We live in a complex society. So did the Romans.Ours is more complex because of the moderntechnology, but the basics are the same. Like usthe Romans specialized in production with somepeople making pottery, some being trades persons,some farmers, some professional soldiers, and soon. The upside of this is that by specializingresources can be combined to achieve an economyof scale in production, which can result inconsiderable quantities of good quality itemsbeing made widely available.
The downside is that when most people specializethey often lose both the means and the skills toperform many of the functions necessary forsurvival, and become reliant on the services ofothers and the system to provide them with muchof what they require. Unlike in a simplersociety where everyone or every community is moreor less self-sufficient, in a complex society,like ours or ancient Rome’s, when things begin tofall apart the links that bind it together beginto break leaving it vulnerable to social andeconomic disaster.
At its peak Rome dominated the Mediterraneanbasin and outlying portions of Europe, Africa andthe Mid-East. Somewhat like our society it wasone built on trade with significant urbanpopulations that received their food supply fromthe far corners of the empire. It leviedconsiderable taxes to support a standing army toprotect it, and to finance public works such asroads and water systems. The average Roman of 07AD probably would have found it hard to imaginethe total collapse of the system that she or helived in.
Yet, four hundred odd years later the Westernhalf of the empire was collapsing for variousreasons, central authority was evaporating andwithout it security was lost. Specializedproduction declined, trade diminished, theabundance of quality goods shrank, and theinfrastructure began to decay. Within a centuryor so the state of Western Europe’s society andeconomy was worse than it was in pre-Roman times.In Britain, for example, a country that had beenrelatively literate was no longer keeping writtenrecords, and in much of the rest of the empireliteracy was becoming less widespread.
Today our society may be facing a fate similar tothat of ancient Rome. We have taken a social andeconomic ethos built on private welfare andgreed, fed it with a great abundance of non-renewable energy, and developed a complex systemmuch more vulnerable to catastrophe than that ofthe Romans.
Today we ship much of our food from halfwayaround the world, as well as our clothing, ourtools, our toys and so on. And we do it in amanner that makes some of us quite wealthy, awealth that comes at the expense of others. Andunderneath it all lies a foundation of petroleumand coal, the primary sources of the energy thatdrive our modern, very complex, industrialsystem. That foundation has not only given uswealth, it has also given us the means supportmuch larger populations.
The bad news is that petroleum production isexpected to go into decline as the world’ssupplies are exhausted, and even if it wasn’t,the excessive use of petroleum and coal aredamaging our atmosphere and changing our climate.We are caught in a bind where on the one handsome of the resources that we require to maintainour society and support our populations arevanishing, while on the other hand if we continueto use them as we have, the by-products maydestroy us anyway.
The real bad news is that many of us are indenial about this, and there might not be thepolitical will to take adequate corrective stepsbefore our complex system starts to unravel.
This week officials from around the worldgathered in Bali to discuss the problems. Mostlywhat they did is put on a show for politicalpurposes without really facing the problem. Ifanyone thinks that serious work to fix theenvironment was on the table, just look at theCanadian delegation. One would think to findenvironmental scientists who have studied theissue there. Not so in Canada’s case, they werenot invited. Instead we have officials from theprivate energy companies serving on thedelegation. It is like sending Klu Klux Klanmembers to represent us at a conference on racerelations.
Unlike the ancient Romans we have their exampleand almost two thousand more years of history tolearn from it. And unlike the post RomanBritains we are still literate. The writing ison the wall, all that is lacking is officials whowill take action on it rather than try to avoidit.