Joseph Tainter studied anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley and Northwestern University, where he received his Ph.D. in 1975. As of 2012 he holds a professorship in the Department of Environment and Society at Utah State University. His previous positions include Project Leader of Cultural Heritage Research, Rocky Mountain Forest and Range Experiment Station, Albuquerque, New Mexico and Professor of Anthropology at the University of New Mexico.
Tainter has written or edited many articles and monographs. His arguably best-known work, The Collapse of Complex Societies (1988), examines the collapse of Maya and Chacoan civilizations, and of the Western Roman Empire, in terms of network theory, energy economics and complexity theory. Tainter argues that sustainability or collapse of societies follow from the success or failure of problem-solving institutions and that societies collapse when their investments in social complexity and their "energy subsidies" reach a point of diminishing marginal returns. He recognizes collapse when a society rapidly sheds a significant portion of its complexity.