Runaway Train Civilization and Less Credible Futures

A re-presentation of Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies and Peter Frase’s Four Futures.

The Collapse of Complex Societies

In his The Collapse of Complex Societies, Joseph Tainter studies how previous societies dealt with circumstances that would eventually and inevitably lead to their collapse.
Societies that had pushed progress, technology, populations, empire and resource exploitation too far faced inexorable bookends created by limits these communities faced, whether they knew it or not. Famous examples of collapsing civilizations include the pre-columbian Mayan empire and Rapa Nui (Easter Island). Basically, cultures pushed their schemes of progress, abundant with surplus resources. This is called a runaway train scenario where the optimistic and hubris-inflated culture believes in its own beneficence and goodness bringing in smaller societies, like wards, vassal states protected under the aegis of imperial power.


A runaway train society believes there is an endless bonanza, a never ending horizon of opportunity, knows no boundaries or limitations. An empire can go on for quite awhile in this mode, never seeming to really bother with realities other than its own growth, basking it its own image. Thoughts of regulating this growth or protecting the environment it is exploiting are pushed out of consciousness.

Runaway train societies, of course, have a problem, and tend to tear themselves apart socially and ecologically. They tend toward inequality between haves and have-nots, between owners and renters, between labor and capital. They also, in their inability to redress their own social inequalities, tend to busy themselves with foreign squabbles and religious quarrels. They are blinded to themselves. Eventually the runaway train society comes to an inflection point, a time of great stress where they collapsing society, not quite at the brink, attempts to save itself. The question posed is how this decline happens, and how might society adjust and adapt, or fail.


Tainter notes that societies that fail will in fact recognize their decline ahead of time, and attempt to frantically remedy itself, often with bizarre behaviors or magical thinking, attempting to repair the failing society with the most radical forms of ideology that have been ailing it. The declining society has real problems – social and economic inequality, environmental degradation, and changing climate – are eschewed, however the anxieties generated by the runaway train society take on new forms of bigotry, racial hatred, hysterical religiosity, drugs and alcohol, and the bread and circuses of entertainment. Failing societies cling to old hopes, get nostalgic, and try to restore the perception of better days, the heralded glory days of a nostalgic past. This is a dinosaur society, one attempting to resurrect the soul of the nation through symbols of its purity and restoration. The society goes on in a kind of surreal way profoundly dissociated from reality as if in a collective hallucination. It goes on like this until the train inevitably comes off the tracks and collapses like a house of cards. Suddenly institutions everywhere start failing, and falter in chain reaction form. An environmental or economic calamity erupts, provoking the final collapse of the nation, the wane of empire.


When considering our contemporary moment poised for enormous changes both technological, social and environmental, we are called to ponder what kind of future may there be. What imaginings of a future remain in our cynical historical moment?

Four Futures

A recent provocative book called Four Futures features Peter Frase speculates four broad versions of imagining the future at this point. Frase uses speculative science fiction as well as real world examples to help explain these possibilities in a really fun and compelling way. At contests are four possibilities at the crossroads of egalitarianism and hierarchialism, surplus and scarcity. A world of surplus, or abundance, derives from the promise that technology will be able to automate much of labor and produce ever more fruitful crops and so on. A world of scarcity however, is one in which arable land disappears, fisheries and vanquished and climate change radically alters the earth producing a new harsh world with severe limitations.


So we have four combinations –

1) communism: equality and abundance,

2) rentism: hierarchy and surplus,

3) socialism: equality and scarcity,

4) exterminism: hierarchy and scarcity.


One future has that the world has a communist egalitarian surplus where there is plenty in the world and the resources are managed in a more or less egalitarian way. Technology has reduced the demands for human labor, provided incredible affordable healthcare, and these technological wonders produce a true affluence that levels out humanity’s quests for wealth and power. It’s a Utopian future, kind of like Star Trekkism, where conflict is not located with the society but nobler causes, quests and adventures of the spirit.


A problem with this model is that we can see technologies of convenience all around, but for all the hopes over the last few decades that technology would be so abundant that the demands on labor can relax and provide great expanses of “leisure time” for the toiling masses has not come to pass. Having washing machines, fridges, irons, radios and microwave ovens has not in fact lead to a reduction in labor demand. People rather report having less perceived time, work as much as ever, are productive as ever, almost to the point of toiling to keep running the machines that were supposed to be luxury and time-saving devices. It’s hard to imagine that the promising wave of self-driving cars, artificial intelligence, the surge of online shopping and automation of farming would lead to a social and political movement to share the abundances equally considering the long and deep scars of hierarchical control over economic power. Support would have to grow for new ideas like universal basic income, like that being tried in Finland and supported by, among others, billionaires Elon Musk, Richard Branson and Mark Zuckerberg.


Evidence from the recent past shows little support for sharing affluence more as civilization has become more productive. The expansion of civilization westward was the largest grab of wealth in world history, but this bonanza of capital lead to the first Gilded Age and violently regressive racist and social hierarchies, labor wars, and Jim Crowism. The enemies of this Gilded Age – labor, progressives, communists, and communitarian native tribes.


Star Trekkism is a hauntology, to borrow Derrida’s term, a lost past and futurology, a road not taken in civilization in its past abundant time. What new culture would have to be invented to implement communitarian and cosmopolitan ideas for Star Trekkism?

Star Trek Voyager: Is food replicator technology a futuristic 3d printed tea?


Another possibility is a hierarchical society that has a surplus. Regressive cultural forces, despite the affluence available, promote the monopolization of resources by the few. This is the state where democracy is squashed and the oligarchs live high on the hog while the rest are vassals, who may have to be tricked into thinking there is not a surplus, but scarcity (such as saying there is not enough for healthcare or education, but always plenty for the military and security). True freedom is reserved for the truly wealthy, who can access the best in representational government, technology, housing, healthcare and education without want or worry, and without debt or the need to enter the workforce. All of these things that are becoming increasingly inaccessible to the vast majority of people. Public works and infrastructure fall apart while the wealthy seclude themselves in high rises, private islands and green zones of the affluent (like Victoria Island in Nigeria, or Dubai). This curiously is most like our world today, in Gilded Age 2.0.


(Fun economic fact: The estimated net worth of the United States in 2017 is 93 trillion dollars. If divided equally among the population of the current census of 320 million people, this would be $290,625 each.

Second fun economic fact: Half of the American population today doesn’t have 400 bucks in a savings account to cover an emergency.

Third fun economic fact: There are five empty houses for every homeless person in America.

Forth fun economic fact: The three richest Americans (Bezos, Gates & Buffett) have as much wealth as the bottom poorest half of America combined.)

It stands to reason to me that this is the trajectory of the 21st century runaway train society, at least while there is even surpluses to even divvy up at all. What if there was a stark contraction of abundance by ecological calamity? How could society adapt when the dinosaurs finally die off in the house of cards moment?



One possibility is a world of scarcity, where the resources of the world have severely contracted, in a kind of Malthusian bottleneck where humanity has grown past the earth’s ability to provide adequate resources to sustain. In the past, the Malthusian crunch was forestalled by the development of more productive agriculture and the revolution of fertilizers, a bonanza of the fossil fuel civilization. But this has lead to an unprecedented population boom as well. While human civilization has doubled since 1968, however, the cost has been outsourced to nature. In the exact same span of time, half of the planet’s other species have done extinct.


This possibility is the preferred reaction to the coming catastrophe which global warming, along with other ecological calamities, presents. Some scientific reports show that holding global climate at 2 degrees Celsius over preindustrial norms is now impossible. Along with the acidified ocean and extinction of half of the other animals on the planet, the runaway train civilization is headed toward this doomsday. The chilling thing is that not only are governments paralyzed by corporate interests, but that they can do too little too late any how to curtail the runaway train of the fossil fuel civilization. Humans are too many and too industrious to the result of the most predictable Malthusian consequences. Further, there is no mainstream social or cultural force with enough power to curtail the runaway train. The biggest threat to the health of the planet is overpopulation, which no one addresses. What is going to stop this willingly? What cultural force on earth will do that?


The only dignified hope in this apocalyptic scenario is to create an egalitarian eco-socialism to live in a smaller, shrinking civilization with severe limits. One mode is egalitarian where communities have to work cooperatively to get by and share resources more or less equally. Here “small is beautiful” and concepts of conservation become more important than classism. It would also mean changing civilization’s relationship with nature. Instead of nature being a playground for the omnipotent hyper-real civilization, nature assumes a new reality in a culture that is forced to be mindful of its limitations. Nature must move from an “it” to a “thou.”


If society fails to come together in any egalitarian or communitarian way in this post-apocalyptic scenario, an even bleaker vision remains.



A last possibility is one of hierarchical world of scarcity, also known as exterminationism. It’s the possibility that in severe shortages the powerful will use their might to eradicate competition for resources. This is the plot of recent science fiction movies like Hunger Games and Elysium, where the wealthy live in their protected green zones to enjoy what remains. It’s also in the bleak Mad Max type of future fighting for what remains of water, oil and bullets. The hierarchical order is highly regressive and restrictive, lording over a neo-feudal nightmare.


Scarcity is not something that has yet dawned on those in the developed countries, though that may change with the endangerment of honey bees, the effects of a polluted and acidified ocean, melted icecaps develop into a world we scarcely recognize. Yet considering all the talk of a robust economy, low unemployment, booming stock market and the like, still there are cities like St Louis rolling back minimum wage, a political atmosphere bent on maintaining a bloated for-profit healthcare industrial complex, a political system beset on all sides by think tanks of a libertarian think tanks who act as political lapdogs for the billionaire class single-mindedly set on cutting taxes for the one percent. Capital in general, but neoliberalism in particular, is a scheme by and for the interest of the billionaire class which has used their power to curtail voting rights, promote the drug war, promote the prison industrial complex, and roll back financial and environmental regulations.


If left on this path, like a runaway train, like a dinosaur, it’s set on creating in the 21st Century, a new kind of dynastic capitalism which codifies an allowance for the excesses of the robber baron classes with the façade of democracy. We are near, or already in, Elysium, where only the wealthy have access to quality healthcare and can get into Jodie Foster’s cure-all chamber, and education, and where the games of the working class are their entertainment.


It is harder to imagine at this moment that society has a cultural structure or knowledge or organization to challenge the oligarchs, much less take on this cause with the understanding that the economic system is in fact killing the planet, than it is to understand that the elites will tighten their fist to eradicate the extra mouths that could be vying for their resources. If their technology relieved the need for labor, as in for instance, their ability to create robot-driving hydroponic farms and a Robocop type security force to protect them in their bunkers and towers, there is no reason they would not turn to exterminationism. Something similar happened during the industrial revolution. From 1900 to 1950, the population of horses in the world declined something like 90 percent – all of their former labors in the fields was no longer needed. Much the same would happen with human labor. Once labor is replaced by efficient robots who never need to eat or sleep and don’t need rights or healthcare or fair wages, there is no incentive for elites to keep around the masses.

Robocop: Terrifying futuristic vision of Reagan’s America. The corporate takeover and the automation of law enforcement.

It seems that rather than four futures, what happens is really a progression of steps as
a collapsing society on the brink enters a Neo-Malthusian bottleneck of history. It
progresses from egalitarian ecosocialism to capitalist robber baronism to
exterminationism. Yes, the future, just like the present, will be many things, really a combination of the four futures. But in general, couldn’t it really be that we really hop-scotching from Star Trek to Hunger Games to Mad Max? What do you think?