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Journal Article

A Dynamic Network Model of Societal Complexity and Resilience Inspired by Tainter’s Theory of Collapse


Schunck,  Florian
External Organizations;


Wiedermann,  Marc
Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research;


Heitzig,  Jobst
Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research;


Donges,  Jonathan Friedemann
Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research;

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Schunck, F., Wiedermann, M., Heitzig, J., Donges, J. F. (2024): A Dynamic Network Model of Societal Complexity and Resilience Inspired by Tainter’s Theory of Collapse. - Entropy, 26, 2, 98.

Cite as: https://publications.pik-potsdam.de/pubman/item/item_29491
In recent years, several global events have severely disrupted economies and social structures, undermining confidence in the resilience of modern societies. Examples include the COVID-19 pandemic, which brought unprecedented health challenges and economic disruptions, and the emergence of geopolitical tensions and conflicts that have further strained international relations and economic stability. While empirical evidence on the dynamics and drivers of past societal collapse is mounting, a process-based understanding of these dynamics is still in its infancy. Here, we aim to identify and illustrate the underlying drivers of such societal instability or even collapse. The inspiration for this work is Joseph Tainter’s theory of the “collapse of complex societies”, which postulates that the complexity of societies increases as they solve problems, leading to diminishing returns on complexity investments and ultimately to collapse. In this work, we abstract this theory into a low-dimensional and stylized model of two classes of networked agents, hereafter referred to as “laborers” and “administrators”. We numerically model the dynamics of societal complexity, measured as the fraction of “administrators”, which was assumed to affect the productivity of connected energy-producing “laborers”. We show that collapse becomes increasingly likely as the complexity of the model society continuously increases in response to external stresses that emulate Tainter’s abstract notion of problems that societies must solve. We also provide an analytical approximation of the system’s dominant dynamics, which matches well with the numerical experiments, and use it to study the influence on network link density, social mobility and productivity. Our work advances the understanding of social-ecological collapse and illustrates its potentially direct link to an ever-increasing societal complexity in response to external shocks or stresses via a self-reinforcing feedback.