; Jackson, 2009; Trainer, 2010a; Heinberg, 2011; Barry, 2012), then voluntary simplification provides the most coherent path forward, especially for the most highly developed regions of the world (Alexander, 2011c; 2012c). Again, however, the prospects of governments embracing some ‘top down’ policy of voluntary simplification, which would require planned economic contraction, seem slim to non-existent.
5. Escaping Tainter’s Tragedy ‘from Below’
If we proceed on the reasonable assumption that governments will never embrace voluntary simplification as a response to today’s social, economic, and ecological problems, then it follows that the only hope for voluntary simplification is that it emerges and is driven ‘from below,’ at the grassroots level (Alexander, 2012d). While still marginal, there are several overlapping social movements that suggest that the seeds of voluntary simplification have already been sown. The most long-standing of these social movements or subcultures is based on the idea of ‘voluntary simplicity,’
which can be understood as a way of life in which people choose to reduce or restrain their material standard of living while seeking a higher quality of life (Alexander and Ussher, 2012). This counter-cultural attitude towards material wealth seems to be as old as civilisation itself (Vanenbroeck, 1991), with philosophers, prophets, and poets throughout history highlighting that ‘the good life’ lies not in the accumulation of material possessions but in various non-materialistic sources of wellbeing, such as social relations, connection with nature, and peaceful, creative activity. In the 1960s and ‘70s as modern environmentalism took hold, the eco-village movement emerged (Walker, 2005), which involved creating intentional communities, often on the fringe or beyond urban centres, in the hope of showing that sustainable, post-industrial forms of life were possible. Toward the end of the 1970s the notion of ‘permaculture’ also emerged (Holmgren and Mollison, 1978), which is a complex term that essentially refers to the ideal of designing social and economic systems that work with nature, rather than against it. In more recent years the ‘transition towns’ movement has burst onto the global scene as a positive, community based-response to the dual crises of peak oil and climate change, through which people come together in an attempt to build resilient communities and local economies in the face of government inaction (Hopkins, 2008).
Space does not presently permit a detailed examination of these movements. The purpose of mentioning them is merely to suggest that they exemplify, in various ways and to various degrees of success, the process of voluntarily simplification ‘from below.’ The low consumption lifestyles of voluntary simplicity can be understood to be freeing up energy and resources to solve more important problems; eco-villages can be understood to be attempting to build communities that can be sustained over the long term within the carrying capacity of the local environment; permaculture can be understood to be a design system that seeks to achieve sustainability by minimising the waste of energy and resources; transition towns in many ways can be understood to be a mixture of all three previous movements, with the added virtue of emphasising the importance of building a post-carbon world within the existing society through committed grassroots, community-based activity. These are all gross oversimplifications of rich and diverse social movements, but if we were to take the best insights from each of them and began shaping our societies on that basis (see Trainer, 2010a), that might just be enough to realise the concept of voluntary simplification outlined above and thereby escape Tainter’s tragedy – the tragedy of a civilisation increasing in complexity until it collapses. As I argued above, the energy intensity of industrial civilisation is primarily a function of the values that produce or shape the perception of its problems. But the social movements just outlined embody values that contrast with the pro-growth, materialistic values upon which industrial civilisation is built, and this means that if those alternative values were ever mainstreamed they would tend to produce a different perception of what problems needed to be solved and in what ways. This shift in values would open up space for voluntary simplification. It would require a much longer work to provide details on what the process of voluntary simplification would look like in practice, but in closing this paper one brief example will be offered to clarify the essential idea.
5.1. What would Voluntary Simplification look like in practice?
Let us focus on food, given that it is an essential need for all societies. Currently, in the developed world at least, food production relies on extraordinarily complex economic systems. A single product in one’s cupboard could well have had several dozen people in some way work on its production and distribution. Each of the substances within the product (e.g. salt, sugar, spices, vegetables, fruit, minerals, oils, etc.) could have been sourced from different parts of the world, come together at different times in the process of manufacture, and shipped, driven and/or flown by people other than the producers. Furthermore, the glass jar or packaging could have been produced in one place, the paper for the label produced in another place, the inks for the label produced yet somewhere else, and the logo designed and printed somewhere else again. Once the product is finally complete, it would be shipped, driven and/or flown to a retailer who then stocks the shelves with hundreds or thousands of items all made in similarly complex ways. One recent study (Salleh, 2007) in Australia concluded that the items in a single basket food from a supermarket typically travel 70,000 kilometres to the table (aggregating the distance each item travels).
Moreover, this complex process relies in less obvious ways on the entire system – i.e. a system of energy production that powers the manufacturers and supermarkets, factories that make nuts and bolts required to make the trucks that transport the food, universities that educate the engineers who make the factories and trucks – and so on, ad infinitum. Not only is this system of food production and distribution exceedingly energy intensive (mainly due to the fossil fuels needed for fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation, electricity, plastics, and transport), but in many ways it is also very insecure, because each step in the process is critical, meaning that if one step gets interfered with the whole process can break down. Such insecurity is exemplified by the trucker’s strike in the UK in 2000. The nation realised very quickly how dependent it was on the globalised food system, because when the truckers were not trucking, food was not getting to the supermarkets. Before long supermarket officials were calling members of parliament advising them that without the lines of transport open to restock the shelves, supermarkets had about three days of food. In the words of one commentator, the nation was only ‘nine meals from anarchy’ (Simms, 2008). Industrial food production, we see, is hugely complex, but partly for that reason it is not very resilient in the face of systemic disturbances.
Compare industrial food production with the far simpler methods in hunter-gatherer societies. Everyone is involved in sourcing food, all food is locally sourced, and no fossil fuels are required. People, that is, were self-sufficient. The argument of this paper is certainly not that we return to the extreme simplicity of hunter-gatherer societies (and even if those methods were desired, they would not be productive enough to feed anywhere near 7 billion people). Rather, the argument is that less complex and less energy-intensive ways of providing food for ourselves can be achieved without compromising quality of life and perhaps contributing positively to quality of life. It is very doubtful whether strict self-sufficiency is the most desirable form of food production, and often it would not be possible. But industrial societies could become far more self-reliant, and benefit from this, if only they made a commitment to source much of their own food locally, grow it organically, exchange surpluses at local markets, and eat it in season. This is one concrete example of voluntary simplification.
Governments could certainly help in this process, but presuming they will not do much, there is still much room for individuals, households, and communities to take considerable steps. Cuba in the 1990s provides an instructive example here (Percy et al, 2010; Friedrichs, 2010). When their oil supply was drastically cut after the fall of the Soviet Union, their industrialised food production and distribution essentially came to an end, replaced almost overnight with local and organic systems. Certainly the state played a significant role here, and this shows that governments can facilitate simplification in positive ways. But individuals and communities were the primary agents of change here; they just did what needed to be done. Voluntary simplification of food production might involve embracing something resembling the Cuban response throughout the industrialised world, both in rural and urban centres, but prior to it becoming a necessity. Voluntary simplification, after all, will be a very different experience than involuntary simplification, even if the actions are largely the same. This process of re-establishing local and organic food production would make the system less complex, which in turn would lessen the energy demands of industrial societies. We see this process already underway, albeit in small subcultures, in the eco-village, permaculture, transition towns, and voluntary simplicity movements outlined above.
The same type of analysis could be applied to all aspects of industrial civilisation, including: the way energy is produced and used; the way we transport ourselves; the way we organise ourselves and our economies; the way we attend to our health or educational needs; the way we clothe ourselves; the way entertain ourselves; and so on (see Trainer, 2010a). Rather than solving the problem of water security by creating expensive and energy intensive desalination plants, for example, people could all have rainwater tanks; rather than addressing obesity with expensive diet pills or liposuction, people could choose to eat better; rather than buying a clothes dryer, people could dry their clothes on a string outside; etc., etc; Voluntary simplification, as we have seen, involves rethinking problems; rethinking solutions; and rethinking how we prioritise the limited energy and resources we has available for problem solving. If a society does this effectively it may find that it can solve all of its most important problems while reducing its consumption of energy and resources. But this process is not about achieving some passive social or ecological stasis; it is about constantly working on reaching and then maintaining some form of dynamic equilibrium within sustainable limits. Given that presently the global economy is far exceeding the sustainable carrying capacity of the planet (Global Footprint Network, 2012), it follows that voluntary simplification implies creating very different social and economic systems.
As I have argued elsewhere (Alexander, 2012e), a truly sustainable society would probably end up looking something like Ted Trainer’s (2010a) vision of The Simpler Way, which is a vision of highly self-sufficient, post-carbon economies that use mostly local resources to meet local needs. These would be zero-growth economies (Trainer, 2011) that were sustained on much lower levels of resource consumption and ecological impact. This implies that material living standards would be far lower than what are common in consumer societies today, but basic needs for all would be met and high living standards would be maintained because people would be living and working cooperatively in enjoyable and spiritually rewarding communities. Embracing lifestyles of voluntary simplicity, therefore, does not mean hardship or deprivation (Alexander, 2012b; Alexander and Ussher, 2012). It just means focusing on what is sufficient to live well, rather than constantly seeking increased consumption and greater affluence. If, however, industrial civilisation continues to pursue that latter path of growth without limits, it is destined to meet the fate of all previous civilisations, with all the suffering that implies. To avoid this what is required, first and foremost, is voluntary simplification, but this depends on a revolution in consciousness.
Industrial civilisation is at a point in history when it is faced with the pressing issue of whether it can afford the problem of its own existence. Like a growing number of others, I do not believe that it can afford this, at least, not for much longer. The financial crisis currently plaguing the Eurozone (and elsewhere) is a barely disguised metaphor for this question of affordability, and it presents all of us living in industrial civilisation with the question of how best to respond to this problem – the problem of whether civilisation can afford the costs of its own complexity.
We are hardly the first to be faced with this problem; indeed, all previous civilisations have faced it. But perhaps we can be first, thanks to Joseph Tainter, to understand the dynamics at play. Perhaps we can even respond in such a way as to avoid the collapse scenario that has marked the end of all other civilisations. Prior civilisations attempted to sustain themselves and avoid collapse by continuing to increase complexity in response to new problems, but always this strategy has resulted in collapse, because eventually the energy and resources needed to subsidise increased complexity becomes unavailable. Nevertheless, this seems to be the very response industrial civilisation is taking presently, and indeed it is the one which Tainter himself recommends as the best course of action. As he puts it, ‘modern societies will continue to need high-quality energy, and securing this should be the first priority of every nation with a research capability’ (Tainter, 2011b: 94). This advice from Tainter is very problematic, given that energy-intensive problem solving led to collapse on all other occasions in history, of which he is very aware. The advice appears more problematic still if one accepts that the world is facing a future of ‘energy descent.’ But Tainter’s advice follows the logic of his own assumptions, which includes the assumption that voluntary simplification is not an available path to sustainability. While I accept that complexity generally has diminishing marginal returns, in this paper I have tried to show, albeit in a preliminary and incomplete way, that voluntary simplification is actually a viable and desirable response to this challenging dynamic. In doing so, I have turned Tainter’s solution on its head: where he sees the solution to civilisation’s problems in further complexity, I maintain the best, and probably the only, solution lies in voluntary simplification.
However, since voluntary simplification is unlikely to be widely embraced as a response to the problem of complexity, one hesitates before claiming that voluntary simplification will produce sustainability. While this sustainability scenario is still an option available for us, the odds of it being selected do not look promising at all. Nevertheless, for those who agree with the analysis outlined above, voluntary simplification still remains the best strategy to adopt even if industrial civilisation continues to marginalise it. This is because if voluntary simplification is not embraced on a sufficiently wide scale to avoid social, economic, or ecological collapse, it nevertheless remains the most effective way for individuals and communities to build resilience, and in the current milieu, perhaps the ability to withstand forthcoming shocks is the best we can hope for.
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Dr Samuel Alexander is co-director of the Simplicity Institute
and a lecturer with the Office for Environmental Programs, University of Melbourne.
There is one important terminological issue that needs clarification. The term ‘voluntary simplicity’ has long been used to refer to a way of life in which people choose to reduce or restrain their material consumption while seeking an increased quality of life (see Alexander, 2009; 2011a). By way of distinction, I use the term ‘voluntary simplification’ in this essay to refer specifically to a living strategy within the context of Tainter’s theory of social complexity. While there is much overlap in the practical implications of these two ideas, conceptually they ought to be kept distinct. ‘Voluntary simplicity,’ one might say, opposes ‘consumerism’ or ‘materialism,’ whereas ‘voluntary simplification,’ in ways that will be explained, opposes ‘social complexity.’
See footnote 2 above where I distinguish between ‘voluntary simplicity’ and ‘voluntary simplification.’
On another occasion it would be worthwhile reframing this defence of voluntary simplification within John Michael Greer’s theory of catabolic collapse (Greer, 2008), which he offers as a refined, alternative to Tainter’s theory. It is my view that the strategy of voluntary simplification remains equally valid within Greer’s theory, or outside collapse theory altogether, although such defences would require different papers.