BOOTHBAY HARBOR — We live in and benefit from a highly complex society, the most complex in history, and of a complexity that is challenging to comprehend and to sustain and manage.

Indicators of that complexity include the myriad federal institutes, agencies, administrations, commissions, boards and bureaus dealing with matters such as defense, commerce, communications, transportation safety, homeland security and public health. Then there are the state and local highway, police, fire, water, sanitation and education systems. All these and more perform services essential to the functioning of a modern society.

It takes energy to sustain a complex and beneficial society. The energy is not just that of conventional or renewable energy or investment (and tax) resources. Most importantly, it includes intellectual effort, the collective societal consideration and discussion and understanding of and agreement on the requirements and commitments necessary to sustain a complex society.

It requires mental effort and public participation and compromise necessary to develop policies to deal appropriately with challenging foreign affairs, economic stresses, social inequalities and injustices, maintenance of physical infrastructure, climate change, health care, hospital deficits, drug addiction, affordable educational opportunities and responsible and effective sociopolitical entities such as Congress.

Higher education, fundamental to maintaining a complex society, is becoming unaffordable for many people. If sufficient energy or intellectual effort is not committed to these concerns and responsibilities of a modern, complex society, that society cannot be sustained.

Joseph Taintor’s book “The Collapse of Complex Societies” analyzes nearly 20 societies through history that have collapsed. Taintor concludes that people abandon a society when it becomes too expensive to maintain with few or no benefits commensurate with the costs, or when people no longer commit sufficient energy necessary to sustain that society.


Perhaps our current political disarray is an example of Taintor’s thesis. Our Congress, with historically low public approval, seems unwilling to commit sufficient energy and to appropriate sufficient funds to maintain our physical and sociopolitical infrastructures. When in session, it works three days a week. In that time many members reportedly spend four hours a day raising money for re-election.

Congress seems to be driven by the belief that government should be reduced rather than maintained at a size necessary to deal with the complexity of and challenges to our society. Which government services would we dispense with if our goal were to reduce government, to shrink Big Government – to get government off our backs? And what would be the consequences to society?

The mostly simplistic or mindless, derogatory and irrelevant presidential campaign rhetoric, although attracting and cheered on by large crowds, seems unable or unwilling to address the complexities or subtleties of foreign policies or climate change, or any of the other vital issues urgently needing attention.

Where in this campaign is there intelligent discussion and consideration of the many issues that challenge our society and well-being? Isn’t this largely pointless campaign the functional equivalent of a failure to invest the intellectual energy necessary to respond to the needs of our society?

Parts of the private financial sector seem equally intent on avoiding their shared responsibilities in supporting the complex society that they have, in part, created and from which they benefit.

Segments of private enterprise have been fined multiple tens of billions of dollars for deliberate violations of laws for the sole purpose of avoiding their share of maintaining society. Similarly, a large segment of private enterprise and excessively wealthy individuals hide their income in overseas tax shelters for the same purpose of avoiding their responsibilities.


Individuals may despair of understanding or influencing the functions or requirements of our complex society. Perhaps they conclude that their energies or intellectual efforts to influence the course of events are simply inadequate to make a difference. So they give up and cheer on the reality-show entertainment that seems to be the essence of our political campaign.

This lack of rational attention and effort is functionally equivalent to a failure to commit energy necessary for maintenance of complex societies. The result is failure to provide essential benefits and services, and their abandonment by the people and the collapse of their societies, as Joseph Taintor documented. Or if the result is not literal economic and political collapse, then at least stagnation and slow degradation are inevitable.

This is a lesson and warning of history. It is said those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it.


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