Thesis #12: Civilization must always grow.

by Jason Godesky

Two suspects A, B are arrested by the police. The police have insufficient evidence for a conviction, and having separated both prisoners, visit each of them and offer the same deal: if one testifies for the prosecution (turns King’s Evidence) against the other and the other remains silent, the silent accomplice receives the full 10-year sentence and the betrayer goes free. If both stay silent, the police can only give both prisoners 6 months for a minor charge. If both betray each other, they receive a 2-year sentence each.

Such is the classical formulation of the Prisoner’s Dilemna. It is one of the founding problems of game theory. The best case scenario would arise from cooperation: if both prisoners remain silent, both go free. However, not only does betraying the other mean you will go free immediately, but not betraying the other carries a 50% chance of bearing the maximum penalty alone. Altruistic cooperation is so rare in this game that it barely warrants any consideration whatsoever; nearly every game involves one, the other, or both, betraying his fellow.

The Prisoner’s Dilemna provides the logical foundation of why civilization must always continue to grow. Each society faces a choice: do we continue to intensify production, adopt greater complexity, and increase the size or scale of our society, or do we happily accept the level we’re already at? If you choose not to intensify, you will be out-competed by those who do–and your lower level of intensity and complexity will become a resource they can absorb to fuel their further acceleration, whether by outright conquest or more subtle forms of economic or cultural exploitation.

This is the underlying logic of Joseph Tainter’s argument concerning collapse in peer polities in The Collapse of Complex Societies. If one peer polity does choose to collapse, that region becomes a resource that can be exploited by its neighbors. Whoever conquers it first will have an advantage over the others in the continuing race of escalation.

The same logic was successfully applied to the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The growth of civilization can be seen in similar terms. Even when the problems of unrestrained growth are recognized by a society–even when all can plainly see that a smaller-scale, less complex society would be preferable–there is no option to make use of that knowledge. Ultimately, it is an application of Tainter’s principle that no single polity can collapse in a peer polity system (even if that collapse is merely trying to stand still). To do so means becoming less complex than one’s neighbors, to exploit one’s resources less intensively, to have smaller populations, smaller armies, equipped with less material (and less complex material). Such a region will be absorbed by some other, more complex entity–whether directly and military, or indirectly and economically is a trivial distinction, for they both end with the same result, whether de juris or de facto.

Civilization itself is a Prisoner’s Dilemna driving ever greater intensification, complexity and growth. Garrett Hardin compared the “Tragedy of the Commons” quite explicitly to the nuclear arms race; Daniel Quinn, similarly, compared his “Food Race” directly to the arms race. Both illustrate the arms race itself as a single, minor aspect of a much larger phenomenon that in fact defines all of our recorded history: civilization’s need to continue growing, no matter the cost.

Our entire economy is based on the principle of continual and unrestrained growth. The Great Depression did not see a contracting economy–it did not even see the economy ceasing to grow. Instead, the Great Depression was the result of the economy growing only at 75% of its capacity. Not only must our economy continue to grow; it must continue to grow as quickly as possible. In A Theory of Power (ch. 7), Jeff Vail explains:

Misplaced faith in perpetual growth exists as a by-product of the intensifying, hierarchal master pattern that underlies most aspects of human society. Despite the clear reality that we live within a system limited by finite resources, our entire economy rests on the need for continual growth.

The publicly owned corporation serves as an example of a pervasive pattern that cannot accept stability; if it does not provide a regular, growth-based return to its investors, it will find itself quickly dissolved. The press, politicians and the general public often rush to express surprise at the corporate decision making process. Why won’t corporations act as more responsible citizens, help protect the environment, or take better care of their employees? Doing so may provide long-term benefits, not only for society, but also for the corporation’s bottom line. Ultimately, however, the very structure of the corporation constrains it in its decision making process: it must respond to the short-term demand to increase shareholder value, resulting in the ubiquitous, shortsighted decision making of corporate America. Like the corporation, economists see serious trouble for a country’s economy as a whole if it temporarily stops growing,[4] as the debt and inflation based finance structure cannot handle mere stability. Any entity, whether a small business or a national economy, that finances its operation by borrowing money at interest must continually grow in order to remain solvent due to the demands of repaying the time-value of money. No wonder, then, that with an institutionalized demand for continuous growth, our society seems willing to ignore the clear realities of finite resources. This process begs the question: should we view environmental overshoot as a possibility or as a foregone conclusion if we continue with our present economic structure?

Theoretically, let us consider a set of societies who have all agreed on the foreseen consequences of such unrestrained growth, and understand that such rampant growth inside of a finite universe is unsustainable and must ultimately end in collapse. They may adopt the “seventh generation” sustainability outlook that was expected of Iroquois chiefs, or some similar ideology. Regardless, they have the means of intensification, but they are expected all to forego that because of the catastrophe it would visit on all.

We have, in effect, a cartel. Cartels, like OPEC, agree to fix the price of a given commodity they control–usually higher, in order to create greater profits. However, this creates a Prisoner’s Dilemna as well. The first one to defect from the cartel and price his goods lower will out-compete everyone else in the cartel and more than make up in volume what he lost in each unit. Ultimately, cartels always fail–as OPEC will eventually fail–because the incentive to defect is too strong. Eventually, one member of the cartel will defect, and because of its nature, it only takes one defection to bring it all down.

We have the same situations amongst our sustainable societies above. They have made a cartel, pledging not to grow, but to remain stationary. The first member who defects and decides to accelerate his growth will be in a very advantageous position over the rest of the cartel–tipping off the very same “growth race” we see today. The effects of one’s actions to the seventh generation mean nothing if you face extinction at the hands of a more complex, intensive neighbor today.

Thus, civilizations must always grow. Failure to grow makes them vulnerable to other civilizations, and all are compelled to continue the self-reinforcing, positive feedback loop of continual growth, or die trying. Civilizations which fail to grow mark themselves for extinction. Constant growth is the only condition under which civilization can persist. It cannot continue in decline; it cannot continue standing still. In Collapse, Jared Diamond notes that a civilization’s collapse very often swiftly follows its peak. In an article for The New York Times (1 January 2005), titled “The Ends of the World as We Know Them,” he remarks:

History warns us that when once-powerful societies collapse, they tend to do so quickly and unexpectedly. That shouldn’t come as much of a surprise: peak power usually means peak population, peak needs, and hence peak vulnerability.

In other words, collapse occurs not when those resources we require run out–it occurs when the acquisition of those resources stops continuing to grow, but not our need for them. When demand outstrips supply, the economy acts to correct the situation. Usually that means a higher price, extinguishing demand–but when the resource is necessary for life, other means may also be necessary. Ultimately, the market always finds a solution; the problem is that most people who trumpet that fact tend to suffer a lack of imagination where what such a solution might entail is concerned. As Joseph Tainter took such pains to point out in The Collapse of Complex Societies, collapse is, above all, an economizing process.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] Thus, large populations require a legal body, and judges to execute that law. The nature of agricultural production also demands defense. While ideas of property and ownership are essential to an agricultural society, they are alien to the rest of the world. The gross inefficiency of agricultural life puts the agricultural society in a very tenuous position. This is why only agricultural societies suffer famine. When Richard Lee made his famous study of the !Kung and calculated their average work per day to be three hours, the Kalahari was suffering one of the worst draughts in living memory. The !Kung’s Bantu neighbors–pastoralists–were dying of starvation, while the !Kung complained of having to work so hard–three whole hours–to gather their food. Humans are omnivores, and it would take nothing less than a mass extinction to threaten our survival as foragers. We risk starvation only when we culturally redefine “food” to a small number of closely related, domesticated species. Because of this, any agricultural society that does not protect its fields from animal predators–both human and otherwise–will not last very long. Even worse, the inefficiencies of agriculture require constant expansion in order to continue (see thesis #12). […]

    Pingback by Thesis #13: Civilization always pursues complexity. » The Anthropik Network — 27 October 2005 @ 11:51 AM

  2. […] In the previous thesis, we saw that complexity is subject to diminishing returns, because of each of its facets–subsistence, information processng, sociopolitical control, economics, and technology–are not only intertwined as a single system, but are themselves subject to diminishing returns. As such, any society which pursues complexity as an answer to every stress–which is to say, any civilization (see thesis #13)–must, eventually, collapse. This is only underlined by the basic fact that nothing can grow forever in a finite universe (see thesis #12). This leaves only the question of when collapse will occur, or, “is our current level of complexity before or beyond the point of diminishing returns?” To answer this question, let’s again take a look at each of the elements we’ve previously broken out separately: subsistence, information processng, sociopolitical control, economics, and technology. […]

    Pingback by Thesis #15: We have passed the point of diminishing returns. » The Anthropik Network — 1 November 2005 @ 12:48 AM

  3. […] We noted in thesis #12 that high levels of complexity so often create a game of prisoner’s dilemna, where all players must constantly intensify to remain competitive. We certainly see this in the competitive feasting of Kwakiutl nobles, but we do not see this resulting in expansion on the part of the Kwakiutl. They did not conquer huge swaths of North America, nor did they destroy their environment. Why? What was their secret to creating a sustainable, large-scale, complex society? Their energy source itself. […]

    Pingback by Exceptions that Prove the Rule, #2: The Kwakiutl » The Anthropik Network — 27 January 2006 @ 4:34 PM

  4. […] Unless, of course, technology can deploy a solution to that, as well. That is the promise the techno-salvationist offers: to solve every problem just in the nick of time, thanks to the market forces that compel innovation, and eventually, to leave the earth behind and move from planet to planet, consuming the resources we need, and moving on. Most of them say we will “sow life throughout the universe” with such a plan, but they’re neglecting a very basic fact: that our civilization is not devastating our planet because it is evil, but because these problems are systemic. Every resource has some rate at which it is replenished. Sometimes, that rate is “zero,” but even fossil fuels are replenished over a sufficiently long time scale. Thus, the distinction between sustainable and unsustainable is the rate at which that resource is consumed–whether it is consumed faster, or slower, than it is replenished. Because complexity creates a self-reinforcing positive feedback loop (see thesis #12), complexity is a function of energy, and energy is obtained from resources, even a complex society that begins with sustainable practices must eventually become unsustainable as its complexity increases, and its need for more energy grows. Thus, civilization can never spread life through the universe. The brightest hope the techno-salvationist can offer is to become the alien villains of science fiction movies like Independence Day. […]

    Pingback by Thesis #16: Technology cannot stop collapse. (The Anthropik Network) — 17 October 2006 @ 10:30 AM

  5. […] Proponents of solar energy have pointed out that covering just 2% of the earth’s land surface would produce enough photovoltaic energy to replace the electricity use of the whole world. Of course, this is an unbelievably terrifying thought. While fossil fuels provide limits to growth that cap human civilization’s destructiveness at about its current level, Jevons Paradox has turned every technology that has ever been aimed at preserving natural resources into a greater consumer, not lesser. Schemes to reduce the amount of land needed for farming, for instance, have often been justified in terms of providing more land for “wilderness,” but they invariably result in less “wilderness,” because land use becomes more efficient. As we know, civilization is always compelled to grow.4 If today’s energy needs can be met with just 2% of the earth’s land surface covered in photovoltaic cells, why not support 13 billion people with 4%? Or 26 billion with 8%? Collapse remains inevitable even in this case, but whereas before the limits to growth were set by relatively benign problems like peak oil, now the limit is much higher—the point at which so much of the earth’s surface is covered in PV cells that we cause cascades of plant extinctions simply for lack of sunlight, and cut off the food chain at its base. The plan to replace our current energy usage with photovoltaics is, on the surface, the ultimate worst case scenario; it could be the deus ex machina that will allow us to delay collapse once again, but that delay is the first one to preclude any chance of survival for the human species. Indeed, it raises the terrifying prospect of the end of all multicellular life on this planet. […]

    Pingback by Sermon to the Sun Worshippers (The Anthropik Network) — 7 November 2006 @ 1:55 PM

  6. […] we have already seen, civilization must always grow (thesis #12 and thesis #13). That kind of competition creates an environment where building redundancy is […]

    Pingback by The Anthropik Network » Thesis #19: Complexity ensures collapse. — 31 July 2007 @ 2:51 PM


  1. Oh…now I get it. The economy and humanity will solve the problem, it has to. Previously, it solved the problem with a relatively minor efficency increase of an old technology. IE, developing steel or discovering the multiple uses of coal. But this time that’s not sufficent, we’re running out of things too fundamental this time. With the Amazon being cut down you can even argue that we’re running out of oxygen of all things. So when civilization solves the problem this time, and it will. It will do it by economizing it’s already existing processes, the way it always does. But this time, due to the condition of the environment, farm land, and the population, this will almost certainly mean terminal collapse. Collapse is civilization correcting itself by decreasing demand. It’s kind of funny in a film noir kind of way.

    Comment by Benjamin Shender — 24 October 2005 @ 2:03 AM

  2. Civilization has some self-protection mechanisms (what Quinn calls “Mother Nature”), but it is ultimately a very mechanistic system, and will end as it was destined to end from its very inception: in apoptosis.

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 24 October 2005 @ 10:11 AM

  3. D’ya mean ‘Mother Culture’? ;-)


    Comment by Janene — 24 October 2005 @ 10:25 AM

  4. :) Oops

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 24 October 2005 @ 11:58 AM

  5. “Civilisations can’t stay still, they need to grow to survive”

    Civilisations are in a constant race to survive against their competitor civilisations and not become extinct/overrun.

    It reminds me of the parable of the Red Queen to Alice (discussed in the Lucifer Principle- A book I very much recommend)

    The Red Queen says to Alice that to stay in place you have to run very very hard and to get anywhere you have to run even harder.

    Comment by Mary Jones — 13 January 2006 @ 4:17 PM

  6. Indeed … and that pattern exists all the way down. Nation-states in competition; corporations in competition; individuals in competition … that keeps civilization always growing.

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 13 January 2006 @ 4:24 PM

  7. I’d like to make two points, if I may.

    First: Prisoner’s dilemma - usually I see this expressed as ‘iterated prisoner’s dilemma’: what strategy yields the optimum overall outcome if the game is played again and again between two players? Much work in this field suggests that co-operative strategies are favourable. ‘Tit-for-tat’ (or the modern doctrine of ‘proportional response’) is one such strategy which does better in the iterated game than simply being nasty.

    Second: Economic growth - this is only loosely linked to any increase in complexity or total output. There’s issues of usurious interest and the printing of money to consider.

    Comment by speedbird — 14 March 2006 @ 7:00 AM

  8. You’re quite right, the iterated prisoner’s dilemna does yield cooperation. But there’s a problem with applying the iterated prisoner’s dilemna to real-world situations. Usually, in each round, one of the players is eliminated. If the scenario is real, after each round, a prisoner goes to jail for a very long time. In terms of affairs between complex organizations, one is consumed by the other. There is no iterated game: after each round, one of the two players is gone.

    If that isn’t the case, then the weights attached to the outcome are diminished. It is a game, and the players begin to treat it that way.

    Economic growth is one of the facets of complexity; see thesis #14. Saying that economic growth is only loosely linked to an increase in complexity is like saying that growth in tech sector stocks is only loosely linked to the stock market.

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 14 March 2006 @ 10:05 AM

  9. Economics as a symptom… interesting.

    Comment by speedbird — 14 March 2006 @ 12:06 PM

  10. See, I’ve been maintaining on another site for a while now that Peak Oil is just a symptom of something much bigger, badder and uglier. I don’t know its name (insert Highlander/Queen quote here :-D), but other posters suggested things like ‘neoliberal laissez-faire capitalism’. So now I’m becoming convinced that even ‘neoliberal laissez-faire capitalism’ isn’t big, bad or ugly enough to be the Big Bad Ugly that wants to whup our collective asses. Interesting.

    You’re right, of course, about non-iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma leading to selfish behaviour. What I mean is that in the really long term (the rise and fall of many civilisations), the situation is iterated - my point being that in the long term, societies doomed to crash in this way are a daft idea. Which is a sentiment I get the feeling you might agree with.

    So what is this Big Bad Ugly that drives civilisations to pursue complexity? I’ve started noticing it everywhere now: businesses driven to complex solutions *even when simple solutions exist*. What’s causing it?

    Comment by speedbird — 15 March 2006 @ 5:03 AM

  11. You’re right, of course, about non-iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma leading to selfish behaviour. What I mean is that in the really long term (the rise and fall of many civilisations), the situation is iterated - my point being that in the long term, societies doomed to crash in this way are a daft idea. Which is a sentiment I get the feeling you might agree with.

    The problem is, in each iteration, one of the players is eliminated. The iterated game is played between the same two players–they start to trust each other. If it’s a different pair of players each time, it’s not an iterated game anymore–it’s just plain, vanilla Prisoner’s Dilemna, over and over again.

    So what is this Big Bad Ugly that drives civilisations to pursue complexity? I’ve started noticing it everywhere now: businesses driven to complex solutions *even when simple solutions exist*. What’s causing it?

    I intuited the same “Big, Bad Ugly” for some time before I read Tainter’s Collapse of Complex Soceities. He gave it a name for me. I synopsize it in thesis #14.

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 15 March 2006 @ 10:11 AM

  12. I disagree about the non-iterative nature of reality with respect to the prisoner’s dilemna. Very few interactions involve the elimination of one of the parties. In fact, war whether cultural or political is one of the few areas that this seems to be so, even then some cultures survive conquest, abeit modified and severly reduced.

    Most of your daily interactions are with people you will see again. Humans are creatures of habit, we work, study and play with the same group of aquaintences, we frequent the same restaurants and stores over time. Even in large cities, people tend to stay localized most of the time.

    For the most part, the prisoner’s dilemna fails to model the possibility of reality. Its a simplification for logical reasoning. The mathematics of anything larger than 3 x 3 becomes too complex for anyone without advanced training to understand.

    Decreasing our interactions with strangers is one way to return to a life that encourages cooperation. THis is essentially what tribalism is. You give favored cooperation status to your tribe. Tribalism could in theory create a society that isn’t growth orientated and strong enough to stand against a complex society based on hierarchy. Gorilla warfare is problematic even for the United States Military today.

    Comment by Jeff Schulte — 25 May 2006 @ 4:59 PM

  13. I disagree about the non-iterative nature of reality with respect to the prisoner’s dilemna. Very few interactions involve the elimination of one of the parties. In fact, war whether cultural or political is one of the few areas that this seems to be so, even then some cultures survive conquest, abeit modified and severly reduced.

    You’re thinking of a much smaller scale than I am. Although, elimination need not be total population replacement. If you can replace their culture with yours, it works just as well. For instance, by my estimation, the Mongol conquest of China ended with the elimination of the Mongols by China.

    Most of your daily interactions are with people you will see again. Humans are creatures of habit, we work, study and play with the same group of aquaintences, we frequent the same restaurants and stores over time. Even in large cities, people tend to stay localized most of the time.

    Which is why we don’t cut each other’s throats constantly, but in every contact between a more complex culture and a less complex one, the less complex one is always eliminated: either by direct means (e.g., genocide), or indirect means (e.g., they cease to be a less complex society), or, more often, a combination. Either way, there is no second iteration, because the less complex society no longer exists.

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 25 May 2006 @ 5:08 PM

  14. You rail on civilization without defining what it actually is (did I miss a link somewhere?). Sometimes I think you’re talking about *our* civilization, but then I see comments about “every civilization” or other generalized comments. Webster’s defines Civilization as:

    1 a : a relatively high level of cultural and technological development; specifically : the stage of cultural development at which writing and the keeping of written records is attained b : the culture characteristic of a particular time or place
    2 : the process of becoming civilized
    3 a : refinement of thought, manners, or taste b : a situation of urban comfort

    Are you suggesting that we do away with writing and written records? If not, please explain what you’re talking about when you say “civilization.”

    Comment by Benjamin Bradley — 9 June 2006 @ 4:09 PM

  15. The definition of civilization offered in thesis #13 begins with the ways in which our typical dictionary definition is a bit of ethnocentric garbage. The conclusion I reach in that article is:

    A civilization is any society which chooses to answer all stresses with an increase in complexity. As such, the seeds of collapse are sown in civilization’s very nature, because complexity itself is subject to diminishing returns, and pursuing any one strategy as the response to every stress will suffer the same fate.

    Writing is one of Childe’s secondary characteristics of civilization. Some civilizations have it; some don’t. Some cultures that aren’t civilizations, do. So, it’s a loose correlate at best, not a defining trait. There are some advantages to writing and written records; there are also some serious drawbacks, particularly in how literacy changes a culture’s basic outlook on existence (see Walter Ong’s Literacy & Orality). I do not think it would be a great tragedy to lose it, but I don’t have that as any kind of goal, either. I think we need to create a livable, sustainable human society, and worry about whether or not we can keep writing after that, since it’s a mixed blessing at best with as much to argue against it as for it.

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 11 June 2006 @ 7:26 PM

  16. Habitual defection is only a viable strategy in an environment of near-perfect anonymity. Players in an iterated prisoner’s dilemma will quickly learn to track reputations and form coalitions against chronic defectors. This is the real shortcoming of civilization: it concetrates people in such numbers that evolved reputation tracking mechanisms (see the Rule of 150) are overwhelmed, allowing defectors to proliferate. Man is capable of augmenting his native capabilities with technology, however, and so we see the emergence of specialized tools (reputation tracking software) for assessing large numbers of people without recourse to stereotyping.

    Comment by Robert — 19 June 2006 @ 6:59 PM

  17. That’s an interesting note, Robert, but I think that’s just one of the shortcomings of civilization–and, frankly, a minor one when compared to its systemic inability to operate sustainably.

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 19 June 2006 @ 7:13 PM

  18. Failure to grow makes them vulnerable to other civilizations, and all are compelled to continue the self-reinforcing, positive feedback loop of continual growth, or die trying.

    Didn’t China and Japan try not to get involved in the West’s expansionism by trying to isolate themselves from the rest of the world? Didn’t they choose the other path–control their growth, only to get absorbed by the West?

    Comment by Taylor — 12 September 2006 @ 9:29 AM

  19. If a population decreases in size, is it inevitable that the economy also decreases? What about steady state populations? And is this bad for the wellfare? Because I would imagine that there is less need for sustainance, there will be less need for economic growth?

    Comment by — 5 November 2006 @ 2:10 PM

  20. Inevitable? No–you could increase per-capita production in tandem with population decrease to keep the economy at the same size. It would be “bad for welfare” insofar as it means everyone in the society has to work that much harder–unless, of course, you’re OK with economic contraction.

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 6 November 2006 @ 12:41 PM

  21. gjsonke wrote:

    If a population decreases in size, is it inevitable that the economy also decreases? What about steady state populations? And is this bad for the wellfare? Because I would imagine that there is less need for sustainance, there will be less need for economic growth?

    I may digress from strict economic terminology, and am not sure if I miss the point, but I’d like to expand on this a little:

    In the big picture, as has been stated elsewhere on this site, actual consumption bears less importance than the ecological footprint. The conversion rate of resources to waste which economic activity entails, as compared to nature’s capability to replenish those resources, determines how much of this activity can take place, and for how long. Population size can be linked to economic activity and ecological footprint, but that relationship does not appear to be proportional, because small populations can have the biggest ecological footprint per individual, while our large amount of poor people today each have a rather small footprint. One way or another, we cannot sustain the total footprint of today’s human population.

    Now, concerning welfare in the economic sense, it appears that a certain amount of activity per individual is necessary. If one does not have enough energy, one dies. On the other end of the scale, one runs into diminishing marginal returns on material wealth: At some point, an exquisite meal which a poor person would long for all year, will be taken for granted. While civilisation promises material wealth for everyone, a promise it cannot keep, the value of immaterial ‘goods’ like community, joy, love, respect, you name it, rises.

    Those goods take energy to procure, but generally much less so than production of material goods. Yet, the economics profession only counts material goods and translates those to wealth, forming the basis of calculation of economic growth. This results in an apparent disconnect between economic growth or decline and personal well-being.

    A smaller population can induce a rise in economic activity. A steady state population nevertheless needs resources and will deplete them if it exists above the replenishment rate of said resources, which is bad for the welfare in the long run. If there is less need for sustenance, there is no need for economic growth regarding vital goods ;-). But as our society is based upon its production of goods beyond the vital amount, there is little connection between need and actual consumption right now.

    Comment by Michael Kt. — 6 November 2006 @ 1:33 PM

  22. If civilization is required to have continual growth in order to succeed against other competing societies, then what happens when there is no other competing society? In this case, there is no pressure from an outside source to drive the complexity. Theoretically, a civilization that had outcompeted its competitors would no longer have any drive to grow and could choose to cease growth or even simplify. Now, I’m sure they’d keep trying to grow from Habit, and the collapse could happen before a successful transition to a sustainable strategy. But the same global monoculture that gives the coming crash the opportunity to be much more devastating than others before it also seems to offer the possibility of endig the prisoners dilemma once and for all.

    Not that I think it’s likely, but perhaps it is possible. More likely competing groups within the monoculture will continue to drive complexity.

    Comment by Andrew Jensen — 26 January 2007 @ 1:16 PM

  23. More than anything else, it’s globalization of the economy that favors single-iteration over multiple-iteration. In the past, a badguy could rape & pillage only his own country before being brought down; now the world is his for the picking.

    The growth/conquest dynamic is not limited to complex societies, or agricultural (or conventional-industrial) societies. For example we see the existence of wars of conquest and slavery in tribal cultures around the world (e.g. in Africa and in the Pacific Northwest, both cases before contact with Europeans).

    The underlying dynamics, of population growth and desire for material things, are the result of instincts for reproduction and consumption that are hard-wired at the chimpanzee level (baby chimps, like baby humans, will reach out and grasp at objects that are literally shiny (or sparkly) and new).

    Complexity and growth are symptoms of these deeper flaws, not first causes.

    Comment by gg3 — 29 January 2007 @ 9:15 AM

  24. Jason,

    This is one of your arguments that many of the people I’ve pointed towards your work take issue with. The Prisoner’s Dilemma argument works when multiple civilizations in competition are involved, but it doesn’t work for an isolated civilization.

    A “civilization” could be somewhat sustainable (at least until the soil is depleted) as long as everyone farms, there’s no specialization, and the surplus is only used in emergencies.

    The problem comes when specialized and unproductive classes are created. Creating a formalized economy along with them. The population will always rise to the surplus, but the surplus is also required for the economy. Since this requires the surplus to be able to circulate around the economy, you can’t restrict it to emergency usage anymore. So the population will grow
    to the surplus, requiring a new surplus to fuel the economy and thus expansion.

    Comment by locke — 12 February 2007 @ 5:53 PM

  25. On the contrary, Tainter actually makes the case that only a civilization in isolation can collapse. The key is that the Prisoner’s Dilemna does not operate only on an “inter-civilizational” level. It exists at every level of civilization, because the means to increase energy exist. Look at our own society. The United States and England are obviously members of the same civilization, but below the level of “civilizations,” there’s the level of nation-states, and they too exist in a Prisoner’s Dilemna. The U.S. and the U.K. are allied because they have common enemies, but they are still in competition with one another. Because their means to compete are roughly equal, they remain at the same level of complexity, and neither one can pull ahead, so their alliance is maintained. There is also the corporate level; here, there is greater disparity between one corporation’s ability to compete and another’s, so the nature of the competition is more evident. Even at the individual household level, competition spurs on increasing complexity: in the United States, few workers take their vacation days, because of a Prisoner’s Dilemna. A co-worker who takes off fewer days might get the promotion, or keep the job, while you do not. The result is that as quickly as the average number of vacation days in the U.S. dwindles, Americans using them dwindles even more quickly.

    Even in isolation, a civilization where everyone farms, there’s no specialization and the surplus is only used in emergencies is going to either violate one or more of those rules almost immediately, or fly apart at the seams. It won’t take long for some of these farmers to realize that they’re toiling several times more than they would have to following a horticultural or hunter-gatherer way of life. It’s specialization and the use of surplus to support specialization that makes the arrangement viable. Without that, there’s no reason to keep farming; you can have enough food for yourself and your family with far less effort any number of ways. Participation is extracted through some combination of (1) the promise of becoming part of the elite, and (2) forceful extraction by the elite (i.e., “I’d run off, but then how would I pay my taxes/hunting licenses/whatever?”)

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 12 February 2007 @ 6:10 PM

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