The law of diminishing returns and why complex societies are more vulnerable to collapse: An interview with Joseph Tainter
07/15/2017 / By Ethan Huff / Comments
The law of diminishing returns and why complex societies are more vulnerable to collapse: An interview with Joseph Tainter

A sustainable society is only as secure as the strength and success of its problem-solving institutions. If and when these fail, society is toast, suggests Dr. Joseph Tainter, a professor at Utah State University and author of a riveting book on this subject, The Collapse of Complex Societies (which can be downloaded for free in e-book format by clicking this link).

During a recent interview with, Dr. Tainter told a listening audience how successful societies rely on healthy investments in the areas of social complexity and energy subsidies. Once these begin to see diminishing marginal returns, however, these societies are said to have reached a tipping point from which they will eventually reach a point of collapse – the inevitable consequence of declining net energy per capita, ever-depleting key resources, and an over-leveraged economy.

All of these things are becoming true for the United States, as well as many other developed societies around the world that haven’t kept up with preparing for the future. (RELATED: There are some problems that can be solved, and others that can’t. To stay informed for whatever the future might bring, stay tuned to

Despite having developed some of the most complex societies the world has ever seen, modern mankind remains woefully shortsighted when it comes to fully understanding how sustainability works. Rather than think broadly in terms of both time and space, modern man has persisted in the ways of old, Tainter contends. Few men are thinkers, and fewer still are willing to confront some of the major challenges of our day – and because of this, humanity as a whole may have already exceeded the sustainability threshold.


Sustainability requires that people have the ability and the inclination to think broadly in terms of time and space,” Dr. Tainter stated during the interview.” In other words, to think broadly in a geographical sense about the world around them, as well as the state of the world as a whole. And also, to think broadly in time in terms of the near and distant future and what resources will be available to our children and our grandchildren and our great grandchildren.”

Solving the problems of our day means getting better informed, college professor contends

While technological breakthroughs and innovation have made life more convenient – the evidence, some might say, of human evolutionary advancement – the return on investment for spending in this sector is beginning to decline. Not only that, but technology is growing increasingly unable to solve the world’s problems in any meaningful way, which means a dramatic shift will have to occur for the system to continue flourishing.

Another problem, Dr. Tainter contends, is that many people still aren’t willing or able to acknowledge that the world faces this predicament. If people don’t even understand what’s going on, they surely can’t take responsibility for any or it or try to make things better. That’s part of what Dr. Tainter is concerned about, and the reason he’s sounding the alarm about the need for members of the general public to become more informed.

“People have to take responsibility for knowing and understanding the predicament that we’re facing,” he says.

“I have argued over the last few years that we need to start teaching early school age children in K to 12 to think differently, to think broadly in terms of time and space – to think historically, to think long-term about the future, to think broadly about what’s going on in the world around us instead of the narrow way – the narrow, local way – that most people live and think. So I put responsibility on individuals to broaden their knowledge.”

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