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Voluntary simplification as an alternative to collapse

Samuel Alexander (Office for Environmental Programs, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia)


ISSN: 1463-6689

Article publication date: 10 November 2014




This paper aims to re-examine Tainter’s dismissal of the voluntary simplification strategy. Joseph Tainter argues that “sustainability” is about problem-solving and that problem-solving increases social complexity. But he also argues that social complexity requires energy and resources, and this implies that solving problems, including environmental problems, usually demands increases in energy and resource consumption, not reductions. For this reason Tainter argues that voluntary simplification – the strategy of choosing to reduce consumption – is not an available means of solving the problems of civilisation.


This paper briefly outlines Tainter’s theory of diminishing returns on complexity and lays out his arguments against voluntary simplification. The critical sections of the paper examine those arguments and find certain ambiguities in them that open up space of voluntary simplification.


Part of my disagreement with Tainter turns on differing notions of “sustainability.” Whereas Tainter seems to use sustainability to mean sustaining the existing civilisation, the author uses sustainability to mean changing the form of civilisation through voluntary simplification, insofar as that is required for humanity to operate within the carrying capacity of the planet. By exposing the indeterminate, value-laden nature of what constitutes a “problem” and what constitutes an appropriate “solution,” it becomes clear that some societal problems can be dissolved rather than solved, that problems have various solutions and that a society’s available energy supply can be redistributed to achieve voluntary simplification while still solving existing and ongoing problems.


Given that Tainter seems to accept that his own conception of sustainability will eventually lead to collapse, the author feels he is wrong to be so dismissive of voluntary simplification as a strategy for potentially avoiding collapse. It is, the author argues, our only alternative to collapse, and if that is so, voluntary simplification ought to be given our most rigorous attention and commitment, even if the chances of success do not seem high at all. This paper provides a new analysis of the voluntary simplification strategy and shows that it holds more promise than Tainter appreciates.



© Samuel Alexander, 2014. Some rights reserved. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International License. For more information, please visit


Alexander, S. (2014), "Voluntary simplification as an alternative to collapse", Foresight, Vol. 16 No. 6, pp. 550-566.



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