The unsustainable is never sustained

There’s a flurry of interest about a new NASA-funded study on the prospect that our complex industrial societies are poised for collapse. It indeed sounds like a very interesting piece of work. But is this new? Jared Diamond’s Collapse was surely a forerunner. Paul Seabright’s The Company of Strangers majored on the potential fragility of the complex, intertwined global economy in which we all depend on the activities and goodwill of strangers – so far, so good but clearly vulnerable.

But the grandfather of this complexity and collapse of civilisations theme was Joseph Tainter‘s 1988 The Collapse of Complex Societies. He talks about it here on You Tube.

For me (as discussed in The Economics of Enough) the moral is that the unsustainable is never sustained, and the only question is how society moves to the sustainable trajectory – sustainability including the social and financial as well as the ecological dimensions. Collapse is the least desirable option.

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4 thoughts on “The unsustainable is never sustained

  1. Diamond & Tainter are good choices. (I haven’t read Seabright.) I highly recommend Canadian political scientist Thomas Homer Dixon’s The Ingenuity Gap: Facing the Economic, Environmental, and Other Challenges of an Increasingly Complex and Unpredictable Future and his The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization. His book introduced me to Tainter’s work, and he draws upon it. He does an excellent job of mixing reporting and academic literature. And although he can be a great pain, Taleb has a lot worthwhile to say on topics of complexity and potential collapse.

    • Ah yes, those are good suggestions, thank you. I’ve browsed some of Thomas Homer Dixon’s papers although not read the books, a definite gap. I like Taleb’s books, even though he bizzarely took such umbrage at what I said about his last one.

      • Please tell us how Taleb took umbridge.

        I think he’s great but does seem to be a case of genius/lunatic.

        • I think the review was insufficiently positive for his tastes, and he had a rant on Twitter about economists in general & me in particular that his many online acolytes repeated and retweeted. On the plus side, it brought a lot of traffic to this blog!

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