Toward a General Theory of Societal Collapse: A Biophysical Examination of Tainter’s Model of the Diminishing Returns of Complexity

  • Ugo Bardi
  • Sara FalsiniEmail author
  • Ilaria Perissi
Original Paper


The collapse of large social systems, often referred to as “civilizations” or “empires,” is a well-known historical phenomenon, but its origins are the object of an unresolved debate. In this paper, we present a simple biophysical model which we link to the concept that societies collapse because of the “diminishing returns of complexity” proposed by Tainter (The collapse of complex societies, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1988). Our model is based on the description of a socio-economic system as a trophic chain of energy stocks which dissipate the energy potential of the available resources. The model is based on the idea that we observe that the exploitation of a non-renewable resource stock (“production”) has a strongly nonlinear relation with the complexity of the system, assumed to be proportional to the size of the stock termed “The Economy” (or “capital”), producing various trajectories of decline of the economy, in some cases rapid enough that they can be defined as “collapses.” The evolution of the relation of production and the economy produces a curve similar to the one proposed by Tainter, for the decline of a complex society.


Tainter’s theory Societal collapse System dynamics Complexity 


Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Chemistry DepartmentUniversity of FlorenceSesto FiorentinoItaly
  2. 2.Chemistry DepartmentConsorzio Interuniversitario per la Scienza e la Tecnolgia dei Materiali (INSTM)-University of FlorenceSesto FiorentinoItaly

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