Saturday, December 18, 2010

Peak Empire

[This is a guest post from Gary, who presents data that indicate that the US military empire is already past its peak and may collapse suddenly. Gary uses a methodology for calculating peak empire that is similar to the Hubbert curve which successfully predicted Peak Oil for both the US and, more recently, the world.

It should be noted that the DOD base structure reports on which Gary's analysis is based don't include Iraq, Afghanistan, or any of the secret (black) installations all over the world, but it is unclear whether the inclusion of these data would change the picture materially.

As far as the speed of imperial collapse, it varies: Rome took five centuries to collapse but USSR took just a couple of years. Alfred W. McCoy, Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, recently wrote: "empires regularly unravel with unholy speed: just a year for Portugal, two years for the Soviet Union, eight years for France, 11 years for the Ottomans, 17 years for Great Britain, and, in all likelihood, 22 years for the United States, counting from the crucial year 2003." My hunch is that McCoy's 22-year estimate is overly generous, and that the collapse of the USA will set a speed record, unfolding over just a handful of very strange days. When will this happen? According to Chris Hedges, it could happen any time now.]

Predicting Collapse

In February, 2009 Dmitry Orlov said the following about predicting the collapse of the US empire: “I have learned from experience – luckily, from other people’s experience – that being a superpower collapse predictor is not a good career choice. I learned that by observing what happened to the people who successfully predicted the collapse of the USSR. Do you know who Andrei Amalrik is? See, my point exactly. He successfully predicted the collapse of the USSR. He was off by just half a decade. That was another valuable lesson for me, which is why I will not give you an exact date when USA will turn into FUSA (“F” is for “Former”). But even if someone could choreograph the whole event, it still wouldn’t make for much of a career, because once it all starts falling apart, people have far more important things to attend to than marveling at the wonderful predictive abilities of some Cassandra-like person.”

As far as predicting the collapse of the US empire, Russian academic Igor Panarin has been predicting it for 2010, and Johan Galtung has predicted it will collapse before 2020. Hubbert predicted in 1974 that global peak oil was incompatible with constantly growing money, triggering a cultural crisis (See Exponential Growth as a Transient Phenomenon).

Andrei Amalrik died in a car crash in 1980 at the age of 42. Nevertheless, at the risk of making a poor career choice, I will attempt to offer a methodology for determining peak US empire, if not a prediction for its demise. Now that global peak oil is history perhaps it’s time to work on predicting peak empire instead. If you followed the work of Joseph Tainter, he offered the theory of diminishing and eventually negative marginal return to territorial growth and complexity of societies. (See The Collapse of Complex Societies) He offered the following graph to illustrate:

As a result he expected complex societies to reach a peak in size and then begin to decline, similar to an oil peak.

He offered the following examples to demonstrate the principle with historical examples of defunct empires:

From: Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies
Shown above are the territorial areas of the Roman, Ottoman, Russian, and US Empires. The curve for the Russian Empire ends abruptly at 1917 where the curve for its heir—the USSR—takes off. The main point is that empires follow a typical bell curve type of shape.

US Empire

In the case of the US empire, it has not continued to expand by territorial acquisition. The last territory acquired was the Marshall Islands in 1947, which then became a UN Trust Territory, followed by Independence in 1986. What has continued to expand is the presence of US military installations all over the world. As the recently deceased analyst Chalmers Johnson explained, the US is an “empire of bases”, not an empire of colonies. The US has 800-1000 foreign military bases and 4-5000 bases in the US. Colonies are so passé these days. Why bother with colonies when you can impose your will with a few bases, and you don’t have to manage the whole country. Besides you can outsource most everything to contractors, so you don’t even need the consent of the governed. All you need is their tax money, which the sheeple continue to provide with barely a bleat.

Looking at the DOD Base Structure reports it is possible to graph the total acreage owned by the US military both in the US, in foreign countries, and in US foreign territories. Since both foreign countries and territories are occupied, I will lump them together. It is also valid to use total military acreage including the US, since the 50 states of the US are essentially occupied territory of the US military as well.

I was unable to find data before 1957, but total acreage under management by the US military had a recent peak in 2007, while foreign acreage peaked in 2004. This data is from official US DOD base structure reports, which according to Chalmers Johnson leaves out quite a bit, but from a relative point of view over time, it is probably adequate. I have included the excel sheet data, and others are welcome to add to the data and do a more thorough job graphing this data.

Military spending

Looking at US military spending below, it has continued to rise, despite the recent decline in acreage under management. This is entirely consistent with Tainter’s theory of declining marginal utility to expanding empires, as imperial overstretch becomes more and more expensive, and returns to expenditures begins to decline, and even become negative. It would be entirely consistent for the expenditures to continue to rise as the empire attempts to hold onto its existing level of military acreage, until interest on the debt causes a default, and then expenditures also collapse.

Imperial Reserves

Like oil, the empire has reserves to continue fueling the military machine. It has its AAA bond rating in order to continue deficit spending by selling Treasury bonds to foreign countries, although the rating agencies have taken somewhat of a hit on their credibility after the financial crisis. Foreign governments may also be thinking twice about the future viability of the dollar. It has the Federal Reserve to continue creating money out of thin air by key strokes on a computer, and engaging in open market operations like “quantitative easing” and purchasing existing treasuries, or even monetizing the debt by buying treasury bonds directly from the US government, giving it more money to play with. Finally they have the credulous and supplicant taxpayers who continue to fund their own demise by turning their tax dollars over to an empire, which throws it down three rat holes simultaneously: The $1 trillion dollar annual military budget, the Afghanistan War, and the bankster bailouts. Like the oil reserve/production ratio, the empire has a reserve/territorial expansion ratio which is declining rapidly. If interest rates increase adequately, the interest on the debt is going to swallow up all of tax revenues, such that a tax increase might be required. Will the sheeple rebel then? We’ll see. In any case, I welcome others to comment on the viability of military acreage as a measure of peak empire, and to expand on the analysis.

[Update: Gary did some more plotting, and here are the results: graphing acreage vs military spending shows diminishing total returns on military spending, and negative marginal returns since 1991 at least.

One more thing to keep in mind: as William Pfaff, writing in Foreign Affairs, puts it, "U.S. military bases have generated apprehension and hostility and fear of the United States, and they have facilitated futile, unnecessary, unprofitable, and self-defeating wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and now seem to be inviting enlarged U.S. interventions in Pakistan, Yemen, and the Horn of Africa. The 9/11 attacks, according to Osama bin Laden himself, were provoked by the "blasphemy" of the existence of U.S. military bases in the sacred territories of Saudi Arabia. The global base system, it seems, tends to produce and intensify the very insecurity that is cited to justify it." Not only is American Empire post-peak, but, just like the Soviet Empire before it, it was operated at a loss throughout, even as it grew, in each case making national bankruptcy just a matter of time.]


Anonymous said...

Before WW2 my grandfathers served in Malta, Pakistan, India, Nepal - all part of empire, and all gone in a very short time but for the commonwealth which still persists. Will we see an American commonwealth?

Anonymous said...

I may add that we are already beginning to see what may be Gandhi like refusals by the populace to take part in the banking empire game.

Cynthia Q said...

Gary & kollapsnik: I'm wondering how you adjudge the "USA" as a national entity, versus what I'll call the Anglo hegemony of (largely-originally-US) multinationals + the IMF + the World Bank, etc.

It seems as though the current global empire is *not* truly that of the USA, but, as it were, a type of "spin-off" which has grown larger than the system that spawned it.

When I look at the politics of my resident country, Italy, I see that its vertices are riddled with alumni of Goldman Sachs.

Is the decline we are seeing primarily the decline of the US, or is it also the decline of Goldman Sachs and the decline of global capitalism? How can we know where one ends and the other begins?

Will the USA empire fade, yielding to the existing empire of stateless global corporations, or is their star hitched to US military might, thus also in descent? Your thoughts?

weeone said...

I agree with everything you are saying. But what is an American citizen supposed to do? You recommend emmigrating, but where is there to go? Some overpopulated third world country where you are an ethnic and racial minority? Or the European Union which is fast collapsing into anarchy?

Some say that the US is going to be the last ones standing because when push comes to shove we will use our military power to control other countries resources. Whether or not that actually happens remains to be seen. Perhaps we will simply nuke the planet and kill all higher life forms including humans.

At any rate I see no advantage for someone like me (age 51 business owner born and raised here) to leave the United States.

TragedyOfTheComments said...

When it comes to studies of empires collapsing, you can't do much better than Isaiah the prophet:

"From the death throes of that snake a worse snake will come, and from that, one even worse.
The poor won't have to worry.
The needy will escape the terror." Is. 14:29 (Peterson's translation)

Dmitry Orlov said...

ladefina -

The British passed to the Americans the baton of Anglo-Saxon rapaciousness and hypocritical worship of Mammon (thinly disguised as militant Christianity), but with the winking out of the US it has nowhere left to go.

When I look at the current unholy concentration of wealth, I see a mountain of soiled, worthless paper and countless square kilometers covered with industrial stranded assets worth their weight in scrap. Debt collection is subject to diminishing returns, just like every other kind of activity.

Yes, the well-groomed corporate types with "GS" pinned to their lapels are still around, but they are like big, vicious fish in a pond that's drying up, getting fat by gobbling up other fish. It's not a long-term plan.

Unknown said...

Interesting but does it really require much quantitative analysis to envision our future. When you begin blatant transfers of wealth from those in increasingly dire straits to those who have no need for it, can something unpleasant be far behind? Probably not. Of course, what we really need is the shape of the coming collapse.

ladelfina's comments resonate. Perhaps the multinationals (and co-conspirators) can arrange a hostile takeover of the US and its nuclear arsenal creating the FUSA (where F means Fascist). This transition to an intermediate state might keep things on life support a bit longer. Either way, it will be misery for most of us.

Anonymous said...

I prefer to define peak US Empire expansion with the final moonwalk, Apollo 17 in 1972. Correlates nicely with peak US domestic oil production. Slow contraction/decay ever since...

Mike said...

The U.S. is essentially the arms dealer to the world with a military budget larger than the rest of the world combined. John Perkins recently remarked that if you add up all the spin-offs and ancillary services to the DOD, our economy is more like 80% devoted to war. Loom at the recent arms deals to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan:


The beltway is tied to the military industrial complex:

Rhisiart Gwilym said...

Never forget in these speculations that entropy always trumps economics, militarism, and all the other megalomanias of humankind, in the medium to long term; and now that the global energy crisis is here, and no way at all presents itself which will allow us to keep the current energy burn going at more than of a small fraction of what it has been recently, then you could say that the overweening power of entropy will enforce its rule in the pretty short term too.

But as Kollapsnik says: precise, dated predictions are probably still just guesstimates. Soon, though, clearly. The US empire at the moment simply STINKS of terminal decay.

Jon said...

I always set the beginning on the American Empire with the sailing of Teddy Roosevelt's Great White Fleet in 1907-9. I think we peaked in the mid 70's and have been living on fumes (ours and those we suck in from other countries) since then. If it took 65 years to reach the top, 65 years to go all the way back down from world dominance to world irrelevance would put us in the 2030's.


Phil Knight said...

Students of imperial collapse might want to read Sir John Glubb's short-but-pithy "The Fate Of Empires" at this link:

It's noteworthy that Glubb predicts the downfall of the USSR in this book, which was published in 1978.

It's also worth noting that Glubb sees imperialism as an innate and unchanging part of the human condition - empires only differ due to the cultural characteristics of the imperial race, whereas the general structural form is unchanged since the time of the Assyrians.

Which means that when the USA goes down, prepare to be part of someone else's empire.

But who will have the next empire? Again, according to Glubb, empires tend to arise in quiet backwaters that no-one pays attention to, such as Macedonia, Mongolia, Arabia and England.

So prepare to be part of the Laotian or Uruguayan empires.

Also, when someone informs you self-righteously that they are "anti-imperialist", just paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut and say "Oh Yeah?, well I'm anti-glaciation".

Wolfgang Brinck said...

I think Dmitry pointed out not too long ago that even if one country can import more oil and thus continue to dominate world affairs, the world as a whole cannot import more oil from off the planet. We are thus bound by limits.
I think that the whole phenomenon of empire, of the initial appearance of empires to their continued growth and the succession of one empire by another was fueled by the ever increasing extraction of energy from the environment.
Once the worldwide supply of energy declines, so will one of the main feed stocks of empire, people. What we call history has all happened more or less in an environment of ever increasing world-wide extraction of energy and population growth. Local political entities here and there hit limits, but the world as a whole always had an ever increasing supply of energy and people to draw on. I think with the decline of energy will come a decline for the first time on a world-wide basis of human populations and their ability to do mischief.
I think that we will no longer be looking at a situation where one empire unwinds and another takes its place, but a world where all empires go into decline for a while until human enterprises reach some new equilibrium with their diminished set of resources. I think the ultimate determinant of whether there will be empires in the second half of this century will be whether there will be enough people left over to support them.

ghpacific said...

This is a great documentary regarding the entire displacement of an indigenous people essentially for some high-tech missles by GB & the USA Blog said...

With the collapse of industrialism will come famine. To quote the film the fim Titanic "It is a mathematical certainty". Exponential growth of people combined with ever decreasing fertility of the land (and increasing dependence on fossil fuels for fertilizer and agricultural machines).

In any case, I am not when famine will start, but I would place a high probability of within 10 years. How many people can the earth support at that point? I have heard estimates of 2/3. In other words 1/3 will die of famine or related diseases. The question is then where will most die? In recent history shortages of food have always effected the poorer 3rd world nations most.

Will the coming famine hit just the 3rd world or will it extend to so-called wealthy nations? What makes Western nations wealthy I don't know. I doubt Americans work harder than Indonesians - most likely the wealth comes from systems that allow some nations to appropriate the resources of other countries. If these systems collapse, will the wealthy nations remain wealthy? Perhaps all nations will revert to a level-playing field. Then each nation will depend pretty much what it can produce itself. I think without fossil fuels and foreign fertilizers the USA will produce far less than it needs, and as such will experience famine. How it copes with this will be interesting to see.

Nassim said...

I like this saying by Talleyrand

"We have learned, a little late no doubt, that for states as for individuals real wealth consists not in acquiring or invading the domains of others, but in developing one's own. We have learned that all extensions of territory, all usurpations, by force or by fraud, which have long been connected by prejudice with the idea of 'rank,' of 'hegemony,' of 'political stability,' of 'superiority' in the order of the Powers, are only the cruel jests of political lunacy, false estimates of power, and that their real effect is to increase the difficulty of administration and to diminish the happiness and security of the governed for the passing interest or for the vanity of those who govern..."

g-minor said...

Years ago someone asked Matt Simmons which nation was best prepared for Peak Oil. "Papua New Guinea," he replied.


Anonymous said...

@philknight: Thanks for the pointer to Glubb's pamphlet. A very good overview, I thought. Particularly liked this little gem:

Another remarkable and unexpected
symptom of national decline is the intensification
of internal political hatreds. One
would have expected that, when the survival
of the nation became precarious, political
factions would drop their rivalry and stand
shoulder-to-shoulder to save their country.

In the fourteenth century, the weakening
empire of Byzantium was threatened, and
indeed dominated, by the Ottoman Turks.
The situation was so serious that one would
have expected every subject of Byzantium to
abandon his personal interests and to stand
with his compatriots in a last desperate
attempt to save the country. The reverse
occurred. The Byzantines spent the last fifty
years of their history in fighting one another...

Brad K. said...


I don't think a gentle collapse out to 2030 is likely. China, for one, has respected Army officers rattling their sabre, contending that the time is approaching for China to reach for her 'manifest destiny' as sole world power.


I think the multinationals will prove surprisingly vulnerable to erratic supplies and prices of energy, perhaps most especially international transport costs. They may fall faster than the banks. Unfortunately, multinationals control some very important asset categories - like seed corn. The world's food supply (in developed countries) might crater so quickly that the economic scene will be mere window dressing.

DinkyTwist said...

Come on down to our beautiful big Island - Australia. Our banks and government are just as criminal as yours with fiat creation and derivatives bubbles. We are moving to "hyper local" everthing. Mike Rupert calls it lifeboat building. Find a reasonably self sufficient and remote tribe/community you feel aligned to, leave the "Public Fiction" system and grow food. Its a lot of fun...

Anonymous said...

Good questions. Dmitry answered in his inimicable style, hard act to follow, but here goes:

The IMF and World Bank are dominated by the US, which I am told has veto power over both. See Perkins, "Confessions of an Economic Hit Man" for how they are used as tools of the US empire to funnel money from 3rd world to 1st and enrichen US corporations. They were set up at Bretton Woods, which is in the process of collapse also with decline of dollar world reserve currency, and rise of the BRIC powers.

US military is a gangster for Wall Street as Smedley Butler admitted in 1933 (see:

Hard to keep your racket going if you can't pay the enforcer to break people's kneecaps who don't cooperate. US military-industrial complex is the biggest corporate welfare scam ever devised; Lives totally on federal money. Hard to support when the kitty is empty. Dmitry has addressed what will happen to stranded assets and stranded soldiers.

Goldman Sachs IS the US government. The banks are running it. They depend on the federal reserve and that ponzi scheme is also running down. See Michael Hudson on how the investment banks/FIRE sector are parasites living off the real productive economy.

Don't count on end of global capitalism anytime soon though. Stateless corporations NOT dependant on US empire welfare checks will probable survive I think. Does coca-cola need the US? Maybe not.

Dmitry Orlov said...

This was sent in by Arnold:

"First it is “Change election funding” but to do so Law needs be legislated; but the legislature is broken.

Then it is “Elect more better™ legislators” but the political process is corrupted; the political parties are broken.

Then it is control the government but that is run and dominated by the imperial executive; the presidency is broken.

Then the courts will pass judgment but the law has been laid low, cut down by judges with nefarious agendas; the courts are broken.

Then it depends upon the citizen to act but the citizen, bereft of education, possessing no remembrance of history, no knowledge of economics, no concept of civics, no acquaintance with Law, and willfully ignorant of any discipline of substance; that citizen is broken as well.

When all is taken together and summed, the bottom line is that this extent of damage cannot be undone. At the end of the day, the interrelated complex that sustained the Republic is no longer, what remains is a body politic riddled with cancer: a cancer of lies, a cancer of propaganda, a cancer of illusion, a cancer of delusion, a cancer of self-deception, a cancer of hubris.

In the end, power abhors a vacuum, something will replace what once had a vital balance. Those in power will try to remain there and will apply greater and greater force and coercion to do so; but this too will break down as all autarchical despots ultimately do, the expense of force finally undermining the autocrat.

Maybe then, enough of the Philadelphia construct can be recalled and a new edifice built in such a manner that no individual, no group, no corporation will be allowed enough power by themselves or in conspiracy to endanger the new edifice. The life expectancy of a Republic averages about two centuries before the political impulse is spent; this Republic is no exception. Those things that extend the life of Republics were not done and profound corruption prevails."

Phlogiston Água de Beber said...


I think Arnold is experiencing what so many of my countrymen regularly do, false memories. Those offices are not broken. They are functioning exactly as they were always intended by those fine 18th century Philadelphia conventioneers. It was never government of, by and for the people. It was set up to be government of, by and for our "betters".

I'll grant that they probably didn't foresee what kind of "betters" we would end up with 200 years down the road. If the works of people like Darwin, Marx, Clemens, Dickens and their ilk had existed, they might have chosen a little more wisely, but probably not.

And it's too bad he had to end it with the usual Hollywood teaser scenario. The final phase of imperial governance will most likely bear a strong resemblance to the late days of Rome. When the barbarian general Ricimer enthroned and dethroned Caesars at his whim. I'm sure we must have an incipient Ricimer preening himself somewhere in the Province of Pentagonia.

Unknown said...

Re: fate of corporations in a post-collapse world.

I see little future for Western corps (the likes of BAE or Boeing or Microsoft depend utterly on resources that will be unavailable - such as an international IP legal framework or a strong US military. Ditto for the resource-starved Chinese economy, strongly dependent on the US for markets and just as beholden to a strong military.

Other types of transnational commercial enterprises will fare much better, I imagine.

If Mexico and Brazil lose their respective narco-wars, the rise of a southern narco-federation becomes a distinct possibility. Venezuela already has a cocalero in power.

Re: megacorps planning for an energy-poor future.

Bosh. After Enron and the Great Easing does anyone still believe in the foresight of corp leaders? These are organisations that have a planning horizon of four months. At most.

Cynthia Q said...

Wolfgang, from what I have read and understand, your description sounds right, as does Dmitry's.

At the same time, though, Gary says: "Don't count on end of global capitalism anytime soon though. Stateless corporations NOT dependent on US empire welfare checks will probable survive I think. "

Now, in previous comments here, I posited that capitalism itself is an impossibility in a system of stable or shrinking resources. Like fractional-reserve lending, capitalism requires "free" off-the-books inputs of energy and resources in order to seem to work. With the fall of China to capitalism, that game is effectively over: there is nowhere else to go to get the extra required inputs. Which (I believe) is why we are seeing the whole system teetering at once. [It also kind of explains why Nixon’s overtures to China took place when they did. There are more people with the long view than we know of, I think.]

What seemed like the flourishing of the capitalist system, however, was merely the expression of exponential excess waste called forward (and backward) in time, as I have come to understand it.

Despite this, I don’t see the military or the banks giving up without a fight, though. The kitty might seem empty, but they can extract a lot more from us and destroy a lot more needed resources before this is through; that’s my worry. Additionally, new machinations are afoot in Europe, with the EMF; if Goldman Sachs is the USG, then they are also the European government(s).

I would “like” to see a quick collapse, with people sorting themselves out (or not) and ultimately figuring out a better way to live co-operatively on this planet in our reduced state, but I know that jpwhite’s vision is more likely.

Sorry, these musings may not add much, but it helps to work these thoughts out with like-minded folk who have seen the lifting of the veil.

It’s getting harder and harder to interact “normally”, and I’m really not looking forward to the usual enforced holiday deal with family. I feel as though these issues are something I can’t talk about, yet also something I can’t *not* talk about. Even with the little I’ve said already, I feel as though I am a plague carrier. :-((

Phlogiston Água de Beber said...


I know what you mean, but we're not the plague carriers. We're more like the Cryer urging families to bring out their dead as in this Monty Python scene. And like the victim in the scene, most people contend they are not dead yet.

Monty Python - Bring out your dead

Anonymous said...

-I.M. Nobody
Kirkpatrick Sale made much the same point recently about the getting back to the "real" constitution, "fahgettaboudit"!‘real’-constitution-fahgettaboudit

Erik said...


I can see that the number of military bases would, for example, describe the complexity of logistical facilities needed to keep them running.

At the same time, this number also describes the demand on resources, which creates hidden, and perhaps unpredictable forms of complexity beyond the bases themselves.

In the post you only include a couple indicators of complexity, but I imagine (hope) that Tainter has given a more complete set which would provide a more 'system wide' view of the US.

Anyways, it would be interesting to see more of these, as well as the qualitative reasoning behind why complexity drives collapse (for example, it leads to unpredictability / chaos).

Excellent post. Thank you for this.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I only included Tainter's general model. He goes into great detail about declining returns to:

-agriculture and resource productivity
-information processing
-sociopolitical control and specialization
-Overall economic productivity

and he has data on
-patent applications
-health care efficiency
-school funding

Diamond's recent book Collapse also provides many detailed reasons for collapse.

I generalized Tainter's graph of historic empires to attempt a method for peak empire. The next step would be to graph the military budget/military acreage over time, and the change in acreage per unit of spending to determining diminishing returns to empire. I'll work on it.

Phlogiston Água de Beber said...


Secession huh? I think an outcome with at least equal likelihood is that the DC vote whores will grant themselves the right to revoke the statehood of failing states and revert them to Territorial status. So as to prevent their vote whores from bargaining for help from other states or being able to pursue any legal recourse against the criminals that bankrupted them.

Certainly nothing could go wrong with that plan, in some other universe that is. So Sale agrees that the Constitution doesn't say what most people think it says. That's nice, but his proposed solution to the unfixable mess is just as bogus.

russell1200 said...

At some point, the Unites States is going to get into a dispute with some middling power, and that middling power is going to sink one of its giganto-dominating nuclear air craft carriers with a (relatively) cheapo diesel submarine with a wake-seeking torpedo. Although the middling power will probably get thrashed for its effort, it will require the quiet pull-back of the surface fleet now that its air cover is in dispute.

The U.S. Navy will still rule the under-seas with its submarines, but you need a surface fleet to protect transports. The U.S. can do all sorts of interesting things with its air and land forces, but at the end of the day, it needs its Navy to protect supply routes to its overseas deployments.

With a more limited, or more vulnerable, U.S. overseas presence you will be back to the regional power structure.

And of course, somewhere in all this mess, we begin to run out of oil.

Erik said...


Thanks for the response. I noticed that Tainter has a wikipedia page, also the book looks really interesting.

What I meant by the reasoning behind why complexity signals collapse is sort of along the lines of (i) it may become more difficult for a system to adapt and (ii) the system may become less predictable (~simultaneously) as it becomes more complex.

There is much more going on here though, and I think I'm definitely going to check out the book.

Look forward to more of your guest posts on this stuff.

Unknown said...

"China, for one, has respected Army officers rattling their sabre, contending that the time is approaching for China to reach for her 'manifest destiny' as sole world power."

China is not a militaristic civilization. The Chinese army runs factories. If there's a 'manifest destiny', it is for people to like Chinese food.

Zhu Bajie

Unknown said...

"but where is there to go?"

Well, I'm in SW China, in my 15th year. It was just an accident, though. I hoped to jump-start an academic career in the US with some university teaching experience. Once here, I kept finding work teaching English, while US friends kept telling me "don't come back yet! Wait another year!" I wouldn't recommend it to anyone else, though, unless you are willing to adjust in a major way, like my immigrant grandfathers did.

Zhu Bajie

Anonymous said...

Note on the new graphs just posted:

The graph of military acreage vs military spending in 2008$ is very similar to Tainters curve of "benefits of complexity vs "level of complexity". There are far too few data points to make any conclusions statistically. But it shows diminishing benefits of additional spending in terms of acreage gained. This accelerates in 2007 to the point where increases in spending now generate NEGATIVE (reduced) acreage.

If this indicator is true, think about it. Increased spending now reduces the size of the empire. This would be consistent with an empire peak in 2007, and further decline as Dmitry point out, leading to national bankruptcy.

I would differ with William Pfaff on one point. While expanding military bases are VERY unprofitable for the US, they are HIGHLY profitable for Halliburton, KBR, Dyncorp, Triple Canopy, Blackwater, Boeing, Lockheed, etc. Since we have a corporate fascist state and a spineless President, it is not surprising that the wars continue.

Quoting Chalmers Johnson in Eugene Jarecki's great film Why We Fight, "When war is that profitable, you're going to see a lot more of it."

We now hear from the Obama administration how we are making great progress in Afghanistan, while the National Intelligene Estimate says everything is going to shit, and the Taliban have moved into Pakistan. Reports are that the US will next (openly) invade Pakistan.

Afghanistan has always been the graveyard of empires. You can count on it. This makes me very optimistic for the death of the depraved US Empire, and the birth of something better, or at least less destructive to others, while we fight it out internally.

Cynthia Q said...

Zhu, the Chinese Food Army has conquered me! I admit to contributing to globalization in that I chase Chinese-food ingredients which are not available to me locally. I scored some Lao Gan Ma hot bean sauce over Thanksgiving!

However, I am in the process of making my own soy sauce, since I refuse to pay €5/200ml; we'll see how that comes out in a few months.

This is wildly off-topic, but I'm realizing that many of my cookbooks will be obsolete, as ingredients become scarcer and more localized. OTOH, I'm appreciating the way various traditional cuisines developed to save energy or to use the energy at hand. For example, English and early American cooking has lots of stews, puddings and smoked meats, since there was often a fire going anyway; Chinese food has a lot of cutting up of things into small pieces, so that it cooks faster using less fuel; Italian cooking is based on items that don't need any refrigeration, etc.

VT Secession: I followed Sale's logic perfectly, although I had been pre-disposed to dismiss "tenthers" as the usual passel of birthers, bigots and World Nut Daily loons. There is a basic illogic in the 'small government'/originalist movement.

Steven Taylor, Goldman Sachs already boasts of its presence in China. The extraction game is supra-national now, I think. The Chinese may be different, but have succumbed to the same over-building frenzy as the Anglos, and are they not in debt to a similar degree?

Nation-states not only seem obsolete, but it seems as though all governments of nation-states are being "played" by the same sorts of players (as Gary notes, Halliburton and crew among them).

Phlogiston Água de Beber said...


I'm with ladelfina, if liking the food will satisfy the tribute demands of the Chinese Army. Tell them I surrender. :)

Unknown said...

Gentlemen, if you want to ride things out in the USA, more power to you. But don't be afraid to travel or sojourn abroad, either. Most of you can probably teach English to high school or college students (make'em talk!). Also, even if people in XYZ-stan are rightly P'O'd with the US government, that does not mean they will be hostile to YOU. Most places in the world, people don't identify with their governments and they won't identify you with the US government, either, especially if you don't act jingoistic and learn a bit of the local language.

Re: Chinese food, it is an ocean, and only a tiny inlet is known in the USA. Every town and village has it's own special dishes and almost everyone, men and women, is confident they can cook. Kunming, where I live, is known for over-the-bridge noodles and clay pot chicken, neither of which I ever saw in the US.

Unknown said...

Re: the "Philadelphia Experiment", it can accomadate many styles of management. It's already morphed from an Enlightenment oligarchy into the so-called "Imperial Presidency." Now it's changing into what I call the "Autocratic Presidency." GW Bush amassed a variety of autocratic powers that Diocletian might well have envied, and his successor has (predictably) given none of them. There will continue to be ritual elections and bloviations about "freedom" and "democracy", like the Romans kept the popular assemblies down to the 2d century AD, and competed to be elected aedile or consul down to the time of Justinian. But (as Tacitus says) the real decisions were made in private by people hardly well-known.

The American people today want to charismatic autocrat as much as the Romans did about 1 AD/BC.

Unknown said...

If you're worried about serious collapse to pre-industrial conditions, consider collecting books on pre-industrial technologies. Chinese Kang would heat a cabin better than a simple fire-place and knowing how to build an arch Middle East style, without a big framework to hold it up till finished could be useful, too. Likewise, how to mix Roman concrete. Needham's Science and Civilzation in China or Forbes' Studies in Ancient Technology and other books (on paper!) could be very useful indeed.

Unknown said...

Secession would leave the seceded regions as weak, economically, as Central American countries or the 14-15 bits carved from the Ottoman Empire. Texas, eg, has a sea coast, but inland areas,like South Dakota, would have to pay toll after toll to import/export anything. None would be big enough to produce everything at home. Places like California, dependant on water from rivers in other states, would be in economic trouble, too. Then there's the likely return of diseases like malaria, yellow fever, etc.

If you look at the 10 least developed countries today, you'll notice that most are inland countries without a sea coast or a navigable river and many are tropical countries that have big problems with tropical diseases and parasites Laos, next door to Kunming, is an example.

Of course, they'd all fight with each other, too. Texas scalp-hunters or Mohawk slave-raiders would discourage prosperity.

Phil Knight said...

Zhu - Macedonia and Mongolia were both inland countries, the later having no big rivers that allowed them access to the sea. They both in their heyday conquered half the known world.

That's the thing about empires - there's nothing "logical" about their rise. If anything, strategic disadvantage just instils the willpower that enables them to drive all before them.

If you had told anyone in the 15th century that hopeless, backwards people like the English and the Russians would each be painting large parts of the world a different (ideological) shade of red, they'd have laughed in your face.

Empires are about culture, willpower, enterprise and determination (often derived from desperation). They are NOT about innate strategic strength and resources.

I say be careful of those Laotians and Vermontans - we'll all be slaves to their command by the end of this century.

fritz said...

Jared Diamond's Guns Germs and Steel might disagree.

Unknown said...

Re Macedonia and Mongolia, they haven't ruled the world for a long time and when they did, other people did the book-keeping, manufacturing, etc. Only the elite benefited.

Phil Knight said...


IIRC, GG&S makes it quite clear that for example the inferior Spanish force should easily have been swept aside by the Incas, and it was only their daring aggressiveness (which was ultimately a bluff) that allowed them to expand their empire.

Just wait till the Laotians face down those aircraft carriers.