The more a population is squeezed, Tainter warns, the larger the share that “must be allocated to legitimization or coercion.” And so it was: As U.S. military spending skyrocketed — to, by some estimates, a total of more than $1 trillion today from $138 billion in 1980 — the government would try both tactics, ingratiating itself with the wealthy by cutting taxes while dismantling public-assistance programs and incarcerating the poor in ever-greater numbers. What happened on a national level happened locally as well, with police budgets eclipsing funding for social services in city after city. “As resources committed to benefits decline,” Tainter wrote in 1988, “resources committed to control must increase.”
When I asked him if he saw the recent protests in these terms, Tainter pointed again to the Romans, caught in the trap of devoting a larger and larger share of their empire’s resources to defense even as it ceaselessly expanded, chasing ever-more-distant enemies, until one day, they showed up at the city gates.
The overall picture drawn by Tainter’s work is a tragic one. It is our very creativity, our extraordinary ability as a species to organize ourselves to solve problems collectively, that leads us into a trap from which there is no escaping. Complexity is “insidious,” in Tainter’s words. “It grows by small steps, each of which seems reasonable at the time.” And then the world starts to fall apart, and you wonder how you got there.
There is, however, another way to look at this. Perhaps collapse is not, actually, a thing. Perhaps, as an idea, it was a product of its time, a Cold War hangover that has outlived its usefulness, or an academic ripple effect of climate-change anxiety, or a feedback loop produced by some combination of the two. Over the last 10 years, more and more scholars have, like McAnany, been questioning the entire notion of collapse. The critical voices have been more likely to come from women — the appeal of collapse’s sudden, violent drama was always, as Dartmouth College’s Deborah L. Nichols put it, “more of a guy thing” — and from Indigenous scholars and those who pay attention to the narratives Indigenous people tell about their own societies. When those are left out, collapse, observes Sarah Parcak, who teaches at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, can easily mean erasure, a convenient way of hiding the violence of conquest. This is not to suggest that once-populous cities have never been abandoned or that the kind of rapid social simplification that Tainter diagnosed has not regularly occurred; only that if you pay attention to people’s lived experience, and not just to the abstractions imposed by a highly fragmented archaeological record, a different kind of picture emerges.
Part of the issue may be that Tainter’s understanding of societies as problem-solving entities can obscure as much as it reveals. Plantation slavery arose in order to solve a problem faced by the white landowning class: The production of agricultural commodities like sugar and cotton requires a great deal of backbreaking labor. That problem, however, has nothing to do with the problems of the people they enslaved. Which of them counts as “society”?
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the total net worth of America’s billionaires, all 686 of them, has jumped by close to a trillion dollars. In September, nearly 23 million Americans reported going without enough to eat, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Whatever problems those 686 billionaires may have, they are not the same as those of the 23 million who are hungry. Insisting that they should not be allowed to blur together puts not only “society” but also collapse into a different sort of focus. If societies are not in fact unitary, problem-solving entities but heaving contradictions and sites of constant struggle, then their existence is not an all-or-nothing game. Collapse appears not as an ending, but a reality that some have already suffered — in the hold of a slave ship, say, or on a long, forced march from their ancestral lands to reservations faraway — and survived.
“What do you do if you’re still here after the story of failure has already been written?” asks the Native American scholar Michael V. Wilcox, who teaches at Stanford University. The cities of Palenque and Tikal may lie in ruins in the jungle, a steady source of tourist dollars, but Maya communities still populate the region, and their languages, far from dead, can be heard these days in the immigrant neighborhoods of Los Angeles and other American cities too. The Ancestral Pueblo abandoned the great houses of Chaco Canyon sometime in the 12th century, but their descendants were able to expel the Spanish in the 1600s, for a little over a decade anyway. The Navajo, nearby, survived the genocidal wars of the 19th century, the uranium boom of the 20th and the epidemic of cancer it left in its wake, and are now facing Covid-19, which hit the Navajo Nation harder than it did New York.