Diamond vs Tainter

@Adam: I'm also very interested in the Tainter/Diamond comparison.

Diamond sez Tainter sez "how could you not anticipate a problem & fix it?" It's a fair assessment of some quotes from The Collapse of Complex Societies. (I linked my review.)
From that conundrum Tainter goes on to describe a dynamic (this oft mis-used word fits precisely here)wherein the society enjoys a benefit of technological progress, grows to consume the benefits, & thereby becomes irrevocably committed to it.  Tainter adds that more technology, our only solution (eg to world hunger) may actually not work because of diminishing returns.

This is a fancy way of saying "didn't see it coming"  so when Diamond cites that cause, he's agreeing with Tainter. Diamond divides and enumerates while Tainter tries to understand why. Both are forms of analysis, but not equally good. Diamond is exceedingly thorough, but fundamentally shallow. While both latch on to human self interest as impediment to doing the right thing, Diamond has only "didn't see it coming" and "tragedy of the commons" for rationale, though he takes a dozen pages to say it. Maybe I should say he takes 500 pages to say it! Tainter’s cause is far more nuanced, and complex enough to be the rationale for not foreseeing or effectively mitigating a problem, even if you wanted to.

Tainter’s approach is so tricky that he himself cannot explain it succinctly and instead has to spend much of the book illustrating the problem, carving away around the edges to indirectly describe it’s core. Thus, I’m sorely challenged to pack it in a nutshell! Here’s a try...

Tainter draws an arc of diminishing returns from technological investment that eventually flattens out entirely and then slopes downward!  How could this be?  Adam, I think you’ll like my answer that it’s essentially because of externalities. The accurate cost/benefit analysis in determining whether to buy the latest fertilizer is miscomputed by the farmer because the numerator is misquoted to him in the form of an incomplete accounting behind the price tag. Somewhere the last island of bat guano is being strip mined to make that cheap fertilizer, which lets Iowa support a larger population which intrinsically requires the higher crop yield. The people have to eat. The tractor has to eat. The people move off the farm and build iPods and strip mining machinery Then one day the fertilizer runs out.  Not so different from the last tree on easter island, but you can more easily see how it could sneak up on you. It's just the tragedy of the commons again, made indirect, far away and invisible.

Tainter would probably amplify on my example by describing interconnected webs of dependency, more fragile and less obvious than the fertilizer one. Have you heard Greenspan’s stump speech about the latte? (worth googling) A latte for a couple bucks is a triumph of technological society. Not so long ago, only royalty could aspire to such a concoction and now we all can, but it’s supporting infrastructure is not robust to challenge.   A big steel boat is efficient, but fragile. Put a hole in your wooden dinghy and at least it will still float and you with it.  

Why do we go over the cliff?  Why can’t we retrench to sustainable levels when something complicated gives way? Why are crisis and collapse required?  


When more children are born in Greenland and more outfield flayed to make their houses. You could go back, but some of those children would have to starve. I think Tainter would say the technology itself comprises the momentum, not just the bellies, but I can’t quite defend that part.  Can’t I un-commit to technology?

You can’t just rescale us without a nonlinearity.  There's this thing, the "back side" of the power curve.  There's a minimum drag point, fly faster or slower and you need MORE thrust.  Fly a little slower, add a little thrust, do that for a bit and you're in a tough spot because now it's unstable: if the thrust drops even just a little you can't get back to the normal linear range but instead will slow down until the nonlinearity: stall.  There's a solution in the airplane example just as there is in real life, but it's painful: you have to give in to the inevitable, dive and lose altitude (lose luxury, sacrifice population) to slide down to a sustainable situation.  This is a pretty good analogy, and the Lift-Drag curves even match Tainter's curves in the book.  

Maybe Tainter is wrong about a crystalline web or a house of cards: these are compelling images but are they apt?  What if the rubber supply for my espresso machine’s gasket fails? An alternative silicon gasket can get designed and produced in no time. Hell I’ve already got one. (a spare, actually. I can’t survive an espresso interruption, and after these doomsday books, I’ve taken steps.) Maybe our web of interdependence is resilient like a spiderweb, not fragile like ice, and surely it’s organic and self healing in the sense of trying to grow new bonds where there’s a need. Technology is our religion, a groundless belief that some nerd will invent a new kind of fertilizer and we’ll all be fine.  Even this example isn’t notional. Goog the story of the “Haber Process,”  wherein a smart boy invents a machine to make bat guano.  So maybe Tainter is wrong. Maybe this time. But that machine of Habers? It makes bat guano out of oil.

I like Diamond’s points, a lot. I agree with him.  But I never read a book before and said “duh” so many times.   Analysis by dissection is a tool but it’s too ponderous and just cutting stuff up into little bits doesn’t ADD anything. Tainter made me think & I’m still thinking.


  1. Nice summary - agree completely.

    Tainter adds a lot to Diamond not the other way around. But Diamond's perspective supports Tainter 100%.

    BTW I think you'd also like Tainter (with Allen and Hoekstra) book Supply Side Sustainability.

    I've summarized that here: http://www.slideshare.net/AntonyUpward/supply-side-sustainability-summaryupward-av102


  2. Diamond is like an intro or a "for dummies" book. Try to member that for everyone on Einstein's side of the curve there is the poor person on the other.